Have knives and cast iron, will travel

Over the past few years, we’ve stayed at a number of places with full kitchens while traveling, from time share units to VRBO places.  We’ve come to realize that not all “full” kitchens are created equal, and even those that are technically fully equipped may be sorely lacking in the quality department.

A good knife is one of the most important pieces of kitchen equipment you can have if you actually want to cook from scratch.  We’ve started bringing our paring knife and our chef’s knife with us on almost every trip.  A couple of knives take up minimal space, whether you’re traveling by car or by plane (of course they have to be in checked luggage!) — knife guard highly recommend to protect you and the rest of your stuff.


The kitchens at the resort in Destin feature non-stick skillets.  Though I do try to minimize use of non-stick skillets to avoid ingesting the chemicals in the coating, I’m not completely opposed to them (I have yet to figure out how to successfully make scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet) IF the coating is in good shape.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case for pans I’ve encountered in vacation rentals, so this year, our cast iron came along for the ride.


While the pan is a bit heavy, it doesn’t take up all that much room.  When packing, I stuck the pan in a paper bag to prevent oils from rubbing off on anything else, then put other kitchen stuff inside the pan.  Next time, I’d also bring our baby cast iron (6″ diameter), which is perfect for making one or two fried eggs.

On the implements and tools side, I also added a small fine mesh strainer, after learning that hard way that it’s pretty much impossible to rinse quinoa without said implement.

Dry goods and pantry items — I tried not to go too crazy here, there are grocery stores in Destin after all.  I focused on items that are hard to find and/or items that I can get a much better price buying from bulk food bins (I may be able to skip this step in future trips, as Destin is about to get a Whole Foods — then it will have ALL THE STORES (well, not TJ’s, but almost all the stores)).

  • natural, organic peanut butter
  • almonds and peanuts
  • organic raisins and cranberries (for oatmeal and snacking)
  • quinoa
  • brown rice
  • steel cut and rolled oats
  • [locally grown] black beans
  • lentils
  • organic canola oil
  • granulated onion and garlic
  • an herb blend

Plus some garden goods . . .

  • garlic scapes (enough that we didn’t need to buy garlic all week)
  • radishes
  • a bit of lettuce and spinach
  • a few turnips
  • a bit of broccoli and asparagus

On the trip from Atlanta to Destin, we stopped at a fruit stand and picked up some farm fresh eggs, peaches, and tomatoes.  And boiled peanuts!

After a couple of days on the road (during which time we actually ate a decent bit of food we’d packed/prepared ahead of time), I was ready to get back in the kitchen (said no one else at the resort).  I walked to the nearest grocery store (a Winn Dixie — do any of my southern readers have an opinion on which is better, Winn Dixie or Publix?), list and bags in hand, and stocked up for the week.

  • 2-lb bag of carrots
  • 1 bunch of broccoli
  • 1 head of red cabbage
  • 3 onions
  • 1 bunch of bananas (a vacation treat and prebiotics!)
  • 1 loaf of 100% whole grain bread
  • 1/2 gallon of organic milk
  • butter
  • cheese
  • mayo
  • mustard
  • all-fruit strawberry and apricot jams
  • 2 boxes of whole wheat pasta
  • 1 bag of breakfast cereal
  • 1 bag of chickpeas
  • 1 bag of black-eyed peas
  • 1 bottle of salad dressing
  • 1 bottle of barbeque sauce
  • 1 jar of dill pickles
  • 1 jar of pasta sauce
  • 1 bag each of frozen corn, peas, and green beans
  • 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s 🙂

I’m sure I forgot something, but it was a relatively short list, which was good when it was time to me to play pack mule and walk back to our place.

I did a lot of cooking at the beginning of the week, which allowed us to coast later on, enjoying the leftovers and a couple of restaurant meals.


Some of my vacation meal creations:

  • BBQ black beans and sauteed veg over rice
  • Pasta with broccoli, carrots, and red sauce
  • Quinoa pilaf with corn and garlic scapes, with black-eyed peas on the side
  • Fritatta with scapes, potato, spinach and mushrooms
  • Pasta salad with peas, scapes, and red cabbage

It seems like there should be more, but that might be about it.  I’m pretty sure I beat out everyone else at the resort for “most time spent cooking,” but that was fine with me — I needed the breaks from the sun.  We had more leftovers than expected, because my MIL supplemented her meals with seafood from some local places she likes.

Our first meal out was at Thai Delights.  G requested a dish with noodles, broccoli, tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and tomato sauce.  He got everything but the tomato sauce — we ordered the “Drunken Noodles” and added mushrooms.  Matthew ordered the Pad See-Iw, and we shared the two dishes.  We enjoyed our meal so much that we returned three nights later for a reprise.  Same two entrees as the first time, plus we added a masaman curry.

On Friday night, we ordered a carry-out pizza from Mellow Mushroom to round out the odds and ends we needed to finish from the fridge.

For the drive home, we kept it simple with sandwiches for lunch.  For dinner, we ate the pasta salad I made in Destin.  We had a hard time finding a rest stop, so we ended up pulling over at one of those “Truck Rest Areas,” basically a place for truckers to stop along the interstate, with bare bones facilities.  It was not the most picturesque setting, but at least there was a picnic table.  To sweeten the deal, we found $50 cash — true story!

So, what are your must-haves if you’ll have access to a kitchen while traveling — those kitchen implements or special ingredients that you won’t leave home without?


On beach time

We spent last week in Destin, Florida.  I intended to post here while we were gone, but it just didn’t happen.  I’m almost caught up on laundry for the trip, so here’s a recap before it’s totally irrelevant (and before I forget everything!).

A bit of background — my MIL has a timeshare at a beachfront resort in Destin, FL.  Her unit is a studio, and, while I’d made the trip with Matthew and his mom a time or two before G was born, three adults and a baby/toddler crammed into one small studio was not my idea of fun (also, I’m not really a beach person).  For the past two years, I sat out this trip and enjoyed some much-needed solo time.  However, after two years of seeing pictures of G enjoying the beach, I gave in to Matthew’s urging and joined them this year (to preserve everyone’s sanity, we rented a second studio unit).

Prior to the trip, I did find myself wishing that I’d gone last year instead, when G was a bit more easy-going, but that’s hindsight for ya!  I was also a bit worried about making the trip at all, given G’s ongoing cough, but by our departure day, things seemed headed in the right direction, if not completely resolved.

Day 1 (Friday, May 22)
We drove from St. Louis to Atlanta, GA — not the most direct route to Destin, but my MIL wanted to take G to the Georgia Aquarium to see the whale sharks.  We got on the road about an hour later than planned because someone couldn’t drag himself away from the garden.  This put us on target to hit Nashville around 4pm, which I hoped was early enough to beat rush hour traffic.  Of course, it was not.  We lost a lot of time in Nashville and didn’t arrive in Atlanta until 10pm (though that was losing an hour to the time change, so not crazy late for Central time).


While we missed Sprawl-lanta’s infamous rush hour, traffic heading into downtown on Friday night was still pretty crazy.  At one point, I noticed an interstate message board warning that there had been over 400 deaths on Georgia roads in the first five months of 2015.  I’m not sure how that compares to other states, but it seemed quite high to me, and also rather understandable given the driving displayed by other motorists.  (I saw in the paper the next morning that it was the weekend of the Indy 500 — seemed like some of our fellow motorists forgot they were not on a racetrack.)

G fell asleep in the car, but woke when we exited the interstate in downtown Atlanta.  He was disoriented and crying, as well as coughing a lot (to the point I thought he might vomit as we were trying to unload and figure out parking at the hotel) — so, basically a hot mess.  We managed to get him settled in the room, before turning in ourselves.

Day 2
Even with the time change, we woke bright and early on the day of our aquarium visit.  In my head, the aquarium was going to be similar to a zoo: outside displays, lots of ground to cover, and sunny and hot, but with fish instead of animals.  Maybe I was thinking about Sea World?


Anyway, in reality, the Georgia Aquarium is a large indoor structure (could have left the sunscreen in the car), and we easily saw most of it in under two hours (we skipped the dolphin show because G didn’t feel like waiting in line).  The whale sharks were pretty cool, as were the large sting rays that shared that tank.


The aquarium has a new beluga whale calf, but they’re giving mama and baby some bonding time (maternity leave?), so the tank was completely curtained off.  Totally understandable, though I was a bit bummed to miss the chance to see baby beluga (when I started singing the Raffi song at the aquarium, I swear that G gave me a “Mom, please, you’re embarrassing me” look).

We also overlooked/missed a hands-on kids area that would have been nice for G.  All-in-all, it was a nice visit, but at almost $40 per person, not something I’d repeat anytime soon.

We grabbed lunch on the way out of Atlanta and made tracks for Destin, though not nearly fast enough for G.  When we were about two hours away from our destination, he announced, “I had planned to be at the beach right now.  When are we going to be there?”  It was a long two hours.

Days 3-8
Beach time!  We had pretty great weather overall.  Temps never climbed higher than 85°F — with cloud cover and beach breezes, that was pretty ideal for my vampire ways.


The water temperature was nice.  We had red flag days all week — great for body boarding in the waves, not so great for little ones playing in the ocean (also not so great for my beloved prescription sunglasses, which are somewhere in Gulf of Mexico right now).  Unlike previous years, G stuck to the sand and the swimming pool, where he pretended he was a mermaid.  (“Merman, Pop! Merman.”  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)



I got in on some of the body boarding action, though with my sun-dodging ways, not to nearly the same extent as Matthew.  (Unfortunately, he has a large number of itchy welts — we suspect an allergic reaction to either a specific jellyfish or seaweed.  For whatever reason, I escaped this affliction.)


G’s favorite indoor activity was rolling around on the floor (ick!) saying, “I’m a kitten. I’m sick, and I need a paramedic.”  At which point any adults present were expected to grab some medical tools (i.e., co-opted cooking ware) and help the kitten.  More fun the first time than the fiftieth . . . .

The units have full(ish) kitchens, and we mostly ate in — I’m working on a vacation food post for later this week.  Also, G’s cough completely resolved while we were gone!

Day 9
On Saturday, we all piled back into my MIL’s Camry for the long drive home.  It’s worth noting here that the only way that three adults, one child, and gear for a week at the beach fit comfortably in a Camry was with the addition of a roof-top bag, which, childhood memories notwithstanding, worked great!

We left Destin at 7:30am on Saturday.  Less than three hours into our 13 hour (plus stops) drive, G announced that he was ready to get out of the car.  His statement did not bode well for the rest of the day, but things actually went rather well.  G eventually took a nap, which gave all of us a nice break, and then fell asleep for the final two hours.

Matthew’s mom dropped us off at home just before 10:30pm that night, and once in his own bed, my sweet sleepy boy curled up and went right back to sleep while we finished unloading the car.

I spent Sunday morning in a complete daze.  It felt like I had jet lag, despite the lack of a jet, or even changing time zones.  My back was also none too happy about all of that car time!

All in all, it was a nice vacation.  Having my MIL with us meant that Matthew and I got some breaks.  I don’t think I’ll join them every year, but it was nice to experience with G (though I wish we’d been able to get him into the ocean a bit more).

Biking with bears

Returning to that whole vacation thing . . . .

If you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I highly recommend biking the Cade’s Cove loop.  We drove out early on Wednesday morning, when they close the 11-mile loop to cars (which they also do on Saturday mornings), and rented bikes in the park.  I considered bringing our bikes with us on this trip, but realistically, this was probably the only time we would have used them, so renting was a better option.

The bikes weren’t amazing, but my pedal, which was making suspicious noises, remained in one piece throughout the ride, so no complaints here.  Toward the end of the ride, we spotted some bicyclists stopped on the road to watch a bear.

When we first met him, he was on the ground.  We stopped on the road and watched, without approaching or crowding him.  He ambled along for a bit, and then found this delectable tree.  He walked over to it, stood up, put his paws around it, and SHOOP — up the tree!  (If you’re ever trying to get away from a black bear, I do not recommend climbing a tree!)  We watched, transfixed, for what felt like forever, as our bear friend chowed down on the young leaves at the top of the tree, snapping off branches with abandon, the entire tree flexing and swaying with his weight.  He finished his morning snack, descended, and mosied off into the woods.  Amazing!

Riding a bike is the ideal way to see bears.  From a car, they seem so distant and removed.  Although I have yet to encounter one on foot, I imagine I would feel rather nervous in that situation, knowing that the bear could easily outrun me (and, like I said, forget climbing a tree).  The bike was perfect.  We were able to stop and enjoy, but if the situation went south, bike speed would have allowed us to make a quick exit.  (At least that’s what I was telling myself — maybe a bear could outrun a bike?)  Fortunately, the group of eight or so people who stopped with us acted very appropriately; no one tried to approach the bear or do anything that would have made the situation dangerous.

So, if you are in the Smoky Mountains, head back to Cade’s Cove and rent a bike.  No guarantees that you will see a bear, but riding along the newly repaved road, out in the wild, makes for a great morning, bears or no.

Laurel Springs and Ramsey Cascades

Water over the bridge

The water at Laurel Springs flowed quite enthusiastically after the previous night’s rain.  We crossed safely, but it seemed a little iffy.  It provided good crowd control, as we had the trail to ourselves from that point on for most of the afternoon.  Shortly after crossing the foot bridge, we entered into a “bear activity” warning area.  While stopped to eat lunch, we heard some suspicious grunts.  We never saw anything, but I suspect a bear was near.

Ramsey Cascades topped the next day’s agenda.  Getting to the Ramsey Cascades trail head involved a drive over some narrow gravel roads.  Said roads featured some interesting potholes, but the car came out unscathed, thanks to my stellar 10mph driving.  When it came Matthew’s turn on the way out, he upped our speed to a whopping 12 mph.

The 8-mile RT hike to the Ramsey Cascades was lovely, with many water crossings along the way.  I wore my new Five Fingers for part of the hike — much better than those horrible hiking boots I wore in Glacier (bemoaned here and here).

My birthday present
Darn, I forgot his leash
We found our reward at the end

Tree hugger!

Tree hugger

Why yes, I did mean that literally.  And yes, I am wearing socks with my sandals.  It’s what all the cool kids do, trust me.

I hugged this tree on the Ramsey Cascades trail.  Logging companies stripped most of the original trees from the area that became Smoky Mountains National Park.  This old growth tree, and a few others, stand as a reminder.

Turns out, I was in good company with the tree hugging thing.

Black bears like to hug trees, too!
So do other furry mammals