You can't take Louisiana out of the girl

Uptown funk at Carrie and John's wedding

I can still vividly remember walking to class across LSU's campus in late August cursing the heat as sweat built up between my shirt and my backpack. I couldn't wait to move some place cool and dry. I thought I'd avoid Louisiana summers for the rest of my life if I could. 

I recently returned home to Louisiana in June for my dear friend Carrie's wedding and to spend time with my family and grandparents. During my visit I came to the realization that I actually missed Louisiana summer. Sometimes it takes moving away to figure out all of the little things you love that you've spent most of your life taking for granted. 

This was a particularly special trip home because I had Joe joining me in New Orleans for the second time. Seeing my home through a "foreigner's" eyes only further emphasized the magic that is uniquely Louisiana and had my heart swelling with love for the place I will always call home. 

Watching the clouds roll in

Sure, it rains here in New Zealand, but nothing compares to sitting on the front porch swing, watching afternoon storm clouds roll in and feeling a sudden change in temperature as heavy rain drops come pouring down. You're almost always guaranteed a lightening show accompanied with loud claps of thunder over Lake Ponchatrain, and if you're lucky, you may even spot a water spout (a small tornado over water).

The rain passes as soon as it arrives. Steam rises up off the asphalt and the smell of rain, freshly cut grass and hot asphalt fill the air. I realize I've never found that scent anywhere else I've lived. From afternoon and into the night I hear the rain frogs hidden in the puddles singing 'raaaaiiiiinnnn' and I know I am home. 

Bring the heat

 The South agrees with him.

The South agrees with him.

After nearly five years without air conditioning in San Diego and New Zealand, I always feel the need to bundle up indoors when I'm in Louisiana, where the air conditioning is always blasting. When I walk outside I brace myself for the wave of hot steam that greets me at the door and fogs up my sunglasses. 

I used to despise being outside in the summer, but on this trip I just couldn't get enough of it. (Maybe it's the fact that I'm in the midst of my first Wellington winter). Every day we find time to sit on the porch talking and waving to people walking along the lakefront, or napping on the swing in the afternoon when it's cool. Even when we're doing nothing, it feels like something.

 Chasing alligators on our family kayak trip to Fontainebleau State Park

Chasing alligators on our family kayak trip to Fontainebleau State Park

Food tour

 Dining at Mother's. Joe wanted to try them all - Crawfish Etouffee, Chicken & Sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo, red beans and rice and collard greens.

Dining at Mother's. Joe wanted to try them all - Crawfish Etouffee, Chicken & Sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo, red beans and rice and collard greens.

Each day we head out for what has become more of a food tour than a vacation. Our schedules revolve around restaurants and social gatherings. So many things for Joe to try and so little time!

 Fried chicken biscuit from  Lüke. 

Fried chicken biscuit from Lüke. 

We managed to squeeze in a visit to Port O Call, Mother's, Lüke and Drago's. You won't find an organic leafy green salad on the menu here, but to hell with it! No where else in the world does Chargrilled Oysters like Drago's. I love watching the cooks literally shovel (with large shovels) butter and seasoned breadcrumbs over the oysters on the open flame.

It's also fun to discover the great new restaurants that have popped up while I've been away, like Liz's Where Y'at Diner in Old Mandeville (kitschy 'NOLA' diner and burger joint) and The Shiver Shack on The Mandeville Lake Front (Ah-MAZING Tenessee BBQ).

 Finger lickin' good ribs from the Shiver Shack.

Finger lickin' good ribs from the Shiver Shack.

Louisiana people have so much pride in their state. Everyone's got a favorite place or must-do for us to try before we leave... 

"Y'all gotta try Mother's. They got the world's best baked ham."
"Oh, have you had a Monsoon yet? You've gotta get one if you go to Port O Call. It'll knock you on your ass!"
"Did y'all bring marshmallows to feed the gators? Gators love marshmallows!"

Sharing is caring

Almost every time I go home to visit my parents, one of their friends shows up on the front porch over the course of the week with some kind of free food to share - freshly caught shrimp, red fish on the half shell, veggies from the garden — sharing is caring! 

 Freshly caught BBQ shrimp from friends and green beans from my dad's garden

Freshly caught BBQ shrimp from friends and green beans from my dad's garden

And my parents are always sending someone home with tomatoes from the garden, packs of home-grown spices or homemade pickled okra. It's one of those social aspects of life that you really only get when you've been living somewhere for a while in a place where everybody knows everybody. 

Down on the bayou

 Family boat ride through the swamp

Family boat ride through the swamp

During this trip, I really wanted to show Joe more of my roots, which meant spending time with my grandparents! Each time I am with them I hear new stories  and some I've heard before ;-)  about their pasts, learn bits of history about our family and discover new things about myself.

 The church in Luling where my grandparents were married 66 years ago. 

The church in Luling where my grandparents were married 66 years ago. 

While in Luling, where my dad was raised and his parents still live, we tooled around town seeing bits of my dad's childhood, as well as some authentic Louisiana scenery. My uncle took us for a little swamp tour on his boat where we spotted an alligator!

 I spy with my little eye...

I spy with my little eye...

Afterwards we visited my grandparents' house, which is basically like a museum.

My grandfather saves/collects everything - every award, bumper sticker, keychain and cap he's ever been given, and his woodshed is truly a sight to behold. 

 My Grandpa Allen's workshop

My Grandpa Allen's workshop

 Everything has a place.

Everything has a place.

So many of my favorite childhood memories take place with my grandparents — listening to ghost stories on the porch swing with my cousins at their camp in Mississippi or playing with our new toys in the drive way on Christmas morning. I'm so glad I was able to share those memories with Joe. 

Bushwacked

Before we headed back to New Zealand, there was just one more 'southern' experience I wanted Joe to have — it's time to get bushwacked at the FloraBama!

Florabama

The FloraBama is 3-story bar situated on the coast of Orange Beach and also sits on the Alabama/Florida state line. (And my dear friend Kate just so happens to have a condo next door to the bar, so it was essential that we work a beach weekend into the vacation.) Florabama serves up the most delightful drink, a bushwacker, which is like a mud slide daiquiri made with coconut cream, Kahlua, Bacardi Black Rum, dark creme de cacao and milk.

It's a great place to dance to live music, enjoy bushwackers all night with your toes in the sand, watch Bachelorette Parties and 'cougars' alike get wild and of course take your photo in one of those face-in-a-hole booths. 

 Enjoying a slice of pizza in the ocean.

Enjoying a slice of pizza in the ocean.

A weekend at Orange Beach is the perfect way to relax and recharge with friends before returning to New Zealand on our 24+ hour journey.

 Fish bait and Christian t-shirts - a gas station sign you'll only find in the South. 

Fish bait and Christian t-shirts - a gas station sign you'll only find in the South. 

My trip home has left me with a renewed appreciation for my roots and all things uniquely Louisiana. I still can't put my finger on why this trip felt so much more special than the one's before. Maybe it's just because I had everyone I love in one place.

 One last sunset in the states before our journey home. 

One last sunset in the states before our journey home. 

 Back 'home' in New Zealand

Back 'home' in New Zealand

Easy Roast Chicken & New Zealand Yams

It's that time of year again — New Zealand yams are in season! Last year I discovered these strange red and orange wrinkly veggies at my local grocery store. Not knowing what they were, I bought three and took them home to experiment. 

Turns out, they are delicious and I should have bought way more than three. Once I learned how to cook them, they quickly became a Sunday evening winter staple in my house. 

Here's a fantastic set and forget recipe using New Zealand yams (can be substituted with baby pearl potatoes) that only requires a bit of chopping and one roasting dish for easy clean up. But I usually make 2 dishes so I can enjoy leftovers. 

Roast Chicken and New Zealand Yams

Ingredients

6 chicken thighs
1 yellow onion
1 red onion
1.25 lbs of New Zealand Yams
(or bag of baby potatoes)
brussel sprouts
4 garlic cloves
Olive oil
1 Lemon
1-2 tbsp of herbs de provence
fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste

There are really no exact measurements. I usually add as little or as many veggies and spices as I like. Get creative!

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF

2. Rinse your yams or potatoes and place them in a roasting dish. If they're fairly large, chop them in half so they cook through faster.

3. Peel and chop both yellow and red onions and add them to the roasting dish.

4. Rinse the brussel sprouts discarding any outside leaves that are damaged, chop the sprouts in half and add to the roasting dish. 

5. Add 4 garlic cloves to the mix, keeping the skin on.

6. Drizzle the veggies with a generous amount of olive oil (3-4 tablespoons). Squeeze the lemon over the veggies and throw the lemon halves in the roasting dish. Mix the veggies until they are well coated in oil and juice. 

7. Season both sides of the chicken thighs with salt, pepper and herbs de provence. Bury the chicken amongst the vegetables with sprigs of fresh thyme.

8. Roast for 30 minutes, checking in to make sure the chicken is not over cooking. Baste the juices that have collected at the bottom. If the chicken has cooked, remove and place on a warm plate while the vegetables continue to roast. Roast for an additional 20-30 minutes until the yams are completely soft. 

The finished dish is delicious combination of sweet caramelized onions and yams bathed in savory spices and chicken juices — the perfect comfort food for New Zealand winter with only one dish to clean on a lazy Sunday evening. 

Every day is summer on Waiheke Island

Each year in New Zealand, Easter marks the end of summer and beginning of Autumn (no spring chicks hatching around here!). Many restaurants and tourism sites take advantage of the holiday weekend before they close up shop for the 'slow season'. So before I embark on the infamous windy and wet Wellington winter that everyone keeps warning me about, it's time to go up north where summer lives in New Zealand — Waiheke Island.

Sunrise flight to Auckland with Air New Zealand

New Zealand holidays always have a way of sneaking up on me. The seasons throw me off, public holidays are different than in the US and suddenly I realize we have a 4-day weekend. Having Good Friday and 'Easter Monday' off is an excellent idea! 

So when I found out I'd be flying up to Auckland for work, I thought why not take advantage of Waiheke Island, a warm and luxurious little island just a 30-minute ferry ride from Auckland's CBD. 

View of the Sky Tower from my hotel in Auckland.

While I was in Auckland I had the pleasure of meeting up with my friend and former colleague from Hawke's Bay, Charlotte. Charlotte introduced me to the most wonderful ice cream shop in the world Giapo!

Giapo is really more of an ice cream experience. The line is long and the prices are more than what you pay for your average ice cream cone, but it's totally worth it; they serve brownie bites while you wait and the ice cream cones really are a work of art. 

The ice cream flavour you choose determines what kind of embellishments you'll receive in your cone or cup. I opted for classic dark chocolate gelato which was then sprinkled with dried strawberries, chocolate, gold flakes and a gold dusted chocolate moon.

Charlotte ended up with a magical chocolate unicorn horn to top off her gold wafer encrusted hazelnut ice cream. Ah-mazing. Giapo is an absolute Auckland must-do. 

The following day, Joe met me in Auckland and we hopped a ferry to Waiheke Island. The ferry rides range from $15-30 and don't require booking in advance, making it easy to catch a ride to Waiheke on a whim and come back in the evening if you like. 

Waiheke island has a little something for everyone. It's probably best known for its wineries, warm weather and beautiful beaches. There's so much to see, do and eat. 

Beach town

The coast is lined with sandy beaches and the water is speckled with yachts. The vibe had me feeling like I was somewhere in the South of France but without the price tag. 

Something for the foodies

The main village of Oneroa is chock full of fantastic little restaurants. Our first stop was Oyster Inn. This sunny restaurant and boutique hotel overlooks the beach and harbour. The swaying palm trees and signature yellow and white striped awning have you immediately feeling like you're on vacation. 

Joe and I enjoyed champagne, oysters and lobster risotto, which was to die for, while taking in the ocean views and enjoying tunes from a live jazz band. Can we please eat here for every meal? 

Another restaurant that's not to miss is Fenice — fantastic and authentic Italian food. We ate there two nights in a row!

Holiday Homes

My one piece of advice for visiting Waiheke Island is to plan ahead and get in quick when it's a holiday weekend. Many Aucklanders commute into the city from Waiheke, while another 3,000 or so people have holiday homes here. Since it was an impromptu trip, pickin's were slim in terms of accommodations. As we explored the island, I marveled at all of the incredible houses along the coast that seemed to be right out of a magazine. It would be great to rent one of these places with a group of friends.

This beach house sat right on Oneroa Beach, and I just love the fancy little door to the back garden. I guess we'll have to stay here next time. ;)

Ultimately we ended up finding a decent little apartment. Although it was nothing out of Architectural Digest, it was still across the street from the beach. We spent most of our Saturday basking in the sun and watching the boats bob in the harbour. 

Adventures for everyone

The following day, we rented a super cheap 'fun rental' and tooled around the island. I was really hoping to rent scooters, but with rain threatening, we opted for this sweet blue truck.

Archery, shooting and wine at Wild on Waiheke

The weekend couldn't be all shopping and dining; I had to plan some 'boy' activities for Joe. We stopped for lunch at Wild on Waiheke and did an hour of archery and clay shooting amongst the grape vines. 

Of course, Joe got the highest score in everything and I left with very sore arms, but we still had a fun time. 

I look like a natural, right?

Olive groves

Not only does Waiheke have wineries but also plenty of olive groves. Due to the Easter holiday, New Zealand places strict rules on alcohol, which can only be purchased and consumed with food during the Easter weekend (lame.) So instead of wine tastings, we opted for an olive oil tasting. As an avid olive lover, I had no problem with this! Although I highly advise against eating random unripened olives you find along the road. They're so bitter!

As we left the olive oil tasting at Rangihoua Estate, we noticed hoards of people parking their cars along the road and migrating to a fence around a dirt track. In typical Joe fashion, Joe walked up to a group of men sitting outside of their van smoking cigarettes and drinking beers and asked what they were waiting for. The demolition derby of course.

Boom - Easter Sunday just got a little more interesting. 

When in Rome! 

It's not what I would have expected for a luxurious little island filled with holiday homes, wineries, boutiques and 5-star restaurants, but this event hidden in the hills seemed to attract people from all walks of life. We had to stick around and watch. 

If you've never been to a demo derby (this was my first), the premise is basically this: About 20+ of the shittiest old cars you could ever imagine (spray painted with all sorts of fantastic phrases) drive round and round a dirt track ramming into one another until the track is littered with bumpers and flat tires and there's only one car left standing. Why anyone would ever sign their spine up for real live bumper cars is beyond me, but boy is it fun to watch!

By the end of the event, my sun glasses were caked with red dirt, but I was so glad that we stuck around to watch. Whenever we travel, we always manage to stumble across the most random things. I really have to credit Joe for this, as he's the one with the guts to walk up to strangers or knock on doors and ask, "Hey, what's going on here?" And for this reason, he makes for an excellent travel buddy. 

In a way, we're much like this incredible dynamic duo whom we met on the way to the ferry in Auckland - Joe the friendly Golden Retriever whose up for anything and me the 'cat in the hat,' just down for whatevs. 

ANZAC Weekend Stay-cation

I know, I've been completely slacking with the blog, but with good reason! You're looking at the new Senior Digital Producer at a brand and experience agency here in Wellington. I'm loving my new gig, working in a fun and laid back environment and even doing my part for mother earth by catching the bus each morning. 

Not a bad view from my desk

I've got a bit of catching up to do, so I'll start with ANZAC weekend and work my way back...

Last weekend New Zealand celebrated ANZAC Day with parades, services and a 3-day weekend. This conveniently coincided with Joe's and my birthdays which are a day apart, so we planned a stay-cation to take part in ANZAC festivities and explore some new parts of Wellington. 

ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day commemorates the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as well as all who have served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. This year marked 100 years since the landing at Gallipoli, and there were beautiful services at dawn all around the country to mark the time that the soldiers landed.

I reluctantly pulled myself out of bed at 4:45am for the dawn service in Wellington, and was absolutely shocked and moved when Joe and I arrived to see thousands of people filling the streets for the service. An estimated 25,000 people attended the dawn service in Wellington!

Despite the hoards of people, there was a beautiful hush and stillness in the air as we sang hymns and listened to the bugle call. I couldn't help but compare the occasion to America's Veteran's Day and wonder if Americans would wake up before dawn to celebrate our veterans - we should! Although I don't have any New Zealand ancestors who fought at Gallipoli, in my heart I celebrated both of my grandfathers who fought in WWII and the Korean War. 

After the service, we watched the sunrise... and then went back to sleep! 

 Sun rising across the street from my house.

Sun rising across the street from my house.

On Saturday (in order to make it feel like a proper holiday and a 'birthday extravaganza' as my dad calls it) I booked a room at Ohtela boutique hotel in Wellington I've been wanting to try. 

This well-kept 10 bedroom hotel has a mid-century modern vibe with a tasteful hint of 'Kiwiana' and all of the modern amenities to make you feel relaxed and on vacation. 

The difference is in the details - live plants in little tea cups, clever lighting, good magazines, comfortable and stylish furniture make you actually want to stay and enjoy the room. 

Only in New Zealand will you find an image of sheep in a field wallpapered above the bath tub. 

Room service? Don't mind if I do!

Ohtel is located on Oriental Parade, just a short walk into the Wellington CBD but far enough away to escape from the hustle and bustle. The Norfolk Island Pines reminded me of my first New Zealand home on Marine Parade in Napier. 

In the evening, Joe and I tried a restaurant that a friend recommended - Sweet Mother's Kitchen.

Little did I know that the menu would be full of New Orleans style food! How perfect, considering I'd been desperately suffering from Jazz Fest FOMO. I ordered some 'Prawn' Monica and felt right at home.

PrawnMonica

I'd give it an 8/10 in terms of authenticity. The beignets weren't exactly 'Cafe Du Monde,' but still good enough to curb my craving and get me looking forward to my upcoming trip in May. 

On Sunday we explored the Air New Zealand anniversary exhibit at Te Papa, which I highly recommend. It features all of the crew uniforms that have been worn over the years along with some really interesting aviation history. Did you know New Zealanders used to receive mail by pigeon!?

Te Papa also has some beautiful art exhibits on the 4th floor. For some reason, art museums always make me feel like a traveler. Maybe it brings back old feelings and memories of studying abroad and spending hours in museums around Europe, but I just love it!

So much fun exploring our city! Now that we've seen so much of this beautiful country, we're finding creative new ways to experience new places and activities. Sometimes the best adventures are in your own back yard!

 

Commander's Palace Bread Pudding

I'm finally back 'home' in New Zealand after returning 'home' to New Orleans for Christmas. I'm slowly settling into Wellington, trying to find my groove and develop new routines. Around Christmas and New Year's, New Zealand practically shuts down (take note America!) Needless to say, work has been slower than usual and I've found myself with a little extra time to experiment with some new recipes.

Wine o'clock at Black Barn Vineyards

It's always wine o'clock in Hawke's Bay. One of the best things about living in this region is having wineries and vineyards at my finger tips. It's not often that you can climb a mountain and stop for a bottle of wine and a cheese platter afterward, but in Hawke's Bay, it totally flies! While I'd probably never even consider wearing my hiking boots to a wine tasting in Sonoma, there's something so friendly, rugged and unpretentious about most of the wineries I've visited in Hawke's Bay.

Guilt-free Chocolate Macaroons: Little Bird, Big Flavor

With summer right around the corner here in New Zealand, I've been trying to cut back on the amount of dairy and sugar I consume, and looking for healthy substitutes to curb my cravings and satisfy my sweet tooth. Last week, while shopping at the wholefoods store, I discovered these Little Bird macaroons.