Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Weekends are better with palm trees!

The past two weekends have me convinced that weekends are better with palm trees. First, over MLK Jr. weekend we enjoyed a long weekend in Puerto Rico. We'd been discussing taking a trip as soon as I found out that I had a three-day weekend in January. We'd tossed around a few ideas, all with the idea that we'd cash in some Hilton points from A's travels last year...there's got to be some upside to him spending so many nights in hotels in 2014. Maybe some other time I'll tell you about how we bought a new comforter from the Hilton Home website...We settled on Puerto Rico when we found out my brother and his girlfriend had the same plan...why hello, I'm the creepy older sister!

Without further adieu, some pictures and do's/don't from our trip!

We flew into San Juan directly from Charlotte - quick 3 hour flight and we'd escaped winter! 

We stayed at the Condado Plaza, just outside Old San Juan, and right on the beach! The hotel also had three pools and a swim up bar. Plus, Happy Hour lasted pretty much all day!

DO - use up a bunch of Hilton Honors points to book your hotel and make your husband's crazy travel schedule from 2014 seem worth it!

DON'T - expect a crazy hotel room upgrade. There were 4 cruises leaving from San Juan, so while we were upgraded to a city view room in the updated tower at our hotel, we didn't get an upgrade to an oceanview...no matter, by the time we made it back to the room we were worn out from our adventures!

DO - rent a car and explore Puerto Rico outside of San Juan! The roads are well maintained for the most part and the drivers were much less scary than on some other Caribbean islands we've visited!

DON'T - forget that Puerto Rico's road signs are mostly in Spanish and mix miles and metric distances/speeds, and that they sell gas in liters...we were shocked at their cheapo gas until we realized that they were listing the price per liter!

DO - Keep in mind that lots of things are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Unfortunately we missed out on a couple things we'd hoped to do because they were closed. Most of the bio-bay kayak tours don't operate on Sundays, so the few who do fill up in advance. Some restaurants are closed Monday, and a coffee roastery I'd wanted to visit was closed when we arrived because they were cleaning up from a festival in Old San Juan.

DO - Get up early and get going! We seemed to have a knack for beating most other tourists to a location by 30-60 minutes, meaning that we got to enjoy the sites without fighting our way through.

We rented a car right at our hotel, there was a rental car company on-site. We drove about 30 minutes east and reached El Yunque, the only rainforest in the U.S. National Park system. We  drove along the windy road and stopped to take pictures, climbed one observation tower, and then took a 20 minute hike to La Mina Falls, where we braved the chilly waters to swim under the waterfall. The hike up was a pain because tons of people were just arriving and the path is narrow, so we kept having to take turns with large groups of tourists coming down the path to get to the falls as we were heading back to the car. But, we were happy that we'd been at the falls with a much smaller group!

From the entrance of El Yunque, the town of Luquillo is only about a 10 minute drive. We stopped off at the Luquillo beach kiosks, a strip of about 50 restaurants/bar kiosks between the highway and the beach. We wandered up and down, looking at all of the menus before finally settling on the Ceviche Hut. I got a whole steamed snapper with "salad"

 After our lunch we made a U-Turn and headed to Balneario La Monserrate, a "private" beach just down the road. You pay a little over $4 for parking and then have access to the beach. There's a gorgeous view of the mountains of the rainforest with clouds rolling over, but my pictures didn't do it justice, so you'll just have to go see for yourself!
DON'T - Feel like you have to make hard choices! If you want both a fresh coconut and a Pina Colada in a pineapple with the fruit carved out, have both! You're on vacation! There's a restaurant/grill which serves decently priced drinks. They also have beach equipment rentals at another spot on the beach. We were content to just sit on the sand for a few hours. 
After a long day of hiking and beaching we headed back to our hotel and then to a Puerto Rican restaurant just down the street from our hotel. Our waiter forgot about us! We have a thing for getting epically bad service, so this just made us feel like we were back at home!

On Monday, after grabbing breakfast, we spent most of the day going back and forth from the pool to the beach and back...then to another pool when the sun hid behind the palm trees at the first pool. Mid-afternoon we got cleaned up and headed into Old San Juan where we walked around until our dinner reservations with my brother and his girlfriend (see, I'm not SUPER creepy, at this point we'd all been in Puerto Rico for two days and hadn't seen each other yet!) I love this statue, La Rogativa, in Old San Juan, near the San Juan gate. The story is that a local bishop and group of women staved off a British invasion by parading through the city with torches. The British mistook the religious group as military reinforcements and when the sun came up the next morning, the British ships had retreated.

I woke up to this view on our last morning...

The undertow on the beaches along Condado is crazy! The beach at our hotel was somewhat protected by some large rocks, so lots of people from the area and other hotels flock there to have a more low-key beach experience! Crazy undertow = pretty wave pictures.

DO - try Pina Coladas everywhere you go! We tried them at both restaurants that claim to be the "home" of the Pina Colada...plus several more...scientific research!

DON'T - think that the calls of the coqui frogs coming from the hotels along Ashford Avenue (I'm looking at you La Concha!) are real! They are recorded and piped in! We first encountered the piped in frog song when we walked to dinner at Oceano on the first night.To hear the real coqui frogs, I suggest a day in El Yunque!

It's probably good that we didn't get to do EVERYTHING that we wanted to, because it means we'll have to go back! We enjoyed really great food, fantastic weather, and beautiful scenery. We came back feeling refreshed!

This past weekend we went to Charleston for a charity event that A's company sponsors. It was our second time attending, and it was a great time for an equally great cause. Bill Murray was there! I'll leave you with one last picture in case you're not yet convinced that weekends are betters with palm trees!

Monday, January 5, 2015

DIY: Stone Fireplace

Familiar with the John Muir quote, "the mountains are calling and I must go"? I love a relaxing mountain cabin weekend as much as the next person. The crisp, clean air, a cup of coffee on the porch overlooking rolling mountains in the distance. Rustic and natural home decor has always called to me, and as we make our house a home, I'm finding little ways to tie that in.

This weekend, we tackled our first DIY project of 2015, we installed a stone look wall under our mantle. Ever since we toured the model almost 2 years ago, I always thought I'd love to customize the fireplace that the builder offered. Here's the "Before," still decorated for Christmas. Hi, Stella! That cat loves to be in on the action.

I first heard of Airstone on Pinterest, and have since seen it on a number of home design blogs. Most of them seemed to be writing sponsored posts, which this is not. I'll include the good, the bad, and the ugly in my post. If you haven't heard of Airstone, it's a faux stone product made of concrete which weighs about 75% less than real stone. The stone-like tiles are cast in molds made from real stones, so they are pretty realistic looking. The product is available at Lowe's or on the Airstone website. All in all I am thrilled with the results, but it wasn't quite as easy as some of the blogs made it out to be. We used the Airstone Autumn Mountain color, with flat edges. The Autumn Mountain stones are warmer colors, tans and browns, whereas the Spring Creek is cooler, and more like natural stone. There is a third color, Vineyard Blend, but I could only find Autumn Mountain and Spring Creek at the Lowe's stores nearby. We used almost all of one box, there are about 10 pieces left. We also used about 1/3 of a tub of the Airstone adhesive.

The stones come shrink wrapped and divided up by color. Most of the stones were light tan, with about 1/3 being a darker brown color. Here is Stella getting in on the un-boxing:

Our first challenge was that we were working with limited space, the slate insert between our mantle and the actual fireplace was only 5.5 inches wide. Airstone comes in a box with an assortment of sizes, all of them being in multiples of 2. This would be perfect if you had an even number of inches to work with, but for us it meant that we had to cut at least one piece on every single level. The Airstone website and manual, as well as many of the blog posts, say that the product can be easily cut with a hacksaw. No. If you cut Airstone with a hacksaw, you are crazy. We tried at first, and used it for a few cuts, but quickly switched to a Dremel tool with a diamond blade. This cut easily, but brought some other challenges, we often had to make multiple cuts on each stone to get to the desired length. You'll definitely want to cut outside, or in our case, the garage with the door open and a fan blowing, cutting the stones makes a ton of dust.

We started the whole process by taping out the dimensions of our fireplace on the garage floor with painters tape. After that I started laying out stones so that we had an idea of the pattern we would use. I'd looked at tons of sample project posts, which was helpful. We decided to lay most of the stones horizontally, with a few vertical pieces thrown in here and there.The result looks really natural, I think.

We started adhering the stones to one side and went all the way up to the top before moving to the other side. Then at the end, we just had the overhanging part left, and were able to use the pattern to our advantage, wedging pieces in without fearing that they would shift. It is important to have a plan for how you'll support the middle overhanging pieces. We used a board and a piece of folded cardboard...the finest of things!

The adhesive is easy to use, and is magic if you ask me; while it looks like marshmallow fluff, it doesn't feel sticky, it spreads easily on the stone pieces and adheres quickly to the mounting.

Now, it wouldn't be honest to say that I was totally confident the whole way through. I have a bad habit of doubting my projects part way through. When we decided to paint our half bath (light) purple, I panicked while I painted, and it wasn't until it was totally dry and everything was back in place that I knew it was a good idea. Here, I worried that the stone would get lost with our builder beige walls, but I think that in the end they play off one another really well. Finally, here's the "After."

Would I do it again? Yes, but I'd definitely prefer an even number of inches or a large wall without the need for an overhang. Also, I'm SORE today, my knees hurt from where I leaned on the slate floor in front of the fireplace, and we still have a few dried spots of adhesive that need to be coaxed off a few stones. But, I'm really thrilled with the overall look, and the relative ease and length of time it took to totally transform our fireplace. I love being transported to my own mountain lodge without leaving the living room!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Five Things in 'Fifteen

Happy New Year! I thought it would be fun to list five things I'm looking forward to this new year! I'm linking up (for the first time in forever!) with the Five on Friday crew.

1) House projects - when we closed on our townhome last February, I was afraid that we'd never get any projects done. My job at the time meant that downtime at home was at an all-time low, and A. was traveling what seemed to be non-stop. It took until a random summer weekend when we both woke up early without an alarm and ventured out to buy some paint. We've got some fun house projects planned, and it's hard not to go full-steam ahead now that we have a little bit more spare time. I'm really excited to share them with y'all, after all that's why Dream It Yourself came about in the first place.

2) Travel - we've already got several mini-trips planned for the next few months; a long weekend in Puerto Rico, a weekend in Charleston, and a visit to Philly to meet our new niece (due in a few weeks) and to celebrate our nephew's 4th birthday. I'm hoping that A. & I can find lots more excuses to take little getaways - and hopefully add a few places we've never visited before to the list! We haven't been on a real vacation since our honeymoon in 2012, so we'd also like to make that a priority this year.

3) Job - I'm looking forward to really settling into my new job that I started mid-November. I started at an exciting time for the organization, and I can't wait to keep shaping this "ball of clay." It's a huge relief to feel that way, because I spent most of this year feeling completely overwhelmed by my past job. I often described it like filling your cupped hands with water and watching it all pour through the tiny cracks in your fingers, no matter how hard you try to keep them together.

4) Cooking - I've been cooking up a storm, and can't wait to keep trying new recipes in the kitchen. I asked for (and received) a bunch of cookbooks for Christmas, and I'm having so much fun leafing through them to find recipes.

5) Continuing to explore Charlotte - we're not newbies anymore, but we've kind of settled into a rut and go to all the same places over and over again. So, I'm making a goal of visiting at least one new place (restaurant, museum, attraction) per month. We got a few gift cards to restaurants we've never been to in Charlotte, so that will force us to branch out a little bit!