Mahabeleshwar

Alright – first things first – my driver (who will fully admit to this too), made a few boo-boos on this trip.  Firstly, he told us that it was only a 2-2.5hr drive, in actual fact, he should have added an hour to the total time.  It was a combination of his choice of road, coupled with the fact that the (extended) monsoon season here, has seemingly done real damage to the road surfaces – to the extent I was almost texting Col from the back seat and asking him to check the price of a flight to India for my lovely Chiro, Dr Jo.

Secondly, I’m not hugely thrilled at the fact that we ended up atop a mountain, surrounded by aggressive guys demanding money, on horses, so close to the car that their tails swept along the paint.  But anywhoo.  My friends driver tells us that this isn’t ‘normal’ practice at Table Land, maybe it was an ‘off moment’, but I know for sure, that I won’t be going back here.

Mahabeleshwar is a small town a couple hours from Houston, it’s pretty much famous for it’s strawberries, and, while it wasn’t strawberry season while I was in town – I was reliably informed it was only a matter of time before they’re flooding the shelves here in Pune.  They were right, strawberries have landed in Pune – and they’re tasty!  I’m excited, berries here are SO epically expensive, but, I digress.

Having done a little research before heading out the road, I had a short list of places that I wanted to visit.

First on my list? Was a boat trip around Venna Lake.  Venna Lake is one of the major tourist attractions of Mahabaleshwar, it is surrounded by trees on all sides and you can hop in a boat and take yourself on a tour.  There’s two options, you can either take yourself out on a paddle-boat tour, or you can have a guy come on the boat with you and row you around the lake.  You can take a full loop (30 minutes), or a half loop (15 minutes).   We took the 500r, dude doing the hard work, full loop around the lake (because I wanted to see the whole way around! LOL!) option.

Let’s just call a spade a spade, there’s very little by way of safety.  The boats are a little rickety, ours even had the occasional little leak and if you’re expecting life jackets – you’re in the wrong country – this is India, it’s all just a bit ‘thrown together’.  That said? I never once felt unsafe or like I was doomed!  The Boatman told us that the lake is 100 feet deep and this is the natural water that is supplied to Mahabalshwar as well as Panchgani and the lake was foggy and serene.

At the turning point, there’s a temple, you can’t disembark, or get out for a nosy, but you can get a decent enough picture as he’s rowing by.  You also pass-by a park up on the banks as you ‘sail by’, we didn’t pay it a visit, but it looked like a good park from the water.  Even Lewis enjoyed the trip around the lake, he was quiet, well behaved and our ‘guide’ even let him row the boat a little bit.  He was a happy boy. After we disembarked, we happened upon another item on my ‘to do’ list for Mahabeleshwar, strawberries and cream.  It’s a sickeningly sweet cup of syrupy strawberries, ice cream and a whipped, cool-whip-esque type whipped cream imposter – Lewis loved it.  From here, we went to Mapro garden – another jewel in Mahabeleshwar.  Where we took a beautiful walk around the gardens, snapping any number of photo ops as we went – Lewis and I both loved the various props and contraptions to climb in to for snaps. For lunch, we ate in the Mapro cafe, we ordered the (cheap) mocktails (they didn’t have diet coke) which were INCREDIBLY syrupy sweet, (but Lewis loved them, what kid wouldn’t? Basically we drove for hours and let our kid consume inordinate amounts of sugar) we ordered fries (which were delicious – though luke-warm at best), soup (none of us liked) and a pizza – which had way too much seasoning on it, but Col and I managed to eat it.  Reasonably priced, stupidly slow from some counters, and quick from others, it was a mix of hot and cold food by the time we all got to sit and eat.

After lunch, we took a walk through the Mapro shop – full of mapro products and goodies, from chocolate covered nuts, to syrups and gummy sweets – all at a 10% discount AND with taste testing to boot!  We picked up some delicious chocolate covered nuts, sweets for trick or treating, a jar of strawberry jam (couldn’t come and NOT get something strawberry-y) and a couple gifts for people for Christmas.

It was a lovely couple hours spent in a quiet, peaceful and beautiful place.  There was space for Lewis to run riot, you got to watch the farmers out back on the farm, tending to the premature strawberries, (and even the toilets were pretty clean!)  The views were incredible, the food was decent (and cheap) and the we absolutely lucked out on the weather, because it was cool, overcast and rained almost the entire way home.

We didn’t get everything that we wanted to do, done, in Mahabeleshwar and I could definitely see myself going back there in the (near) future (BRING ON THE STRAWBERRIES!) despite the intimidating beginning to the trip, and the drive alone was pretty to look at, if you’ve not yet gone for a visit, I think there’s enough to justify the trip – especially if you’re inclined towards horse riding.

The answer to my prayers…Houston Farmers market number II!

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you’ll have seen my post about Sugar Land Farmers Market, last Saturday.  I’d definitely consider it more of a mini-craft market than a farmers market, so my search to find the best place to buy fruit and veggies continued.

One of my newest friends Tammi, invited me out to another market, she guaranteed that it would be better than the Sugar Land one, it also happened to be the same market that a Twitter buddy of mine had recommended, so I looked it up, Canino Produce on Airline road.

Busy market place

It’s about a 35-45 minute drive from my house to North Houston/The Heights.  As distance and ‘time to get there’ goes in Houston, it probably falls on the ‘below average’ side of the scale.  But let me tell you it was well worth the trip!

The product list is extensive, there are plenty of vendors to choose from and when you go, go prepared with a pocket full of one dollar bills, because this place is cheap!

Buckets of veggies!

Each stall has flower-pot like buckets lined with plastic bags and filled with fruit and veggies.  When you shop, you pull the bag out of the pot and hand over a few bucks.  From memory, grapes were $1.50/lb, strawberries $2/bucket, bell peppers $2/bucket, some places even had a $1 table, buckets of okra, zucchini, green bell peppers and other yummies for only $1!

Like I said, it’s cheap!

Across the street from the market, is the most dangerous place I’ve happened upon in Houston, in three years.

It was a bakery, we hoped it’d be some kind of sandwich place, but when we got inside, it was so much more.

Tortilla station

I stood inside the door and told the girls I’d wait there.  But the longer I stood smelling those smells and seeing people piling trays high, the less I could stand it!

I grabbed a mah-oosive pizza tray, a set of tongs and I started to load up.  I got half a dozen lunch rolls for Col (hot and fresh out of the oven) for 30c a piece, I got half a dozen of the smaller rolls for 20c a piece to make mini garlic bread loaves with dinners, I got two huge macaroons, a giant snow ball, two cookies and a custard filled pastry all for around six bucks.  Bargain!

The cabinets don’t provide much protection…

Cakes, tortillas, bread rolls and walls lined with glass cases filled with pastries, cakes, flans, muffins and cookies – at seriously low prices.  It was fantastic!

Fresh bread rolls

Linds and I split a roll on the way home, it was hot, crunchy and the bread inside was light, fluffy and delicious.  The boys have just had paninis made with them and they both enjoyed them immensley.

I’m going back on Monday with Magz, to do *actual* shopping as opposed to just a reconnaissance trip.  I can’t wait – and I’ll definitely tell y’all about that when I get back.

I can’t believe it’s taken me THREE YEARS to find this place, it’s going to become a regular in my weekly pilgrimages!!!

Days 7 and 8 – Commerce and Curry!

Wednesday morning, Nina and Mylo woke Col and I around 9.30am with bacon butties in-hand, honestly, all we’ve done since we got home, is eat, I’m sure the scales will attest to that!  But there’s so much food from here that we miss terribly, bacon is one of the main ones.

Fact: You cannot beat a bacon butty.

Around 11am, Helena was teaching my cousin Emma, so we got a chance to chat to my cousin Brendan’s wife Michelle for a while,  I’d not seen her in years and Col had never met them before.  After the teaching was finished, (and a quick chat with Emma and Michelle), we piled in to the Mini and went off down the road to my parents house (Col stayed home with Mylo and set up shop in James and Nina’s study to work for the day!)

I stole a Pinkerton sausage from daddy’s breakfast, (another food we miss desperately over the pond,) we picked up our mum and headed into Newry ‘city’ centre to do some shopping (mostly for me! LOL!) I tend to take my sister or my brother clothes shopping with me, when either of them are available.  Helena picks things up and makes me try things that I’d not normally try, Rowan has great honesty, if it looks like crap, he’ll say so.

I struck pay-dirt at an unsuspecting place – Marks and Spencer.

I’d always considered that place to be all fuddy duddy, dated and old, however, I came away with three lovely ‘going out’ tops (one of which has to go back cause it’s got a hole in it!) and I was very happy!

Top no.1 - looks nicer on than on the hanger!

Top no.2

We started with Dunnes and Marks and Spencers, before it was time to haul-ass across town to my beauty appointment with Helena’s friend Amy, at Serenity over on Marcus street.

In the US, I tend towards getting a Shellac manicure (as I’ve said before on my blog) and I’ve always been a threading fan (versus a wax fan) and I’ve only ever had my eyebrows waxed once before.

However, at Serenity I signed up for an eyebrow and upper lip wax and a ‘gel paint’ manicure.  My experience was great, I’d highly recommend Amy for both the manicure and the waxing.

I also learned something new, I learned that threading is more painful than waxing.

However, I’d pick the threading over waxing every day of the week, the re-growth rate is slower with threading and it’s just tidier, more accurate.  It’s a good alternative when I’m home away from home though!

During my hour of beautifying, Nina went to pick up my brother and when I was done, we all headed back over to the Buttercrane so we could shop a little more.  Primark, Evans and Wallis were the subject of our dandering this time around, but aside from seventeen pairs of socks and some gift bags, I came up empty.

For dinner, we had a delicious home-cooked Indian feast at my sisters house, it was a big ole spread and was my parents first ever experience with Indian food.  When dinner was over and the dishes were done, my parents sat and chatted for a while, before going home to look after their dogs.  Helena went to visit a friend, and I talked Rowan and Colin into coming out for ice cream with me, to another local institution, Mauds.

On the Warrenpoint road 🙂

Mauds ice cream was a huge treat for us as we were growing up, it was a special treat and a big deal in our house.  The ice cream is ‘home grown’, and though the cashier was as friendly as I imagine chlamydia being, the ice cream never lets you down.

It'll always be Pooh bear...

It was delicious, and a nice wee spin down the road was just enough to keep my boredom at bay, back at Nina’s house, I lit the fire (yes, me, lighting a successful fire) and watched The Apprentice with little Mylo while his mummy was out visiting a friend.  She came home and watched ‘You’re fired’ with us, before we all headed upstairs, where I did some late night emails, caught up on my blog-notes and my ‘early night’ became an almost 1am bed time!

Thursday was a lazy (10am) start, we got up (Col got a big breakfast courtesy of Nina, I wasn’t hungry), we headed to my parents house to say cheerio, (mum made me a bacon sandwich for ‘brunch’), I played with the dogs a little and we headed up the road to Larne.

En route, we took a somewhat extended pit-stop in Banbridge, to pay a wee visit to the Outlets.  I wanted to check out the Next outlet and the M&S outlet, I was reasonably successful, I came away with a smart/causal top, a checkered shirt (which, since moving to Texas I’ve become somewhat obsessed with).

From M&S I came away with four pairs of cut-offs, (or capris or 3/4 lengths depending on what you call them), two pairs for now (the size I currently am) and another two pairs in a size smaller for when I get my ass back in gear and start losing it (my ass that is!) as well as a pair of linen trousers for a not too bad total of $45.

Even in Walmart it’s hard to find a decent pair of ‘pants’ for $14, let alone ones of such good quality.  So, I stocked up – it is, after all, almost summer, and I’ll be wearing them til they fade, tear or stain! LOL!

Once we got to Larne, we totally flopped, neither of us wanted to move a muscle, tiredness had struck!

We unpacked, I sat trying to catch up with blogging, Col did a bit of work and then embarked on his ‘manly man’ duties, he ran the washing machine again, discovered that the tumble dryer sounds unwell and spent almost two hours trying to replace the part in the dishwasher, only to discover that the dishwasher is still broken.  Ugh.

For dinner, we ordered dinner from a new (to us) local Chinese restaurant ‘China Garden’.  I ordered chicken curry, a small tub of sweet and sour sauce, Col ordered honey chilli chicken, we got rice, chips and an appetiser of satay chicken.

The food arrived, some was hotter than the rest, the rice and chips needed reheated.  Col’s honey chilli chicken, was tough and elasticated, it was also spicier than we are used to getting.  My chicken curry, turned out to be beef curry, I didn’t get my sweet and sour and neither of us looked too kindly on the chicken satay.

Col didn’t eat his, my curry sauce was nice, but that’s not enough to justify buying dinner, even the friggin prawn crackers were ‘wrong’, they tasted sweet!!! In short, we won’t be back.

After dinner, we put on some TV, and agreed to stay awake for the first game of the Houston Aeros Round 1 play off run, due to start at 1.05am our time.  Around 1.10am we broke out the take-away menus, only to discover that nothing opens beyond 11.30pm on a Thursday.

So, since we were hungry, and set to be up until at least 3am, we stuck on the oven and whipped up some potato waffles and sausage rolls, for a 2am ‘snack’.

We stayed up til 4am cheering on our boys (who have since been kicked out of the Calder Cup run) but it’s all a bit of craic!

Day 1 – Fresh on Irish soil and raring to go!

Thursday 12th April, in spite of the fact that our timing wasn’t quite what we had planned it being was great!  We got down to my parents house in Newry around 12.30pm, and, it just so happened, dad was cooking brunch.  So Col and I ended up with a nice fry for brunch – proper bacon and sausages! It made my day! LOL! What a welcome!!

When we’d eaten (and of course had a cup of ‘proper’ Curran tea!) Col hauled out the ‘Curran presents’ suitcase and we off-loaded a case-full of presents.  Since we weren’t home in January like we had originally planned on being, we had everyone’s Christmas presents with us.  Not only that, but mum, dad and Rowan had presents for us too, I came away with two highly coveted bottles of perfume, some slippers and a few other bits’n’bobs.

Note: I say ‘highly coveted’, because perfume in the USA is ludicrously expensive, I was getting dangerously low on my supply and refused to buy any over there, as I knew I could get some for a good price on this side of the Atlantic.

Hugo was very happy to see me!

From my folks house, we headed out the road to my sister and her other half James’ new house for a visit to meet my furry nephew Mylo, and have dinner.  Their house is lovely and in a great area, she has it lookin’ well, but my favourite part of the visit has to have been the little ball of barking fluff that went mad every time you so much looked at him! LOL!

Mylo following Aunty Lasairiona up the stairs!

Dinner, let me tell you, was food of the Gods!  Helena called up a Chinese in Camlough, called the Happy Villa, and ordered a spread for the seven of us (plus Mylo got the odd nibble!) I would have taken a picture of the food, however, it didn’t last long! As soon as the lids were off, the vultures attacked, LOL!!

With such a long list of foods that we hadn’t had in two years, she couldn’t have done a better job of ordering a wide selection for the seven of us, prawn toast, bbq ribs, chicken satay, salted chilli chicken, chicken curry, honey chilli chicken, chips, fried rice and my favourite, prawn crackers!!  We ended up having a wee bit of almost everything and enjoyed every bite!

When dinner finished, it was around 7pm, I flopped on the sofa and told Nina that if she didn’t take my ass out to the Buttercrane (shopping centre), or did *something* that involved me moving six feet outside her house, I was going to conk out.  So we went shopping!

Buttercrane shopping centre

Col stayed at home with Mylo to do some work (as he’d not ‘checked in’ in a day or so) and Rowan, James, Nina and I loaded up in the car and headed in to Newry.

First stop was the perfume shop, where I hit pay dirt (I’m sure you’re shocked!) I’m really, not in the least, a beauty blogger, a make-up lover, or, someone who takes great care and time in their appearance – however, I’m a sucker for perfume.  I love it!

Like I said above, perfume is expensive in Texas, so when I saw one of my favourites (Cerruti 1881 100ml) on offer for £20 I grabbed at it with both hands.

I also picked up a scent that I’d gotten a whiff of, about six months ago on our way to Singapore, but the price was too high I just kept a note of the name and said I’d keep my eyes peeled for a good deal.  “Intimately Beckham” – I know, I know, I’m not normally one to subscribe to the famous people churning out fragrances and all that lark, but I fell for this one immediately, plus, it was down to £15!

My third and final scent purchase, an impulse buy, was a bottle of DKNY Delicious Night that was decently priced at just over £20.

Fresh off the plane and spent £60 on perfume – though however much this may sound, please bear in mind that I almost spent £60 on ONE bottle, in duty free on the way over, so these three bottles were a bargain, especially since I’m “running on fumes” over in the US, I’m in urgent need of purfume!

The only other thing I bought, after a wee dander around the Buttercrane was a few bottles of Dettol spray cleaner.  Don’t ask 😛

We did have a nice wee dander around the shopping centre, though there’s a lot that has changed, shops have gone and shops have come.  It’s not exactly the Buttercrane of my youth any more!  Back at Nina and James’, we watched a period of the EIHL 2012 playoffs from the previous weekend and I was spent.

In bed by 9.45pm, out cold by 9.46pm.

The power of social media – it pays to give feedback!

For those of you who don’t already know, Whole Foods is a specialty grocery shop, on their website, they describe themselves as;

“We search for the highest quality, least processed, most flavorful and natural foods possible because we believe that food in its purest state — unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings and preservatives — is the best tasting and most nutritious food there is.”

Everything in there is organic, fresh, and yummy.  I don’t go in here overly often because, for the most part, it’s more expensive than shopping in H.E.B, Target or somewhere like that.  You pay a premium for super fresh, organic etc.

There are things I DO, however, shop in Whole Foods for, without fail!

Sausages

Whole Foods have the ‘closest to home’ kind of sausages we’ve found since moving out here.  Ok, they aren’t perfect, and if you showed them to Mr Denny himself, he’d laugh at you, but, in a pinch (and having not been home for a Denny’s sausage in two years,) they work a treat.

Soup

If I’m sick or fancy some soup (as I’ve only recently started making soup).  But they have fresh, hot soup there for the taking – it’s lovely!

Allergen baking goods

I’m attempting to bake some vegan friendly goodies for people in choir, and any bake sales that come up, Whole Foods is the place to go for all things allergen-friendly!

Lamb

Although Ireland is full of sheep, we never really ate a lot of lamb growing up, chicken was cheaper (and fish fingers were cheaper still!) but when we did, it was inhaled.  Moving out here, I grew to appreciate it all the more, lamb isn’t a widely consumed meat in the US.  In fact, it’s a pain in the bum to find, and, when you do, it’s seriously expensive.

I’ve also tried food from the hot/cold food counter and it’s also yum.  Their meat counter is fantastic, if we’re going to a BBQ or having a BBQ here in the house, we tend to pick our meat from here.  I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad experience with Whole Foods, until recently.

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you’ll know that I had a bit of a disaster with my lamb on St. Paddy’s weekend.  I spent over $40 in Whole Foods on a leg of lamb and a rather large percentage of it was pure, thick, disgusting fat.  I ended up having to supplement the meat with a joint of beef – to ensure our six friends didn’t starve! LOL!

At first, I tweeted them.  Twitter has become a place for me to both applaud businesses, and hurl abuse at them when they mess up.  However, after no reply, I filled in the ‘contact us’ section of their webpage, stating that forking out $40 for one piece of meat in a recession is a big deal to me, it was for a special occasion and it was a royal pain in the rear to have to saw off chunks and chunks of fat.

The manager of the store wrote me an email, apologising and said they wanted to give me a $40 gift card and a refund to apologise, to which I replied that I hadn’t kept the receipt (though I’d sent him a picture of the pile of fat and the W.F sticker from the packet) and he said that’s not a problem.

Today, I checked my post box and therein lay a gift card for more than the refund and the cost of the lamb combined from Whole Foods.  I’m shocked, that’s way beyond generous.  I would have been happy with ‘just’ a refund, the store manager did a great job at customer service and issue resolution and I’m feeling very pleased at the outcome of my contacting the company.

I’m not saying just complain left right and centre about anything and everything, I’m saying, if you have poor service, speak up about it.  If you get a poor quality product, say something about it.

I truly was disappointed by the quality of the lamb I got from Whole Foods that weekend, it wasn’t the standard of product I’m used to expecting from them, especially given the premium price tag on premium groceries.  However, the guy went out of his way to help me, and has given me a gift card that’ll get us a few legs of lamb to say sorry for it 😉 LOL!

Social media has become a very powerful tool, if someone Tweets about bad service, mentioning the company, word can spread like wild fire, and we all know that bad experiences are all anyone *really* cares about.

Are you a member of Yelp.com? It’s an online reviewing and rating website, kind of like Trip Advisor – just for the USA though, not international.  I tend to review restaurants, land marks, services, salons, etc every time I go to places.  Not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of other people around the Houston area (and other cities).

Here’s a picture of the receipt we left in our local Chili’s a while ago, I’m not kidding, I didn’t take it home with me, this was the restaurant copy…

The recession should not be an excuse for poor service, or falling standards.

Companies are still charging the same prices (in some circumstances, even moreso), so why should they be allowed to give us less service or quality for the price we’re paying? They shouldn’t.

I brought an issue to the attention of Whole Foods and they quickly apologised and righted the situation (and then some!) It’s taken every fibre of my being not to hop in the car and go to Whole Foods, my friend Frances talked about how she and Ben (her hubby) had lamb chops for dinner last week, and hearing about them made my mouth water…then I got home to a lovely Whole Foods gift card…I think someone’s trying to tell me, to go get some lamb! 😉

Day 6 – Capitol number 4 for the McMasters

Thursday was our ‘wild card’ day, we had decided, before we left for our trip, that we couldn’t be so close to a State Capitol building without stopping by, so, Col and I hopped in the Suburban and headed on the two hour road trip back to Santa Fe for the day.

We started by having the most disgusting lunch known to man at the local KFC *shivers* I’m still having nightmares! Followed by mapping the city, translation, our SatNav got us a bit confuddled and we ended up looping back a few times.  But we found some free ‘State Capitol’ parking where we could leave the car while we took a dander over to the State Capitol building.

This State Capitol building, makes Capitol number four on our ‘done’ list, following Austin, TX, Olympia, WA, Sacramento, CA.  The Capitol was understated, not a miniature version of the White House like some of the other Capitols we have been to.

Gizz'uz a smile!

Col at the Capitol

It was brown, not white, and it was smack-bang in the heart of the Capital city, unlike an hour or more drive outside a ‘main’ city.

The law-makers had just finished up when we arrived, so there was bustling, TV crews and a business air.  Normally we go and it’s pretty quiet.  We did some dandering around, had a look at the art, took some pictures and decided it was high time for some hot chocolate.

In my research on Santa Fe, I stumbled upon a Chocolate House.  Kakawa Chocolate House, it’s an adorable little building at the side of the road and, those in the know had recommended that we try the Jeffersonian and the Marie Antoinette.

Chocolate!!

The Jeffersonian, they had on hand for me to sample.  Ingredients: 73.5% Chocolate, Raw Unprocessed Cane Sugar, Nutmeg, Mexican Vanilla.

They didn’t have the Marie Antoinette, but it sounded yummy, and intense.  Ingredients: 70% Chocolate, Almond Milk, Orange Blossom Water, Raw Unprocessed Cane Sugar, Ceylon Cinnamon, Mexican Vanilla and Culinary Orange Blossom Essential Oil.

The chocolate elixir board!

Elixirs!

I guess Col and I have boring palettes, as we both went with the American (also known as the most bland drink they had) as everything else way way too strong and over-powering for our tastes.  I went with a small, as even the plain ole American was verging on too strong for me!

Pinky!

Ingredients: 80% Chocolate, Evaporated Cane Juice, Mexican Vanilla.

It’s as plain as it sounds, but it was still too strong!

After we’d done with our hot chocolates (which were actually luke-warm) we went to Walmart.  Yes, Walmart!

The same Walmart that we’d picked up groceries from on the first day, Col made the awful mistake of telling me that it was the ‘best Walmart ever’, so of course, I had to go! We came out with a whole trolley of stuff, mostly clearance valentines day bake stuff, pjs and presents for people.  It took us a while, but it was worth it (well, for me it was anyway, I’m not so sure about Col! LOL!)

We headed back to Angel Fire after 3pm, we were trying to make it home before dark, however, en route, we passed a ‘Gas pump’ museum.  Which, yes, sounds completely bizarre, I know, but it perked our interest, so we thought we’d take a look.

We spent a while here, it was a fascinating place to visit.  Just a lone guy, who’d started a collection, that grew and grew.

Col always finds a car to play with!

He has a ‘donation’ jar at the entrance and the proceeds are donated to the local (or, as local as you get out in the middle of nowhere) animal shelter once a year.

He was a nice guy, friendly, chatty and took pride in his collection of odds and ends.  I was completely sucked in by the bright shiny lights, I could have spent hours in there, but we had to get up the mountain before it got too dark.

The second part of the journey was a lot more time consuming, it gets dark, fast up there and with such an icy and snowy climate, it was definitely the ‘softly softly approach’ kind of place.

At home, Magz and Sophie had thrown together a delicious dinner of chicken satay skewers accompanied by pre-bed time Eve cuddles, a game of dominoes and, what had been christened a ”Soph-arita” made for a very enjoyable way to finish off the day!

Detroit Waves…

Tuesday started with our second Norwex demo, I had two friends who couldn’t make it to the previous one, who wanted to see Amber’s great cleaners at work.

It wasn’t as long as the first one, and after a quick check of the work email for Amber, I took her to Chipotle for lunch.  When I first went to visit her, she introduced me to Chipotle, but now she lives in a different town, she doesn’t have a Chipotle overly close.  So when she’s in another city, it’s all over her radar!

We spent the afternoon shopping (and, for the most part coming up empty), Lane Bryant, Academy Sports, Ross, Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack (my first time), aside from some Turtles glasses and a pair of $160 reduced to $18, I came up pretty much empty.

That night, I took in my first ever gig at the Houston House of Blues, to see the one and only Matt Nathanson.  My waiting came to an end at the end of last year when I FINALLY got to see him play live in Iowa (with Amber and Emily), blog post, here if you’re interested.

His support act, was Rachel Platten, described on her website as

”Beautiful, but not brazen.  Passionate, but never peachy.  Populist but definitely not prosaic.  New York City singer-songwriter, pianist and beatboxer Rachel Platten is by no means your average headliner-in-the-making.”

Amber and I got to meet Rachel!

To be honest, I’d never heard of her, but Lindsey had tweeted me to say she was fantastic and I decided to give her carte blanche (I normally hate supporting artists for some reason).

Amber doesn’t like warbly singers, Rachel is definitely warbly, but I think she’s just shy of the ‘too much’ line.  Her beat-boxing adds a dimension of interesting to her performance, though I’d definitely have described her as having been peachy that night.

She’s most definitely ‘peppy’, enthusiastic and friendly – she hung around to sign autographs and let people take pictures with her (including us).

Her drummer was a header, he was the most enthusiastic and happy drummer I’ve ever seen – I also had my picture taken with him.

Matty Nay was fab, just like last time! His cover songs were, as usual, well known 80’s songs like Tainted Love and the set, though it was mostly from his latest two albums, killed!

The House of Blues as a venue is pretty good, just don’t go wanting a few drinks.  $8 a piece will set you back a crap-ton if you’re not careful!

Amz and I - traditional pic, untraditional hair!

Five guys, two cuts and 3 cheesecakes!

Monday morning brought with it a long awaited SSA Board meeting, normally, I’d have skipped the meeting as I had a visitor in town, but, as it’d been two months since we’d seen each other and my ‘section’ had a Newcomers Coffee coming up, I headed to the board meeting.  Leaving Amber off with Sophie at Magz’s while Magz, Eve and I headed up to the Western Geco office for our meeting.

The meeting ran over, we were supposed to meet Natalie and Jo (a newcomer to our fold) at 1pm for lunch, at Central Market.  It became more like a 1.30pm lunch – we felt bad, as poor Sophie and Amber were bored out of their trees by the time we got back.

Lunch was quick, the food was ‘just ok’, I don’t think it’d become a place we frequent regularly for lunch, but it wasn’t terrible.  It’s just handy to Emily’s work so makes for a convenient lunch spot.

Amber and I abandoned lunch early, as we had to head out a ways away, to visit Angel, my lovely hairdresser.  I needed a cut (not just a trim this time, I wanted a few inches off) and Amber, well, she decided she wanted a full chop, around 7 inches.

Me! Before pics are from December 🙂

Angel was great as always, she listens to what I want and doesn’t try to talk me out of things or give me unsolicited advice.  If she is dead against something, she’ll say as much, but other than that, she listens and gives me what I want.

Amber went drastic, though, apparently not drastic enough as I got a text when she got home to say that she thinks it’s still too long!

Amber - gone 'bob'

By the time we were finished, it was closing in on 7pm, we headed home to pick up Col from the house, ventured to Five Guys for dinner – this place sells immense burgers (single or double patties), they also sell DIVINE chips/fries.  I swear, they are scrumptious!

We hit up Hollister in the First Colony Mall, as Amber wanted to spend a little of her gift voucher, followed by the Cheesecake factory for dessert and coffee and home!

I love freshly cut hair!

No, we're not cousins! LOL!

Day 7 – The Monster Mash!

Hotel lobby decked out for Christmas!

Breakfast wasn’t bad, but Nina and I were more concerned with the shopping ahead, than stocking up on grub! Today was the day we hit the fun places and en route, we saw a freakish amount of (I assume wild) cats…

There was at least two more out of the picture

We started in Yankee Candle, where Col informed the lady that we were going to be there a while, to which she replied, ‘we’re open til 10’ LOL!  We both (Helena and I, not Col and I!) did a LOT of shopping in there, I finished Christmas presents and re-stocked my own personal supply of Yankee Candles that had dwindled to ‘holiday’ candles only – and, since we’re almost past Christmas, I *needed* a new candle or two (and for $15 who could complain?!).

Next up, it was off to Bath and Body works to pick up a few bits for Magz – that was all either of us picked up as the deals weren’t particularly great at all – disappointing!  We moved on to Columbia sportswear where we were in the market for a warm coat to take with us Skiing in February.

We each found one (Col’s is like this only black with a red stripe if memory serves me right!)  Columbia was having a sale, RRP was over $200, it was down to $100 and they had a 30% off sale so we got them for $70 a piece – not bad at all, and they’ll definitely come in handy when I go and visit Amber in Iowa during winter again!!!

Lastly, but by no means least, we hit up Aeropostale, a shop that, in theory, *should* be way too cool for people like me, however, I love it in there.  I have bought a few shirts in the past, last time I bought a purple zippy hoody and some gloves/scarves for skiing and this time, I picked up a grey zippy, and Col picked up a couple of hoodies and a pair of $8 trousers – score!

This was Helena's travel companion cause the boot was full!

Stopping for a quick (and yum, as always) Chick-fil-A lunch, we headed back on our merry way to Houston.  Back at home, we unloaded the car…

oops?

Helena spent a while packing, unpacking, re-packing, stressing, panicking, unpacking and re-packing her cases to try and fit everything that she’d bought in.  I wish I could have filmed it, it was kind of funny…though pretty stressful.  In the end, we told her to leave a bunch of stuff and we’d take it home for her in our luggage in the new year.

For dinner, we headed to our local Mexican restaurant Lupe Tortillas for some fajitas (and perhaps a sneaky margarita for me too!)  Helena liked it, it wasn’t her favourite place to eat here in Houston, but it was a nice experience.

One of the houses on our route!

After dinner, we took a wee spin around our subdivision, to look at everyone’s Christmas lights around the local neighbourhoods.

multicoloured trees lined the aisles!

We decided to drop in to Garden Ridge to have a nosy for some Christmas ornaments and spent an unplanned amount of time there!

Col got distracted by the decorations...

Helena found a new friend!

I managed to pick up half a dozen Halloween tombstones for less than $1 (most less than 50c) a piece – my house is gonna be class next Halloween! LOL!

En route home, we may or may not have stopped off for ice cream at Marble Slab – but that, I cannot confirm or deny 😉

Friday was a sad day, drop off at the airport went quickly, smoothly (we even got to ride in an inter-terminal train!) and Helena got her luggage through without a hitch, which was, lets face it, the main concern!

Bag no.1 - pretty close to the mark!

Bag number 2

We really enjoyed having her here for the week, neither of us wanted her to leave! 🙁

Nina in line ready to go!

Day 6 – San Marcos and Maurice!

Wednesday (14th) we had planned on leaving Sugar Land around 11am, however, Col’s meeting ran late, so we didn’t leave til a little later.

Col and I in Cheddars

Col and Nina

To keep up the ‘eating out’ momentum, for lunch, we decided to stop at Cheddars casual cafe.  I’ve mentioned it a couple times before, we happened upon this place by accident, it’s always jam-packed, it’s ‘cheap as chips’, tasty and we’ve never had bad service.

Today didn’t disappoint, for real – yes, I said for real!

We had Maurice again as a server (we’ve had him once or twice before) and our dining experience was smooth as silk (ok, I may be exaggerating a little, but these days good service isn’t something to be sniffed at!).

The portions were huge (as always!), the service was so good Helena even mentioned to Maurice that it was the best dining experience she’s had since she got to Houston (he was much obliged at the compliment!) and from there, it was off to the Outlets in San Marcos!

We arrived in the Outlets around 4.15pm, where we shopped til 9pm, we pretty much hit pay-dirt.  We don’t normally buy stuff for ourselves, however, our boot was full by 9pm!

Arrived at the outlets, first stop, Tommy HF!

Helena’s main hits were Timberland, Hollister, Abercrombie and Tommy Hilfiger we picked up some things from The Childrens Place, I spent my Christmas money from my parents in the Le Creuset store (see my goodies below), I bought some clothes for myself in Tommy Hilfiger and Lane Bryant, Col hit up Eddie Bauer.

Let me take a quick moment to blabber on about Le Creuset… I have fallen head over heals in love, I have a few pieces by Le Creuset, a utensil crock, a basting brush a couple of their new spoon/spatula type things, a pot stand, I also have a mish-mash of a few bakeware dishes (not in cobalt blue, one is a red colour and 2 are lilac) but I’ve never owned a piece of ‘proper’ Le Creuset and have only recently decided that my ‘colour’ is going to be their Cobalt Blue range (in spite of the fact I LOVE their dark purple and may just embibe on occasion just cause it’s so beautiful!).

I’ve always lusted from afar, I *do* have a Martha Stewart dutch oven that we got for a wedding gift, but I swear, Le Creuset is allllllll over my wishlist – honest!

I know a lot of people don’t ‘get’ spending so much on a pot, or a piece of cookware or whatever, but, to me, Le Creuset is the next person’s Coach or Hollister.  As a big cooking fan, I only ever want the best tools and equipment to use in my kitchen and every time I see a Le Creuset shop, I drool on the footpath outside and leave dirty paw prints on the windows!

Here in the states, Le Creuset is a little more expensive than at home, but I had a little ‘wad’ of cash to spend from my parents for Christmas so I decided to treat myself! Originally I wanted to buy a lot of little things, the spoon rest, the butter crock, a whisk etc but Col quickly stopped me in my tracks, informing me that this was, pretty much, my big chance to score a ‘proper’ piece of Le Creuset stuff.

I had to agree with him, so, after to-ing  fro-ing and about an hour in the shop, I finally settled on my two pieces.  I picked up a 3.5Qt braiser (which a lot of people use as a frying pan as well as a casserole-type pot as you can cook in it on the hob and then put straight in the oven!), the other piece that caught my eye, was in the clearance section.  They have brought out new ‘tea kettles’ kind of shaped like a bell, which means the ‘old’ ones are ‘out of date’ but it was on clearance for a good price (and will work GREAT if we ever get a gas stove again!)

They also had a spend $100 or more, get 25% off – so it was pretty much win, win (plus it was cheaper than I could have gotten it at home, so bonus!)  I did, however, spend the evening singing, ‘I got a poooooooooooooot! I got a poooooot!’

Helena also treated me to the spoon rest, cause she saw how attached to it I was LOL!!!!

My Le Creuset haul!

By 9pm, we were totally exhausted, but we were also STARVING, so we drove an exit further and set up camp for dinner in Texas Roadhouse.  This place rocks! For starters, you get to chuck peanut shells on the ground, yes, I know that sounds like a crazy thing to like about a place, but I kinda like the fact that you can be a slob, in public, and not be judged for it! haha!!

The food was delicious, we ‘just’ had a main course, but by American standards, that’s often more than enough!  I had the pork chop (it’s becoming my go-to for whenever we eat in there as it’s delicious!) Helena had a steak and Col had ribs – we were all VERY happy and way too full by the time we’d finished.

From there it was off to find a still-open Target, as I’d sprung about half a dozen cold sores (no, that’s not an exaggeration, I looked liked I was hideously deformed!!) and was in dire need of cold-sore cream and then it was back to the hotel to hit the sack.  The hotel wasn’t too bad at all, Hampton Inn Suites, (I think it was called) free parking, free internet, complimentary (aka also free) buffet breakfast, two queen beds, pretty big bathroom…

It was all great, with one *medium sized* complaint, the room wouldn’t cool down enough.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like my heat, in fact, Col often calls me cold blooded – I’m always chilly (she says as she puts Col’s hoody on!) but the place was boiling, WAY too hot.  Which is strange, cause Texas gets pretty hot during the year, so you’d think their AC units would be designed to handle warm temps!