As Seen on The Daily Buzz: Valentine’s Day Travel

On the show today, we talked about five different options for Valentine’s Day travel – on every budget. Even if it’s too late now to pull the trigger on a big trip, keep these options in mind for future travel. It’s always the right time for a romantic vacation!

Here’s what we discussed:

  1. A European Getaway: In my opinion, Paris and Venice are two of the most romantic cities in the world, and there’s something that bonds you together forever about traveling around a country like England or Ireland with just a map, a car and a sense of adventure. So if you can make it over to Europe for Valentine’s Day – or later this year – by all means, do! But an European adventure isn’t going to be in everyone’s budget. So if you’re craving Europe on a smaller budget (or a more limited timetable), find a heavily European-influenced city in North America. Travel costs will be significantly lower, and you won’t have to deal with jet lag. My favorite picks? Quebec City is widely regarded as the most European city in North America. It’s like visiting a French village, but it’s due north of the New Hampshire-Maine border, making it easy to get to if you live in the northeast. If you live further south, try New Orleans, which holds a completely different kind of French charm. In the Pacific Northwest, try Leavenworth, Washington, which is as close as you’ll get to the spirit of Bavaria (Germany) without leaving the continent. And Catalina Island, off the coast of California between Los Angeles and San Diego evokes the Mediterranean coast.
  2. An All-Inclusive Vacation: How about a trip where you don’t have to lift a finger to make your own plans? A cruise offers easy, fuss-free planning, and there are great deals right now in the winter months. Or you could try an all-inclusive resort in a place such as Jamaica, although there are plenty of all-inclusive resorts in the States too. Some of them are surprisingly affordable, and it’s wonderful to simply turn your brain off for a few days and relax with your significant other. Travel + Leisure magazine lists their top affordable all-inclusive resorts here and their top US all-inclusive resorts here. For tips on choosing the right cruise for you, click here.
  3. A Theme Park Vacation: There’s nothing like revisiting childhood to make you forget, if only for a little while, all of the stress and baggage that come along with being an adult. If you think theme parks are just for kids, think again; companies like Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and the Universal Studios properties are very cognizant of making adults feel welcome and comfortable too. So come experience a little oasis where you can feel young again but also discover new delights. Epcot, for example, offers a full slate of adult-oriented programs, such as their Food & Wine Festival and their Flower & Garden Festival. Busch Gardens and Sea World offer events such as Bands Brew and BBQ, and Viva La Musica. And there’s nothing wrong with simply strolling down the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA, visiting Mickey Mouse and riding It’s a Small World for the umpteenth time either. There’s just something relaxing about rediscovering your youth – together – that makes for a very romantic vacation.
  4. A Wine Country Vacation:  In our nation’s various wine country regions, the landscape alone can be so seductive. And there are wine-growing regions everywhere. Of course you know about Napa and Sonoma, but depending on where you live, there are also amazing – and geographically optimal – wine regions in the Finger Lakes of New York, in rural Virginia, in the Santa Barbara area, and as far north as Washington State. Wine regions tend to be affordable places to visit, and in many of the areas, tastings at wineries are free or very inexpensive. Not a wine fan? You can get a similarly delightful ambiance in Kentucky’s bourbon country on the Bourbon Trail, and many major cities have their own urban wineries now too, such as Quantum Leap in Orlando. Or in the same regions where wine trails are a bit tourist draw, there are also often “cheese trails”, “beer trails” or other culinary trails to follow too. A wine country vacation is a great way to learn about wine varietals together, while enjoying the beautiful landscapes our country has to offer.
  5. A Close-to-Home Vacation: Finally, remember that a romantic vacation isn’t always about going somewhere far away. It’s about being together. So if you’re on a tighter budget, look in your own back yard. What’s within driving distance of your hometown? Are you near a ski town, for example? Maybe you can find a motel to check into for a night, and you can make your own romantic vacation. Do you live near a beach? Book a cheap room on Priceline or Hotwire, and spend a night by the ocean. Live near a theme park? Splurge for a whole day at the parks and commit to living like a kid. Live in or near a big city? Book a night at a downtown hotel and commit to discovering a different neighborhood that you haven’t spent time in before. Or, plan a vacation literally in your own back yard by simply staying home, committing to ignoring the dishes, the chores, emails, phone calls, etc., and just spending 24 disconnected hours with each other. Order in. Rent movies. Sometimes simply spending time together is the best vacation of all. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Foodie Fridays: Provencal Tomato Rice Soup

Happy Friday, folks! Today, I’d like to share with you an easy-to-make soup that I love eating for lunch in the winter. It’s good for you, inexpensive to make, and even freezes nicely. Plus it’s delicious. So grab your soup pot and your appetite. Here goes!

Provencal Tomato Rice Soup
Recipe Type: Soup
Author: Kristin Harmel
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 45 mins
Total time: 50 mins
Serves: 8
A rich, healthy, easy-to-make soup
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • One stalk celery, chopped
  • One small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Eight cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 2 Tbsp. Herbes des Provence (a spice mix available at any grocery store: McCormick’s makes a good one)
  • One large (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups COOKED brown rice
  1. Saute celery, onion and garlic in olive oil for a few minutes until onions are translucent and garlic is fragrant.
  2. Add stock and Herbes de Provence and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes.
  3. Add crushed tomatoes, return to a low boil, and simmer 20 minutes.
  4. Add cooked rice (It’s vital that the rice is already cooked or it will absorb too much of the liquid in the soup).
  5. Simmer 5 minutes more, then remove from heat. Cool slightly and serve.

You may substitute white rice or wild rice for the brown rice, but quick-cooking rice is not recommended. Prepare rice according to package directions.


What to Wear Wednesdays: Shop Your Closet

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to shop more conservatively this year. I adore clothes and putting together outfits, but the problem is, when I head out to scan the sale racks, I forget what I already have hanging in my closet at home.

So this week, I’m putting together three outfits from pieces — all under $100 (and most under $30) that I already have.

Closet 1

You can try it too! Consider a spring floral dress with a snuggly cardigan and earthy booties. Throw on beige sweater tights if you need a bit more winter warmth. Or go for a sweet lace dress paired with a fierce moto jacket and black leather boots. Or grab a pair of baggy boyfriend jeans, roll to show off a little leg, and pair them with a slick blazer, a basic tank and stiletto booties. The options are endless; the key is to look at everything you have with a new eye.

Foodie Fridays: Meet Emily Ellyn

Hi folks!

I typically use “Foodie Fridays” to share my own recipes with you, but today, I’d like to highlight a new friend of mine: Emily Ellyn, who was one of the stars of last season’s Food Network Star. Like me, Emily lives in Orlando, digs Paris, and loves to eat at Maxine’s on Shine, which is one of my favorite restaurants. She was featured recently in Lake Mary Healthy Living, a wonderful local magazine run by some of my favorite people in the world. Check out her holiday recipes (accompanied by amazing photos shot by Betsy Hansen) here.

I know you’ll become a big fan of Emily too!

What to Wear Wednesdays: Mary Poppins Chic

Last night, my wonderful boyfriend took me to see Mary Poppins as part of the Broadway Across America series in Orlando. It has long been one of my favorite Disney movies, but seeing it live on stage was a whole new level of magic. So in honor of everyone’s favorite nanny, let’s take a look at how we might style a present-day Poppins. I particularly love the Disney charm bracelet, which features Mary’s shoes, handbag and umbrella!Mary Poppins

High navy blue dress, $190 / Dorothy Perkins military style coat / Jigsaw, $62 / Black lace up booties / Nica black studded handbag, $39 / Bracelets bangle / White House Black Market brimmed hat / Red scarve

Travel Tuesdays: Las Cruces, New Mexico

Note: I talked about Las Cruces, N.M. on The Daily Buzz last year, but I think this is the perfect time to revisit the topic. It’s a great place to visit in the winter, thanks to the temperate climate.

New Mexico

Las Cruces, New Mexico: it’s a hidden gem in the Southwest, and whether you live within driving distance or not, it’s the perfect place for a girls’ getaway. Why? It’s laid back and inexpensive, and not only does it offer plenty to fill a weekend, but it allows you the chance to slow down, get pampered, and indulge in a unique blend of cultures.

If you already live in the Southwest, great! Las Cruces is three hours from Albuquerque, and four hours from Tucson, Ariz., and Odessa, Tex. If you’re coming from elsewhere around the country, it’s easy to fly into El Paso, which is 45 minutes from Las Cruces. On your drive from the airport, you’ll be on a part of I-10 that skirts the Mexican border; for those of us who don’t live in a border area, it’s an interesting experience to look a hundred yards off to the left and realize you’re seeing a city in another country.


To Do:

Old MesillaThe town of Mesilla, which sits just next to Las Cruces, has a wonderful historic plaza perfect for strolling and shopping. This is the best place in the area to buy souvenirs such as locally crafted jewelry and chocolates. There are also some great restaurants (including Double Eagle and La Posta) on the plaza, and you can even duck into the building where Billy the Kid was tried for murder in 1881. A perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon or evening.

White Sands National Monument: The world’s largest gypsum dunefield sits just outside the Las Cruces area; you can reach it easily by car in under an hour. It’s well worth the drive; it feels as if you’ve stepped into another world entirely as you enter through the park’s gates and begin weaving your way through 275 square miles of desert, filled with powder white dunes nearly as far as the eye can see. Plan to spend a few hours there; it’s the perfect place for a picnic, and you can also go sand-sledding, which is a lot like the snow-sledding you may have done as a child, except without the cold and wetness of the snow. It’s a great place to feel like a kid again.You can buy or rent a sled in the gift shop on-site.

Las Cruces Wine Trail: According to the New Mexico Wine Growers’ Association, the state is home to the oldest wine-growing region in the United States. In the
Las Cruces area in particular, there are several outstanding wineries. Click here for a listing of the wineries along the local wine trail. Rio Grande offers spectacular mountain views from its tasting room, along with beautifully crafted reds and whites, while St. Clair features an upscale bistro tasting room. At St. Clair, don’t miss the Hatch Green Chile wine, which highlights the region’s specialty: green chiles. Also available for shipping on their web site.

Cocktails: A girls’ trip isn’t complete without a signature cocktail destination. Try the bar at La Posta in Mesilla for incredible margaritas (including one made with chiles), or dress up and head to Azul Ultralounge at the Hotel Encanto; the crowd is great there on Saturday nights.

The Spa Downtown: It’s the perfect place for a few hours of relaxation on your girls getaway weekend; indulge in a mani-pedi, a facial, a massage, a body wrap or even a haircut or style in their full-service salon.

Duncan Noble Spa: Just a few minutes from downtown Las Cruces, you’ll find the Duncan Noble Spa, a sprawling complex with a wide menu of services. You’ll find a full-service salon, a nail spa, massages, facials and the like, and you’ll also find an expansive skin clinic, which offers more intensive treatments. Luxury at an affordable price.

The farmers and crafters market downtownOn Wednesday and Saturday mornings, from sunup until 1 p.m., visit the farmers and crafters market for fresh produce, local delicacies, and a large array of local crafters selling their wares. Click here to read profiles of the various vendors you can expect to find on your multiblock stroll.

Las Cruces Museum of Art: The city’s art museum features constantly changing art exhibits including national and international traveling collections. “NASA | ART 50 Years of Exploration” is there through Jan. 21; from Feb. 3 through April 12, look for “
New Mexico 100 Years of Art.”

To Stay:

Hotel Encanto: In downtown Las Cruces, Hotel Encanto offers luxury at a bargain price. The hotel features a spa and salon, an outdoor pool and hot tub, and an onsite restaurant and bar. The hotel also allows pets.

Meson de Mesilla: Just a short walk from the historic plaza in Mesilla, Meson de Mesilla offers elegantly appointed rooms starting at just $79/night. The bed and breakfast offers beautiful views of the mountains, a rooftop bar, and an onsite restaurant and wine-bar. Starting at just $119/night upgrade to a Jacuzzi suite.

To Dine:

La Posta: Amazing margaritas, great atmosphere, authentic local cuisine just off the historic plaza in Mesilla.

Double Eagle: One of the best Sunday brunches you’ll ever experience (just $24.95, which includes unlimited champagne); plus the home of both the only dedicated beef aging room in New Mexico, and the world’s largest green chile cheeseburger.

Meson de Mesilla: Casual elegance and locally inspired dishes; look for menu items featuring pecans and green chiles, two local specialties.

St. Clair Winery & Bistro: Featuring French and Italian country dishes that pair perfectly with locally made wines. **

Foodie Fridays: New Year’s Resolution Mashed Potatoes

One of my New Year’s resolutions is, as usual, to eat better this year. However, it’s hard to get around the fact that I have an unwavering devotion to unhealthy foods. One of my vices? Mashed potatoes, which — when made correctly — are full of butter. Sure, there are low-fat versions, such as these, made with chicken broth, but they just don’t taste the same. They’re fine — but they’re missing that creaminess.

So I challenged myself to come up with something that was low-fat but still very creamy. Here’s the result. Now I’m challenging myself to come up with a healthy (but still delicious) version of low-fat macaroni and cheese. Stand by for that. For now, here are my New Year’s Resolution Mashed Potatoes:

New Year’s Resolution Mashed Potatoes
Recipe Type: Side dish
Author: Kristin Harmel
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 30 mins
Total time: 45 mins
Serves: 6
A creamy, low-fat version of the beloved side dish
  • 2 lbs small red potatoes, scrubbed and halved
  • Water for boiling
  • 1/2 cup fat-free half and half
  • 8 ounces fat-free sour cream
  • Plenty of salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Boil potatoes in water for 30 minutes, until they’re very soft and can be mashed easily with a fork.
  2. Drain potatoes and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
  3. Using an electric mixer, beat the potatoes until they’re smooth. They’ll still be somewhat chunky, especially if you’ve left the skins on (as I do). This is perfect and gives the dish a rustic edge.
  4. Slowly beat in the half and half, followed by the sour cream.
  5. Stir several times with wooden spoon, just to ensure ingredients are incorporated evenly.
  6. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
  7. (If potatoes are too dry, add more fat-free half and half, one Tablespoon at a time, until they reach the desired consistency.)

To make roasted garlic mashed potatoes, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Before you begin boiling the water for the potatoes, peel 20 garlic cloves (or use pre-peeled cloves, which can be found in the produce section of the supermarket), toss with 1 tsp. of olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, and wrap tightly in foil. Place foil packet on a baking sheet in oven, and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cut open foil packet with a knife, being careful to avoid escaping steam. Garlic cloves should smash easily (if not, bake for 10 additional minutes until they soften). Add roasted garlic cloves director to potatoes in step 2 above.


What I Want Wednesdays: The iPad Mini

I currently have an iPad, but I admit, I’m lusting after the iPad mini. Not only would it fit much more easily into a shoulder bag, but it would be more convenient to read novels on — and I use my iPad for its Kindle app more than anything else. So why not just buy a Kindle or Nook? I love the fact that the iPad gives me the world at my fingertips — and for me, being able to write on the device (using a Bluetooth keyboard) is just as important as being able to read.

Oh yes, and catching up on my favorite TV shows? Priceless.


iPad Mini

Writing Mondays: Writing a One-Page Synopsis

This is part of an ongoing series about how to write a novel.

Step 2: Turning your idea into a synopsis

Last time on my blog’s Writing Mondays thread, we talked about formulating an idea for a novel. Today, we’ll focus on how to begin to turn that idea into a real concept for a book.

Once I have a general idea of where I’d like to go with a story, my next step is always to jot it down in short format. In other words, I’ll write out the concept of the story in one or two paragraphs – always less than a page – just to see if I can succinctly summarize it and whether it sounds intriguing on the page. Remember that a reader will decide whether to pick up your novel based on an even shorter book jacket description, so you have to be able to sell the story, so to speak, in very little space. As a writer, wrapping your head around what will make the story tantalizing will help you to begin to shape it.

In order to turn a basic concept into a one-page (or less) synopsis, here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A basic main character (We’ll explore characters more next time), with a name, general age, and job (plus other identifying characteristics).
  2. A beginning. (Where is your main character as your story opens?)
  3. A twist that kicks off the action. (What happens to set your character’s life spinning in a different direction?)
  4. An idea of what your character will learn. (In women’s fiction and young adult fiction, particularly, your main character should grow throughout the course of the novel. Considering this now helps you to shape the plot around lessons learned and personal growth.)
  5. Complicating factors. (What are some of the obstacles that stand in your main character’s way?)
  6. A general idea of the resolution. (This doesn’t mean you need to know exactly how it ends yet. You’ll figure that out later, in the outlining stage. But you need to know the basic trajectory of your story at this point.)

So, using the numbered points above to show you exactly how each piece comes into play, a short synopsis for a book idea might look something like this (and please excuse the lack of perfection here: I’m doing this off the cuff, with an idea I’m just thinking up now, so that it mirrors the kind of rough work you’d be doing on your own first draft):

(1) Alison Walker, 35, is an oncologist at a Boston-area hospital. (2) Her life seems perfectly scripted and well-thought out. She has the perfect job, the perfect townhouse, the perfect professional life. Her personal life might be a little lacking, but she figures she has time for that later. Now, she has proverbial mountains to climb and boxes to check off. (3) Then the headaches begin. Actually, they’ve been happening for a while, but Alison has attributed them to being overtired, overworked, overstressed. When she finally sees a colleague for an examination (at the colleague’s insistence, after he sees her nearly collapse from what she writes off as a migraine), she finds out that she has a rare form of brain cancer, one that is widely considered inoperable. (4) Now, Alison, who has always assumed that she could live her real life after she got her professional goals out of the way, realizes that she may be running out of time. She must learn to let go of the markers of success that she always held so dear and instead, focus on the things she’s always put on the back burner: family, friends and even love. But once those doors are opened, Alison begins to realize how little she’s been living up to this point – and how dearly she wishes to have more time in this newfound life. (5) Her colleagues tell her there’s no cure, but she meets a Hawaiian oncologist at a medical conference who tells her that he’s pioneering an experimental surgery that might just save her. Now she must choose between quietly slipping away in Boston, where she’s begun to build a real life, or taking the risk of a lifetime and relocating to Hawaii, where a one-in-a-million chance for a cure awaits, but where she could also die alone on the operating table. (6) Alison chooses to go ahead with the surgery, but not before making some major life changes. The only thing that’s missing is love: she’s never fallen in love, never been loved in the romantic sense. But when she lands in Hawaii and meets a charming pediatric surgeon at the hospital where she’ll have her surgery, is what she’s feeling simple desperation and hope? Or is it possible that the love of her life has been right here all along? And if that’s the case, will she live long enough to see it through?

This is how books are born. If you’re interested in a more intensive education, I’m currently teaching eight-week online “How To Write A Women’s Fiction Novel” classes through Mediabistro, so feel free to sign up for my next session, beginning Feb. 19. (I also have another class beginning April 29.)

In the next “Writing Mondays” segment, we’ll talk about how to  create characters. Happy writing!

Foodie Fridays: Raclette

Raclette is both a type of cheese and a Swiss meal based around the melted cheese; I’ve had it in both France and Switzerland, and now, thanks to a sweet Christmas gift from my mom, I’m planning to make it this weekend. You can too!

Raclette, according to Wikipedia, is a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese, typically aged 3-6 months. It’s often made in Switzerland or France, but I’ve also seen American Raclette. It’s found at some supermarkets in the specialty cheese case, but I’ve had the most luck finding it consistently at Whole Foods.

In the traditional Raclette dish, the cheese is heated, either in front of the fire or in a special Raclette grill or machine, and then it’s scraped onto your plate. In fact, the name Raclette comes from the French word racler, which means “to scrape.” The cheese is then cut into bite-sized pieces and eaten with small boiled potatoes (I typically use fingerling potatoes, or sliced small red potatoes), cornichons (French pickles: You can also use gherkins), and pickled onions. I’ve read that some people also serve dried meat with the cheese, but I’ve never had it that way.

For Christmas this year, my lovely mom got me a Boska Holland Mini Raclette Set (available on for $44.99 or in Kohl’s stores on sale for $41.99). I plan to use it this weekend with my boyfriend, Jason; we’ll sit in front of the fire (Can you believe we have a fireplace in Central Florida?) and sip white wine with it, just like they do in Switzerland.

With one of these grills, making Raclette couldn’t be easier, and you can rest assured that you’ll be eating a very, very traditional winter meal with a beautiful tradition behind it. So if you can’t make it to the Alps this year, this might just be the next best thing.

Click over to the fabulous David Lebovitz’s blog to read his wonderful guide to Raclette.