Digital Treasure Maps

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Long gone are the days when tourists relied solely on large printed foldout maps. These 2D tools may once have been the standard for adventure seekers, but today’s tech-savvy travelers have a variety of 21st century aids at their fingertips thanks to the Internet and ever-advancing mobile and satellite technology.

One tool that I have found to be especially helpful in planning travel excursions, particularly when you may not speak the native language of the locality, is the My Maps function on Google Maps (Note: you must create a Google account to use My Maps). After you’ve located the city you plan to travel to, it’s easy to create placemarkers for attractions, parks, restaurants and nightlife places that you’d like to visit.

Google Maps is a great tool to plan out your travel itinerary.

Photo Source: Google Maps

Travel guides, online travel communities and publications are just a few possible information sources available, many of which include pictures along with user ratings and reviews. It’s better to add more than less to your map since you never know when your travel itinerary might change based on weather or a whole host of other factors.

To create a placemarker, search for an attraction by name and/or address, and once Google Maps points to this attraction on the map, it will show you where you can add an upside teardrop marker. It may be helpful to add a description remind yourself of why you selected this attraction for your map. A simple phrase like “Best coffee in Barcelona” or “Great picnic place” will do.

If you have a type A personality like me, you may even want to create a detailed, mapped out itinerary that sets out the path or order in which you plan to visit attractions. You can do this by drawing a line to connect placemarkers.

When you’re creating your map, remember that you can also search for other public maps Google members have created by browsing the directory. The Top 50 Places to See Celebrities in NYC Map and the Best Seattle Photography Locations Map are two popular public maps that could be a great source of information for travelers planning to visit those cities. Be sure to mark any maps that you make public so that others can benefit from any itineraries you create!

Another great resource to tap into is Gridskipper, an international travel blog dedicated to themed plots dedicated to a variety of topics ranging from Sing Your Heart Out in San Francisco to Cupcake Consumption in London or even Eating with the Obamas in DC.

This Gridskipper map features cupcake shops and bakeries across London.

Photo Source: Gridskipper

If you have a PDA, discuss temporary international plans with your service provider that will enable you to access the Internet abroad for easy navigation with the maps you or others have created. If not, print the maps out before you leave. Be sure to pay special attention to the zoom level so that important street names are clearly labeled, otherwise your map won’t be much help. Happy navigating!

Recipe Spotlight: Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It's not often that I'm incredibly excited or inspired by boxed recipes, but Krusteaz's Lemon Bars are a baked treat that's been on my list of favorites for some time. Last weekend I tested out a recipe on the back of the box on a whim and was thrilled with the results. The Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars were quick and easy to make, but most importantly, they ended up being a big hit! They made for a nice summer dessert that was a refreshing and lighter tasting alternative to rich cookies or cake. The lemon bars can be served hot straight from the oven or cold as you would serve cheesecake. Enjoy!

These lemon cheesecake bars are an explosion of tastes with a tart
citrus filling and a creamy, cool layer of cheesecake
atop a sweet, crumbly crust.
Photo Source: Krusteaz

Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars

1 package Krusteaz Lemon Bar Mix
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 8x8x2-inch pan. Press full pouch of complete crust firmly into bottom of pan. Bake for eight minutes. Place cream cheese and sugar in medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, mix on low speed until smooth. Add one egg and vanilla. Continue to mix on low speed until smooth. Pour cream cheese mixture evenly over hot crust. In another bowl, stir full pouch lemon filling mix, water and three eggs together using a whisk until eggs are well incorporated. Pour lemon filling over cream cheese layer. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until the center does not jiggle when shaken. Cool completely and cut into squares. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Recipe Source: Krusteaz

The Best First Dance

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The first dance is one of the most anticipated moments of a wedding. Everyone is watching, waiting to see which song the couple has chosen and how they'll add their own twist to a song that may have been played countless times before.

While some brides and grooms may decide to go the traditional route, selecting a sweet slow song, others may choose a more modern tune or select a pop culture favorite, choreographing a surprise routine for friends and family. So the question is which "first dance" genre is the best fit for you? What's your best first dance?

This happily wed couple's first dance is reminiscent of
old Hollywood-style glamor.
Photo Source: In Style Weddings

Always a popular option, many brides and grooms opt for a song that's stood the test of time. There's a long list of these tunes of yesteryear, which are a sweet and sentimental option, especially for couples who may not be interested in investing in dance lessons or coming up with complicated routines. Here are just a few of my favorite classic first dance songs.

"At Last" by Etta James
"Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers
"It Had to Be You" by Harry Connick, Jr.
"When You Say Nothing at All" by Alison Krauss
"In My Life" by the Beatles
"Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole
"Fools Rush In" by Elvis Presley

Some couples opt for more recent songs, especially if the song holds a special meaning for them. Check out a list of 30 popular picks from the Knot for some inspiration along with a list of my own favorites below. Daily Candy Weddings has a fun first dance tool that can help couples choose a wedding song based on the bride's and groom's personalities.

"Come Away with Me" by Norah Jones
"Kissing You" by Des'ree (from the soundtrack of Romeo and Juliet)
"Lucky" by Jason Mraz and Colbie Calliet
"Ever the Same" by Rob Thomas
"Remember When" by Alan Jackson
"Iris" by Goo Goo Dolls
"You and Me" by Lifehouse

Then there are those who decide to skip the slow dance and opt for comical choreography that's often a surprise performance. When else is it appropriate to know all the steps to "The Time of My Life" and to do this dance in front of all your friends and family? Among infamous surprise performances are an irreverent "Baby Got Back" routine, numerous adaptions of "Thriller" and other Michael Jackson favorites and a more recent example in which the bridal party didn't bother holding out for the reception, they danced right down the aisle to Chris Brown's "Forever".

This Alabama couple decided to add some spice to their step for
their first dance. The song selection? A mix of pop, rap and Vanilla Ice.
Photo Source:

Consider creating a dance to a funny surprise song, but be mindful of your audience. Some guests may not share your same sense of humor and may be offended instead of impressed, so choose carefully! Pick dance moves that you'll easily be able to do in your dress and shoes. Does your dress have a train? Be sure that it's not going to get caught up and ruined in your fancy legwork. Is your dress a mermaid style? If so, remember your movement may be much more limited than in your practice clothing. These are all questions to consider when planning out a routine.

Family Tradition
Some couples may choose to embrace a cultural wedding tradition for their first dance. For Jewish weddings, the Hora is a popular first dance where the bride and groom are lifted in chairs in a symbolic gesture as the two are considered to be the "king and queen of the night." For Greek weddings, a circle-style dance is often popular whereas an old Italian tradition is a special dance called the tarantella. Consider how you picture your guests in these more communal style dances. Will only one side of the family know the steps? You can always choose to incorporate some elements of your culture's wedding traditions into your first dance such as a particular song choice or steps without following every rule.

Some newlyweds may want to go with a special dance
that's family tradition like this couple did at their Jewish wedding.

Getting Ready for the Big Moment
If you and your partner aren't the most savvy steppers, consider investing in dance lessons. While the cost varies from city to city and is also based on whether you participate in group or private lessons, it may be worth every penny if it will help alleviate first dance jitters. Most people don't get a do over with the first dance, so lessons can help ensure that you get it right the first time around!

According to, ballroom dance lessons can cost between $55 to $125 per person although I've seen advertisements for lessons as cheap as $25 per person in Charlotte. If you live near a university or college, you may even be able to take lessons for free if there is a student or community ballroom dance club. UNC-Chapel Hill offered free lessons every Monday throughout the school year when I was an undergrad, and they taught everything from the rhumba to the tango, the foxtrot and more! Visit or Access Dance to find a ballroom dancing instructor near you. Or, if you think that you only need minimal help to prepare for that big moment, consider checking out some instructional dance videos on YouTube. Bottom line is practice makes perfect!

And don't forget to be sure that everything is in order with the music! It will be quite a disappointment if you've spent all this time practicing but the band turns out to be terrible, the DJ's sound system doesn't work or if you've left the CD at home in your player. Add this to your wedding day checklist and enlist the help of a family member or friend to remind you of any last minute preparations for music.

Finally, just enjoy the moment! Don't get so caught up in the routine that you let it pass you by. Whichever song or steps you choose, remember that this is just the first of many dances that you'll share with your new spouse for the rest of your life!

A Night as Queen in the Queen City

Monday, August 10, 2009

If there ever was a perfect night, my birthday was it. Kris kept his plans for the evening a secret until we arrived at our first destination -- Ratcliffe on the Green. A 5-star restaurant known for using fresh local ingredients for a farm-to-the-table approach to fine dining, head chef and Mark Hibbs was recently named a semifinalist for the national and prestigious "Best Chef" award by the James Beard Foundation, which is one of the top honors that a chef can receive in the United States. Our dining experience not only confirmed this but surpassed any expectation or reputation that preceded our dinner visit.

The restaurant was once a historic flower shop dating from the 20s.
The neon sign was the first of its kind in Charlotte.
Photo Source:

The more than 100-year-old restaurant was decorated richly with realist still life paintings and the original Tiffany stained glass windows of Ratcliffe's Flower Shoppe, which has been a part of Charlotte's cityscape from the 1920s on. The romantic ambiance of the restaurant is intimate and warm, and the tall spiraling pillars that flank the dining area when coupled with the old-fashioned, over-sized glowing ceiling lights make the main room appear as though it's a stage ready for a performance that's been done time and again, so much so that it's been perfected and one can expect an evening that will impress them time and time again. And really that's exactly what this room is -- a center stage for a repertoire of course after course composed of only the freshest and finest ingredients which are cooked, seasoned and arranged just so for a symphony of tastes that are perfectly in harmony.

The ambiance of Ratcliffe on the Green is like an old dinner theatre
except the food is the star in this delectable performance.
Photo Source: Flickr

While entrees are available separately as a more economical option, I recommend taking the dive and splurging on the chef's tasting menu so that you're able to sample several different dishes. For our first course, I selected the scallops, which were cooked in a white wine beurre blanc sauce over sauteed spinach while Kris sampled a trio of mini crab cakes each served with a different sauce - pico de gallo, Korean BBQ and a creamy remolade. The sea scallops were tender and savory, pan seared to perfection, and the crab cakes were heavy on the crab and light on the bread for a pure taste complimented by the series of sauces.

When our main course arrived, we were really in heaven. We both decided upon the grilled lamp chops, which were served with a blueberry port reduction over wilted spinach and baby golden potatoes. Our dish was perfectly presented on plate and in flavor as the buttery spinach and potatoes complemented the tender lamb, which once again was cooked precisely to order.

After these two magical dishes disappeared before our eyes, a third soon arrived -- dessert. My crème brulee was simply phenomenal. The sweet creamy custard was slightly cool in contrast to the warm golden brown crackling layer of caramel above. Then, amazingly our waiter divulged the Ratcliffe secret for "world-famous crème brulee" to me -- using fresh eggs that are only one to two days old.

Kris' dessert somehow rivaled my selection, his Grand Marnier Souffle was full of spoonful after spoonful of a delicious and sweet, warm bread pudding-like dessert accompanied by a warm and rich sauce flavored with fine liquor. I simply don't think our taste buds will ever be the same.

Then, to top off the evening, as we exit the restaurant hand-in-hand, a horse and carriage are waiting to take us for a ride around the city. Kris and I had the night of our lives being escorted around town by Winston, our trusty steed, and Bridger, our driver and incredibly knowledgeable tour guide who filled us in on the history of Charlotte. He even took us for a ride through the Fourth Ward, the original residential district of the city, which has colonial style homes that date back to the 1800s. We were transported back in time by the sight of the beautiful historic homes, that is until you see the skyscrapers all aglow rising stories above this tucked away part of town that started it all.

Kris and I smile for the camera after an amazing ride around Charlotte
by horse and carriage!
Photo Source: Self

It simply was an unforgettable evening that will live on as a fond memory to cherish and someday far in the future share with children and grandchildren as the night Kris and I felt like king and queen of the Queen City.

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