October 21, 2012

A Story on South Africa

Another cruiser approaches during
one of many amazing game drives in South Africa.
Thanks to the fabulous folks at USA Today, I've gotten a story published on their College website!

Please be sure to check it out. It's a piece highlighting one of the programs offered at Entabeni Private Game Reserve in South Africa, which I had the opportunity to visit this past summer.

And seriously, people, there are so many reasons to get yourself to South Africa. Beautiful landscape, beautiful people, and unbelievably beautiful animals so worth preserving for future generations.

Check out more on the reserve itself here, or find their Facebook page and ask questions!

August 3, 2012

One Year of Stefcations

Me and Reba, my retired racing greyhound,
hanging at home in Connecticut.
Dearest Stefcations readers,

It's been a year since I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! It's been a fun and enlightening road, and I have learned a couple of things along the way:

(1) Connecticut doesn't completely suck.

I can't believe I just said that.

That's right, hanging with
Apolo Anton Ohno this past year.
But really, for me, this has been nothing short of a revelation.

I grew up here. I went to college here. I have spent most of my adult life here (save for a short stint in NYC). My husband and I bought our first house - and then our next house - here. If you'd told the teenage Stef that she was going to do these things, she would've laughed. Or cried. Or punched you in the face.

Alas, here I am, still living in Connecticut. So what have I learned? That it's actually not so bad. Sure, you can't typically order up Thai food to be delivered at 3 a.m. You are not likely to bask under palm trees or enjoy year-round weather in the 70s. For heaven's sake, Sunday liquor purchases became legal only a few short months ago. So no, it's not the wildest or craziest place around.
Auditioning for Family Feud
earlier this year with my fam.

All that said, there's still plenty to do; as with anything else, it's truly what you make of it.*

Even after a year of recording some of my most enjoyable Connecticut-area outings here on this blog, I've found there are endless other, unexpected adventures to be had, restaurants to be visited, and lovely and interesting sights to see.

Checking out my first
roller derby bout this year.
Need proof? Behold the photos throughout this post.

* Disclaimer: This is not to say I'm staying permanently ... I'm not entirely past the no-palm-trees thing.

(2) Social media doesn't completely suck.

Another major revelation for moi.

Once upon a time - not so long ago - I wondered what on Earth possessed so many people to spend so much of their precious time in the realm of social media.

Enjoying afternoon tea
at Tea Roses in Cromwell.
I was a hater, and I readily admit it. But I have seen the light, and so I thank you. (After all, it's folks like you - who have checked out my blog, who share my posts with their friends on Facebook, and with whom I've tweeted - who have led me to see the error of my ways.)

It's been refreshing to connect with old friends on Facebook and a pleasant surprise to discover so many creative, wonderful people on Twitter. I even have a Foursquare account, people.

A lovely day spent
at Hammonasset Beach State Park.
And, lo and behold, this blog has been a great way to open up to the world - which turned out to be nowhere near as scary as I'd initially assumed.

(3) It's OK to change your mind.

As a teenager, I disparaged Connecticut to no end, swore I'd escape as soon as humanly possible.

As an adult, I disparaged Connecticut to no end ... and then extended that to include Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

But sometimes you just have to give things a chance. As you can see, I've come around.

Fun drinks at
Glastonbury's Rooftop 120.
One of my favorite quotations of all time has long been the following:

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

It's one idea that I never seem to outgrow ... which, I guess, is the point - to keep growing, to keep finding new ways to contradict oneself.

Amazing Indian feast
at Bollywood Grill in Glastonbury.
Which brings me to one last piece of business: My hiatus from blogging.

I'm heading out tomorrow for a trip to South Africa. No, I'm not pulling a Dave Chappelle, but Stefcations is taking an extended Stefcation. So this blog may be back in a few weeks, or it may not return at all; I'm not yet decided.

No matter where things end up, I did want to thank you reader peeps for making it a fun year. For teaching stubborn little ol' me things I didn't even realize were worth learning. For giving me a reason and an opportunity to sing a little song of myself, as it were.

A night out with my mom
(one of my faithful blog readers)
to see Norah Jones.
In my very first post, I declared my intention to connect a few cool people with more than a few cool places to see and things to do in Connecticut and beyond. I hope I've accomplished that.

Thanks so much for reading.

July 15, 2012

Kayaking on the Farmington River - Collinsville, Conn.

Ahhhh. Sun, warmth, and water.
This is what summer is all about.
Have you been taking advantage of this amazing summer weather???

Perhaps you've been to the beach, attended a few picnics, or maybe even gone hiking

All very well and good. Here's one more suggestion: A fantastic few hours spent kayaking on the Farmington River. 

Don't own a kayak? No problemo; neither do we. Simply head to Collinsville Canoe & Kayak - set in a lovely spot by the river in a quaint, adorable little town in central Connecticut - and rent one. 

Rental costs are very reasonable, but vary depending on how many people you want in your kayak - and for how long (see costs outlined below). 

My husband and I each opted for our own kayak - just $12 for one hour, and that includes the life jacket and your paddle. If you are really enjoing yourself in the water and go beyond the hour, they'll charge you a few dollars extra for each additional 15 minutes. 

It was pretty much the perfect day. The weather was fantastic, the sun wasn't too hot, and the water was calm and an ideally refreshing temperature. 

Today's Stefcations Highlights:
My husband eyeing the paddleboards.
  • What You'll Find: Kayaking on the Farmington River - a most amazingly refreshing day in the outdoors. 
  • Where You'll Find It: Collinsville Canoe & Kayak, 41 Bridge Street, Collinsville, Conn.
  • When to Go: The season starts around May 1 and runs through to around October. Rental hours are M-W & F from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sat. 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sun. 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (FYI: If you're headed there on a summer weekend, it's usually wise to make a reservation. I called the morning of and was fine.)
  • What It'll Cost: $12 for a solo kayak for one hour. Tandem (two-person) kayaks are $20 per hour. These prices include the life jacket and paddle. You can also opt for daylong (3 hours or more) on-site rentals (solo kayaks = $40 per day; tandems = $50 per day). There is even an option, for an extra charge, to take the kayak for up to 24 hours off-site. 
  • By the Way: You can rent other things here, too. Namely, bicycles for the nearby Farmington River Bike Trail, which overlooks the river, or paddleboards. As I learned today, Collinsville Canoe & Kayak occasionally offers paddleboard yoga! I hear it's a great core workout. Might have to try that next...

July 3, 2012

Storming Gillette Castle - East Haddam, Conn.

It's not your imagination; that's a castle! Gillette Castle,
a beautiful and totally unique 24-room mansion,
found on the Connecticut River.

Beautiful, cloudless Sundays in July are a rare commodity here in New England - and the perfect excuse for spending the day by the water or breaking in a new pair of hiking boots.

Seeking to accomplish both of these things (whilst continuing on my never-ending quest to soak in my fair share of Vitamin D), I headed out on the first glorious day of July to Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, Conn.

I'm rather ashamed to admit that I'd never before set foot in this place. It's one of those landmarks my friends had all seemed to frequent on their grammar school field trips, but for whatever reason, I'd never had the pleasure.

Let's just say it was worth the wait.

Here, on 184 acres of what was once the estate of a famous stage actor named William Gillette, you'll find hiking trails galore, fantastic views of the Connecticut River, picnic areas, a campground, and lots of enchanting little stone-lined bridges and paths. There's even a visitors' center shop and a grill serving food and ice cream in case you're starved by the end of your trip.

But the real star attraction is the 24-room stone castle, a mansion designed ingeniously by Gillette himself.

Today's Stefcations Highlights:
Boarding the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry.
  • What You'll Find: An honest-to-goodness stone castle (no, really!), perched above the Connecticut River, surrounded by plenty of hiking trails and scenic views. Located in Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road in East Haddam, Conn.
  • When to Go: The grounds are open year-round, while the castle itself is open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with a special Christmastime season). If you'd like to take the Chester-Hadlyme ferry to get here, it runs from late April through November.
  • What It'll Cost: The park itself is free. Roam the trails, picnic by the lily-padded ponds, or longingly watch the boats and jet-skis speed by on the Connecticut River. For the self-guided tour of the castle, it's $6 per person and $2 for kids ages 6-12, with no charge for kids under 5. The ferry, should you choose to take it, is $3 per car (bring cash).
  • By the Way: Reportedly, the castle is a sight to see during the winter season, when it's decorated for the holidays. 

Lots of (mostly light) trails to choose from;
check out the park's hiking map here.
Gillette, a playwright and actor who back in the day was best known for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage, was clearly a very cool guy with a flair for more than just acting.

No stranger to drama, he designed his home (where he lived from 1919 until his death in 1937) to feature all the wacky things you'd picture in mystery novels - including secret passageways and hidden mirrors through which he could covertly observe his guests from afar without them knowing it.

At the same time, this place is a museum and a true work of art. Every wooden door and latch is carved with an ornate design (no two doors in the place are exactly alike). Artifacts and correspondence from Gillette's lifetime grace the various rooms - down to the "cat bell" that summoned Gillette's 15 cats for dinner every evening. (Love it!) Tour guides stationed throughout will happily share entertaining anecdotes with you. There's an art gallery. Even the light switches are funky little artistic creations.

And, um, it's a castle.

Tourists on motorcycles
enjoyed the park, too.
The day I visited, the place was bustling with activity. People of all ages were strolling around - young couples, families with baby strollers, even tough-looking motorcycle dudes in muscle T-shirts, who I caught attentively snapping photos of the castle's stone walls and the surrounding flowerbeds.

There were also rehearsals going on the park's small outdoor stage, where actors from a local theater troupe were practicing for an upcoming production - about, what else, Sherlock Holmes. (If you want more detes on this, you can find them here.)

So if you're up for a little fairy tale of an adventure, you can find it - no matter what your age - right here in the heart of Connecticut.

Fantastic views of the Connecticut River
from Gillette's estate, also known as the Seventh Sister.

Enjoy a picnic by the one of the park's lovely lily ponds.

June 25, 2012

There's Always Paris

See how happy you can be here?
(Fact for the Day: The Eiffel Tower
was originally painted red.)

If you're a lover of art museums, a foodie, a oenophile, a history buff, or - better yet - all of the above, it's high time you booked yourself a trip to Paris.

The wealth of things to do in this beautiful city is rather overwhelming. There are the obvious sightseeing spots - including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame. They're all amazing and undoubtedly worth the trip.

But there are so many other hidden treasures to be found here.

This spring, I was lucky enough to enjoy Paris for the second time in my life. And though I did revisit many of the typical touristy places, I made it my mission to discover a handful of new gems, too.

Here are three of my favorite discoveries, should you one day find yourself in need of whiling away a day in the City of Love and Lights.

Our daily Parisian "siesta":
Bread, cheese, wine. Done.
Today's Stefcations Highlights:

  • What You'll Find: A few of my favorite places to visit in Paris.
  • When to Go: I've visited in August and in April. August's weather is lovelier and less rainy, though many of the locals seem to be missing in action, as they are known to leave the city to go on holiday during this summer month. If you go in April, bring an umbrella and sunglasses everywhere you go - it can be rainy and sunny all in the same day.
  • By the Way: Do not miss the Musee d'Orsay, known for its spectacular collection of Impressionists, including mind-blowing paintings by Van Gogh. I assure you, you can't imagine how awesome they are until you see them in person!

June 8, 2012

A New Source of Scrumptious, Simple Recipes

Crazy delicious pasta e  fagioli,
courtesy of Chef Silvio Suppa.
Wish you knew how to cook up a fantastic marinara sauce? Think making fresh pasta from scratch is absolutely out of your league? Longing for amazing recipes that require only simple ingredients?

As I've learned in recent weeks, some of the dishes I'd always assumed could never be part of my repertoire are, in fact, deceivingly simple. Where did I learn this? Cooking classes.

No, I'm not talking about stressful, pricey lessons that for last weeks on end. No, you don't have to spend extra cash on kitchen supplies. And no, you certainly need not possess Iron Chef-like skills.

I'm talking a single two-hour weeknight outing that will prove to be fun, delicious, and educational - not to mention it's a lovely way to acquire some unbelievable new recipes while coming upon the revelation that cooking up some really great food is shockingly doable.

Today's Stefcations Highlights:

May 24, 2012

Relish This: Blackie's Hot Dog Stand - Cheshire, Conn.

Oh. So. Good.
Perhaps it's the refreshingly rare birch beer fountain soda. Or the bold, distinctive spice of their famous homemade hot pepper relish. Or those familiar red countertops and the wonderful lack of pretense.

Whatever it is, my summer days are never complete without a visit to Blackie's Hot Dog Stand in Cheshire, Conn.

This fine establishment has been serving up simple, yet consistently fabulous burgers and dogs for 84 years now. So let's just say that they know what they're doing.

Today's Stefcations Highlights:
  • What You'll Find: Old-school hot dog and hamburger stand that has stood the test of time.
  • Where You'll Find it: 2200 Waterbury Road, Cheshire, Conn.
  • When to Go: Every day throughout the year, except Friday. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. from January through March and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. April through December.
  • What It'll Cost: A couple of bucks apiece. Cash only!