Better (it really does matter)

If you’ve been around here a time or two you may know that I collaborate with Verizon. Most of the time that means testing out new products or services and sharing my honest thoughts here. While I always guarantee readers my unedited opinions, I also accept that not everyone buys the fact that they aren’t influenced, maybe just a little. I get it. Really, I do. I tend to wonder about “sponsored” content too.  I recently had an experience with Verizon Wireless that had nothing to do with my collaboration. It proved to me that their slogan, Better Matters really is a thing.  

The youngest of our Little Nuggets turned ten this summer. Here in the coop the traditional ten-year gift is a cell phone. Right around the same time the teen needed an upgrade (can’t have a smartphone without a functioning camera… oh the humanity!) and our household said goodbye to analog – so long answering machine, you served us well. Off to the Verizon store we went, with no little amount of trepidation.

In the past a visit to the store meant hours sucked out of our weekend. Help that was little to no help at all, and coming home with lighter pockets and befuddled brains. A few years back I even managed to get signed up for two insurance plans on the same phone.

Wait, we thought she was writing about why Verizon Wireless is, um… better.

I hear ya, and I am. I’ve since learned that not all Verizon stores are created equally. In fact, not all Verizon stores are even Verizon stores. What?!! 20160813_132532-01 Here is the deal, there are a lot of stores out there that are Verizon ‘authorized dealers’. Any number of them are great, I’m sure. I just didn’t find those. I found the one that made me dread the cellphone store. Then I found a Verizon store. (cue harp music and unicorn sparkles)

The Verizon store nearest us was a bit of a trek, but totally worth it. From the minute we walked into the store in Glen Burnie, Maryland it was evident things were going to be different. Starting with the warm welcome my phone gave me. Yep, the phone welcomed me to the store… hello, Kubrick!

Team members took our info, what we needed and gave us an actual estimate of how long it would be before we were helped. The doctor’s could take some lessons here! 

Just about everything in the store was hands-on with demos and clear pricing. That pricing thing was the teen’s least favorite feature. When mama knows not everything goes. We played, laughed and got tips from the welcome staff. It didn’t even feel like waiting.

Gerald, our Solutions Specialist (and new BFF) helped the kiddos look through phones, showed them features and put my mind at ease with some cool functions for parental controls. At no point did he push hard for upgrades or add-on items. He’d mention it once. Then accepted my answer like I actually was a human who knew what I did and didn’t want. WOW!

20160813_135510-01While we waiting for data transfers from our old to new phones, Gerald showed us some cool new products. The Nest Cam will be finding its new tree at our house sometime soon. Our current security system came with one camera that doesn’t have the motion-sensing tech an easy install that Nest features.  Plus, I can take my helicopter parenting to a whole new place with it – ha ha. 

Our new puppy doesn’t have a taste for shoes, but he did find my beloved Plantronics Backbeat Fit headphones quite tasty. Gerald introduced me to the Jaybird X2 wireless headphones, which were pretty awesome – not Backbeat awesome but an option for sure. Again, he didn’t try to oversell.

Since that data transfer was taking a bit longer Gerald offered to put the Zagg screen protectors on our new phones. Okay, that was beyond awesome! I’ve never been able to get one on without it looking like bubble wrap on my screen. In fact I usually hate that so much I eventually take the damn thing off and live with the scratches and eventually the cracks.

In the space of less than an hour our family was fully outfitted with sweet new phones (yes, I got me an upgrade too!) some cool and useful accessories and a newfound adore for the Verizon store. Any place can sell you the phone, the ear buds, the cases and shields, but very few places bring the customer service like an actual  Verizon store and the humans that work there. 

20160813_144957-01(This is Gerald. Helpful and adorable too!)

It comes down to people in the end and that’s when better matters.

 

Craft Cocktails: BTB Speakeasy

Craft cocktails are the hottest thing in entertaining these days. Beyond the handcrafted bitters touted by beguiling bearded hipsters lays a storied tradition of revival.  In the heart of Old Town Leonardtown, Maryland a nod to some of that history can be found behind an unassuming bookshelf in a charming little coffee shop – welcome to BTB Speakeasy.

BTB SpeakeasyThis quaint little cocktail stop lets you step back in time to an era when the Volstead Act had Americans crafting cocktails in bathtubs and whispering passwords through sound dampening doors.  As you slip past the bookshelf in the bright at cheery coffee shop (grab a one of their cookies to go – so good) the tones, seemingly even the time changes. The room is dark, the tables and chairs a hodgepodge, the bar lit with flickering candlelight.  The feel is decidedly clandestine. 

Bustling behind the bar are some gifted Mixologists – no bathtub gin here. Top shelf spirits come together with handcrafted syrups, bitters and unique techniques developed by co-founder and cocktail genius Brad Brown. Sitting next to a fresco of Al Capone himself, Penny, Brad’s wife and BTB co-owner, regaled me with stories of cocktail history and the inspiration that transformed a coffee shop into an homage nightlife under the eighteenth amendment. 

On a trip to New York Penny found her way into a speakeasy. Impressed by the immersive, fun, cloak-and-dagger feel of it she walked away inspired to bring that to life in Leonardtown. Helped along the way by Brad’s years in the bar/restaurant business and the artistic talents of a close friend who painted period murals for the walls, the duo brought a bygone era back to life. 

The space inside the speakeasy is snug with just a handful of tables that must be reserved in advance. Call ahead to reserve one and get the password of the day. Whisper that to the staff at the coffee shop counter or pickup the old fashion phone on the wall to connect directly to the back. You won’t get in without this information – after all you could be the Fuzz!

Dotted with antique shops, a wonderfully dusty used book and record store, vintage car museum, craft chocolate factory and historical landmarks, the Old Town section Leonardtown, Maryland feels as though it is frozen in time as well.  A stop at BTB Speakeasy (and Coffee Shop) is a great way to cap off a visit to Old Town. 

BTB Speakeasy’s Smoked Maple Bourbon Old Fashioned
  • 1 Sugar Cube
  • 1 1/2 ounces Top Shelf Bourbon
  • 2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • water
  • Slice of orange and cherry to garnish
  • Maple Wood Plank

Brad’s twist on this classic cocktail is the smoking of that maple wood plank. You can find these at most big box or stores like Lowes. Light the wood and blow it out. Turn your highball glass over on top of it to capture the smoke. Put the sugar in a cocktail shaker, add bitters and bourbon. Muddle until the sugar is crushed. Top with water to your liking and shake. Turn your smoke-filled highball glass over and quickly add ice, pouring the cocktail over the ice. Garnish with cheery and orange. The flavor is incredible!

note: pay special attention to the “House Rules” at BTB Speakeasy. Also, if you wear a fedora you’ll get half off your first cocktail.

Visiting Ottawa Canada (aka Myth Busting)

 Debunking Five Myths about Candians by Visiting Ottawa, CanadaAh, stereotypes. Every country and culture seems to have at least a few. Visiting Ottawa, Canada helped me bust a few myths. Travel gives us the ability to be myth busters of a short… only without the walrus mustaches and exploding crash-test dummies. 

Myth 1: It’s Winter 11 Months of the Year

Visiting Ottawa in summer is blissfully balmy. In fact an average summer day comes in at around 78°,  almost San Diego-esque, eh? A warm, breezy summer day in the Canadian capital city is perfect for wandering. So much of the sites are within easy walking distance of each other. 

Rideau Canal Ottawa Canada UNESCO World Heritage SiteA stroll along the Rideau Canal is a must. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a marvel of 19th century engineering.  One of the first canals to be designed specifically for steam-powered vessels, the system of locks now conveys mostly leisure craft along the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers. In fact it’s the only canal of the “Great North American Canal Building Era,” to still operate along it’s original route. If you enjoy history, a tour of the canal system is a must, since many of the original structures remain intact today.

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 2: Canadians Only Drink Beer

Sparks Street is a bit like the a low-key version of Time Square. Closed to all but pedestrian traffic these few blocks near Parliament Hill feature kitschy souvenir shops, eateries, bars, and a few upscale shopping areas. Here we did stop by a place called Bier Markt that featured 150 beers from 30 countries. Could there be something to this beer thing?

I like a nice hoppy beer and will try an IPA any day.  I fully expected Ottawa to be a beer city, and I’d have been okay with that. Turns out Canadians dig their craft cocktails too. LIFT Bar, the cocktail lounge inside the Delta Ottawa City Centre (now a part of the Marriott hotel family, yeah!) where we were hosted guests during our stay, makes a mean Mule and even some truly creative cocktails featuring locally produced spirits – and yes, some great craft brews too.

Ottawa Mule Craft CocktailClearing away any doubt that this myth is exactly that, I present you with the following evidence…. Wayne Gretzky Estates.  We picked up a 2011 Merlot made with grapes hand harvested in Okanagan Valley, British Colombia and it was actually quite good!

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 3: Canada is ALL about the Hockey, eh!

We witnessed a man dressed in full hockey gear, including skates, balance on top of a goal while juggling flaming hockey sticks. While you’d think that would have proved the myth, this guy {Paz} happened to hail from LA… eh.  <— which I think I said more than any Canadian we met.

Juggling Flaming Hockey Sticks. Visiting Ottawa, Canada

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 4: Canadians Live on Maple Syrup and (Back) Bacon

Admittedly there is plenty of maple and Back Bacon {known to we Americans as Canadian bacon} to be found. Even in the Eggs Benedict at LIFT restaurant – not sure I was so much into that. Ottawa is a very metropolitan city boasting a vibrant food scene with plenty of influence coming from the French. Hello poutine and pastries. The farm-to-table options come in a dizzying array from a rainbow of produce and artisanal cheeses at the famed ByWard Market to scratch-made Italian staples at several area eateries.

ByWard Market Ottawa Canada

You can NOT leave Ottawa without eating BeaverTails. I know what you’re thinking, I thought it too. Eew gross, Canada! Wrong. SO wrong. BeaverTails are oddly-named, flaky, rich, light and airy pillows of crispy pastry topped with awesome. Start with the maple butter {obviously} and work your way through the menu. You’ll thank me, even if your waistline won’t.

MYTH BUSTED

wa

Myth 5: Canadians Are SO Polite

I was pretty sure the minute we drove into the parking garage at the Delta – which is shared with the public – and were greeted by a smiling hotel employee {obviously on his break} who was all to happy to show us the best spot to park in, give tips for cutting down on the cost of parking, and welcome us to his city, that this is a myth that could not be busted. Once at the front desk, the busting prospects looked even more bleak.

Usually when you check-in at any hotel, the front desk staff is cordial. Even at the most luxurious of properties the script is pretty much the same. “Can we help you with anything while you’re staying with us?”, “How was your trip?”, “Would you like help with your bags.” All perfectly polite – and expected– inquires.  Then there is Alex.

Spires of the East Block Building of Canadian Parliment Ottawa
Weathered spires and French architectural influences abound on Canada’s Parliament Hill.

Alex took the time not only to ask those questions, but to find out what we liked, what we might want to discover about his city, and even give us tips about things we’d never have known about without him. He took out a map and walked us through the best things to see, when to go where, and gave as an impromptu history lesson. It was like having our own personal guide to Ottawa. Then there was Eric.

Eric turned out to be the name of the friendly staffer from the car park, as well as a stellar Bellman.  Gift bags to keep the kids entertained. Cold drinks to refresh weary parents who got stuck a Canadian Customs {that’s a story for another post, oi!} and even setting up late evening reservations for the whole crew on the pub side of LIFT. Then there was Annie.

Things were looking pretty damn polite at this point!

In the interest of full-disclosure, we are Elite level Marriott rewards members and make it a point to snag club level rooms anytime they are available. Tip: DO THIS! If you’ve got more than one kid it pays for itself. Marriott Clubs often offer free breakfast, snacks, and enough refreshments and libations to cover the additional cost several times over.  Also, as I mentioned before this was a hosted visit. Annie had no way of knowing that though. Each morning she greeted us as though we were long-lost pals returning to visit her! Any question we had, any little thing the kids asked for, she made sure it was taken care of. You just can’t put a price on service like that. Though this Delta property hasn’t quite gotten to the level of offerings that you typically see in Marriott Clubs, Annie’s shining smile made it feel as top-notch as any other. Then their was Parliament.

Living in the Washington D.C. area, we’re used to dower-faced officials. Hey, things are rough these days and their job is to watch out for bad guys, not make kids giggle. The Canadians seem to have been able to balance the need to keep a wary eye out, with their penchant for polite. 

Are All Canadians Freindly or What
Polite, and hilariously cool.. the Guards of Parliament Hill. I can’t be the only one thinking “Benny Hill” here, can I?

That feeling of warm welcome extends from the folk watching over the buildings of Parliament, to the locals who gather to share a spot on the lawn any given summer evening to watch the story of Canada – from the First Peoples to modern Canadians– unfold in multi-media magnificence; Northern Lights.  Hundreds of people gathered for a free show and not one tussle, no salty stares, not even an frenzied rush to get the best spot. Then there was the cab driver.

Rude. Angry. Took the long way around to get a higher fare. Though he did mention that was from Indonesia.

MYTH CONFIRMED (so far)

Visiting Ottawa, Canada was such a blast we’ll be back to bust a few more myths during Winterlude. Plus.. um.. MORE Poutine!

Stay tuned for more on Canada’s Delta Hotels joining the Marriott brand and a full review of our stay at Delta Ottawa City Center.

Poutine Canada's Gift to the WORLD
Poutine from a Food Truck. Or as the teen calls it… “Deep fried bliss smothered in happiness gravy dotted with cheesy nuggets of awesome.” Yeah, pretty close.
 Field Notes On Visiting Ottawa, Canada:

The trip to Ottawa, Canada was amazing everyone was so nice we stayed at a beautiful hotel called Delta. Alex, at the front desk was so amazing he suggested a lot of fun activities to do.One of the doormen even gave me and my brother gift bags. My mom gave me a tip to give him. He was very happy, and said thanks.

Next we went for a walk. There were little shops outside, and I got some new jewelry, a ring from a very nice lady and a name bracelet form a funny guy who showed us where to get poutine. Then we went to dinner. I had ribs on a plate so huge that it took up the whole table!  

So we went to a pastry shop and a tasted sweets. The wifi at the hotel was was very good. Housekeeping left chocolates on the pillow and my favorite robe. The pool was amazing and the outdoor lounge was relaxing.

The next day we went to a war museum it was very interesting and sad too. After that we went down to the gift shop, it was a little overpriced but I got a owl necklace. I had my very first  beavertail, they are so yum! Goodbye Ottawa, until we meet again.  

Emily – Field Reporter {age 9}

Delta Hotel Ottawa City Centre.png
Chic updated suite at the Delta Ottawa City Centre. Can’t wait to introduce you to the Smart Desk!

Disclosure: As you know, from time to time I’m asked to visit places, attractions, and hotels as a hosted guest. That said, my thoughts and opinions are always my own. Honesty, you deserve nothing less.

My Life Before Tile

World changing events tend to earn a certain tense in life and history. BC = Before Christ. Postpartum = After you popped the kid out.  And now – in my world – BT and WT = Before Tile and With Tile. 

I know what you’re thinking… Oh, Lara you silly, hyperbolic nut is it really that dramatic? Yes. Yes, it is. You see dear friend my world has changed and its all due to a tiny square of plastic. Tile

Let’s back up just a little here. You may not know this about me, but I am a chronic loser. Not like, “…her finger and her thumb om the shape of an L on her forehead,” loser. Though come to think of it, I did just quote Smashmouth. More like if my head wasn’t attached I’d lose it.

If ever I were to find all the pairs of sunglasses I’ve misplaced I could open a store. Keys evade me like the Cheshire Cat. I’ve actually left my passport in a cab. I’m that cliche.

I’ve tried all the fixes. Keep a journal (left that on a train), tie a ribbon around your finger… wait, that’s for remembering things. I may have an issue there too. There may or may not have been a clapper in my past. I once drove round trip to NYC and back to retrieve my laptop left under a desk in my mother-in-law’s house. Told ya, it’s epic my ability to lose anything but weight.

So when my friends at Verizon asked if I’d like to give a new product that keeps track of things you lose, I was so in. Would Tile be a match for me?

Yes… SO. MUCH. YES.

tileWhat is Tile, you ask? Tile is a tiny Bluetooth tracker and easy-to-use app that finds everyday items in seconds—like your phone, keys, and wallet… and hooray, sunglasses!

Here is how it works

Ring It – Loudly ring a lost item from the app and find it by sound.

See It – Check the map in the app for its last known location and time.

BONUS – Press Tile to make your phone ring—even if it’s on silent.

Tile provided me with one tile to try out and it was so awesome I had to get more. Seriously, the options for using it are endless. I’ve Tile(d) all the keys, my planner, sunglasses, iPad case, the kid’s lunch boxes, and even the dog.

 

I dig a good gadget but by no means am I one of those people who has to have all the things. Every once in a while though something comes along that I can’t wait to try. Being the Queen of, “where the hell did I put it?!” I was excited to see if @tiledit could keep up with me. (Seriously, I once left my keys in the deep freezer. It’s in the basement. Why did I even have my keys in the basement?) Well…. I am blown away. My phone finds my keys – thanks to the app. Had my keys this morning but couldn’t find my phone. Called it. It was dead. My keys found the phone, it even chimes when the battery is dead! Thanks to my #collab with @verizon who sent me this to try, I may have a Tile addiction in the making. Picked up a four pack so the kids and dog could get Tiled. My Da is getting this for Father’s Day. Yup, the losing crap thing is genetic. #tiledit

A photo posted by Lara DiPaola ✈ (@dipaolamomma) on

He has a microchip and has never gotten out of the yard, thank god. If he did though Tile would beat the chip, hands down. I’d just open up the app, ring him and look on the map. Being the newly minted Crazy Dog Mom that I am, this gives me huge peace of mind. A few months back we got robo calls from a pet tracking company telling us about a missing dog in our area who had medical issues. I can’t imagine that sort of worry. With Tile I hopefully never will. 

Even if you aren’t an epic loser, like me, Tile can still change your life. Give it a try.  Verizon offers them in packs of four for around $69.

Disclosure: As a member of a very cool team of influencers for Verizon Wireless I sometimes receive compensation, cool gadgets to test drive, or get attend special events. All opinions entirely my own, based on my experiences, because you deserve nothing less!

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Where to Stay in Dublin – The Fitzwilliam Hotel

Where to stay in Dublin - The Fitzwilliam HotelDublin, Ireland is a unique city where old and new, history and innovation blend in a harmony rarely found in any major metropolitan city I’ve visited. The options for entertaining oneself are endless, as are the places to rest your head. When I’m asked where to stay in Dublin, the answer is easy – The Fitzwilliam Hotel.

I’ve stayed in countless hotels around the globe and learned that all of them can be measured by four things; location, amenities, staff, and value. Here is how The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin measures up…

Location, Location, Location!

The Fitzwilliam sits at head of Grafton Street directly across from the famed St. Stephens’ Green. A large section of Grafton Street is closed to all but pedestrian traffic and features endless options for shopping and dining. Though I will say that I wasn’t so impressed with the stores… what American wants to go to Dublin and shop at the Disney Story? Not this one. 

Far more alluring was the ability to walk – literally across the street– and into St. Stephens’ Green. If you didn’t already know, this public park was the model for New York City’s Central Park, and I’m sure countless other public squares. One of my favorite areas in the park is the gardens around the Caretaker’s Cottage, which is directly in front of the Fitzwilliam.

Saint Stephen's Green Caretakers CottegeThe DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) tram stops within walking distance of the property. There are taxis galore in the area, as well as pedicabs and horse drawn carriages (take one to the Guinness Store House for a fun twist.) Concierge will happily help you with securing a bicycle if you’d like, though the streets are quite busy – I’d fall and need stitches!

Amenities

Sure there is a gym, doesn’t every hotel have one these days? What the Fitzwilliam has that most don’t, is Spirit. Part salon, with a little bit of spa, Spirit ascribes to a wonderfully holistic and natural approach to beauty services. Treat yourself.

Not many hotels can boast three excellent on-site restaurants, let alone one with a Michelin star. The Fitzwilliam can.  Thornton’s is fine dining at its best, thus the star. Citron is a more relaxed, yet still upscale dinning experience that boasts some modern twists on Irish classics. Their Celeriac soup is simply divine! Pop into the Inn on the Green for a great breakfast, or a lovely lunch in this cozy place that makes you feel at ease. Note: the charcuterie plate is HUGE! 

Any good hotel, in my book, must have a fabulous bathtub and plush robes. Not having this can be a deal breaker. The bath at Fitzwilliam was a deal maker!

Where to stay in Dublin - The Fitzwilliam HotelThere is also a wonderful tea available seasonally on the balcony that overlooks the city.  Free (reliable) wi-fi and in-room safes that are large enough for a laptop are both pluses.

Staff

Here is where the Fitzwilliam sets itself apart. From the doormen who take the time to ask you where your day is taking you with sincerity to a concierge staff who call your room to ask how they can help make your stay even better, to the housekeeping staff that leave lovely notes, this place makes you feel so very welcome. Many a hotel will send up a welcome amenity. At the Fitzwilliam we got a delivery of Dairy Milk bars and crisps with a note from the front desk telling my daughter how those where their favorite childhood treats.

Get to know the concierge while you’re here! These folks are gems, working with them is akin to having your own private guide to all things you love that can be found in Dublin. Seriously, this is a service they should charge for – I’d pay. 

Each and every staff member we encountered was warm, helpful and never overbearing, which speaks to the earnestness that takes this from hotel to a fond memory and a place you long to return to. 

“Some places you stay. Other places stay with you.” ~Me

Value

The Fitzwilliam is a luxury property, and the price tag reflects that – our stay in the off-season and was £395 per night. That said, the location, and service were well worth the price. Being so centrally located, you need not spend extra money on getting around. Having the concierge as your guides is a huge service, adding to the value.

Where to stay in Dublin - The Fitzwilliam HotelThe Fitzwilliam is also a member of the Preferred Hotel Group – their iPrefer program is one of only three hotel loyalty programs I personally belong to. Why?  Their points add up fast, you always get free wi-fi, early check-in and/or late checkout, and they take the time to learn your (and your family’s) preferences ensuring that they follow you across all their member properties.

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