Thursday, July 3, 2014

Gluten Free in Toronto, ON

Last weekend my husband and I decided to make the two hour drive up to Toronto, ON for a fun getaway. Of course, the first thing I did was research gluten free and celiac-friendly options in the city. I quickly had a list of restaurants I wanted to check out!

We arrived on Saturday, June 28 around 10:30am. It was World Pride weekend in the city and our hotel (The Courtyard Marriott) was smack dab in the center of all the festivities. We quickly checked in before heading away from "festival zone" towards Chinatown which bordered the Kensington Market area where our first stop was located; The Kensington Cornerstone.
Kensington Cornerstone
Let me tell you, this place was an amazing find! Located at the end of Kensington Avenue, with an adorable, cozy patio to enjoy the beautiful summer morning, we found the perfect place to start our gluten free eating extravaganza! Kensington Cornerstone is 100 percent gluten free - the absolute best thing a celiac can hear! 

We split a pitcher of Vodka Lemonade which was delightful and just the right proportion of lemonade to vodka. After a lengthy debate between french toast and a breakfast sandwich I chose the french toast and never regretted my decision. It came out looking beautiful and scrumptious and tasted even better. The bread was thick, perfectly cooked, and the crusts seemed like they had been dipped in sugar and cinnamon for extra enjoyment! I loved every second of eating this breakfast favorite that I haven't had since I've gone gluten free - so at least two years! Drew ordered the eggs Benedict and loved it, including the gluten free bread. What an awesome way to start the day!
First french toast since celiac!
I had told Drew there was a bakery I wanted to go to, but looking on the map I realized it was a lot further than I had thought. I decided we'd skip it. We began to wander around the Kensington Market area, savoring the unique shops and restaurants and hipster vibe. Suddenly, I looked up to see "Bunner's," the name of the 100% vegan, gluten free bakery I had wanted to visit! What?! We went inside and quickly discovered that they had just opened up a second location (this one!) the day before! What luck! We ordered a cinnamon bun which they warmed up and cut in half for us, and I also got a red velvet cupcake and a creamie (two chocolate chip cookies with frosting in the middle) to save for later. All three of these items were absolutely delicious and tasted like they had been jam-packed with gluten because they were that good! I will definitely make a point to go back there the next time I'm in Toronto.
Bunner's 100% Vegan and Gluten Free Bakery in the Kensington Market area
After some more wandering and shopping we headed to our next food-specific destination: Poutini's House of Poutine. Poutine is kind of a Canadian delicacy consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese curds. I'd never had it, but decided that if there was a gluten free version I should probably indulge. Drew loves poutine so he was totally on board for this adventure. We had to walk a couple miles to find this place and there wasn't much to it. No bathroom, cash only, a couple high tables and a kitchen. We were still stuffed from brunch and bakery treats, so we split a regular gluten free poutine. I was pleasantly surprised. For some reason, I expected poutine to be a lot, um...grosser? Haha. It was literally a paper cup's worth, so it wasn't too too much. The french fries were good, the gravy was tasty and not overloading the fries, and the cheese curds were not overwhelming either. All in all, a good first poutine experience!
GF Poutine, a Canadian Tradition
The remainder of our daylight hours were spent walking, window shopping, and enjoying a cold beverage before stopping into the Pride Festival to visit some friends we met while on our Galapagos diving trip last year. Soon, it was time to venture out for dinner.

We headed to the Distillery District, a funky area in the historical district I had visited in the fall. I knew Drew would love the vibe as much as I had. We headed to El Catrin, as it was listed on several websites when I was searching for gluten free in Toronto. The restaurant patio was massive and gorgeous with giant rustic metal chandeliers hanging, and a fire pit in the middle. The line was out the door and around the corner. There was a private party inside, so only patio seating was available. We decided to wait. 

An hour later we were seated. The menu had little icons next to certain items stating "wheat free." I asked about this and the hostess gave me a confused answer about it really meaning gluten free. Hmm. So I asked the server and he said yes, they were gluten free if they have that icon. Not to give away the rest of the story, but at this point, I should have asked to speak with a manager. Unfortunately, the place was crazy and I was starving and I did not. Instead, Drew and I ordered a few items (it is tapas style), and our food came quickly. We had Esquites (a corn dip), Sopes de Tinga (delicious little tart looking things), Cochnita Pibil (BBQ pulled pork tacos), and Carne Asada de Catrin (flat iron steak). Everything tasted amazing!! We loved the experience, the food, and our waiter. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes later I quickly realized I had been glutened. I'll leave out the details, but I will say, if you go here, please make sure you do your due diligence and talk to a manager so you can be assured what you order is gluten free. And maybe it would be better not to go on a Saturday night in the middle of summer so they aren't so busy and can be more careful of cross contamination. I'm not sure what made me sick, but it definitely gave our awesome gluten free food day a less-than-awesome ending.
Taken while I was enjoying my food...
The next morning we went to the Brownstone Bistro for breakfast as I found it on my "Find Me Gluten Free" app. Another disappointment. When I asked about gluten free, our unfriendly waitress sort of laughed and said that the menu she gave us was the menu for Pride Festival and there were no substitutions. OK, then. She also said "you know what you can eat, right?" And I said "Yes, but sometimes there are hidden things in certain items." She didn't seem to care. I ordered an omelet (after verifying with our super friendly waitress that they didn't use anything but eggs in their eggs), and my plate came out with bread on it. I ate the 3/4 of the omelet that wasn't near the bread, begrudgingly. After the night before, I was upset and angry, but felt too defeated to fight. I debated just not eating anything, but I was hungry, so I ate the part I felt should be safe.

Overall, we had a fun time in Toronto. It's a great city that is a melting pot of cultures, making you feel like you could be almost anywhere depending on the area of the city you are in. Plus, we found three awesome gluten free finds in Toronto and I will definitely revisit Kensington Cornerstone and Bunner's the next time we head north!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Home Sweet Home

After four months of nonstop adventure and exploration, we arrived safely back in Buffalo late last Thursday night. Friday and Saturday we began to get settled back into our house, despite extreme delusion caused by jet lag. Over the past week we've been busy "nesting" and cleaning up and reorganizing the inside and outside of our home!

Yesterday was Drew's 30th birthday and we had many of our friends and family over to reconnect, share some stories, and celebrate life! It's been amazing to see everyone again and kind of feels like we've never been gone.

Tomorrow I go back to work. I'm looking forward to seeing my friends, but it is a bit nerve-wracking. I'm really not sure how easily I will adjust to working full time again. I loved my job before I left, so I think that will make it easier, but going from a very open schedule with tons of new experiences, people, and sights everyday to a set routine and the same scenery day after day might be difficult. I guess only time will tell.

Overall, sitting in my house, it's sort of hard to believe that we've been gone for four months because not much has changed here. But I am a different person and I'm sure I will only realize this more and more as time goes on. I'm happy to be back, but (of course) sad that our journey is actually over. I know that we will have many new adventures to come so I don't worry that this is the end, but still, it's sort of crazy that this huge thing I've been dreaming about for many, many years, and planning and working on diligently for over a year has truly come to an end.

Luckily, I have almost 10,000 photos to show for it, some cool souvenirs, and a million amazing memories that I share with my best friend. The next step will be creating my photo book (which I do for every trip we take). I've already started, but I'm only about a week in! It's going to take a long time but I appreciate that I get to relive each step of our journey every time I sit down to work on it!

Many people have asked the same questions, so here's a few answers to things you may be wondering:

  • Yes, it was absolutely everything I could have dreamed of and more. I'm not one for setting too many expectations, especially when it comes to travel, but the trip was my dream come true! We were lucky enough to meet so many incredible people along the way, who helped us and became friends, our travel plans all fell together and we never had any big issues, and we stayed safe and healthy (after Drew got over his ear infection in Ecuador!)
  • No, I cannot pick a favorite place. Each country, city and attraction we visited was unique and there was really nowhere that I would not return to. I have a few favorites, but it's impossible to pick one! 
    • The Galapagos were a dream come true and the most amazing diving I've ever experienced. I'm obsessed with sea lions and I got to swim with them and see them inches from my face many times!
    • Machu Picchu was another place I've always wanted to go and it truly exceeded any expectations. It's incredible.
    • Spain was an amazing country and every city we had the opportunity to visit was beautiful!
    • Italy was incredible! The food, the history, the character of each place we saw was outstanding!
    • Santorini was gorgeous and we will definitely go back to this Greek island since we only had several hours to appreciate it and it deserves several days!
    • Turkey was amazing. The people, the history, and the places we saw were fabulous.
    • Dubai was truly another world and a place I'd like to see in five to ten years because I know it will be even more over the top!
    • Egypt brought us back down to earth after the futuristic city of Dubai. It was an incredible place to end our journey. We got to see THE PYRAMIDS in person! We rode a felluca on the Nile! We rode a camel in the Sahara! We took pictures of the Sphinx! We laid by the pool of our hotel and could see the Pyramids!
    • I feel bad not going into detail about every country and city we visited because, truly, they were each so memorable and beautiful in their own way.
  • Yes, four months was a great amount of time. I would have loved to continue for longer, but on the other hand, it's natural that you sort of begin to prepare yourself for what's ahead. So we knew we were going to be gone four months, and a few weeks before our scheduled return we started to wind down and mentally adjust to the idea of coming home.
The tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, in Dubai
The amazing Pyramids of Giza on a camel in the Sahara!
Sad faces...the morning we left Cairo for home

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to stay abreast of our journey. It has been neat to hear people ask me about things I wrote in the blog, and even cool when people said they noticed those times when I didn't write for weeks and they got worried. I appreciate all the support before, during, and now after this incredible journey!

 That's all I have for now. I did want to share this map below - all this travel and the travel I've done throughout my life, and still I've only seen 14% of the world! Really?!

Create your own travel map - TravBuddy

Saturday, June 1, 2013

From Dubai to Continent #5, Last Stop Before Home

I'm currently laying by our pool in Dubai, about to go to our room to clean up before we head to the airport for our flight to Cairo. Our last destination on this incredible adventure. 

Dubai is incredible. I've described it as a mash up between Vegas, Disney and the Jetsons. Everything is new, tall, and fancy. In the middle of the desert. On the beautiful Persian Gulf. The city is not walkable and not just because of the heat. The city has been built in little areas, all relatively far apart, so driving, taxis or the metro are necessities. Things don't seem all that far because the buildings are tall and you can see everything! But it's a mirage. Roads are only constructed in certain areas so it often feels like the long way around. It's a bit disjointed, but it's like nowhere I've ever been.

And next, Cairo...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Heating Things Up

Tomorrow we leave the amazing country of Turkey and its wonderful people to venture to the desert...but this is not just any desert...

Tomorrow we fly to Dubai.

I'm expecting the city to be a spectacle. Like Vegas, but bigger, louder, flashier and much more extreme. For starters, we're going to have extreme heat.

Yes, that's the forecast for the next few days! Yikes! I expect we're going to spend a lot of time indoors (hello world's largest mall with indoor ice skating rink, world's tallest building, and an indoor ski resort), and also a bunch by the pool.

This should be a city like no other. Let the extremism begin!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cappadocia, Turkey: Another World

First off, apologies for getting so behind in my posts! I have more to come on our time in Austria, Czech Republic, Romania and our cruise ports, but right now I am in Goreme, Turkey in the Cappadocia region of the country. I have a little time and I am inspired.

Goreme is a small, touristy town like many others around the world. However, it's in the heart of Cappadocia, a unique place of fairy chimneys that have enchanted me and make me feel like I'm in a dream each day.

There's not a whole lot to do here other than visit, hike around or balloon over these fairy chimneys, but that's a good thing, especially when you've been traveling for four months and are excited for a break from big cities.

So what are these so called fairy chimneys? Well, according to these unusual rock formations are a results of volcanic eruptions during the third geological period. The deposits of volcanic ash, lava and basalt laid the groundwork for these rock formations, followed by years of erosion from wind and rain, forming unique shapes that give the landscape an appearance that resembles what many people might think the surface of the moon would be like.
One of the former dwellings at the Open Air Museum in Goreme

Some unique looking fairy chimneys in Pigeon Valley
An amazing view of the valley!
Many of these fairy chimneys were (and some still are) inhabited
During our hike in Pigeon Valley
Now Drew's into "jumping" photos too. Go figure. ;-)
Amazing shapes of the rocks formed by natural elements
So why did we journey here? It's actually been on my bucket list for several years, ever since I saw an article in Budget Travel that displayed an absolutely captivating photo of tens of hot air balloons floating in the sky over a landscape like nothing I'd ever seen. Ever since, this place has been on my mind and my bucket list, and so I am very happy that it worked out for us to visit this magical place during this incredible journey we are on.

I am happy to report that today we took that sunrise hot air balloon ride and it surpassed every one of my dreams of the occasion, despite just how touristy of an activity it is here. Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that just yesterday, the region saw its second balloon accident since these flights began twenty years ago. Unfortunately three people lost their lives and many were injured, so my thoughts and prayers are with those people and their families.

Despite that awful accident, I would highly recommend the activity and this amazing place to everyone. It's like nowhere I've ever been.

Getting ready for our first hot air balloon flight!
A balloon rising behind a fairy chimney
Close to 100 balloons take flight each morning

We went as high at 950 meters, 1000 is the limit here
The small city below
An interesting perspective of the canyon below

Monday, May 13, 2013

Filling in the Blanks

Beautiful Brasov
Today we filled in the last blanks (at least as far as the wheres and whens) of our adventure.

We are currently in Brasov, Romania and all we knew up until a couple hours ago was that we needed to be in Istanbul, Turkey on May 27 to fly to Dubai. We also knew we wanted a decent chunk of time in Istanbul, since everyone we've talked to who has been there raves about it. We have had our flights from Istanbul to Dubai, Dubai to Cairo, and Cairo home all booked since before we left. We actually had the majority of our accommodations in Dubai and Cairo booked before we left as well, and just recently completed those pieces.

But this whole two weeks between Brasov and Istanbul were a big question mark. A question mark that I personally loved, probably about as much as it caused Drew anxiety. To me, having this last open period be SO wide open extended the excitement and mystery and surprise of the whole trip. Sure, each destination, day and even minute will still be an adventure, but once this last piece of our puzzle was booked, a clear path towards the end of the trip would be defined. So I was postponing it and reassuring Drew that we would figure it out and it will all be fine, as it has been all along this journey.(Drew, on the other hand, kept reminding me that he was stressed out by this, and in just two days we were checking out from our Brasov hotel, and transportation on this side of the continent is not very easy). So we finally sat down today for a few hours and...the puzzle is complete.

We contemplated vegging on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast for a week, but without a car it's impossible because there's no public transport there until June. We don't want to rent a car because neither one of us can drive stick well and automatic rentals, if you can even find them, are at least four times the cost of manual making that outrageously expensive.

We talked about visiting the Black Sea beaches in Romania, we could get to them easily enough by bus. But we'd still have to get down to Istanbul. 

We looked for cheap flights to anywhere in Europe hoping for a random deal that matched our date of departure. 

Then, we looked into one of our original thoughts before we even left Buffalo...Cappadocia. 

This is a place in Turkey that I have wanted to visit ever since I received a certain issue of Budget Travel several years ago. It's a place of "fairy chimney" dwellings. They look like God took wet sand in his hands and let it dribble through his fingers to form sloppy, skinny peaks. The picture that is embedded in my mind from that magazine article has hot air balloons floating above these dreamlike structures and in the picture I'm there in one of the balloons looking out. Oh wait...that's just in my dream.

So anyway, we looked into flights and it wasn't too bad! We looked into hotels and found some reasonably priced "cave hotels" (they're like the only kind of accommodation you would want to stay in when visiting this area! It's all about authentic here people!) And so, we booked everything! Our flight from Bucharest to Istanbul, our round-trip flight to and from Cappadocia, our hotel there. The only thing left is our accommodation in Istanbul. So we're just waiting to hear back from an AirBnB host and we might be all set.

On one hand it feels good to know we're done booking stuff (because it can be stressful and exhausting), but like I said before, it also makes me sad because it's the final major piece of the puzzle in place. Now all we do is follow the path we laid out until it takes us back to where we started.

But enough of that depressing attitude! The great news is we still have over three weeks of our journey to live and create! And live it we will!

Here's a few more photos of Brasov for you as well! What a cool little city!

Flower market in the square during festival, Brasov Days 
View from the Citadel
"Behind the Wall"
View from the White Tower
View from the Black Tower
Rope Street, one of the narrowest "roads" in Europe
The main square

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Just Cruisin' (A Flashback)

Written on May 4, 2013

Tonight I am writing from the comfort of our wonderfully large white king-sized bed in our sizable ocean view cabin on-board Holland America’s Eurodam. We've been aboard since Monday, today is Saturday, and so we’re about halfway through our 11-night Mediterranean Cruise.

We departed from Rome, where we met my parents just two days before. They flew in on Friday and we flew in from Prague on Saturday, meeting them for the afternoon and evening, and spending all day Sunday dragging them around to show them as much of the city as we could, after exploring the Pantheon and the Coliseum. Whew! Early Monday afternoon we all boarded the ship (after a quick mishap involving a van and Drew’s iphone…funny story) and began to settle in.

The four of us before our first formal night
It’s been quite a change for Drew and I from the way we’ve been traveling since February 2nd, let me tell you! 
  • First of all, we are staying in the same room for eleven nights. Eleven nights! That hasn’t happened since we left home! It’s been really nice to unpack and live out of closets and drawers rather than organizational Ziplocs, stuffsacks, and backpacks! 
  • Secondly, we’re with my parents! We’ve made many friends during our travels and even stayed with new and old friends along the way, but to actually be exploring new places and spending time with my parents is really awesome. 
  • Thirdly, our “world” is much more confined causing us to slow down a bit. We tend to travel at a pace that not too many people could probably keep up with, walking an average of probably eight hours a day. It’s a bit of an adjustment to slow down due to processes, procedures and lines that are just part of cruise line traveling. Plus, when we’re on-board the ship there are only so many things to see and do. We’re almost forced to just relax and take it all in because there’s only so much we can do in the time allotted at each port and on the ship.  
  • Fourthly, we’re eating (at least) three meals a day and the food is amazing! It’s still a bit of a challenge with my having to eat gluten free because I always have to ask and don't have quite the selection as everyone else, but overall the cruise line is doing a good job catering to me and giving me what I want. And Drew is enjoying eating whatever he wants whenever he wants. He’s gotten two appetizers or two desserts or even two dinners – just because they all sound delicious and – he can!
  • Lastly, the crew aboard our ship is amazing and they treat us well. Our room is cleaned  twice a day, the sheets are turned down nightly with a chocolate left on our bed, fresh fruit is left in our room each day, and we have all the comforts of home (yes, even a washcloth!!)

It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment when we get off – but I am just happy we have a few more weeks of our adventure left. I’d definitely be pleased to have even more, but I suppose this journey has to come to an end at some point.

In case you’re curious for more details of our cruise,there’s a quick rundown of our itinerary below. I hope to write posts and share pictures from each port soon.

Monday – board
Tuesday – at sea
Wednesday – Kerkira, Greece (Corfu)
Thursday – Katakolon, Greece (visited ancient Olympia)
Friday – Santorini, Greece (amazing place!!)
Saturday (today) – Kusadasi, Turkey (visited the ancient city of Ephesus)
Sunday and Monday – Piraeus, Greece (Athens)
Tuesday – at sea
Wednesday – Messina, Italy (Sicily)
Thursday – Naples, Italy (tour to Pompei)
Friday – disembark in Rome, we’ll spend the day in the city until our flight to Bucharest, Romania
Drew's first cruise! He has no idea what he's in for...
The food! Oh, the food!
One of the two pools - this one had a retractable roof that blocked the wind
Another shot of our boat - docked in Katakolon, Greece
One of the nightly towel animals that awaited us. We loved these!

The super creative towel animal we made for our room steward, Wibi :)