Where To Next?

Back in January, we shared our goals for 2018. So far, we’ve been staying on track with exercising and eating at home, and we are making progress on our financial goals after officially combining our accounts (not as hard as we expected!). However, the one area we want to start planning more is our travel and vacation plans for the year. With both of us working traditional 9 to 5 jobs, we have a finite amount of time to escape the work grind and want to use this first year of marriage to visit new places. So where to next?

That appears to be the million dollar question.

Between the two of us, Grant tends to be more spontaneous and ready to try new things while Meagan prefers to plan every last detail and stick with the tried and true. We started brainstorming some ideas for this year and ended up with with too many options and no decisions! So what’s stopping us?

  • Do we take one big vacation or several smaller ones? In 2017, our honeymoon was our big trip of the year (and definitely worth it – see our full review here!). Now that we aren’t planning a wedding, we have more vacation time to spread out throughout the course of the year. In a study cited by the New York Times, research has found that several smaller vacation per year rather than one big one boosts overall happiness more than when taking one long vacation. And even more than that, the actual planning and anticipation of a vacation boosts happiness for up to 8 weeks! With that in mind, we lean more towards planning several smaller trips this year. Ideally, we’d like to plan a few long weekend trips, a short summer trip, an anniversary trip in November, and take some time off around Christmas and New Years. South Africa, Europe, and somewhere in the South Pacific are still on the bucket list for some of those longer trip options in the future though!
  • How much should we budget for our vacation fund? There are mixed options about how much to spend on travel each year. Forbes reports that Americans spend 10% of their annual incomes on vacations. While we aren’t paying for a wedding this year, we are working hard to pay down student and car loans as well as saving for a down payment for a house. Planning domestic trips and ones that are driving distances instead of flying will help us keep our vacation costs lower. For our trip this week, we are staying at a condo through Airbnb, which was over 50% less than staying at a hotel resort. (If you are new to Airbnb, use this link to save $40 on your first stay) We also plan to utilize any of our credit card perks or cash back this year to help with some vacation costs. With Meagan being a planner, we have time to research, save, and hopefully get the best deals!
  • Where should we go? We are all over the place on this one and could definitely use some inspiration and suggestions! We’ve talked about Hilton Head or Destin for a beach trip, as they’re both about 6 hours away driving distance. There are some great Airbnb rental options and we both could use a good dose of “vitamin sea!” We’ve never been to Savannah or Asheville together and would love to explore the historic sites along the river or experience the Biltmore Estate. For our anniversary, we’ve looked into New York City, the Florida Keys, or Disney World – planning to splurge the most on this trip this year. We loved our relaxing honeymoon in paradise, but are looking for adventure in our first anniversary trip. Ultimately, we are looking to plan 4-5 smaller trips this year within the domestic U.S., ideally spending around $1,000-$1,500 per trip.

We are off to Park City, Utah for our first trip of the year this week – stay tuned for our post next week! In the meantime, we welcome any and all suggestions on other places to go this year, as well as any tips for planning and saving money along the way. Be sure to follow along with our Instagram at www.instagram.com/thelocalbells

Chops Lobster Bar Review

We had a great Valentine’s Day celebration Wednesday night, cooking and relaxing at home instead of fighting the crowds and bad service with all the other couples. Instead, we decided to have our big celebratory dinner Friday night and visit one of the most iconic Atlanta restaurants – Chops Lobster Bar.

To put it simply, Chops Lobster Bar is home of some of the best steak and seafood in Atlanta, and consistently ranks in the top 10 steakhouses in the U.S. The intimate cavern-like dining room creates an inviting atmosphere as you walk in and see the seafood bar front and center. While we waited for our reservation time, we had a seat at the “Lobster Bar” and settled in with a cocktail to kick off our evening.

When it was time to be seated, we were escorted to a table towards the back, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the dining room. One thing to note about Chops Lobster Bar is their incredible staff. We were always addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Bell, making it feel very personal to us and almost as if we were regulars.

Since it was a special occasion (and also because we had a gift card to offset some of the cost), we decided to take our time through each of the courses. We started off by splitting the signature lobster tail – you can’t go to the iconic Lobster Bar without eating lobster! The 1/4 lb lobster tail was flash fried and served with warm drawn butter and a Greek honey mustard aioli. The batter was light and crispy, though not overpowering for the juicy, buttery lobster. Definitely recommend this as a shareable starter!

For our next course, we selected the French onion soup and the Chops chopped salad. The soup was served in the tradition crock with copious amounts of cheese, making it a truly decadent soup. The salad had some of the freshest romaine lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, endive, and onion and was tossed in a creamy basil vinaigrette. For appetizers, both dishes were generously sized and could easily be shared by two.

When it came to entrees, we decided to get one steak and one seafood option, representing both of the specialities of Chops Lobster Bar. We chose the 20 oz. bone-in ribeye and the horseradish crusted black grouper. Both were incredible! Though I don’t think there is a bad option on the menu. All of the steaks are custom aged and broiled at 1700 degrees, locking in the juicy flavors. The fish was flaky and light, with a subtle rather than overpowering flavor of horseradish. Again, generous portion sizes for both. We split a side of the smoked Gouda mac and cheese too, which was so decadent and delicious that not a noodle was left behind.

After stuffing ourselves with appetizers, soup, salad, and entrees, we were too full to properly enjoy the dessert course and decided to pass this round. All in all, an incredible experience from the food to the service to the ambiance of the Chops Lobster Bar. Such a great experience comes with a comparable price tag, so it’s unlikely we will become regulars but definitely a place to remember for special celebrations.

TLB Tip: Interested in checking out Chops Lobster Bar or one of the other Buckhead Life Group restaurants? Order an Ultimate Dining Card to get an extra 10% added for future purchases.

Paradisus La Perla – Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Happy Valentine’s Day! While we love this special day, it’s been the everyday married life for the past three months that has been so incredibly special. We knew each other for almost 10 years before getting married, but you learn so much about someone when you live together. We’ve learned that it works best when we each do our own laundry, but that we make a pretty good team when cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. While we’re still in this “honeymoon” phase of life, we thought it was only fitting to share some of our favorite things from our phenomenal honeymoon at Paradisus La Perla in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

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It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, we were knee-deep in wedding planning. There were three things on our list that we were most excited to plan – the food, the band, and the honeymoon! You spend so much time, effort, and money planning the perfect day to celebrate the start of your marriage, so it was important to us that we picked a honeymoon location that we could relax in paradise to truly begin our life together. Originally, we were going to pick three places and Grant would ultimately decide and book the resort, keeping it a surprise for me. But…..once we started looking, we decided it would be more fun to plan things together (and it took some of the pressure off Grant!).

I love planning and organizing, especially when it comes to vacations. I kept a spreadsheet with our options, including notes about number of restaurants, number of pools, included amenities, location, and traveler reviews. We probably had close to a dozen options we were considering. A big factor in our decision-making was finding a location where the weather and water would still be warm in November, a place that had direct flights from Atlanta, and a resort that was all inclusive, so we didn’t have to worry about budgeting when we were supposed to be relaxing.

I had been to Mexico before with my family and loved the resort we had always stayed at, the Moon Palace. But for our honeymoon, Grant and I wanted to experience a place that neither of us had been to. We narrowed down our options to Mexico or the Dominican Republic, and eventually zeroed in on Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Playa del Carmen is outside of the typical, touristy Cancun resort area that most people associate with Mexico. The resort we decided on was Paradisus La Perla and was about a 45 minute drive from the Cancun International Airport.

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We had some concerns from family and friends about traveling to Mexico, but neither of us ever felt unsafe during our visit. The resort arranged complimentary transportation to and from the airport, and the resort was only accessible by visitors staying there. The one thing that would have been a benefit to us was if either of us spoke Spanish. We knew a few words here and there, but not enough to carry on a full conversation. Maybe it’s time we start listening to Rosetta Stone on our commutes to and from the office!

It’s hard to narrow down our favorite parts of our honeymoon, but here are our top 5 favorite things about Paradisus La Perla:

  1. Royal Service – The name itself just sounds magical, and trust us, it was! Royal Service guests have access to a special concierge for booking preferential dining reservations and spa treatments, have their own personal on-call butler, have a private Royal Service only pool and bar, private Royal Service-only a la carte restaurant, and the “Free to Lounge” area with specialty snacks and top shelf beverages. Gilberto was our butler and was fantastic about getting us the dinner reservations we requested and just making sure we had a wonderful stay. We definitely took advantage of the “Free to Lounge” area since many of our reservations were later in the evening and found it the perfect place to have a quick snack and relax before dinner. img_1855img_1914
  2. Incredible Food – There are 14+ incredible restaurants here! So many that we didn’t even make it to all of them. When you think all-inclusive, you sometimes think it is equivalent with buffets or average food. Not the case at all with Paradisus. While we didn’t get a chance to try it this time, their Passion restaurant is run by Seven Star Michelin Chef Martin Berasategui and is supposed to be phenomenal. Our favorite restaurants included Hadar for breakfast, The Market (or a poolside snack!) for lunch, and Fuego and Bana for dinner. You really could not go wrong with any of their restaurants! And they were very accommodating with food allergies. Grant is allergic to tree nuts, and he received a card that noted his allergy in English and in Spanish that we gave to each of our waiters before dining. img_1911img_1921
  3. All-Inclusive – Similar to our comments about food, having an all-inclusive resort was amazing after a year of budgeting and paying for a wedding. The Paradisus staff was truly top-notch with customer service, and were genuinely appreciative when we did tip someone for exceptional service. The all-inclusive aspect really made us excited to try some new foods and drinks while we were there that we might not have spent the money on otherwise. Grant in particular enjoyed all of the frozen drink variations (Mango Tangos every day), and it was a special treat to enjoy so much fresh seafood. One of our favorite pre-dinner spots was the M Bar, a martini bar. It was so fun to try some new variations of the classic martini and take some notes for when we entertain at home. img_1883-1img_1885
  4. Variety of Things to Do – The Paradisus resort is a combination of two properties, La Esmeralda (family side) and La Perla (adults only). Having such a large, combined resort gave us a ton of options when it came to eating, exploring, and activities. While we were there, we got to go to a Mexican wine tasting class (TLB fun fact: per capita consumption of wine in Mexico is only one bottle per year!), went to a sushi making class, and went on a snorkeling tour. The wine tasting class and sushi class were both right on property, and we booked the snorkeling adventure through AquaWorld. The tour boat left right from the Paradisus beach, drove us out to the reef for an hour of snorkling, then brought us back – all without ever leaving our resort! img_1872img_1891img_1896
  5. Property & Views – Having access to two resorts in one was a great feature! We never felt bored and had some many places to explore. The pool areas were amazing, with comfy lounge chairs, easy access to the bar for food and drinks, and the ocean breeze to whisk your mind away to paradise. The beach was beautiful, and we took a few walks along there to feel the sand under our toes and smell the cool ocean breeze. They had an awesome Royal Service only section on the beach as well, which we tried out only once. 37 minutes under the direct sunlight, and we had to make a retreat for our pool chairs and umbrella! These two pale people can’t take too much of the Mexican sun! Our room was amazing as well – we had our own swim-up access to the pool, jacuzzi, and sitting area. The Paradisus team covered every detail you could imagine! img_1878img_1871img_1841

Sound like a place you’d want to go? Take a look at the website here to read more, see pictures, and book your stay! Have more questions? Comment below or send us an email at thelocalbells@gmail.com

TLB tip: join Melia Rewards (it’s free!) to get an even bigger discount when booking.

Homemade Pizza (with cauliflower crust!)

February 9th was “National Pizza Day,” so it only seemed fitting that we had pizza night this weekend! Homemade pizza night has always been one of our favorite (and cheap) date nights, but we actually haven’t had once since before we were married. Since it was a rainy Saturday, we decided it would be a perfect evening to break out the pizza stone in the new apartment!

We usually buy the pre-made pizza dough from Kroger or Publix, but I had heard a lot about cauliflower crust as a dough substitute. I wasn’t able to convince Grant, but I did decide to give it a go on my own pizza. We had bought cauliflower rice from Costco, which is essentially just finely chopped cauliflower florets. I steamed 2 1/2 cups of the riced cauliflower in the microwave for 7 minutes as the package directed. Next, I wrapped the steamed cauliflower in several paper towels to squeeze out the excess water.

After getting out as much of the extra water as possible, I mixed in one egg, oregano, salt, garlic powder, and mozzarella cheese. Once the mixture comes together, I shaped it into a circle resembling a pizza on a cookie sheet lined with foil. The recipe called for parchment paper, but since we didn’t have any, I had to improvise!

I baked the crust at 400 for 20 minutes before taking it out to officially assemble my pizza. I let it cool for a few minutes and then coated the crust with a mixture of olive oil, fresh garlic, and oregano. From there, I added my favorite toppings – Greek olives, portobello mushrooms and goat cheese and finished it off by topping it with a lot of mozzarella cheese!

Back into the oven for another 20 minutes, and after a brief cooling period, it was finally ready to try! Appearance wise, it looked (and smelled) delicious!

The foil instead of parchment paper proved to an issue when it came time to remove the pizza. It stuck a good bit, but with Grant’s help, we were able to cut a few pieces and transfer them to a plate for dinner. Next time, I plan to make the crust a little thinner. It didn’t get super crispy this time, and I had to eat most of it with a fork and a knife. Overall, the flavor was really good and I felt just as full as I would with real pizza crust (though with a fraction of the carbs and calories!).

Final consensus, definitely give the cauliflower crust a try if you love pizza but are looking for an alternative to the traditional gluten crust. I recommend making the crust fairly thin and using parchment paper. If you love picking up your pizza and a thick crust, then this crust probably isn’t for you (AKA Grant). Check out the full recipe I used here: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/katie-lee/cauliflower-pizza-crust-2651381.amp

Homemade Limoncello – Part 1

For those of you who don’t know, Grant and I met on a European studies trip to Italy and Greece nearly ten years ago! My great grandfather on my dad’s side came over from Sicily, Italy, so you could say Italy has played an important role in both of our lives! When we were deciding on a rehearsal dinner location, we had one of the best Italian meals (that wasn’t in Italy) at Tuscany Italian Restaurant in Woodstock. After gorging ourselves on a sampling of basically the entire menu, the owner sat down with us for a celebratory toast of limoncello. Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur, mainly produced in Southern Italy. Traditionally, it is served chilled as an after-dinner drink. I love all things lemon – lemon bars, lemon Italian ice, and limoncello! For whatever reason, I decided to see how it was made and found out that it is surprisingly simple! Being the patient man he is, Grant indulged me and agreed for us to give it a try at making some homemade limoncello this weekend.

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We started off by gathering all of the necessary ingredients: lemons, alcohol (we went with vodka), and a large glass jar. After a visit to Costco to purchase the biggest bag of lemons I’ve ever seen ($6.99) and a 1.75 liter bottle of their private label vodka ($13.99), we grabbed the final item – the glass jar – from Target ($5.79), all in all spending less than $30 dollars! There are a lot of recipes out there for homemade limoncello, but this is the one we decided to follow with a few tweaks: http://theitaliandishblog.com/imported-20090913150324/2012/7/3/how-to-make-homemade-limoncello.html

You start off by zesting or grating the lemons. I used ten lemons and alternating between using the large grater for thicker peels with the small zester to get the hard to grate edges. A word of caution that every recipe says: make sure to no zest the white pith of the lemon or else it will be very bitter.

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It took a good 30 minutes to grate and zest all of the lemons. Once they are settled into the glass jar, you add one liter of alcohol. Some recipes call for Everclear, others call for vodka. Vodka was more easily accessible and cheaper, so that’s what we went with! Costco has some awesome deals on both their private label as well as other national brands. TLB tip: you don’t even have to be a Costco member to go to their liquor store!

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Once we sealed the jar up tight, it goes in a cool, dark place for the next 7-30 days (we read differing reviews on this one, but plan to err more on the longer side of it). At that point, you make a simple syrup to add to the lemon/vodka mixture. TLB tip: use the leftover grated/zested lemons to make lemonade, lemon bars, or infuse into water.

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Stay tuned for part two of our limoncello making adventure! Keep your fingers crossed for us that it turns out!

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