Friday, November 16, 2018

Gift Ideas for Her - All Under $50! Friday Favorites Edition!

Well, Christmas will be here before you know it, and if you're looking for a little something for your best friend, your mom, or even YOU, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite things I've found recently!

First up is this special edition almond oil from L'Occitane! Nordstrom is selling this limited edition set as part of a cute ornament, so it's already gift-wrapped and ready to give! It includes a small almond oil, cream and lotion. This would be a perfect teacher gift or stocking stuffer a friend or family member. At only $14, it's an amazing value!

I first tried this almond oil during a gift exchange my MOPS table was doing (that's mothers of preschoolers in case you haven't participated in it before). Anyhow, one December the rule was to buy your favorite item under $10, and we'd do a swap. I was given this tiny bottle of almond oil (not the beautiful gift set I've mentioned above, just the oil), and I wasn't quite sure what to do with it? The gal who gave it to me mentioned that it's all she uses when she shaves her legs. So I tried it, and OH MY GOSH, it's amazing! It smells delicious and that tiny bottle will last you ages! You truly only need a few drops of it!

Next up is probably one of my most favorite pair of earrings I've ever owned! Are you familiar with the Noonday Company? It's a company that supports women artisans around the world making jewelry, scarves, handbags and other handmade goods! They are ethically made and fairly paid, and the company also puts a portion of their profits towards adoption funds! I've owned several pieces of their jewelry over the past 5 years, and I love it! But I don't think I've ever been stopped and asked about a pair of earrings as much as I have when I wear these Equinox earrings!

I especially love these because they are made in Guatemala, one of my favorite countries! My husband was born there, and we've been back several times to visit. It's just such a special country, and the handicrafts there are exquisite! These earrings are no different.

Next up, the coziest, prettiest slippers you may have ever seen! I first saw these online when I was shopping for my husband and trying to find him some new jeans, but apparently I got distracted! I popped into the store today, and they were even prettier and more sparkly than I thought! They run true to size, even with the furry lining. I often wear a 7 - 7.5 and I was able to comfortably buy these in a 7. I used a 30% off coupon code, so they were only $17! I'm wearing the silver, but you can see in the pic below that they also come in a beautiful rose gold!

I'm so happy that leopard is making a major appearance this season! I love little pops of leopard print, and I thought leopard scarf was just perfect! I was surprised to find how much I loved it, especially since it's under $14! Since it is an "infinity" style, it looks very polished and is easy to wear! I was also so impressed by the quality! It's not too bulky, and not itchy at all!

Next up is one of my new, favorite fragrances! I have a tendency to wear the same perfumes over and over, but I really fell in love with this scent from Philosophy! This holiday gift set is a great value! I'm normally not a "rose" or overly floral perfume person, but this scent is so unique and not at all overpowering! At under $50, it'd make a wonderful gift! Remember, Nordstrom offers free returns (even on open and used products), so the risk is low with this one! It's difficult to find this scent in a set, so if you want to try it, now is the time!

Finally, if you or someone you know loves face masks, this little gift set from Origins would be the perfect Christmas present!

These are some of my favorite masks, and Origins is currently offering free shipping and gift wrap. They wrap their items in beautiful gift boxes with satin ribbon and include a gift note for your recipient, at no extra cost to you!

Well, that's all for today! I hope you've enjoyed this little holiday gift guide - I hope to bring you a few more before Christmas arrives!

Happy weekend!

Monday, November 12, 2018

6 Tips for Hosting a Cozy Thanksgiving at Home

My favorite time of year is upon us!

For years, Thanksgiving has been my #1 holiday. As a child I loved the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade and was obsessed with NYC (probably from watching one too many episodes of Friends)! Every year I couldn't wait to watch the parade and catch glimpses of Central Park, Columbus Circle, and the Rockettes in the background!

I've always enjoyed fall decorating, pumpkin patches, pumpkin spiced lattes, and generally ALL THINGS FALL. So of course, when my husband and I decided to get married, we chose Thanksgiving weekend! We were married at a small winery in Washington state the day after Thanksgiving. (Not ideal when you're having to be stuffed into a corset and wedding dress hours after consuming pounds of turkey and mashed potatoes, but nevermind).

Soon after we were married, we decided to relocate to Southern California. We had no family or friends in California, so within months of moving down, we found ourselves hosting Thanksgiving for the first time ever! Family flew down to spend the holiday with us, so here I was, in my 20's, figuring out how to make a turkey with all the sides.

It was probably the best thing that's ever happened to me, because I loved every moment leading up to the actual Thanksgiving day dinner. All of the prep-work, planning, decorating, etc. is something that gives me so much joy, every single year! This will be my 11th year to host Thanksgiving, so I thought I'd share some little tips that I've found help me to enjoy the day so much more!

1. Plan early! Usually by the last week of October/first week of November, I've figured out my Thanksgiving menu. Every year I do the same thing: I grab my trusty Thanksgiving planner (simply a lined notebook - I especially love this Rifle Paper Journal). Then I cover the dining room table with approximately 11 years worth of cookbooks and magazines! My favorite magazines that I reference when planning Thanksgiving are: Cooking Light , Country Living, Martha Stewart Living, Southern Living and Food & Wine. I traditionally have kept all of my November and December issues from these magazines to reference for Thanksgiving meal planning! They also have great inspiration on decorating for fall and creative tablescapes!

Another favorite resource I use to plan my Thanksgiving is Williams Sonoma! That store comes alive at Thanksgiving! You can smell it on the other end of the mall with their live cooking demonstrations and classes. I've taken several of their "technique" classes, which are FREE! You only have to sign up in advance. While you're there, someone will be demonstrating how to cook a turkey or make a pie, etc., all using things they sell in store. They usually provide you with their Thanksgiving recipe booklet, which has some wonderful recipes in it! In case you're unable to get to the store, here's this year's version!

2. Printables

Once I decide on the recipes I'll be making, I love printing out menus and place cards for everyone. Sadly, I lack the computer creative gene, but thanks to Google and Pinterest, I have excellent luck finding gorgeous (free) Thanksgiving printables online each year! I just feel like this gives the table a little something extra, and it's also fun for guests to see "what's on the menu" for the evening! Here's a glimpse at a few of my favorites:

(The designs in the last photo above were some of the easiest to customize, and so beautifully done! I found them on this blog via Pinterest)!

3. Preparing the Table

I usually have my Thanksgiving table set on the Tuesday night leading up to the actual day. I know that seems a bit crazy, but I love looking at it and refining it leading up to our family dinner. I love to do a candle or floral centerpiece, and find the best place to be inspired for making your own is Trader Joe's! They carry a gorgeous assortment of flowers (especially during Thanksgiving week), and they're so incredibly affordable. They also get garlands and boxwood wreaths in each year the week prior to Thanksgiving, and this fresh greenery does so much to make the table festive! My favorite table centerpiece so far was making a floral arrangement inside of a pumpkin. I simply cut a hole into a pumpkin, the size of a small bowl. I inserted the bowl along with some green floral foam and water. From there I simply added fresh eucalyptus, hydrangeas and roses to make a dramatic and festive centerpiece! (You can see it at the very top of this post). All in all I spent less than $15, and the arrangement lasted longer than a week!

4. Picking your Turkey

I know opinions on this are mixed, and cooking one turkey a year certainly doesn't make me a turkey expert! I've tried fresh turkeys, frozen turkeys, already brined turkeys, etc. And I have to admit, my favorite is to buy a frozen turkey that is NOT already brined. I do this for many reasons. First, I find the variety of frozen turkeys is just huge. Every grocery store carries them, I've even seen them at Target! Organic, non-organic, young, etc. etc. I typically purchase a turkey that is around 21 or 22 pounds (although there are normally only 6 - 8 of us at Thanksgiving each year!). I figure, the amount of work is the same, so I might as well have some solid leftovers once the big day is done! Ha!

If you're thinking of getting a frozen turkey, so many of the big chain grocery stores offer an enormous discount on your turkey, IF you purchase at least $25 worth of groceries at the same time. So, a turkey that is marked $1.89/pound may actually end up being only $0.79/pound if you also spend $25 on other groceries. So keep this in mind, and don't simply run to the store to pick out only a turkey and nothing else! You may pay dearly for it!

With fresh turkey, they are often much more expensive, and the selection is quite limited. For some stores it requires ordering and purchasing in advance. My only issue is that I've experienced torn breast skin on fresh turkeys, which certainly doesn't affect the taste but does kind of impact that perfect image you have of the Thanksgiving dinner being served.

My go-to recipe every year is again one I found from good 'ole Williams Sonoma. I have made this turkey recipe at least 8 times, and it never fails!

Now, I do also brine my turkey at home, so typically I choose my frozen turkey on a Friday or Saturday and place it in the garage fridge to thaw through Wednesday evening. On Wednesday before Thanksgiving I prepare my brine. My favorite brine is this one from World Market. It's a fragrant, rich mixture and the perfect blend of spices. Around 5pm on Wednesday I prepare the brine on my stovetop. The directions are quite simple - it basically needs to be dissolved and simmered in a gallon of water, and then cooled completely. Around 9pm, I wash my turkey and removed all of the innards. I place it in a trusty brining bag and let it sit in the garage fridge until morning.

I typically remove it from the fridge an hour prior to when I need to place it in the oven on Thanksgiving morning. This is to make sure I have time to rinse it off well, and then follow the Williams Sonoma recipe above. I find that brining covers a multitude of errors. One year I got a new oven, and couldn't believe how quickly my turkey cooked! An hour ahead of schedule! I was so worried it would be extremely dry, but the brining builds in some extra moisture, which almost guarantees you won't fail!

5. Have a timeline so you can enjoy your day with family

I usually try and begin my cooking on Monday if possible, preparing little things that can keep in the fridge. Sometimes I'll even just prepare and cut up herbs, onions, etc., etc so on Wednesday and Thursday morning, I'm not scrambling with these little tasks.

I usually write down what time each item on my menu needs to go into the oven or be taken out of the fridge. Sometimes I'll even set a timer or ask Alexa to give me a reminder. (That's the joy of hosting in 2018)!

Although we don't have huge formal Thanksgiving celebrations, it's just immediate family, I still want to be as present as possible to enjoy the day with everyone. Perhaps this means you have a couple of boxes of stuffing in the pantry, or instant mashed potatoes? I've definitely reached for those things and served them in a pinch, and I don't think anyone knew any different. Throw some butter and herbs on there, and no one will complain!

6. Make Traditions to Remember

I'm huge on tradition. My husband calls me Clark Griswold! Our Thanksgiving day is full of traditions, and it looks something like this:

*Wake up early and eat cinnamon rolls while watching the Macy's Day Parade (these are in a tube from the store, and I simply pop them in the oven, because of course, I'm juggling tons of food already on this day)

*Cook and listen to Christmas music until family arrives

*Take lots of photos together. Everyone in my family groans about this one, but I love looking back on our Thanksgivings around the table, and those memories are definitely more valuable than any material object I own

*Eat, eat eat

*Watch/listen to Home Alone and Home Alone 2. These will be playing on a loop all day! Once the kids go down, we switch to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (for obvious reasons).

*Play Monopoly! Every year we've played Monopoly after Thanksgiving. We usually eat our dessert while playing, and it's pretty intense! The adults each put $50 in the pot, and the winner leaves with a nice stash of cash!

Wherever Thanksgiving finds you next week, I hope it will be a joyful time and perhaps there are a few tidbits of information above that will make your holiday easier. I read that children who have happy memories and traditions during the holidays are more apt to replicate them as adults. It also said that those that perhaps didn't have the happiest holidays in their homes as children, usually hope to bypass or simply survive the holidays. I can imagine it is also a very difficult time for many people, and if that happens to be you, my heart is with you. Perhaps you can begin one new tradition this year for yourself or your family, and build new memories from there.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Top 8 Reasons to Book Your Next Vacation to Transylvania, Romania!

For the past five years or so, I have developed a small obsession with wanting to travel to Romania. I had seen photos and read about Transylvania here and there, and it totally piqued my interest!

I spent about 8 months planning and booking all of the facets of this trip, and throughout that time, I frequently had people ask me, "why, Romania?!"

So, here are my TOP 8 REASONS why you should plan a vacation to Romania!!!

1. Ease of travel. It is incredibly easy to travel around Romania! There is an excellent transportation infrastructure. You can easily take trains around the country, but while we were there, we road tripped. And I can't recommend renting a car strongly enough! The roads and signage are excellent. They are very polite and mindful drivers. And sometimes while you're driving from Point A to Point B, you may just see a fortress on the side of the road and decide to pull over and explore for an hour! That happened to us on our drive between Sighisoara and Brasov, and it was honestly one of our best days yet! Renting a car is also quite affordable (especially if you know how to drive a manual). We do NOT know how to drive a manual, so we paid a bit more for an automatic. We also hauled around like 200+ pounds of stuff (much of it for our high maintenance little girl), so we needed a larger car. We landed on a Ford Mondeo hatchback (huge trunk) that we rented from the Intercontinental in Bucharest. The total for a week was 303 euros, including taxes, unlimited mileage and a GPS. We loved the freedom to drive around Transylvania and explore at leisure, not feeling tied down to a train schedule. Especially when traveling with littles! Romania has so much to offer, and road-tripping through Transylvania will forever be a highlight for us!

2. Castles! It's like Disneyland, but without the crowds (or costs)! Romania is a country rich with castles, palaces and fortresses. They dot the landscape and are very accessible for tourists to stop and explore! We loved the history and authenticity of the castles. They have that magic, fairy-tale like ambiance that just set Romania apart from so many other countries I've visited.

One day after our drive to Bran Castle (otherwise known as "Dracula's Castle), we found ourselves sitting in the 100-year old tea house, having lunch. We were fueling up before walking up the hill to explore the castle! Outside the window we heard music and saw a band, and before we knew it, we were invited to meet Prince Dominic of Romania and join in his birthday celebrations! He was born at Bran Castle and lived there during the early part of his life. Whaaaat?! Again, this country is just MAGICAL. That's the only word I can think to describe it!

3. Breathtaking Architecture and Landscape. Romania is just a feast for the eyes, no doubt about it. Especially throughout the countryside in Transylvania! Once you leave Bucharest, there are fields and beautiful wide open spaces between the various towns and villages. During the summer while we were there, these fields were full of blooming sunflowers!

The houses and buildings are painted in a rainbow of colors that give the towns a magical ambiance. In the photo directly below, you can see the the apartment we rented for three nights in that orange colored building. It was within the walls of Sighisoara, and just steps from the 14th century historic clock tower.

Walking down the old cobblestone streets and looking up at the old multicolored buildings was a feast for the eyes. I absolutely loved seeing how people lived, and the unique roofs on the Romanian homes!

It's also quite a mountainous country, so many towns (such as Brasov, below) look like a movie set versus actual reality!

4. Affordability. When we decided to go to Romania this summer, it was partially due to the fact that we would be flying across the Atlantic for a wedding in England. We had a little under three weeks and knew it would be extremely expensive to spend that entire time in the UK. The obvious thing to do (or so I thought) would be to simply jump on the chunnel to Paris for a week, and enjoy the rest of our vacation there. However, the wedding was in July, and I knew peak tourist season would mean extremely high prices - especially in Paris! So my husband and I started brainstorming and looking through the places on our bucket list that we knew we wanted to visit. Bucharest is actually quite easy to get to - lots of airlines flying through there several times a day. And, since Romania isn't like Italy or France (with millions of people flocking there throughout the summer), we knew we could avoid the crowds! But, what really sold me was the affordability of it all! Being a family a four (especially with a tiny, light sleeper), we had hoped to book hotel suites or 2-bedroom apartments. And, we were able to do that all throughout Romania for under $100/night!!!

Not only were the hotels and apartments very affordable, but the food was extremely affordable! We enjoyed wonderful meals out everyday, with delicious wines (many from Moldova and Hungary), and the bill was typically $25 or less for all 4 of us! And I'm talking about picturesque, quaint restaurants!

5. Kid-friendly. Romania is a very kid-friendly country, and as a tourist, the local people went out of their way to cater to our needs of traveling with children. In fact, this is the first trip to Europe we've made with a baby without carrying any sort of pack n'play or portable crib. Every single apartment or hotel we booked had a crib set up in our room, ready for us with fresh linens. And, at no extra charge. Every little restaurant we visited had high chairs, and we never felt uncomfortable taking our children anywhere. Not only that, but the magical aura of this place coupled with the wide-open spaces, make it a dream for kids! Outside the castles we visted, there were always swords and knight costumes the kids could buy and play with. There was always plenty of room to run around, and the pace of life in Romania is just peaceful. Not rushed and stressful like other major tourist destinations.

6. Craftsmanship. The Romanians are really skilled artisans. It's fascinating to see the things they make by hand. There is a lot of wood working done within the country, particularly with willow wood. Willow wood is softer than many other woods, and the Romanians use it to make a variety of platters, dough bowls, and other kitchen goods. I fell in love with the willow-carved products while we were there.

Our first night in Sighisoara also happened to correspond with their annual handicrafts market, so I got to see many handmade goods from this gorgeous country! They making amazing decorated gingerbread, straw goods, and handpainted pottery as well!

7. Religious History. The history of various religions in Romania, as well as their places of worship, are fascinating to visit. Many of the churches are simply works of art! There are countless Orthodox churches throughout the country, each built with the triple domes representing the Holy Trinity. The murals and icons within these churches are breathtaking!

Romania is also rich with well-preserved fortified churches. In fact, they have 7 of these fortified churches in Transylvania which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We were able to visit two of them (Biertan and Prejmer), and they were fascinating. Built between the 13th - 16th century by the Saxons, they give a glimpse into a way of life during that time.

Below you can see my family standing in front of the fortification in Biertan. A gorgeous tiny town just 30 minutes outside of Sighisoara. The drive to this little village was lined with multicolored homes and horse-drawn carriages sharing the road with us.

8. The People. Finally, I would be remiss in talking about why you should book your next trip to Romania without mentioning the people. The Romanian people we met were very helpful and kind across the board. Even in the bustling city of Bucharest, we were met with kind taxi drivers and friendly hotel workers. We stopped in cafes and on the street for pastries, and were always met with a smile. We also found the people very honest when it came to matters of money. I've spent a good amount of time traveling in the Middle East and Latin America, and while I love those places, the constant negotiating, haggling, and pressure to buy goods can sometimes be exhausting. We didn't experience any of that in Romania. In fact, our taxi driver in Bucharest tried refusing the tip we gave him because he "just wanted my family to have a nice time and enjoy Romania".

The owner of the apartment we rented in Sighisoara had it completely stocked with tea and coffee and brought us bottled water everyday because he thought it would be better for us and the children to drink. No extra charge or anything. Just very thoughtful!

If you're considering getting a bit off the beaten path on your next family vacation, I can't encourage you enough to venture to Romania! The country has every modern convenience you could possibly want or need, yet you feel like you're walking around in a 14th century fairy tale.

If you have any specific questions about planning a Romanian vacation, please let me know in the comments below!

Happy Travels!