Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Happy 5th Birthday Vander!

Today I wanted to take a few moments to wish my sweet, wonderful dog a Happy Birthday. :)

To celebrate what a loving, adorable companion he is, here are some of the things I love best about him:
  • He is always happy to see me walk through the door, even if I have only stepped out to grab the mail.

  • He is the first to sense something is wrong and try to cheer me up.

  • He is extremely playful and always does something to make me laugh. (Video )

  • He has seen me on my best and worst days and still loves me.

  • He cuddles with me on our sleep-in days.

  • He likes to stay close to me so much that he’s always underfoot or following me into the bathroom. LOL

  • He loves to play fetch. (Video)

  • He has SO much fun swimming.(Video)

Like many dog owners, I could go on and on about what makes my dog so special to me. For now, I will summarize and say that he has been my best and truest companion for the past five years. I have seen people come and go in my life during that time, but he has always been beside me, for which I am truly greatful.

Love you Vander!!! :)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hoist the colors! It be Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Ahoy mates! Today be one of my favorite days of the year. International Talk Like A Pirate Day! Huzzah!!! To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this auspicious day, I am wearing a red pirate cap and eye patch, and because some of my co-workers were unawares of the day, I brought in some extra eye patches. Arrr…

For ye landlubbers who be unfamiliar with this illustrious day, please improve yer knowledge by browsing through yon website: http://talklikeapirate.com/piratehome.html. The site describes all the details of Talk Like a Pirate Day’s creation and history. Also, if yer unable to find the right words to speak, the site includes a dictionary of basic pirate language, as well as a translator for yer trickier phrases. Be kind to the Cap’n who directs the site. He be real busy today, and the site is workin’ a bit slower ‘n usual.

Now that the holiday has been enacted for numerous years, people all over the globe are getting into the spirit. For example, if you wear an eye patch into Krispy Kreme, you get to have a free doughnut. Arrrggg… that do sound delightful. There be much more booty to find today, and you can look for hidden treasures using the world map on the afore mentioned website.

Even Facebook has embraced the pirate culture! Seriously, ye can change the default language that yer Facebook account uses to English (Pirate). Here’s how:
  • Click the down arrow on the upper right corner of the screen.
  • Select Account Settings.
  • In General, next to Language, click Edit.
  • In the drop-down list, select English (Pirate).

That be all the time I have for ye today. May yer sails be filled with a strong wind, and may the rum never run dry! Happy International Speak Like A Pirate Day!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Parallel Wine Bistro

Last Monday was Dan’s official birthday, so I decided to take him out to Parallel Wine Bistro, a restaurant I had heard about from multiple friends. Located in Ashburn, Virginia, Parallel Wine Bistro provides a fun atmosphere, a unique wine experience, and delicious food. It is a little more expensive than some restaurants. However, you can easily avoid a high bill by sharing plates or by looking for their coupons on Specialicious.

For those who were in the area last Monday, you remember how absolutely beautiful the weather was – temperatures in the low 70s to high 60s and mostly clear skies. It was the perfect evening to sit out on a patio, and that is exactly what we did when we arrived at the bistro.

After saying hi to a friend who works there, we settled into our seats and started scanning through the menu. We started with orders of puff pastry wrapped brie and tomato bruchetta, which were fantastic. The brie came with apple butter (yum!) and walnut and raisin compote, and the bruschetta had the most delicious vinaigrette drizzled on top.

With our appetizers ordered, we turned our attention to the wine lists. What’s fun about Parallel Wine is that the food menu takes up two pages and the wine and specialty drinks menu takes up four! (there are many specialty and local beers for those who do not like wine) Because there were so many wines that we wanted to try, Dan and I decided to choose wines from their “Flight” list. The Flight list gives you 2oz glasses of three different wines on the menu. (2oz is about a 1/3 glass of wine) For my choices, I went with Lucky Star and Pennywise from California and Fingerprints from Argentina. Dan chose Maximo from Spain, Cigar box from Argentina, and Wine Men of Gotham from Australia.

Dan showing off our first flight round

While we were enjoying everything, we ended up joining in on a trivia contest that the bistro holds every Monday. Dan has participated in these many times before, but it was my first time playing. The questions were very diverse, and for a while, Dan and I were in fourth place!

Since it was a special occasion, we had fun sharing some extra food and wine. For dinner, we split the lamb shank plate that came with a bunch of veggies and wonderful risotto; and for dessert, we enjoyed a chocolate raspberry torte and some caramelized bananas with ice cream. In my second round of flight glasses, I had Sivas Sonoma from California, Domaine Guicharde from France, and Cigar Box from Argentina. Dan tried a few other wines that were not really his style and switched to a full glass of Maximo which had been his favorite.

My delicious raspberry torte

For people who love supporting Virginia wines (Woot for VA Wine!), you will see options from Fabbioli, Breaux, Veritas, and Tarara on the menu. However, I do recommend trying some of the global wine, because it is always a good idea to expand your taste and knowledge of other winery locations. :)

One unique feature of Parallel Wine Bistro that Dan and I did not have time to try was their wine machines (see image at the top). These machines contain 32 different bottles of wine from which you can either get a tasting, a half glass, or a full glass. To use the machines, you need to obtain a wine card that you can swipe to select and pay for the wine you want to have. I thought this was a really cool concept, and we are looking forward to using it on our next visit.

The Whiskey Cow and the VA Wine Mafia

Even though Labor Day weekend was a while ago, I had to write about a few of the things Dan and I got to do over that weekend.

Bottling Gin
About 15 minutes outside of Leesburg lays Catoctin Creek Distillery. Catoctin Creek Distillery is a three-year old distillery in western Loudoun that makes organic whiskeys, gin, brandy, and a few other liquors. One thing that sets them apart is that they offer locals a chance to help with the bottling process! How cool is that?! I had heard about the bottling events from a co-worker, and he invited Dan and I and another co-worker to join him over the weekend.

The bottling event turned out to be even more interesting than I had expected. Not only did we get to participate in each step of the bottling process, we got to have the owner walk us through the entire procedure of creating liquor. It was quite fascinating, and I loved learning how they were a 0% waist facility!

The distiller

For those who are interested, the bottling process contained about 11 different positions. Here is a short breakdown of them: (Please note that some of these names are not the exact position names. I couldn’t remember them all. Lol)

  • Liquor can manager – hooks the whiskey cow up to a full can of liquor
  • Empty bottle runner – would give the person working the whiskey cow new boxes of empty bottles
  • Whiskey cow worker – Place bottles onto an automatic pourer (the whiskey cow) that fills the bottles perfectly. When the bottle is filled, they take them off and place them next to the corker.

  • Dan and I working the Whiskey Cow

  • Corker – places corks in the filled bottles
  • Capper – places a metallic cap on the bottle
  • Sealer – uses a HOT blowdryer-looking device to shrink the cap onto the bottle (sealing the bottle shut)

  • The table where the Corker, Capper, and Sealer work

  • Bottle runner – runs the filled and sealed bottles to the labelers
  • Labeler – places labels on the front and back of the bottle.

  • Me with my Bazinga! label

  • Bottle runner – runs the labeled bottles to the packer
  • Packer – checks for “floaters” in the bottles and packs the bottles into shipping boxes
  • Bottle runner – runs any bottles with “floaters” in it back to the Liquor can manager.

The coolest part of the bottling process is the whiskey cow, and the hardest part was corking the bottles (you have to have a lot of arm strength). Everyone has a lot of fun with the labeling part, because you get to write short phrases on the labels before they go onto the bottle. This makes each bottle a little unique. For example, I wrote “Bazinga” on one of the bottles, so hopefully, a Big Bang Theory fan will find it in the store and enjoy it. :) Dan and I wrote a label for just us, and we had the bottle set aside for to purchase later. :)

The work is done. Time to celebrate!

The whole event was really fun, and they saved the best part for last – the taste test. LOL Dan really liked the gin, and we both were fans of the rye whiskey. Naturally, we got a bottle of each to take home with us.

Catoctin Creek Distillery liquors

Wine and Lobster
In addition to bottling gin, Dan and I got to visit a few vineyards over the weekend. We stopped at North Gate Vineyard, because Dan had never tried their wine before. We enjoyed a glass of Cab Franc and split a cheese platter and picked up bottles of the Cab Franc and Apple wine to bring home with us.

Our next vineyard stop of the weekend was Loudoun Valley Vineyard. I have been able to enjoy some of Loudoun Valley’s wines at local restaurants like Fireworks, but this was my first visit to their property. Apart for wanting to see their grounds, we were also drawn to the lobster fest that was being held. :) Two sides and a big lobster for $20 – you can’t beat that! (I was very glad to learn about the lobster fest through Twitter and Facebook. It is a great way to keep up on local events now!) With our bellies full of delicious food, we picked up a bottle of Route 9 and the house white to share later.

Meeting the Wine Mafia
As I mentioned above, I have been involved more on Twitter and Facebook lately. I started using Twitter to help bring traffic to my blog and ended up following a lot of local people involved in events and wine. It was through these wine folks that I got introduced to the Virginia Wine Mafia bloggers group on Facebook, and I was very excited when they invited me to become a part of their group.

Over Labor Day weekend, Dan and I were invited to a small gathering of local wine bloggers from the Wine Mafia group. It was a fantastic evening! Everyone was very friendly and inviting, and Dan and I got to learn about and try a bunch of new VA wines. We even met someone who had been our pourer at Barrel Oak Winery. :)

Some of the wines we were sharing

One favorite point of the evening was the discussion that arose around Bob’s wines. The name of the actual winery is Crushed Cellars, but everyone from the party will remember it as Bob’s (the owner of the vineyard) from now on. We all split a bottle of Bob’s Vidal Blanc, which was quite delicious, and Dan and I added another winery to our “To Visit” list. LOL

You can read more about the wine gathering from Wine About Virginia – our hosts for the evening.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

If You Ask an Astronaut a Question

The Space Station flying over earth (beautiful!)

Yesterday was a pretty normal day, except for the fact that I got to see and speak with an astronaut!! (can you tell that I am still geeking out about this?)

This opportunity came about because the CEO of my company went to boy scouts and high school with Gregory Johnson (the astronaut). Seriously, he really did! What’s even cooler is that Johnson took a small piece of our company up into space with him, and yesterday’s event was scheduled so he could return the item to us. :D

Before we get into the presentation, here is some information about Gregory Johnson:
Gregory “Box” Johnson is a NASA astronaut and a retired colonel in the US Air Force. He has flown on two space flights (STS-123 and STS-134) with the Space Shuttle Endevour, where he served as a pilot. On the STS-123 mission, the team delivered the Kibo logistics module and the Dextre robot arm to the International Space Station. During his second flight (STS-134), the Endevour installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier on the Station.

The only image of a space shuttle docked with the International Space Station.

At the appointed time, the majority of my company made its way over to the AMC theater for Johnson’s presentation. He started off by putting this picture up on the theater’s screen, which is a Star Trek remake of him and the space ship crew he most recently flew with (Johnson is the first guy to the left of center):

Johnson told us all about his most recent flight, which was also the last space shuttle flight for NASA. He described the tasks that needed to be completed, the people he got to work with, and so many other fantastic details that you can only learn from first-hand experience. As he was talking, he showed us lots of pictures (see below) and a fun video that he called the “home video” of his STS-134 mission.

Some images Gregory Johnson showed (please note that these are pictures of pictures on a movie theater screen):

The International Space Station and Space Shuttle crews

Getting ready to unload

The first band in Outer Space!

Flying over Italy

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the Space Station

After his presentation, Johnson opened the floor for questions from the company. Since the original microphone for the individual questions wasn’t working, our CEO decided to be the microphone runner and passed his microphone around to everyone who had a question. (We all thought that was a cool thing for him to do) Some of the questions included: “What is NASA going to do next?”, “Will we go into space outside of the NASA program”, and more.

After about the third question, I decided that I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to talk to a real astronaut and raised my hand. :) Getting handed the microphone was seriously nerve-racking, but I knew I would regret not taking advantage of such an opportunity! My question to Gregory Johnson was, “We all love the space program, but were there any particular events, people, or anything else that inspired you to become an astronaut?”

His responses were priceless! The first thing he mentioned was seeing Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when he was 7. He said he had continued encouragement as he was growing up from his 7th grade math teacher, his high school music teacher (who also taught our CEO), and other mentors. He talked about how amazing it was for him to meet Neil Armstrong in person a few times, and finally, how one of his most prized possessions is an email that he received earlier this year from Armstrong (before he passed away.)

The final question for the afternoon was “Are you ever scared of getting hit by an asteroid while you are up there?” LOL It was a hilarious question, but Johnson’s response was even better. He said that on his first mission, a small piece of space junk actually hit one of the space shuttle windows! It made a good-sized dent in the glass, but did not break through the first layer of glass. How crazy is that?! Johnson also said that space junk is a real problem up there. Most of it is fairly easy to track, but he hopes that someday we (or our children) will come up with a way to dispose of it.

Overall, I would consider this one of my experiences of a lifetime! I loved seeing the photos and video, and having him respond directly to me was outstanding. Remember – if you ever have a chance to see and speak with an astronaut – do not hesitate to attend! :)

Friday, September 7, 2012

St. Maarten – A Fort, a Sales Pitch, and a Random Dinner Party

Our third day on St. Maarten was one of our beach days. We had a nice leisurely breakfast on our balcony, watching a Disney cruise boat make its way to Great Bay. Then, before most people were awake, we walked the 100 feet from our room to the beach and claimed a couple beach chairs.

The Disney Cruise passing Little Bay

It felt so good to layout in the sun and relax! If we started to get too warm from the sun, the water was the perfect temperature to cool us down without feeling cold. Dan and I both brought Christopher Moore books with us to read, and I am sure some of the sunbathers near us were wondering why we kept laughing – clearly, they were missing out on the fantastic wit and humor of Christopher Moore. :)

After lunch, we cleaned up and made our way down to the sales office. Many of you have probably sat through a timeshare sales pitch before, but this was Dan and I’s first. Our consultant was a funny, older gentleman who was building a house in Jamaica and constantly berating the French salesmen for their incompetence. LOL It was really amusing!

Throughout our pitch, Dan and I asked lots of questions so we would be more knowledgeable about the in’s and out’s of timeshares. Then, when the time came, we put our game faces on and gave good hardy “no thank you” responses about purchasing a timeshare. Let me pause and say that we are not against timeshares, we just do not want to have one at this time. The consultant was understanding (though his boss was a bit pushy), and after a little bit of time, we walked out of the office with $90 to spend toward our sailboat dinner cruise later in the week. :) Huzzah!

In the hours before dinner, Dan and I hiked up the big hill on the peninsula that divides Great Bay from Little Bay (where the resort is). The top of the hill is a historic site for Fort Amsterdam, a small fort and adjacent buildings from the 1800s. The view was gorgeous, and we had fun taking pictures with the cannons and other landmarks.

Fort Amsterdam

The cliffs at the end of the peninsula

For dinner, we decided to walk the hill into Phillipsburg and find a local restaurant. The boardwalk was very pretty at dusk, and while reading a dinner menu, we spotted the couple we had met on Happy Harold’s tour. Dan instantly stopped reading the menu, walked up to the couple’s table, and sat down in an empty chair. The couple (Gary and Becky) laughed and eagerly asked us to join them. (which Dan already had) lol With a round of Caribs (a Caribbean beer) in hand, all four of us chose to order the best curry shrimp that I have ever had. Seriously, I am drooling just thinking about it.

As we enjoyed our delicious dinner, we saw two other couples from Happy Harold’s tour walking down the boardwalk. By the time our plates were empty, our party had doubled, and we were all sharing tips of the best spots to visit around the island. It was a lovely evening of good conversation, yummy food, and great people!

Read about the other Parts of our St. Maarten trip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6,Part 7

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

St. Maarten - Making Friends on Happy Harold's Island Tour

The first time you go on a real vacation with your significant other, you are able to learn a LOT about each other. Even if you have been living under the same roof, there are new details that you can only learn when you are on vacation together. For me, I learned just how friendly my fiancé is.

I have always known that Dan was friendly; however, I did not learn the extent of this until our trip to St. Maarten. Because of my wonderful, accepting fiancĂ©, we made friends with at least 30 people during our stay (no, I am not exaggerating). It was fantastic. What’s even more fun is that we got to hang out with some of them on multiple occasions, and I still keep in touch with a few of them on Facebook. :)

One place where we met some of these wonderful people was at Happy Harold’s island tour. Now, most hotels and resorts offer island tours, but an old co-worker told me that the best tour on St. Maarten is Happy Harold’s. And it’s true!

Happy Harold is a mid-to-late sixty year old St. Maarten native. He has worked countless jobs around the island and currently makes a living as a taxi driver and tour guide. His tours are the best because he takes you on the “country” tour that includes a rum stop and the best BBQ restaurant. If you are ever in St. Maarten on a Monday, you have to go on Happy Harold’s tour! :)

Dan and I with Happy Harold

Traveling around the island with us were 13 other people who were staying at the Sea Palace hotel, a cozy hotel located right on the boardwalk in Philipsburg. We drove to dozens of locations around the island, taking in the sites, learning history and economy tips from Harold, and snapping TONS of pictures. Because it would take a book for me to describe all the places we saw, I will give you a picture tour:

Guana Bay

Hotel at Guana Bay that was destroyed by a hurricane

The view from Busby's Bar at Oyster Bay

Oyster Bay

Iguana on the side of the road

Stopping at Lolo's BBQ restaurant in Grand Case

An wonderful couple we made friends with

More friends that we made on the tour


Dan and I on a dock at Grand Case

Cool sunken ship sitting in a hidden bay

After the tour was finished, Dan and I caught a cab to the Grand Marche, the biggest local grocery store. It was well stocked with everything you could need, and we spent a half an hour picking up breakfast and lunch supplies. I also had a lot of fun looking at all the Dutch food products and pointing out the exorbitant prices ($7 for a bag of chips!).

Dinner ended up being a stove top meal of fresh cooked plantains and spicy sausage. Yum! We munched happily on our balcony and sipped glasses of Guavaberry rum (locally made), while watching the sun set.

Dinner! Yum!!

Why is rum gone? Because Dan drank it all!

Beautiful sunset

Read about the other Parts of our St. Maarten trip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6,Part 7