Off the Beaten Path in Venice

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since our trip to Italy! It was an incredible trip, and we’ve been reflecting back on those happy memories lately. We feel exceptionally lucky that we had the chance to go last year, and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Italy and around the world that are dealing with the current pandemic. To spread some happiness, we’re finally sharing some of our tips from our time in Venice.

On final stop on our trip through Italy concluded in Venice! By this point, we have traversed a good bit of the country, taking in sights from the coast to the countryside and now the islands of Venice. While Venice is regarded as one of the must-see places while you still can (it sinks a little bit further into the water each year!), that brings its own challenges of being subject to over-tourism. We made it our mission to enjoy the major claims to fame for Venice, but also to seek out places and activities that only locals know about. Here are some of our tips to help you experience the other side of Venice:

1. Visit cicchetti bars in the early evening for the best small plates and drinks. Our first night in Venice, we booked an Airbnb experience with a local Venetian for a food and drink tour. (New to Airbnb? Use our link for a discount off your first stay here.) He took our small group around to several tiny local bars and introduced us to the concept of cicchetti. Essentially, these are small bites and drinks that you enjoy before a later meal – think of it as a Venetian happy hour! It’s a great way to try some of the traditional Venetian foods like sardines, polpette (fried meatballs), or crostini. And you have to have something to wash down your food, so ask for an ombra di bianco o di rosso which is the Italian equivalent of a small glass of the house wine. It’s getting harder and harder to find truly authentic Venetian restaurants on the island, so the cicchetti bars are some of the best ways to have a real taste of Venice. My favorite cicchetti was anything with fresh pesto, while Grant preferred the smoked fish or proscuitto. TLB Tip: If you are feeling particularly adventurous, try the sarde en saor – a traditional Venetian sardine dish!

2. Take the traghetto across the lagoon to say you’ve ridden a gondola without the expensive price tag. A gondola ride is the epitome of the Venetian experience, but we had heard so many stories about bad experiences or overpriced tours. We were wary to book anything and decided to save our money and forgo the ride, until we learned about the traghetto option. Essentially, the traghetto is a gondola without all of the fancy bells and whistles and it’s used as a ferry to get passengers from one side of the lagoon to the other. It’s a quick 2 minute ride, but for the experience on the water and for only 2 Euros each, we had a blast!

3. Bring your own water bottle to save money on the waters sold by the overpriced street vendors. You’ll find fountains and safe tap drinking water throughout Italy, so it’s super easy to fill up throughout the day if you have your own water bottle. Bonus tip: bring your empty bottle to one of the island’s bulk wine stores and they will fill up a liter for less than 3 Euros of one of their house wine! We ended up randomly discovering a location during one of our walks. It was a great way to try some local wine for cheap, especially if you are planning to be there for a few days.

4. Enjoying walking around the city, even if you don’t have a destination in mind. I’ll admit that while I’m typically good with directions, Venice was a challenge for me. With so many winding alleyways and bridges traversing the city, it’s easy to get turned around or lost. The good news is that the city is relatively small and very walkable. Our favorite times in Venice were when we just started heading in the general direction of our final destination, with no time constraints. We stumbled upon an amazing little bookshop that kept books in gondolas and bathtubs to protect the books during the flooding season which was so cool to see. Another day, we bought a vaporetto (water taxi) pass, and we took an adventure over to the island of Lido to visit the beach and went to Murano to see the amazing blown glass. We didn’t have any specific activities in mind when visiting both of these places, but it is so calming to be next to the ocean and to see more of Venice outside of the main island.

Is Venice on your bucket list for a future trip to Italy? What would you be most excited about?

Be sure to check out our other Italy posts about Sorrento and Florence!

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We Saved Over $1,000 on Our Disney World Vacation – And So Can You!

Back in November, Grant and I celebrated our first anniversary at the happiest place on Earth – Disney World! We’ve had the opportunity to go three times together (2015, 2016, and 2018), and each time it gets even better! This was our second time with the “Free Dining” promotion, and this time, we tracked all of our spending to see if it actually saved us money. And after tallying every dollar spent on our resort, tickets, and food, the grand total was over $1,000 in savings compared to if we had paid for every thing at full cost! And if you include our flights that we paid for with points and a gift card, that total goes up to nearly $1,400 that we saved!

So, how did we do it? Unlike grocery shopping or online shopping where you can use a myriad of coupons or promo codes to get some great deals, Disney itself really only has a few ways for you to save on a vacation: a room discount, package discount/special offer, or by using your Disney Visa card rewards. But there are a few other tips and tricks to save and stretch every dollar for your next Disney vacation!

Here are the steps we took to build up these amazing savings:

  • Free Dining” Promotion – The first time we took advantage of the “Free Dining” promotion was in 2016, and we stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort. We stumbled upon the promotion when were were planning our trip and were lucky enough to snag a reservation with the offer. This time, we knew to be on the lookout for it, especially since it’s historically been offered for the same time of year (promo becomes available in late April for bookings in the fall/early winter; I like to keep track of historical promos here). We managed to book at Coronado Springs this time for a few days after Thanksgiving, the best time in my opinion to get in the Christmas spirit and go during a cooler time of year. TLB Tip – there are rumors that “Free Dining” will be going away after Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opens. BUT if you are looking to plan a Disney vacation this summer, they have “Free Dining” available July-September, so book while you can! The promotion nearly always sells out, but make sure it’s the right choice for you and your family:
    • Ticket Requirements – There are ticket requirements (Park Hopper and typically at least 4 days) and you aren’t able to bundle with other offers, so sometimes a room only discount can be better (deluxe resorts sometimes have discounts up to 35%!). For us, we knew we wanted the Park Hopper option and planned to be there 5 days and 4 nights, so the promotion fit perfectly for our vacation. When looking at the room only discount for the same time period, a 20% discount at Coronado Springs would only save us about $200, so we opted for the free dining package instead.
    • Different Meal Plans Included – Only the Deluxe resorts get the full Disney Dining Plan (1 quick service, 1 table service, 2 snacks per person per night); Values and Moderates get the Quick Service Plan (2 quick service, 2 snacks per person per night). With this trip being an anniversary trip, we definitely wanted to make sure we had some table service options. Although we were staying at a Moderate resort, Disney allows you to upgrade your meal plan for the difference in cost, which was well worth it to us! This way, it basically feels like an all-inclusive vacation (aside from tips). If we hadn’t had free dining this trip, it still would have been worth it for us – we would have saved a couple hundred dollars by purchasing the meal plan this trip.
    • Make Dining Reservations Early! I cannot emphasize this one enough, especially for the Disney Dining Plan with table service restaurants. Disney opens the booking window 180 days out for dining reservations, and if you are staying on property, you can make reservations for all days of your vacation at that 180 day mark. And if you want to eat at some of the most popular restaurants like Be Our Guest, you’ll want to be on the computer right at 6 AM EST to book those! Keep in mind that the cost of the Disney Dining Plan is $75.49 per person per night, so if you really want to maximize the benefits of “free dining,” you’ll want to look at menus and plan to try to spend over $5 per snack, $18 per quick service meal, and $41 per table service meal (the break even amounts if you paid for the plan out of pocket). We highly recommend Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club (all you can eat crab legs!) and Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for some of our favorite table service meals. And Be Our Guest is the only quick service location that requires reservations for breakfast and lunch, so we love being able to plan for a great meal for less time than a typical table service meal.
    • So. Much. Food. So would we really eat this much food if we weren’t on the dining plan? Probably not. The two snacks per person each day was a bit aggressive, and we ended up using quite a few on our last day with the Goofy candy to take home. But it was great to be able to try some new restaurants and food that we wouldn’t normally order. TLB Tip – Starbucks drinks count as a snack credit, so go ahead and order that $7 Venti Frappuccino that you know you can’t resist! And new to the 2018 (and still for 2019) dining plan was the addition of a specialty beverage with each meal. It made every meal feel like a special treat, and definitely not what we would have done if we were paying a la carte!
  • Sam’s Club Gift Cards – One of our top travel hacks for planning and paying for this trip was purchasing discounted Disney gift cards from Sam’s Club. When you make your initial reservation, Disney only requires a $200 deposit that is refundable up until 30 days from your check-in date, which gives you a ton of time to save along the way and pay as you go. Sam’s Club currently offers discounted gift cards that save you about $7 every $150 in gift cards you purchase. When we paid with our Discover card, there was a 5% cash back bonus for purchases at club stores, so we were able to save even more! We booked our trip in April, so we had about 7 months to save and purchase gift cards along the way. Disney’s website makes it very easy to use gift cards and make payments along the way, with only a $20 minimum on payments.
  • Disney Chase Visa Card – While definitely not the best card in terms of the cash back (1% on all purchases), cardholders sometimes get access to longer promotion windows or other perks. We put some of our work and personal expenses on this card and pay it off every month, so over the past few years it accumulated to a nice amount for our souvenir and extra expense bucket. Cardholders also enjoy 0% APR on Disney vacations booked with your Disney Visa for 6 months.
  • Airline Points – Orlando is a fairly easy drive from Atlanta, but still would take up a good bit of our vacation just in traveling back and forth. With some of our work travel over the past year, we were able to accumulate enough points to book Southwest flights for our trip – about $400 if we had paid out of pocket. With just an hour flight between the cities and having access to Disney’s Magical Express, transportation was a breeze and at no additional cost to us!

Interested in seeing our cost breakdown? We would have spent a whopping $3,400 if we paid out of pocket for everything included in our last trip (resort, tickets, food costs)! Here’s how things broke out if we were to pay completely out of pocket with a meal plan and no discounts versus a room only discount versus what we actually paid:

Cost completely out of pocket$3,433
Cost with no discounts & Disney Dining Plan$2,969
Cost with 25% room only discount & Disney Dining Plan$2,708
Actual costs (with “free dining” & all savings)$2,263

So what are your favorite ways to save for your Disney vacation? Comment below for any other ones we should consider for our next trip!  

Thanks for reading more tips and tricks from our Disney trip to come! Be sure to check out our Instagram for more: www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells.

Tiki House Beach Getaway Part 2 – Food

You can’t go to the beach without enjoying some amazing seafood, so we made it our mission to find some great places for dinner the three nights we were on our beach vacation last month.

One of the best parts of visiting the beaches on the Florida Panhandle is the distance from Atlanta. We made the trip down Thursday morning, and arrived before lunchtime to explore the Rosemary Beach area before checking into the Airbnb. Our first stop was  the Havana Beach Rooftop Lounge at The Pearl hotel. With the breathtaking view of the Gulf Coast, it was the perfect spot to toast to the start of vacation! They have a great happy hour starting at noon ($5 glasses of wine and $5 beers), but their food menu was quite pricey.

We continued our quest for seafood the first evening by visiting Pompano Joe’s Seafood House at Pier Park. The Pier Park area is home to a variety of different restaurants and shops – perfect if you’re not sure what you want to do that evening! The best part is that it’s right across from the beach. We had a nice table outside, away from the loud hustle and bustle inside the restaurant. We had a reservation at 5:45, and it was already slammed by the time we got there! While slightly more expensive than your typical beach dive, Pompano Joe’s had great portion sizes. With a fish entree, you got vegetables, another side like rice and beans, and hush puppies.

Our second night, we went for the views at Barefoot on the Beach, rather than solely food. We sat outside on their huge patio with an awesome view of the beach and ocean. The service here was a little sub-par, but if you are there to just relax and take in the views, it’s a nice place to still enjoy the beach without being on the beach and covered in sunscreen. They had a few Happy Hour drink specials and a good selection of seafood options on the menu. We highly recommend doing one of their seafood baskets, either blackened or fried. You start off with a side salad, get a large portion of shrimp, and another side, so you definitely won’t leave here hungry!

Our best dinner hands down was at the Saltwater Grill. Unlike most places that typically only had Happy Hour drink specials, Saltwater Grill also had specials on some of their most popular entrees before 6 PM. And best of all, your order just had to be in by 6 to get the deal. The food was so good that we honestly didn’t snap too many pictures before digging in! We recommend the Creole Redfish, the Prime Rib, or the Seafood Cappellini if you are there for their early bird specials – and you end up saving up to $10! They also had some great drink specials, with $6 martinis, $5 glasses of wine, and $4 mixed drinks. And while this restaurant wasn’t on the beach, they had a huge aquarium that wrapped around the bar area, so you still got the tropical feel of being at the beach.

And to end our vacation, we couldn’t leave without visiting Thomas’ Donuts for some of the most incredible donuts! Well worth the long wait in the sun to dig into these.

Any places we missed this trip that we should put on our “must visit” list for next time in the Panama City Beach area? Share with us below in the comments! 

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Homemade Croque Madame

Having tried Croque Madame sandwiches in both France and the Be Our Guest restaurant at Disney World, we know that this is one of our favorite savory sandwiches! Awhile back, we decided to see how difficult it would be to make them at home. The recipe turned out to be surprisingly easy, with tracking down Gruyere cheese being the most challenging part! A few weeks ago, we were trying to figure out what to make for breakfast and realized we were inching closer and closer to lunch – the perfect opportunity to whip up some Croque Madames!

Most of the ingredients are ones you probably already have on hand in your kitchen: butter, flour, milk, salt, and eggs. The only other ingredients are Parmesan and Gruyere cheese, thick cut sourdough bread, and sliced ham.

You start off by making the bechamel sauce with the flour, milk, butter, and Parmesan cheese.

While that is finishing, you can start grating your Gruyere cheese and begin prepping your bread on a cookie sheet with ham.

Spread half of the bechamel sauce on top of the ham with half of the Gruyere before adding another slice of bread.

Next step is to toast the bread on a skillet until it is toasted on each side before topping the sandwiches with the remaining bechamel and Gruyere.

The sandwiches go into the oven on broil to melt the cheese and give it a golden brown toast while you finish off the sandwich by frying eggs. We were extra hungry so we did two per sandwich, but one is what the traditional recipe calls for.

Once you pull the sandwiches out of the oven and top them with the fried eggs, it’s time to dig in! One of our favorite brunch items that looks and sounds way more impressive than anyone would guess! Bon Appetit!

To see the full recipe we use, check out: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alexandra-guarnaschelli/croque-madame-sandwich-recipe-1922870

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Sushi Making Class – Everything You Need to Know

Meagan here to tell you all about our awesome sushi making experience at the Cooking School at Irwin Street! Grant gave me the class as a Christmas present, and we finally had the opportunity to book a class. One of our goals as a couple in 2018 was to cook at home and together as much as possible. We’ve made pretty good on that so far, though we sometimes get in a rut of making the same things every week. We were really excited to try something new at cooking class and settled on sushi making – something neither of us have done before. But since we love eating sushi, we figured it would be the perfect class for us!

Living in Alpharetta, we typically only venture ITP for work or special events. We quickly remembered why we love suburbia life when there was no parking at the cooking school and Grant had to put his parallel parking skills into action. Luckily, it turned out to be a nice day, so the short walk wasn’t bad. The Cooking School at Irwin Street is located in the Irwin Street Market, right down the street to Krog Street Market and the Beltline.

We waited in the market for class to begin, then were brought back to the kitchen by Chef Mihoko. Other than us, there were only another 9 people, which made it great to follow along with the Chef’s instructions and ask questions along the way. Each pair was given their own station complete with all the prepped ingredients. We had sushi rice, nori (seaweed), fresh salmon, crab, shrimp, avocado, peppers, cucumber, and asparagus.

The Chef showed us first how to make the “inside out roll” with the rice on the outside, as opposed to the traditional method with the nori outside. We started by placing our nori on the bamboo mat (covered in plastic wrap to prevent any sticking), then spreading a thin layer of rice across it. TLB Tip: Make sure to dip your fingers in water before ever touching the sushi rice – this is very sticky rice and you’ll end up with more of it stuck to your hands then to the nori! Once you get an even layer of rice, you flip the nori and rice layer over and can start adding your fresh ingredients for the center of your roll.

After placing the ingredients about an inch away from the edge, then slowly rolling it up with the bamboo mat. Once it’s completely rolled, you use the bamboo mat to squeeze it a little more to make sure everything is locked in. Then voila! You have a perfect California roll!

Once we made our California rolls, we had the chance to do whatever we wanted. The whole process is fun and relatively easy once you get the hang of it! You do realize that less rice is more – it goes a lot further than you think. Grant and I each made our second roll, then realized we didn’t have much rice left to do anymore. Luckily, the wonderful Chef shared some of her rice (and salmon) with us so we could make one more!

From instruction to eating, the class took less than an hour and a half. We had no idea how simple it was to make your own sushi and it was delicious when we got to enjoy our own creations! TLB Tip: Most classes are BYOB (with the exception of their knife skills classes), so it would be the perfect date night or activity with a group of friends.

After class ended, the ice cream shop that shares space with the cooking school gave everyone a free scoop of ice cream! Needless to say, we were absolutely stuffed afterwards! We ended our adventure with a short walk down the Beltline, mainly looking for cute puppies.

We are really excited to put our new skills to the test! Next stop for us will be the Buford Farmers Market or H Mart to get all of our sushi making ingredients. We would highly recommend the Cooking School at Irwin Street and will be keeping an eye on their future classes. TLB Tip: They sometimes offer a Groupon which can be a substantial savings! However, classes book up quickly and not all are eligible for the Groupon offer. (New to Groupon? Sign up here!)

Hope you all check out the classes they offer on their website: https://www.irwinstreetcooks.com/ We had an awesome time, and you realize how fun it is to try something completely new. When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Keep following along with us on Instagram at Instagram.com/thelocalbells

Top 5 Best Eats & Drinks – Park City Adventures (Part 3)

When we weren’t skiing, we were eating our way through some of the best food and drinks Park City has to offer! Here are our top 5 places for food and drinks in Park City:

5. The Spur Bar & Grill – Our first afternoon in Park City, we dropped our stuff at the Airbnb and headed to check out downtown Park City on Main Street. There are so many options for any occasion of the day on Main Street, and we spent about 30 minutes just taking note of some of the restaurants and menus that we wanted to come back to. Once the snow started to pick up, we decided to take a quick break and grab a drink at The Spur Bar & Grill. We said cheers to a great start to our vacation at the upstairs bar, and got a peek of their outdoor patio for the nicer days. While we just had a drink, they looked to have a great menu and have live music several times per week.

4. High West Distillery – We had heard a lot of recommendations for High West and even tried to go our first day in Park City but it was so packed! We finally got a chance to stop by our our last night before dinner to see what all the buzz was about. A local watering hole for locals and skiers to unwind after a cold day on the slopes, High West transforms their outside patio area into the perfect afternoon social hotspot. With the fire going, hot cider and whisky flowing, it was the best spot to still enjoy the beautiful crisp air while staying warm. We tried the American Prairie Bourbon and their signature hot cider. Next time we are here, we definitely want to check our their tour and tastings to really understand the history of High West.

3. Blue Iguana – We love a good Mexican restaurant, and with as funny of a name as Blue Iguana, we couldn’t pass it up! With a vibrantly colorful atmosphere, we reminisced about our wonderful honeymoon in Mexico. The Blue Iguana featured a salsa bar with 6 different all you can eat salsa varieties. TLB tip: Chips refills are not free here (Whattttt??). Blue Iguana charges $2 for a chip refill, so we sparingly ate our chips so we didn’t run out! No additional chips were provided with guacamole either. Despite having to ration our chip supply, we both left full after our delicious dinner. We started off with margaritas (we recommend the frozen over the on-the-rocks version) and the signature guacamole, which was so fresh and a surprisingly a good portion size. Meagan had the chicken quesadilla and Grant had the enchiladas with rice and beans. While it is a Mexican restaurant, it was a bit pricier than our usual La Parilla visits, so be prepared to tack on a few extra dollars for each entree if you stop in.

Tied 1. Buona Vita – As much as we love Mexican, we equally love delicious Italian food! We had an incredible meal at Buona Vita after our first day of skiing. Since we had another day of skiing, we figured why not carbo-load?? The intimate and authentic atmosphere of Buona Vita was surpassed only by the rich, delicious flavors of their food. We had a romantic table for two right by their stone fireplace and started off our meal with a great Italian bottle of wine and the appetizer special of the night – garlic bread. We typically go for a salad appetizer, but we couldn’t resist the bread once we caught a whiff of the garlic! Meagan decided on their mushroom ravioli while Grant went with the tried and true Chicken Parmesan. Both dishes were amazing, and it looked like you couldn’t go wrong based on the empty plates at other tables. We highly recommend Buona Vita for the Italian foodies, couples looking for a romantic evening, or for anyone craving warm, comfort food. Entrees range from about $18-$30+, so plan to take your time and enjoy your meal to get the best experience.

Tied 1. Butcher’s Chophouse – Tied with Buona Vita, Butcher’s Chophouse was a completely different atmosphere and food, but equally as delicious. With it being our final night in Park City, we wanted to relax and enjoy a leisurely dinner. To “cheers” a successful first post-honeymoon trip, we started with some of the signature cocktails – Blackberry Bramble for Grant, and Bubbly Bee’s Knees for Meagan. Now we just need to learn how to make them at home! For our appetizer, we went with the Mazza Plate – a perfect sampler platter of hummus, pita bread, roasted red peppers and tomatoes, goat cheese, and olives, all drizzled with a balsamic glaze. With a huge amount of food, we definitely felt we got the best bang for our buck with this $14 appetizer!

Butcher’s is known for it’s fantastic cuts of meat and fresh seafood options, so it was a difficult choice to decide our entrees. Meagan went with the Butcher’s Signature Chop Chop Salad, and Grant ended up going with the 16 oz. Prime Rib, asparagus, and jalapeno bacon mac. It was the perfect way to cap off our trip!

Bonus: Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory – It wouldn’t be a vacation without a few sweet treats! We found some great chocolates and truffles on Main Street at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. $15 worth of yummy chocolates later, and we were ready to stock up on even more before we left town! TLB Tip: If you don’t get a chance to stop in at the Park City location, RMCF is a national brand that has locations all over the world! 

Curious about other parts of our Park City trip? Check out our tips for snow activities here and our awesome accommodations here.

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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

Roswell Restaurant Week – The Mill Kitchen & Bar

Last Saturday, we had the opportunity to try out one of the fabulous restaurants that was participating in Roswell Restaurant WeekThe Mill Kitchen & Bar!  We’ve heard about all of these different “restaurant weeks” in Roswell, Alpharetta, and Atlanta, but have never actually visited during the promotion period. This time, we made it a goal to plan one of our weekend date nights at a participating restaurant!

Before we ultimately decided on The Mill Kitchen & Bar, we scoured through over 30 participating restaurants’ prix-fixe menus to narrow down our options. For those of you who are unfamiliar with restaurant weeks, typically the restaurants will offer a set two or three course menu with a handful of their specialty options at a fixed price. For Roswell Restaurant week, most menus were either $25 or $35 per person for two or three courses. We usually don’t order dessert when we eat out, so restaurant week was an excuse for us to make date night extra special!

The Mill Kitchen & Bar holds a special place in our heart – we celebrated our engagement with our families at brunch the morning after Grant proposed. So it was already high on the list before looking at the food options! After looking at the menu, we came to the conclusion that it had some of the best options that appealed to both of us (and we had never been there for dinner). For the appetizer, we each had a choice between Pimento Cheese Fritters, Fried Pickles, or a Wedge Salad. Entrees included Fried Chicken, Shrimp & Grits, and Short Rib. And finally, dessert was either a Flourless Chocolate Torte or Bread Pudding. Additionally, they had some beer and wine flight options that included either 3 beer tastes for $7 or 3 wine tastes for $11. Take a look below to see what we decided to try!

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(Wedge Salad; Pimento Cheese Fritters; Domaine Bousquet Malbec, Slow Press Cabernet, Bortoluzzi Pinot Grigio; Eventide Highlander Strong Scotch Ale, Lexington Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Scofflaw Porter; Shrimp & Grits, Flourless Chocolate Torte; Bread Pudding) 

So, was Restaurant Week worth it?

Despite it being Restaurant Week, we were able to score a great reservation on OpenTable only a few days in advance. In terms of cost, we saved $6 by ordering from the Restaurant Week menu as opposed to ordering the exact same thing during a normal day. Their appetizer and dessert portion sizes were HUGE! We easily could have split both on a normal night out. All of the flavors and food quality were amazing; you definitely felt like you got what you paid for. On a downside, the restaurant was super busy with it being Saturday night and Restaurant Week, so service was a little slow – we didn’t get water until our first course and our beer and wine didn’t get there until the entrees. They also were out of quite a few wine options from their tasting flight menu, so I probably would have preferred just ordering a glass of wine rather than scambling to pick tasting options from what they had left. Also, if you are someone that likes to substitute or ask for special requests, there are no substitutions from the Restaurant Week menu, so something as simple as switching out blue cheese for ranch dressing with the salad could not be accommodated.

All in all, we had a great date night and would definitely recommend coming back to The Mill Kitchen & Bar! Neither of us left hungry and it was fun to try something new! We’re glad we tried out the Restaurant Week menu, but think we’ll probably stick to the regular menu next time, as well as plan to go during a time when it’s not so crazy to try new places.

Did you visit Roswell Restaurant Week? Any recommendations on new places for us to try?

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