Top 10 Moments of 2013

Yes, dear friends, it’s that time of year when I’m scrambling to put up the Christmas decorations, running around like a madwoman at the office, holiday shopping till I’m dropping and cooking my way through an endless array of Pinterest recipes for one family gathering after the next. After all that, plus a bag of chips, I finally managed to get the Christmas cards purchased, printed and shipped. And in true Riley tradition, the cards are complete with our Top 10 Moments of 2013.

We’ve been doing these Top 10 lists for four years now. Click to see 2012 and 2011. Mikey and I have really come to like them. It gives us a reason to reminisce and compare this year’s successes to last. And I love being able to give people a glimpse into what life was like for us over the past 365 days.

This year, the Christmas cards were a little more hurried than years past. I usually enlist my photographer father to photograph the three of us, but with so many things going on during the weekends in December, I decided to use an iPhone photo of The Bear as our 2013 Christmas card hero image. Then, our home printer was giving me problems for a good week as I was trying to print the card stock for our Top 10 list. But not to fear… the cards and list made it out the door yesterday. And so, here goes. Our 2013 in review…

Mike, Larissa & Teddy Riley’s Top 10 Moments of 2013

10. After a few tries at brewing his own beer, Mike finally nailed his best beer yet, a small batch jalapeño saison. 

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Its been about a year and a half now that Mikey has been experimenting with different home brew recipes. This jalapeño saison from Brooklyn Brew Shop has proven to be his most successful. Not spicy or overwhelming like you might expect from a jalapeño. Well-balanced and full-flavored. We shared the wealth with friends, family and coworkers who were all pretty impressed. But I warn that this is not for timid beer drinkers. If you’re a tried and true Bud Light drinker or less open to trying new flavors, this will probably be out of your comfort zone.

9. Larissa wrote a food review on her blog for The Libertine, a new restaurant in St. Louis. The review was featured on The Libertine’s Facebook page and picked up by the Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch, a local online news source. 

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If you haven’t read the review, check it out here. And if you’d like to see the feature on the Patch, click here. Now it goes without saying that our experience at The Libertine was great. But it’s also worth mentioning that whoever is managing The Libertine’s social properties (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  is doing it right. Since sharing my post on their social networks, I’ve noticed that they continue to keep their finger on the pulse of what other people are saying about them. That includes average joes like myself as well as local and national food critics. They’re being good listeners and creating conversations with current and prospective fans. So thumbs up to them. And if you’re in St. Louis, go there already!

8. This year marked five years of marriage for us. Seems like just yesterday when so many of you helped us celebrate our big day.

It was October 4, 2008, and the weather was absolutely amazing. Blue skies, sun on your face, temps in the low 70s. God did an extraordinary job orchestrating the weather that day.

We celebrated five years of marital bliss with dinner at Niche in Clayton. We hadn’t been to Niche since Chef Gerard Craft relocated the famed St. Louis restaurant from Benton Park to Clayton. Per usual, our dinner did not disappoint. Sadly, I didn’t get any pictures of the great time and food we had. It was one of those occasions where I chose to be in the moment without a camera to document it. Again, if you’re in St. Louis and haven’t been, go there for your next special occasion. Craft has built quite a reputation in St. Louis. It shows. And it tastes incredible.

7. We enjoyed our fourth annual “Teddy Vacation” at the Lake of the Ozarks. Teddy still reigns as champion dock diver of the family. 

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I recapped this relaxing getaway in a previous post here. This yearly Teddy Vacation tradition is always something we look forward to at the end of the summer. For Teddy Vacation 2014, though, we’re thinking of switching it up and going to a coast!

6. We caught our first waves during a surfing lesson on a trip to Hawaii in the fall… and now we want to move to Hawaii. 

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I also captured the memories from this experience in a previous post here. Definitely an unforgettable moment. And if I do it again, let’s hope my equilibrium doesn’t screw with me again.

5. While vacationing in Maui, we visited the summit of Mount Haleakala and stood a jaw-dropping 10,023 feet above sea level.

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I still have yet to blog about this visit to Mount Haleakala. I’m not even a fourth of the way through documenting our Hawaii vacation, but it’s coming. I promise!

4. We visited a good friend from college in the spring during a trip to Arizona and saw everything from the red rocks of Sedona to the magnificent Grand Canyon. We even rafted the Colorado River! 

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I remember this trip proved to be so much more spectacular than we expected it to be. We left with a new-found appreciation for nature and the beauty it brings. Follow these links  to see how the whole trip unfolded — Scottsdale, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon.

3. The Riley house underwent major structural repair this summer. The only fun part was when it ended. All is back to normal – until the next thing breaks! 

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To be completely honest, I never want to hear about this project again. But it was certainly worth mentioning on our Top 10 list, considering how much grief it gave us — followed by joy when it was over. Read all about the debacle here.

2. The recent trip to Hawaii allowed us some long overdue quality time with Larissa’s grandmother. It had been six years since our last visit.

Lola

A visit to see Lola was long overdue. And it was nice being able to have real adult conversations with her now that I’m a full-on grown-up. I learned a little bit more about my dad’s side of the family. She told stories of how she and Papa met. How she left her family behind in the Philippines to meet Papa in Hawaii. Even how Papa moved to the Big Island, Hawaii as a youngster to work with his family in the coffee fields. Now the plan is not to wait so long to see her again. Six years is just too much.

1. Mike, Larissa and Teddy are now featured on Dog Chow Light & Healthy bags across the country. Look for us at the grocery store, on DogChow.com and in magazine print ads everywhere!

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We took this photo at a Safeway grocery store in Hawaii. Its been fun seeing our faces on shelf and online. (You can’t see it here, but Mikey is featured on the back of the bag as well.) Even friends who live far away from us write me on Facebook to tell me they saw me on a floor mat in Kroger or a print ad in People magazine. Pretty amazing that we now have a legit claim to fame.

There is no doubt that our little family has a lot to be thankful for, and we’re fortunate that we’ve been able to say that every year. As the holidays draw near, I hope your holidays are full of good food, family, friends and fun.

2013 Riley Christmas Card

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Hawaii Vacation: North Shore Tour

Day 3 (continued): Kahuku & Sunset Beach

Since I had to bail early on the surfing lesson, Mikey finished up the last half hour without me.  Soon after, my body finally exited its state of nausea and replaced it with hunger. Time to eat!

Kahuku Food Trucks

We loaded our belongings into our Jeep Liberty rental and headed north into Kahuku. Eventually, an open area along the left side of the road opened up. Home to food trucks, fruit stands and little souvenir shops, it was a perfect place to pop in for some outdoor eats. We settled in at the Kahuku Shrimp Thai Food truck, and I ordered up a hearty helping of pad thai. Dee-licious.

kahuku shrimp thai food truck

kahuku shrimp pad thai

kahuku shrimp food truck stop

kahuku shave ice

We also perused the souvenirs housed in the colorful wooden cottages next door to the food trucks. They offered a great selection of sarongs and traditional Hawaiian wood-carved keepsakes.

Kahuku Farms

With full bellies, we packed ourselves back into the Jeep and headed south along the North Shore road to our next stop — Kahuku Farms. Mikey, Dad and I love to go beach-hopping. The beaches are usually our number one priority when traveling to Hawaii. Mom likes it too, but she likes visiting the fruit stands and farmer’s markets along the road even more. Because, let’s face it, St. Louis isn’t really known for setting up fruit stands along the side of the road, and if St. Louis did, the selection would certainly be lacking in the tropical fruit department.

Kahuku Farms wasn’t far from our lunch spot. So we pulled over to take a gander.

Star fruit and mangos and kiwi, oh my!

The ever-exotic dragon fruit

Pineapples lined up saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

Bananas on a wire

Mom was very pleased with her purchase. Although I can’t remember what her purchase was. Cassava something?

The sweet spread of Kahuku Farms fruit I enjoyed for breakfast the next day.

The sweet spread of Kahuku Farms fruit I enjoyed for breakfast the next day.

I was particularly wowed at the star fruit and dragon fruit. I’d never actually seen them in person. And I had never actually tasted dragon fruit. (Minus the dragon fruit infused beer that Michelob Ultra used to make.) There was also mango, papaya and jack fruit the size of my head. And to represent the Midwest, there was even corn on the cob for sale. We left Kahuku Farms with a few Ziploc bags of sliced fruit — kiwi, mango, papaya, guava, pomegranate seeds, pineapple, star fruit and dragon fruit. They were perfect for munching at the beach or in the car.

Sunset Beach

Next stop:  Sunset Beach. The last time we were at Sunset Beach was six years ago. The experience then was much different from the experience we had this time around. The beach was pretty packed. (We were nearly lonesome the last time.) The surf was way, way up. (The water was almost pool-like the last time.) And short periods of rain kept creeping in behind us. (The sun was working overtime the last time. We were hard pressed to find a shady spot.)

Nevertheless, Sunset Beach is still one of our favorites. It doesn’t matter how or when you go. You really can’t complain when you’re in this kind of paradise. And the waves provided great photo opportunities for Dad and me.

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Dad McGuyver’d a sun blocker with our beach towel.

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Wave at its peak

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It was fun watching these guys brave the waves.

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Can’t take credit for this awesome photo. Dad was the guy behind the lens.

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Looks like fun

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Like a big ole glob of toothpaste

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Here it comes!

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Hang loose!

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One with the ocean

Mikey and I spent a good deal of time swimming. Quite a workout, considering how powerful the waves can be. It took some muscle to stay in one spot. In fact, a girl from the group next to us was caught off guard by one of the incoming waves and fell under for a few seconds. She came up gasping for air and in a good deal of shock. Her friends were there to calm her down though. Just goes to show how close an eye you have to keep on those incoming kahunas.

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After swimming, we camped out in the shade for a few minutes. A short spurt of rain came through, causing us to break out the beach umbrella. In true Hawaiian form, the rain stopped by the time we got the umbrella set up. And then a colorful surprise peeked through the trees.

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Mikey guarding our station

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Hanging out at the beach underneath a shade tree. This is the life.

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Somewhere over the rainbow…

A few minutes later, the sun began to set. And what better place to be at sunset than at Sunset Beach.

Unfortunately, there were low clouds blocking our view of the sun just as it set over the Pacific. But Dad managed to snap some good ones.

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Photographer/videographer setting up his shot

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Group pic minus our photographer

And that concluded Day 3. We drove the long road back to Lola’s house and hit the hay to rest up for the next day — snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.

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Hawaii Vacation: There Goes My Pro Surfing Career

Surf Lesson 11

Day 3: Surfing

The decision has been made. When I die, I want to come back to earth as a surfer girl. I don’t know what my fascination is — other than surfers are just cool. It may also have to do with the reality show on MTV, Surfer Girls, that I watched religiously back in college, circa 2003. Does anyone remember that show?

When planning our Hawaii trip, Mikey and I immediately saw this as an opportunity to check the surfing item off the bucket list. We’d never stepped foot on a surfboard before, but Hawaii, with its world-renowned waves, was the perfect place to do it. And that’s what we did on Day 3 of our trip.

A few weeks before departing for the Land of Aloha, good old Groupon featured a voucher for the Island Style Surf School on Oahu’s North Shore. The deal was for a private two-hour lesson for two. We pulled trigger, bought the Groupon and booked the lesson over the phone once we arrived in Hawaii.

The site of surfing lesson was Chunn’s Reef, one of the many amazing beaches located on the North Shore. When it was time for our lesson to begin, we spotted our instructor, Felippa, and after introductions, she began the process of walking us through the safety instructions, surfing do’s and don’ts and how to paddle, pop-up and ride the wave on our boards. There was a lot to take in, especially her explanation about the currents. It didn’t help that rain clouds were quickly moving in, but eventually it was time to walk to the water’s edge and paddle out to some waves.

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The beautiful scene upon our arrival at Chunn’s Reef

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Skies darkening

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Surfing 101

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Walking through the motions. Like yoga on a surf board.

There were a number of other surfers out that morning. Everyone had to take turns catching a wave. I spent a decent amount of time paddling out, getting comfortable with how to maneuver my board to go left and right and generally trying to stabilize my board and prevent it from drifting away from the group.

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On the watch-out for waves

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Paddle, paddle, paddle

As Mikey and I tried our first waves, the rain came. The winds were creating strange patterns with the current, but we still kept at it. Felippa kept a close eye on all our surroundings to ensure we were getting waves us beginners could handle.

And of course, Mikey, being the super athlete who excels at every sport whether he’s played it before or not, soon popped up on his board and rode his first wave. I eventually followed suit on my third try. Not bad! And although I probably only stood up for three seconds, I could feel and appreciate that momentous rush of rapid paddling, then giving way to the wave’s momentum — your signal that it’s time to pop up and ride out.

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Looking good!

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A close-up. And a good facial expression.

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Hopping off

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Easy does it

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Almost up!

Shortly after, things started to go sour for me. Don’t let surfing fool you. It’s a major upper body workout. Paddling out was exhausting my little (let’s be honest — weak!) arms. While Mikey was catching his waves, I was trying my best to relax and catch my breath. But in doing so, the lull of the ocean kept steering me away from the group. And that constant lull was also making me feel weird. Nausea was kicking in. Ugggghhhh.

Mikey asked Felippa for a time check. We’d been in the water for an hour and a half. So I made the decision to paddle back in and get my body back to normal. Mikey stayed in and caught a few more waves. He also spotted two gigantic sea turtles underneath him while out on his board. I was jealous. (He got to surf with sea turtles!) But I was glad to have my bearings back on solid ground.

So as it turns out, I’m not very good at surfing. Even though the waves were bitty, my body wasn’t too happy with the up-and-down motion of the ocean. Which sucks. But at least I tried it, and I got up on the board. And that’s not to say I won’t try it again. If I ever get the opportunity to do another lesson at a cheap, affordable price, I would definitely get out there again. Besides, I invested in a rash guard (an athletic shirt for water sports). I need another excuse to wear it!

In the meantime, I’ll continue to get my surfer fix by watching movies like Blue Crush and Soul Surfer. My body might just be better suited for the couch.

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Hawaii Vacation: Beach-Hopping Oahu

Its been four weeks now since returning from our amazing Hawaii vacation. My tan is fading, and the free hair highlights I got from the sun and salt water are gone. A trip to the salon for a trim was inevitable. Since those souvenirs are disappearing, there’s no better time to keep the reminiscing going with a few recaps on the blog. “A few” probably isn’t an accurate description, to be completely honest. This trip to Hawaii was chock-full of activities, photos and details; a couple posts wouldn’t do it justice. So brace yourself for a long run of recaps.

I should start out by saying that our trips to Hawaii are never full-on touristy-type vacations. Since we’re able to stay with family, we get the benefit of experiencing more of the real Hawaii. Dive restaurants, local hangouts and off-the-beaten path beaches. That’s not to say we don’t do anything touristy. But when you visit Hawaii and separate yourself from the places populated with hotels (Waikiki on Oahu or Kaanapali on Maui), you open yourself up to seeing more than what the travel writers consider “world’s best”. You get to form an opinion of what you consider your own best.

Secondly, I think we’re at an advantage when it comes to visiting the islands of Hawaii. We made this trip with my parents who have that “islander mentality” built in. My mom was born and raised on the tiny island of Guam. My dad was born in Maui and raised on Guam. There are hundreds of similarities shared between Hawaii and Guam, so in many ways, being on Hawaii is like being on Guam. There’s a familiarity that makes exploring all that more adventurous. Like, who cares if we get lost. It’s an island with three major highways; you can’t get too far away from home.

That really describes the approach we took to experiencing Oahu. Our days were full of non-stop beach-hopping. Just get in the car, drive and hang at the beach until you get hungry or get the itch to find the next beach around the bend. That is definitely our preferred way of vacationing in Hawaii. With beaches every which way and no admission to pay, it gives you the chance to see some of the most beautiful beaches in the world without costing an arm and a leg. So here goes the Day 1 and 2 recap — but most importantly, the pictures.

Day 1: White Plains Beach

Most of Day 1 was spent catching up with family. We slept in, had a lazy breakfast with Lola (Lola is the Filipino word for grandma) and took a walk around her neighborhood in Ewa Beach. About a mile or so away from her subdivision, builders were constructing a whole new phase of beach-front properties. That, of course, had us dreaming of buying a brand new home on said beach-front property. The golf course we passed on the way there wasn’t such an eyesore either.

Ewa Beach Golf Course

We stopped under a huge shade tree to capture us and the fantastic golf course behind us.

That afternoon, we decided to head to our first beach. My Auntie Lou recommended White Plains Beach, located only minutes away from Lola’s house on the southwest end of Oahu. We pulled into the parking lot and then set up shop in a shady spot underneath the coconut trees. Mom and Dad stayed behind in the sand, while Mikey and I tested the waters.

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White Plains Beach 1

 

 

From our spot in the sand, we could see Waikiki and Diamond Head in the distance. The waters were populated with surfers, out catching a wave. The beach had a boogie board rental shop on site, and there were a handful of people conducting strength training exercises closer to the parking lot where the sand met the shade. Not far from where we were lounging, there was a row of beach cottages Auntie Lou had told us about. They were the Barbers Point beach cabins available for rental to active duty and retired military families. The cabins are quaint — no air conditioning, only the bare necessities. But when you’ve got sand in your toes and swimsuit bottoms all day, who really needs a memory foam mattress?

With White Plains being our first beach stop, I was quickly reminded of how much sand gets stuck in your swimsuit when swimming in Hawaii. Unlike Guam, Hawaii’s shores aren’t protected by a large reef, so the waves often break on the shore, bringing tornadoes of sand with every break. But those breaks are what also make Hawaii a surfing capital of the world. Needless to say, we left White Plains Beach that day with more sand in my swimwear than I had bargained for.

Day 2: Drive Around Oahu

Have you ever heard an islander say, “Let’s go drive around the island.”? You might assume that means hopping in the car, driving here and there, checking out a few stops along the way. No, what it really means is literally driving around the island coast. Because unlike living in California or Illinois or Texas, you can actually drive around Oahu in a day.

“Driving around the island” is another one of our favorite pastimes, and that’s what Day 2 consisted of. We left Lola’s house armed with beach towels, beach mats, a beach umbrella, a beach chair, snorkel gear, sunscreen, our cameras and a cooler packed with drinks and snacks. Dad drove our rental SUV east, passing downtown Honolulu, Aloha Stadium and the ritzy residences of Hawaii Kai, until we found ourselves on the eastern coast of Oahu. Our first stop was the Halona Blowhole Lookout.

Halona Blowhole Lookout

If we were visiting in the colder months of December and January, we would’ve probably been more likely to see the blowhole in action. But since the waves weren’t a-rockin’, we only got to see a little spew of water come up through the hole in the rocks. Hoping we can go back in the winter months and see it rise sky-high.

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Halona Blowhole 4

Another picturesque view at this lookout is the small beach that many tourists trek to sink their toes in the sand. It’s an amazing sight of waves crashing into black rock. The blue waters change majestically from dark blue to turquoise to light sea green as it makes its way up shore. It was breathtaking.

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Halona Blowhole 2

Halona Blowhole 1

Sandy Beach

Only a short car drive away was our next stop, Sandy Beach. Dad told us this beach was known for its unpredictable currents and unexpected waves that break heavily on the shore. Some recommend that only experienced swimmers swim here. Sure enough, there were plenty of surfers out there in the choppy waters. The waves came splashing every which way as we stopped to take in the beautiful scenery and snap a few photographs. Many of those waves caught me off guard and soaked everything from my tippy toes to my thighs.

Sandy Beach 1

Sandy Beach 2

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Ono Steaks & Shrimp

By this point, we were starved for some grub. So knowing that our next stop was Waimanalo Beach, we decided to drive through the village of Waimanalo, keeping an eye out for food joints to satisfy our hungry stomachs. Sure enough, there were food trucks and small mom and pop style shops lining both sides of the streets. Ono Steaks & Shrimp was the eatery that won out. With a massively good menu, including garlic fries and fish tacos with a mango-papaya salsa, they did not disappoint.

Ono Steaks and Shrimp

Ono Steaks and Seafood 2

Waimanolo Beach

Practically around the corner from Ono Steaks & Seafood, we found Waimanolo Beach. The parking lot wasn’t very crowded at all, but there was an influx of limos coming in and out of the lot. We eventually discovered they were responsible for picking up freshly married couples off the beach. We probably saw about five or six Japanese couples leaving the beach, decked out in tuxedos and big princess wedding dresses.

As soon as we caught our panoramic views of the beach, we could see why it was such a popular wedding location. Clear skies and ocean waves in every shade of blue. A few mountains in the distance provided a perfect backdrop for wedding pictures too.

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Mikey was eager to break out the snorkel gear, and while we thought Waimanolo would be the place to christen our new gear, the waves were actually coming in pretty strong. So we decided to save snorkeling for another day.

Kailua Beach

From Waimanalu it was onto the next beach — Kailua Beach, one of our family’s favorite beaches. Since it was close to 5pm on a Friday, we weren’t surprised to find the beach and parking lot completely packed. People were gathering for a live music festival on the beach grounds. Many people looked like they had just gotten off work and were hitting the beach for some happy hour R&R. There was a slew of tourists too. It was a mystery as to where they were coming from, though, since we didn’t know of any major resorts within close proximity. And of course, there were plenty of wind surfers out in the water, being one with the ocean.

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Kailua Beach 10

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Located on the windward side of the island, Kailua is a perfect environment for water sports like windsurfing. Those wind surfers and their kites help add to the beauty of Kailua Beach, and the four of us in the family always enjoy going there to sink our feet in the super soft sand, swim in the warm water, take a nap and photograph the pretty ribbons in the sky. Admiring the wind surfers and their athleticism from afar is also an activity we find ourselves doing at Kailua Beach. It seems like such strenuous work to balance on your board while keeping the controls of your kite in check. I don’t think I have that kind of coordination.

In keeping with tradition, Mikey and I drew our names in the sand — as we had done at Kailua six years ago. We’ve decided it’s a must-do whenever we visit.

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Kailua Beach 2013

Kailua Beach 2007

Kailua Beach 2007

Kahuku Grill

By that time, night was falling — and that meant time for dinner. Dad drove us all the way to the North Shore for dinner at Kahuku Grill. He and Mom had been there during their last visit to Oahu two years ago, and Mom was a big fan of their burgers. By that time, the four of us were tired from driving around the island and sunning ourselves all day. But to sit outside on the patio and eat our burgers and macadamia encrusted coconut shrimp under the moonlight was pure perfection.

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Kahuku Grill 1

Kahuku Moon

It was close to 10pm by the time we got back to Lola’s house that night. Luckily, she’s a night owl and is always willing to wait up for us. We stayed up for a few more hours, catching her up on the day’s adventures before hitting the futons for a full night’s rest… which was much-needed for the following day’s activity… SURFING!

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Keeping it Creepy at Meramec Caverns

With how chilly its become in St. Louis, summer feels like ages ago. And so does our visit to Meramec Caverns. But I figured, those eery stalactites and stalagmites at the caverns look a lot like Halloween. So recapping our adventure doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

Back in July, Mikey and I joined my parents, brother, nieces and nephews for a visit to Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri. Meramec Caverns is Missouri’s largest commercial cave. Tours are offered daily, allowing visitors a glimpse into the mysterious underground where these unique mineral formations live. None of us in the family had been on a tour before — even Mikey, the St. Louis native. And with my niece, Hannah, and nephew, Josh, in town for a few weeks over the summer, we had the perfect excuse to go.

While on the tour, our guide touched on more than just the natural wonder of the cave’s formations. He went deep into the history of the cave, explaining how explorers were lured there by the possibility of gold — only to find saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Back then, saltpeter was a key ingredient used in the making of gun powder. Over the years, the cave and its precious minerals were heavily disputed over. Southerners eventually took control of the caverns during the Civil War and ended saltpeter mining altogether.

The infamous Jesse James was another point of discussion during the tour. Notorious for his numerous bank robberies and murderous ways, he made Meramec Caverns his hideout and used the underground river as an escape route. Hence, the caves have been dubbed “Jesse James’ Hideout”.

Winding through the cave trails was equally creepy as it was cold. The temperatures in the caverns drops to around 50 degrees, which was much cooler than the summer swelter happening above ground. The chill in the air added to the mystery, but nothing compares to the ghostly contortions of the formations themselves. So without further ado…

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Stalactites oozing out of the cave ceiling

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Staring at the jagged edges in the dark

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You could hear the occasional drip-drop like tears hitting the pond below.

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Of course, the lights show got a lot of oooohhh’s and ahhhhh’s.

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These formations remind me of Captain Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean.

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The Wine Table Room, an intriguing part of the caverns that was formed by a massive earthquake. The quake left behind a structure with three legs that resembles a table. An array of wine bottle-shaped stalactites and stalagmites surround it.

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Looks like underwater coral.

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The tour ended with a music and light show against this incredible backdrop.

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American flag illuminated against the massive geological structure

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One final giant stalactite as we head out of the darkness and into the light

Now we can check Meramec Caverns off our St. Louis must-see list and perhaps use it as inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume. I mean, really. How awesome would it be to show up to a party as a stalagmite?

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This Year’s Green Thumb Successes + A Terrible Tragedy

It was a breezy fall day in St. Louis today. But as much as I love fall, I’m reverting back to spring and summer to recap the lovelies that have graced the Riley garden since April.

For once, we had a pretty mild summer in St. Louis. I could actually go longer than 24 hours without watering my plants on most days. The year before, we experienced a drought in the region that kept us cooped us inside and our plants in permanent droop mode. This year was different. My plants thrived.

pink hyacinth

This was the first bloom for these pink hyacinths, bought online at Dutch Gardens. They were huge!

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Blue hyacinth beauties. Also purchased from Dutch Gardens.

red orange tulip

Gorgeous tulip insides

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These Replete Daffodils were perfect cut flowers.

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Every year we have this stretch of the backyard mulched. This was the day the landscape company did the work. The rhododendrons were looking mighty fine.

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A yellow Bearded Iris

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A fluffy pink Peony

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Purple clematis bloom

red clematis

Bigger than my palm red Clematis

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Lace cap hydrangeas. Love how the little flowers have white edges.

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A striking red lily in our front yard flower bed

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Paired these deep purple Vincas with pale pink Vincas in a multi-tiered flower pot.

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Can’t remember what these are called, but when multiple blooms are in effect, they look like a carpet of pink neon.

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Large and in charge white hydrangeas

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The first bloom of my new Delphinium. Love that reverse ombre.

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One of my favorite pairings. Red Geranium with Lobelia. Very patriotic, too.

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One of the hens and chicks that my mom gave me. They’re growing like wildfire over at her house.

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More hydrangeas to fuel my obsession. The leaves are looking so healthy, thick and shiny on these.

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With all the construction going on at the front of the house, we had to move all the patio plants to the back deck. Our backyard may or not have looked like a jungle.

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Even though it was hard to maneuver around our deck, the vibrant flower colors instantly put me in a good mood.

My biggest green thumb success, though, was my blue Endless Summer hydrangeas. After five years of living in our house, they were blooming like crazy and growing so large, you could see them peeking at you from the sidewalk. And, of course, since blue hydrangeas are my all-time favorite flowers, I was ecstatic about how well they were doing…

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Photo taken just as construction on our chimney was beginning.

That is, until the house construction started. The area of stucco behind the hydrangeas needed replacement, so I let our contractor twist my arm and agree to digging the hydrangeas up and putting them in large pots to be stored in the backyard shade. Only a couple weeks into their new pots, we had a few days of rain, and a short time later, I noticed the hydrangeas starting to droop. Lo and behold, our contractor failed to drill drainage holes at the bottom of the pots. So for almost an entire week, the flowers had been sitting in still water. Mikey and I tipped the pots on their sides, so that all the water could drain out, but the damage was done. Both plants were dying, and despite our best attempts to dry them out, eventually all the leaves and stems turned dark.

We told our contractor about his major screw-up, and his response was that he couldn’t be held responsible for the plants. It wasn’t written into our contract or bid or anything. He did say that he’d talk to a landscaping friend of his to see what he could work out, but he never followed up with us. With so many other issues we had to deal with regarding the house construction, Mikey and I were both stressed to the max. It wasn’t worth fighting, and at this point, if anyone is going to lay a finger on my new hydrangeas, it is going to be me — not the guy who killed them in the first place.

Anyone with a passion for gardening knows how much of a loss something like this is. Yes, flowers are a material thing. But they’re also living things that can’t be replaced with a simple trip to the nursery. It takes time for plants to adjust to their new soil and surroundings and mature. Five years is a long time to wait for a new pair of hydrangeas to get back to the size and health that these ones were.

If I’m looking on the bright side, at least there have been many of other stunning flowers to delight me this year. Our flowers and shrubs have helped us make our mark on this house of ours, and I’ve always been a big fan of that saying: I’d rather have flowers on my table than diamonds on my finger. (Although don’t get me wrong — diamonds are cool, too.)

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Showing My Adventurous Side

Five years ago, if you would’ve asked me to strap into a harness, climb 50 feet off the ground, push off from a platform in the trees and crash into a cargo net, hanging in mid-air, I would’ve emphatically told you, “NO”. I’ve never been the adventurous, adrenaline-rush type and usually try to avoid any and all situations where someone could potentially lure me into an extreme sports or X-games-like circumstance. Well, that was until I had to do it for work.

As part of a team-building activity on a business trip in Portland, Oregon, I was lured taken to a ropes course called Tree to Tree. Once properly geared up and brought up to speed on the do’s and don’t’s of safety, my team tackled the ropes course. Climbing rope ladders up to wooden platforms, walking across tight ropes and zip-lining from the tree leaves into cushioned mulch beds below. Much to my surprise, it was a lot of fun.

So when I heard that St. Louis’ Creve Coeur Park was getting a ropes course of its own this past summer, I jumped at the chance to take my niece there during her annual summer visit to St. Louis. The name of the ropes course is Go Ape, and they have six locations across the country, including the one that recently opened in Creve Coeur Park. The course is open to children, starting at age 10, and adults 18 and over.

Since Mike and I brought my niece on the Go Ape adventure, the whole family ended up coming along. With my dad in tow, he took a few great shots to document the day.

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The Go Ape building, located in Creve Coeur Park

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Mikey gives Tarzan Swing #1 a go.

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Once you crash into the cargo net, the challenge is to climb your way up and over to the next platform.

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Waiting in line for my time to swing.

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“Weeeeeee!”

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In hard core concentration mode

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Trying hard to stabilize

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How old am I in this picture? Like 6?

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Zip lining backwards

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Mikey follows after me on the zip line.

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Disappearing into the trees

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The final stop. Mikey makes a safe landing.

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Course complete!

While Go Ape was fun and definitely a good upper body workout, the day turned out to be a bust for my niece. Even though the age requirement is 10 years old, I would recommend waiting to take your kid until he or she is a couple years older. Unless your child is uber outdoorsy and adventurous, this course may not be the best way to spend an afternoon. My niece struggled to to the top of a rope ladder at the first station, and despite giving it her best shot, she decided to sit the rest of the day out. I couldn’t have been more proud of her for being brave and trying something new. At her age, I was afraid to swing the baseball bat in P.E. class.

Another kid we encountered during the day was also overcome by nerves at one of the last stations. We weren’t sure what the culprit of his nerves was, but it may have been the sheer sight of looking down to the ground from way up high. It is a little freaky when you come to terms with how sky-high you really are.

Unfortunately, this Go Ape course consisted a single course. The Tree to Tree course I did in Portland had multiple levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced. And there aren’t any escape routes or emergency exits at the various stations at Go Ape. If you’re ready to call it quits, you have to proceed station after station until your course leads you to solid ground.

After a little reflection, I’ve discovered that my ability to do a ropes course without total debilitating fear probably has to do with the fact that when in the act, I am in complete control. I dictate how fast or slow I move across the ropes. It’s not a roller coaster that drops or turns unexpectedly. Or like sky-diving where you hop out of a plane, and the rest is up to your parachute and God. The ropes course is really is a mental exercise for me. A lot of deep breaths, and a lot of just going for it.

Who knows. That might be the extent of my adventurous side. Still no plans to become a BMX bike rider or tight rope across the Grand Canyon.

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Our 4th Annual Teddy Vacation

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It’s not easy being The Bear. Of the 24 hours that make a single day, he’s asleep for roughly 13 of them.  The only time he spends away from the house on a daily basis is a 30-40 minute workout at the Maplewood Dog Park — which consists of a tedious and monotonous throw, run, catch, return and repeat. And the highlights of his day happen once in the morning and again in the evening when downs his bowl of food… in less than 60 seconds.

The same-old hum-drum routine (oh, the cruelty) makes a Teddy vacation a required vacation for us Rileys, and this year was no exception.

In all seriousness, this annual trip to the Lake of the Ozarks started out as a quick getaway with Mikey, The Bear and my parents. But we soon realized that The Bear was the one who actually had the most fun during these lake visits. Scroll through the photos below, and you’ll see why. So we later dubbed it “Teddy’s Vacation”.

This year, we rented a lake cottage in Rocky Mount, near Mile Marker 6 of the Main Channel. The cottage was nestled along the shores of Possum Hollow Cove. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any possums, although The Bear has taken one down in our backyard within the past year. (The Bear fears no possum.)

As always, our short three-night stay was relaxing as can be. We left the cottage only to pick up a few staples at the store and visit the outlet mall in Osage Beach. Other than that, it was nothing but swimming, sunning, grilling, reading, napping, movie-watching, laughing and chatting. For The Bear, it was a whole lot of dock diving and frolicking around in his little green life jacket.

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We always come stocked with a full arsenal of ales.

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One of my favorite Sangria recipes. Keep reading to get the recipe below.

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Always there to keep you company in the kitchen

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Captured on camera by Dad, the Papa Razzi

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Mom and The Bear ham it up for the camera

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Mikey invested in a Labrador hat he found at Dollar General. #onlyintheozarks

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Anticipating the throw

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That’s my Ma!

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Isn’t he elegant?

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A glimpse at our lake cottage

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Mikey’s shadow

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Teddy’s Vacation wouldn’t be complete without Dad and me conducting a photo shoot.

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Seconds from launch

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Weeee!

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Sideways crash landing

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Making waves

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There he goes again!

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His face says it all.

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Go long, Teddy!

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Floppy ears are the best.

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Riley selfie

One thing to note is that this Teddy Vacation goes down in history as the first trip that I have completely unplugged from the internet, social media, work e-mail, personal e-mail, everything. My goal was to leave no digital footprint behind, and much to my surprise, it was a success. Most days, I had no concept of what time it was. Without any commitments or yearning to pick up my phone, I was left to my own devices (no pun intended). I had all the downtime in the world to sit out on the three-tiered lake cottage deck with a glass of my Summer Cookout Sangria (recipe here) and let the clock tick away.

I’ve decided to do this whole “disconnect to reconnect” thing at least once a year. The fact that our lake cottage didn’t have WiFi was a huge help to keeping my phone at bay, but with 4G always at your fingertips and telecomm companies touting more bars in more places, sometimes internet access isn’t as remote as you’d like it to be.

There are many reasons why we choose the Lake of the Ozarks for Teddy’s Vacation. It’s no more than three hours away. There are a slew of vacation rentals available on sites like HomeAway.com, VacationRentals.com, VRBO.com, etc. And you can find a no-frills place to stay for pretty cheap. Despite all these pros, we’re actually thinking of switching up next year’s Teddy Vacation by renting a house on a real beach. Maybe Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head or the Outer Banks. I’m already dreaming up 100 different scenarios.

I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ozarks again. But for next year, I’ve got my sights set for much larger bodies of water.

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Filed under Dogs, Family, Travel, Vacation

Six Years Since Hawaii

The hubs, The Bear, the parental units and I just returned from a three-day stay at the Lake of the Ozarks. As much as I want to rave about how amazing it was to escape the everyday work routine, I am already on to the next thing. (Photos and recap from the Ozarks vacay are still to come, but as for the next thing…) It’s our upcoming vacation to Hawaii!

A vacation to the Land of Aloha is long overdue. My paternal grandmother lives on Oahu, along with aunts, uncles and cousins, who I haven’t seen in about six years. It’s high time for our return, and to say that I’m excited is an understatement. I am pumped. And extremely thankful that our family members have not followed our footsteps into the Midwest and chosen to stay in the tropical locale where our family originated. It gives us reason to go back and reconnect.

All of this excitement takes me back to the last time we visited Hawaii. It was 2007. Mikey and I were about a year out of college. We weren’t even engaged yet. It was the first time I was introducing a boyfriend to Lola (that’s the Filipino word for “grandmother”, FYI). I remember we did anything and everything while there. (Oh, and introducing Mikey to Lola went swimmingly, in case you were wondering.)

We hiked the top of Diamond Head, a famous volcanic crater that overlooks the Pacific Ocean at the end of Waikiki.

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Visited Punch Bowl Cemetery, a 75,000 or so year-old crater and memorial site to men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces — many of whom passed away during World War II.

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Let the water tickle our toes as we walked the stretch of Waikiki Beach.

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Beach-hopped along the North Shore, while soaking up the sun and splashing in the waves of Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipleine and Waimea Bay.

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Took a few history lessons on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.

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Drove to the windward side of the island to Kailua Beach, where we walked on the softest sand I’ve ever set foot on and watched wind surfers travel the open seascape.

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Immersed ourselves in the Polynesian cultures of Tonga, Samoa, Aeotearoa,Tahiti, Fiji and Hawaii at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

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Ate like true islanders at an authentic luau.

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Watched hula dancers shake it and fire dancers not drop it like it’s hot.

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We did so much during our last Hawaii trip that I wonder if this upcoming visit will live up to the last. One thing that will be different is our itinerary, which includes a three-night stay in Maui. That’s a whole other island for us to explore. But really, let’s face it. You could stick me on a beach with beer, food and sunscreen for the entire duration of our visit, and I would be content. Heck, that’s what I’ll probably be doing the whole trip anyway.

Note: I can’t go without giving credit to my Father Photographer for a number of these photos. He’s rarely photographed, but always behind the camera, freeze-framing all of our family memories.

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Another Successful Schurcipfones Festival

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Attention: everyone. I think I may have found my favorite St. Louis beer festival.

It’s the Schurcipfones beer festival, held in downtown St. Louis at the corner of 10th and Locust. Schurcipfones wraps up the annual St. Louis Craft Beer Week and features a great showing of local craft breweries — and even an out-of-town guest, New Belgium Brewing.

Some of you may remember when I blogged about it last year. With two years in attendance under my belt, I can say it was fun then, and it was fun again this year — which means this gathering of craft beer enthusiasts is no fluke.

Mikey and I spent all of Sunday afternoon with a few of my trusty beer-loving coworkers at Schurcipfones. Sipping beers, enjoying the fan-freaking-tastic weather and sharing lots of laughs. There was music, tasty food (still thinking about those loaded fries) and even activities for kids.

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Us girls

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All smiles. And balls flying through the air.

But the stars of the show were most certainly the beers. Although I didn’t try everything, here’s how I broke down the beers I tried. Ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

4 Hands Ruby Red Prussia Berliner Weisse – 3.5 stars

Civil Life Milk Stout – 4 stars

Perennial Tart Hopfentea – 4 stars

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Tasting glass of Hopfentea

4 Hands Plum Farmhouse – 3 stars

4 Hands Rooster’s Breakfast Beer – 4 stars

4 Hands Pear Cider – 3 stars

Civil Life Grapefruit Radler – 4.5 stars

My favorite beer of the day? Despite the fact that I gave Civil Life Grapefruit Radler a higher rating, the award goes to Perennial Tart Hopfentea. Put the words “tart” and “tea” into a beer name, and I’m almost guaranteed to like it. I may have given the Grapefruit Radler too generous of a rating, since it was the first beer I tasted in the lineup. But if I’m putting my beer hat on and listening to my taste buds over my sweet tooth, Hopfentea takes the trophy.

My favorite brewery of the day? 4 Hands tops my list. With all they had to offer that day, I kept going to back to their table. Overall, they had the best showing of experimental flavors, and you know I’m a sucker for newfangled flavor combos.

Not that I consider myself a beer festival connoisseur, but I think the Schurcipfones festival has a lot going for it. I think it’s because it isn’t incredibly overcrowded. There’s a perfectly-sized audience, and I like that I can move through the crowd without bumping into someone and having to peel myself away from his or her sweaty arm. For whatever reason Schurcipfones is flying under the radar, I hope it doesn’t explode into a massively-attended beer festival. Although that would spell success for the festival organizers, that might warrant them to consider a different location that can accommodate a larger crowd. And frankly, I love its current location.

Not to worry though. I’m still basking in the glow of this year’s festival. Can’t wait to do it all over again next year.

Fun was had. Obviously.

Fun was had. Obviously.

For more on the Schurcipfones festival brews, our good friend, Joe, breaks everything down to a (Hopfen)tea on his new blog, BrewintheLou.com. You should check it out.

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