Chilly but Charming Chicago

Chicago is monumental to me because it is my first travel destination all by myself.  Traveling to a new city, especially on my own, was daunting because I didn’t know the area or neighborhoods, let alone know anyone.  I also had to figure out how to get around.  I know most people just UBER it nowadays, but I like to get the feel of wherever I am at, so I would prefer walking or using public transportation.  Make friends with the hotel staff because they will surely give you tips on what to do and how to navigate wherever you are.  The bellhop explained to me how to get downtown.

I was only working in Chicago for 3 days.  I had plan of things to do and eats to try to maximize my time here, while taking tips from the hotel staff to add to my agenda.  I visited Chicago mid-October.  If you have a choice of when to come, I’d suggest coming during the spring and summer, as October nights in Chicago are cold and windy.  I guess that’s why it’s called the Windy City (that’s not the real reason.  Find out here.)  It’s best to dress in layers and bring a coat with you. I had brought a thinner jacket but that wasn’t enough for me (even with layers).  Since most of my exploration was taking place during the evening and at night, I splurged on a coat to endure the cold.   Lucky me, the Fashion Outlets were across from my hotel.

My hotel accommodations were at the Crowne Plaza in Rosemont, close to O’Hare International Airport.  The work I was doing was also taking place at my hotel, so  after I finished working at 4:30 p.m., I ran up to my hotel room to change.  I walked to the train station, about 15 minutes away.  Then, I took the Blue Line to Downtown Chicago, approximately 40 minutes from Rosemont.  If you could stay closer or within Downtown Chicago, you’d definitely save yourself some travel time.

Initially I was planning on UBERing it to Downtown Chicago, until I heard that it would cost at least $40 each time.  I was on a budget and spending that seemed outrageous.  Instead, I spent a little less than $40 by getting a three-day pass and taking the CTA Blue Line.  One of the things on my list was Millennium Park.  The bellhop explained how to get off at Washington.  I used Google Maps to help me navigate the rest of the way.  So the first night I went to Millennium Park and then walked to Navy Pier.  On the second night, I went to Willis Tower and the last night, I traveled to the Lincoln Park neighborhood to see a comedy show.  Because it seemed like I walked everywhere on my first night, mostly because I got lost, I kinda got a lay of the land and had an idea of where the train stations were located.

So if you are in Chicago for a short time like I was, these are your must-dos.

Stroll through Millennium and Grant Park-That’s where “The Bean” is located.  It is amazing especially as you come as the sun is setting.  The mirrored reflection of the city’s skyline is impressive.  You can even even walk underneath it; it has the creative funhouse mirrored effect.  If you keep walking through Millennium Park, which is a part of Grant Park, you can see two architectural designs of Frank Gehry (who I only know because of his Tiffany & Co. jewelry collection), the BP Bridge and the Jay Pritzker Pavillon.  There is also the Lurie Garden and the Crown Fountain to visit there too.  I didn’t get a chance because I had to go to Navy Pier for my boat tour.

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Take a boat tour-This is great to do on your first day.  It is approximately 75 minutes but it’ll help you get your bearings of the city.  I took the Seadog River and Lake architectural boat tour from Navy Pier at night.   It was freezing!  We started in Lake Michigan.  The Chicago Harbor Lock separates the Lake Michigan from the Chicago River.   It was pretty cool to see how we start in Lake Michigan and how at the lock, it cycles through the water to bring its level to the level of the Chicago River within approximately 15 minutes.  The tour guide amusingly narrates facts, stories about the history, buildings, and bridges along the Chicago River.

Try a Chicagoan hotdog-FYI, in Chicago, you do not put ketchup on your hotdog.  Instead, there’s raw onion, mustard, sweet pickle radish, tomato slices, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt.  With all of that on it, you really don’t need any ketchup.  There are plenty of places to try a Chicagoan hotdog, but I went to Portillo’s.

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Visit the Willis Tower Skydeck-If you are scared of heights, I wouldn’t recommend it.    I’m one of those people, but I am trying to overcome my fears by doing something I wouldn’t normally do.  The Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower is the tallest building in Chicago.  You can get up to the 103rd floor Skydeck, which offers 360 spectacular views of Chicago.  It also has the Ledge, which is a glass balcony extending four feet outside the 103rd floor.  Don’t look down.  If you must, do it quickly!  In actuality, it was pretty awesome to be standing and sitting on top of the city.IMG_6494 2

Try deep-dish pizza-Since I live in Connecticut, New Haven pizza is all I know.    Thin-crust pizza is the clear winner in my book.  However, I couldn’t knock deep-dish until I tried it from where it was invented.  Chicago gets a lot of attention for its deep-dished pizza.  There were several places that were recommended to me: Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Pequod’s, the Art of Pizza, and Gino’s East to name a few.  Since I was limited on time and couldn’t visit all those places, I tried Giordano’s (mostly because there was one close to the Willis Tower).  Warning: it takes about 45 minutes for your pizza to come out because it needs more cook time since it has thick layers of toppings.  So don’t go there when you are at the point of starving and hangry.  My personal size meatball deep dish pizza was plenty and more like 3 meals for me.  It was like eating a meatball grinder just pizza style.  Surprisingly it wasn’t as doughy as I expected.  The crust is just deep and creates a bowl for the layers of cheese and whatever topping you choose.    It was good, but for me, New Haven pizza is like no other.

Catch a show-Poor planning on my part, I’ve wanted to go see Hamilton in New York City, but its costs stop me from purchasing tickets.  Tickets in Chicago are a tad bit cheaper and had I been thoughtful, I would have gotten myself tickets.  But don’t despair, Chicago has more than just Broadway.  My motto when traveling has always been to venture out beyond the touristy, downtown areas.  Check out other neighborhoods.  My friend had recommended me to see Second City, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Second City is Chicago’s famous improv and sketch comedy show, known for producing a lot of famous names, like Tina Fey, John Belushi, and Stephen Colbert.  Laughter was what I needed.  Lucky me, I was in for a special treat.  They decided after the original show to extend it by revealing some new sketches.

Visit Wrigley Field-Even if you don’t care for baseball, catch a game at Wrigley Field.  So I was hoping I could go see a game while I was in Chicago, but they lost the National League wild-card game.  A coworker of mine came here during the spring and said it was an experience to be had and the ballpark was reminiscent of 1914 and really hasn’t changed much.  I’ll take her word for it.

I hope I get to visit Chicago again soon to try some more foods, catch a ballgame and try to scout out the film locations of one of my favorite television series is Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and Chicago Med.  Wishing you all happy and safe travels!

 

Connecticut Wine Trail

Did you know Connecticut has over 30 wineries?  Ok, so it’s not to the caliber of Napa Valley or Tuscany type wine, but I think it’s pretty amazing that we have that many wineries in our own backyard, especially for a small state.   So, if you are looking for some weekend to-dos with your sweetheart, gal pals, or family as summer “wines” down and fall comes upon us, make a day of it and head to one or a couple of the wineries for wine tasting.

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If you plan on having a wine adventure each weekend, then just know that Connecticut offers a Passport to Connecticut Farm Wineries.  (They offer it every year and usually starts in the beginning of May and ends in November.)  You can pick up a passport at any Connecticut farm winery.  There are 40 farm wineries that are participating where you can get your passports stamped.  If you can hit all 40 wineries, you can qualify to win the grand prize.  There are other prizes as well for this who obtain a specific number of stamps.  Contest rules can be found on the inside back cover of the passport.

These are some of the wineries I have been to already that participate.  Still so many more to go.

Arrigoni Winery (1287 Portland-Cobalt Rd., Rte 66, Portland, CT)  I’ve gone to this winery several times, most recently a few weeks ago.  My friends and I did the Classic Tasting option, followed by  a definite must have–their world famous sangria.  We brought a picnic lunch, got the sangria in the carafe and sat outside overlooking the grapes.  Delish!  I haven’t tried their other fruit wines, but several of my other friends have gone here in the past.  They complimented their smashed pumpkin wine.

White Silo Winery (32 Route 37 East, Sherman, CT)  My friends and I went here several years ago.  We had a Groupon for a wine tasting/tour and lunch.  They typically host art exhibitions from local artists and artisans, whose works are available for purchase.  The draw for them is that although they do have grape wines, their specialty is really their wines from their own farm grown fruits–raspberries, blackberries, and rhubarb.  Take a tour of their original dairy barn along with the fermentation, bottling, and corking rooms.  Buy some of their wine and head outside to enjoy their outdoor garden.

Jones Winery (606 Walnut Tree Hill Road, Shelton, CT)  Several years ago I went pumpkin picking at Jones Farm with my friends.  After picking our pumpkins, we stopped at their winery nearby.  Their tasting room is housed in a restored barn.  They also have a patio for you and your crew to enjoy a glass or bottle of their wines.  Unlike other wineries where you can bring your own food, this place does not permit outside food.  They do offer regional cheeses, crackers, and other light fare for you to purchase.

Gouveia Vineyards (1339 Whirlwind Hill Road, Wallingford, CT)

This winery has the most picturesque view.  Bring your family and friends to enjoy their wine tasting.  Picnic here while enjoying a bottle of their wine.  My friends and I stayed here for several hours doing just that.

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Savino Vineyard (128 Ford Road, Woodridge, CT)  This is a small family owned and operated vineyard.  The interim principal at my school had treated all the staff members to a tasting there at the end of the school year.  So everyone brought a snack and we spent our late afternoon there, relaxing over glasses of wine.  What a great way to end the school year!

So if you are looking for something to do with family or friends on the weekend, make a decision to hit some of these wineries or check out the others on Connecticut’s Wine Trail.

P.S.  Please drink responsibly.

Hidden Gems in Bridgeport, CT

Bridgeport is the largest city in Connecticut and located in Fairfield County.  The showman P.T. Barnum was a resident in Bridgeport.  The first Subway restaurant opened there.  Since the end of World War II Bridgeport took a hit with the movement away from manufacturing industry to a more service industry and has been plagued with poverty, political corruption and scandals, and crime.

Bridgeport gets a bad rap, but there are some positives about the city.  I grew up in Bridgeport and one of the things I loved about Bridgeport was the diversity of foods.  Bridgeport has been trying to revitalize for more than the past decade.  I hope they are successful.  One of the ways they have done that is attempting to draw people to attend events at Webster Bank Arena or entice adult and children to come see a show at the Downtown Cabaret.   Wouldn’t it be nice to grab a bite before or after the show or event?  Or stop some where when you get hungry as you are passing Bridgeport onto your destination?  There are a ton of restaurants and eateries in Bridgeport that you should check out.  Here are a few that I’ve been to:

Trattoria ‘A Vucchella (272 Fairfield Ave. Bridgeport, CT)

This is my all time favorite Italian restaurant in Bridgeport.  Don’t come here if you are in a rush.  Everything is made to order.  Good food takes time.  There has never been a time where I have not liked something.  I’ve come here several times and Pasquale and Jennifer, the owners are so friendly.  Pasquale has sat down with my friends and I to share stories about Italy.

Harlan Haus (155 State St., Bridgeport, CT)

This is a German-style beer hall located inside an old bank.  It has community-style seating and a great place to come with a group of friends.  I’ve only gone late night, but others have told me that it does get crowded during happy hour as a lot of people working in local businesses go there.  The food is on point.  I’ve had a couple of the wursts, washed down with their own beer, Harlan Honey Kohlsch.  I’ve also eaten at their sister restaurant Harlan Publick in Norwalk, which is vastly different from Harlan Haus, but a nice go to if you are in the SONO area.

Pho Hong Thom (48 Wood Ave. Bridgeport, CT)

Hands down, best pho in the area.  It is not your fine dining type restaurant.  It’s the opposite.  Most are skeptical because it is not really in the downtown area and the area looks rundown.  It is a definite dive.  But if you want authentic Vietnamese food, come to Pho Hong Thom.  It is a family owned restaurant.  When you walk into the restaurant, you can already smell the aroma of the pho broth.  The pho is fragrant and flavorful.  You get a large portion and it’s cheap.  Who am I kidding?  All of their food is delicious.

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Fire Engine Pizza Company (2914 Fairfield Ave. Bridgeport, CT)

The Black Rock section of Bridgeport offers many great eateries, including Fire Engine Pizza Company.  I’ve gone here several times with my friends.  Their steak tips are highly recommended as an appetizer.  But the main thing I go here for is their pizza.  Ok, so New Haven pizza is the best, but there’s is pretty good and thin crusted, which I love.

Nom Eez (2992 Fairfield Ave. Bridgeport, CT)

A coworker had told me about this place in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.  She wanted my opinion about what I thought of the food being that I’m Vietnamese.  So I went on the weekend with my brother.  We loved the vibe of the place and got to talk to the owner and his mother-in-law.  They are good people.  It is a small place with bar seating.  However, you can also do takeout.  I prefer eating there.  I’ve order the pho, pho ramen, congee (rice porridge), and the banh mi.  Compliments to the cook.  Their pho tastes just like my dad’s–very aromatic and seasoned well.  Everything is fresh.  Every time I go, I try to get something new, but I do often go back for the pho.

La Caguena (2697 Main St., Bridgeport, CT)

Looking for authentic Puerto Rican food, my first go to would any of the numerous restaurants located on East Main Street.  But if you are not comfortable driving in that area, head to La Caguena which is in the North End of Bridgeport.  It is CASH ONLY.  I’ve had their rice and beans, empanadas, potato balls, and flan.  You can see most of their food on the menu in the case behind glass. If you are not familiar with the food item, ask the counter person and they will be more than happy to explain it to you.

Leisha’s Bakeria (7 Lafayette Circle, Bridgeport, CT)

I’ve always passed by this place and have had intentions of going in.  I’m so glad that I finally did.  My friend and I came here for breakfast to plan out our ice cream crawl (blog post to come) and we each ordered the hash brown waffles.  Mine was with bacon and cheddar.  It does take some time for it to be made, which we were told when we ordered.  It was worth the wait time.  It was savory.  Yummy in my tummy!  My portion was generous and I could not finish it.  Service was great and the atmosphere is cozy especially for meeting up with friends or just wanting a bite and get some work done.  I’ll definitely come back again to try their other breakfast and lunch menu items.  You should not pass up this hidden gem.

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There are several other restaurants that I have yet to try in Bridgeport, like Ralph n’ Richs (Italian), Avenida (Portuguese), Eat Noodle (Asian), Bereket (Mediterranean), just to name a few.  Maybe after you try these restaurants, you’ll want to adventure out and try the others.

Bethany Beach, DE

To those who cherish the beach life like I do, then visiting any of the Delaware beaches is something you should do if you need a weekend getaway or want to mini-vacation.  Last year, I went to Rehoboth Beach.  This year I ventured to Bethany Beach, which is about 20 minutes south of Rehoboth Beach.

Coming from Connecticut, you’ll drive pass Lewes Beach, then Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach before reaching Bethany Beach.  Each of the beaches has this tranquil feel about them, but each has its own personality.  Rehoboth Beach is for the young and young at heart seeking shopping and good-eating.  I’ve heard that Dewey Beach is more for the party animals.  Unlike Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach is similar to Rehoboth.  It is less touristy and a quieter version of Rehoboth Beach.  Great for families!  There is a smaller-sized boardwalk filled with beach shops and a few small eateries.

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During my stay, I only ate in Bethany Beach once for breakfast.  The rest of my time I went to the fine dining establishments in Rehoboth Beach.  Maybe next time I try restaurants in Bethany Beach.

While in Bethany Beach, I ate at Sunshine Crepes, a great little cafe.

The eateries in Rehoboth Beach I went to were:

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I went to Fins Fish House & Raw Bar last year and had their soft-shell crab po boy.  It was the best soft-shell crab I had so I had to come back for it again.  This time it was with grits and it didn’t disappoint.

Of course, one of the days it rained.  My friend and I made the most of it.  We went shopping at the outlets in Rehoboth and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, about 25 minutes from Rehoboth Beach.  It’s actually a pretty cool place to go if you are into craft beers.  It is also the first brewpub in Delaware.  There are various tours you can select from and then you can try their beers.  We chose the free tour, which included a 20 minute presentation from Ken.  He was engaging and hilarious.  We even got to have a tasting of their Sea-Quench Ale.  After the tour, we got a voucher for a tasting of four other beers.  Two of their choosing (Namaste White and 60 minute IPA) and two of your own preference.  I chose Festina Peche and Dragon & Yum Yums whereas my friend had the Mixed Media (my favorite-a cross of wine beer) and Firefly Ale.  There are chips you can buy there and a little food truck outside to purchase some sandwiches.

So, if you want a solace-filled beach vacay soaking in the sun, listening to the waves crashing on the sand, go to Bethany Beach and then head to Rehoboth to get your taste of finer dining.

 

New Haven Restaurant Week

In Connecticut, local cities organize restaurant weeks, where participating restaurants offer a prix-fixe (fixed price) for lunch and dinner.  It is one of my favorite because my friends, family and me can try some restaurants we may not typically go to.

This week happens to be Restaurant Week in New Haven.  Here’s the link for you to look at the participating restaurants and their menus. New Haven Restaurant Week April 8-13, 2018.  Note:  Some restaurants do change some items on their menu.

I tried Harvest Wine Bar & Restaurant.  Parking in New Haven isn’t too bad.  If you can’t find street parking, there are parking garages and during restaurant week, they tend to offer special pricing.  When you get to 1104 Chapel Street, look downward and head down the stairs.  It looks like a fun hangout place during the spring and summer with its outdoor patio with heater for those cool nights.

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This time, I had dinner with my brother.  I ordered the steak tartare, seared branzino, and tres leche cake while my brother ordered duck risotto, grilled NY strip steak, and the nutella crepe.  I can’t speak for my brother’s food, but my food was delicious.  My steak tartare was a great starter.  It came with a quail egg which I drizzled over the raw meat and mixed.  I smeared bits of the mixture on the toasty soft bread and bit into it.  Delish!!!  My branzino was light, delicate in flavor, and flaky and came with a ravioli filled with a lobster and crab filling and petite carrots.  Devine!  The tres leche cake was a  delightful end to my meal.

Restaurant weeks are a great time to go and explore the different tastes in your community.  So look and see if your city or surrounding towns offer them.  The next restaurant week in Connecticut will take place in Stratford during the week of April 22-28.

Superbowl Sunday Desserts

So for Super Bowl Sunday, I was told to bring dessert.  What should I make?  Hmmm.  One of my friend’s son had requested Reese peanut butter cup cookies.  So I decided to make my own concoction of chocolate chip with Reese peanut butter bits.  Then, my brother suggested mini cheesecakes.  So, there it was decided–chocolate chip with Reese peanut butter bits and mini cheesecakes for dessert on game day.

Chocolate Chip with Reese Peanut Butter Bits Cookie (Makes approximately 30 cookies, depending on size)

These cookies were amazing!!!  I had set some aside for myself to bring as a snack for work, but that didn’t work out too well.  A couple tips for this recipe:

  • Be sure that the butter is at room temperature.
  • If the dough is warm, put it in the refrigerator so that it can be chilled before doling it out onto the cookie sheet.

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Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt (if using salted butter, reduce to 1/2 tsp. salt)
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 12 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 package of mini chocolate chips
  • a little more than 1/2 package of mini Reese peanut butter cups, partitioned into fourths

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Sift flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
  4. Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars at medium speed for approximately 2 minutes, until smooth.
  5. Add the eggs and vanilla.  Mix on low speed until incorporated.
  6. Gradually add the flour and mix.
  7. Add the mini Reese peanut butter cups and mixed on medium speed.  The peanut butter cups will break apart and that’s okay.
  8. Add the chocolate chips and mixed.
  9. Chill dough, if necessary.  Otherwise, scoop onto cookie sheet.
  10. The time in the oven will depend on your cookie size.  If you scoop using a large ice cream scoop, then you’ll need at least 13-15 minutes.  If you are just doing 1-1 1/2 inch balls, then 11-13 minutes should do.
  11. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for at least 5 minutes before you take them off.
  12. Transfer to a cooling rack.

Mini Cheesecakes (Makes 20 cheesecakes)

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Ingredients:

  • 3/4 of a sleeve of chocolate or regular graham crackers (1 cup of crumbs)
  • 3 1/2 tsp. butter melted
  • 3-8oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tsp. lemon juice
  • 3/4 tsp. almond extract or 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • topping, if desired

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Line muffin or cupcake tin with liners.
  3. Crush crackers until you have about 1 cup of crumbs.  Add melted butter and mix well.
  4. Place 2 teaspoon in each cup and press down with a mini spice jar.  (Helpful hint my friend gave me is to get plastic food wrap and wrap the jar before pressing the crumbs down.  It makes for easy cleanup after.)
  5. Using an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla or almond extract, and eggs until it is light and fluffy.
  6. Place mixture into a piping bag or a ziplock bag and snip off corner.  Squeeze the mixture evenly into the liner.
  7. Bake 15 minutes or until set.
  8. Cool completely before taking the liners off.

Super Bowl or not, these desserts are yummy in my tummy.

Boston Bound

In my Lincoln, NH post, I mentioned that I stopped in Boston on my way home. The last time I was in Boston, I was in 8th grade.  I vaguely remember visiting Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, Boston Tea Party Ships, and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.  Since that was awhile ago, I figured why not make a stop in Boston.

While I was in Lincoln, NH, I learned that kids in Massachusetts have winter break the week of President Day so many families leave the state and go on vacations.  So the cost of hotels tend to be a little less expensive this specific week.  I stayed overnight at the Boston Park Plaza because it is located near Boston Common, the oldest city park, and the start of the Freedom Trail.

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I love history so one thing on my bucket list is to walk the Freedom Trail.  I started at Boston Common and made my way to Fanueil Hall.  Because it was getting dark, I stopped there and went to explore Quincy Market.  If you are fascinated by American notables, then visit Granary Burying Ground.  There you’ll find John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams’ tombs.  So on my next visit, I’ll have to check off the last couple of stops on the Freedom Trail.

Quincy Market is a lot bigger than I remember.  It actually is comprised of three buildings–South Market and North market with Quincy Market sandwiched in between the two buildings.  You’ll find a ton of eateries and shops.  Outside you’ll see street performers.  These acts were creative and full of talented.  Several of my friends were here in the summer and they concur.

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I also stopped at the New England Aquarium, which if you are bringing kids, is a great place to go for a few hours.   I went mid-day so it was pretty crowded.  Luckily, I bought my tickets online because I got to skip the line.  All I had to do was show my phone when I got to the main lobby.  A tip would be to go early or later in the afternoon.  There are many different aquatic creatures, but the main attractions are the penguins and Myrtle the green sea turtle.  She is approximately 80 years old.  In addition, there’s an IMAX, with different movies playing, for an additional cost.

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Before leaving I made two last stops–Fenway Park and Mike’s Pastry.  Who goes to Boston and not stop at Fenway?  Ok, so it’s not baseball season yet.  But Fenway offers an hour, guided walking tour of the ballpark.  That was pretty impressive!  Afterwards, I went to eat at Wahlburgers which is within walking distance of the ballpark.  I loved the burger and the sweet bun it came in, along with tater tots.

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My friends had told me about Mike’s Pastry and I must tell you this was probably the highlight of my stay in Boston.  So I am a big cannoli fan. Everywhere I go, I always find the best cannoli places.  The cannolis at Mike’s Pastry are hands down, the best ever. The original cream filling is like a thickened ice cream…vanilla and a little sweet, but not too much.  I could eat the filling on its own.  Boston is not really that far from Connecticut, and like New York, I should take advantage of visiting it more.  The cannolis is the carrot that dangles before me to get me back up here.

Happy and safe travels!