Seven Spots for Great Gifts

When Charlotte Today asked me to come talk about top local gift shops for their Black Friday episode, I jumped at the chance. This city has the best local shops owned by the coolest people. I’m sure I left a few great ones off my list (TV segment time limits are hard, y’all), but I’m listing the ones I talked about here (because inevitably a few of you guys always email me asking for these lists—thanks for watching!):

Savory Spice Shop: Stocking stuffers for the foodie (or cocktail maker or hot chocolate lover).

Paper Skyscraper: From gift wrap and stationery to candles and books, this shop has the most well curated gift selection in town.

Earl’s Grocery: Amazing host/hostess gift baskets featuring cool artisanal items and playful touches like dog treats.

Moxie Mercantile: My favorite. Just opened a second shop in Davidson. Features really cool handmade jewelry and candles, and the most fun barware.

Green With Envy: 4,000 square feet of gifts including local art, gardening stuff, clothing, kids stuff, and more amazing candles.

Girl Tribe: Girly as its name suggests and Charlotte-centric. Check out their website’s Gift Guide section for ideas for the holidays.

7th Street Market: A perfect one-stop-shop that includes Orrman’s for cheese and food gifts, Assorted Table for wine, and CLT Find for fun Charlotte gifts.

Weekend in the Country

My parents live in the country. Like, serious country. Most of the time I love this because they’ve turned their home into an idyllic escape. But things also get a little Wild West out there from time to time. (I once drove up their driveway to see my mom banging pans in the front yard to scare buzzards off the roof so that my dad could shoot them. Only decades of marriage can lead to that kind of romantic teamwork, people.)

Anyway, last weekend I was home because my brother and his family were visiting. I woke up around 6:15 on Saturday morning because Rosie, my dachshund, wanted to go out. Because there are often coyotes around their property and Rosie looks like a chubby little bratwurst strolling around the yard, I went outside with her. I ran into my mom on their side porch and mentioned that Rosie and I were headed back to bed.

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Five minutes later, as I tried to drift back off, I heard my mom running through the house “Sarah! Sarah! Get up! You have to come get Pawley! There’s a coyote!”

This is my worst nightmare. But it had always felt like it was only a matter of time at their house. And so at a speed I didn’t actually know I was capable of, I was out of bed and sprinting into the field in my pajamas in bare feet. I was screaming at Pawley to come to me, at the coyote to get out, and at my mom to “GET DADDY AND THE GUN.” It turns out that when there is a coyote threat, I get very country very quickly.

The coyote couldn’t have cared less about me. I assume that as a resident of that part of the county, he’s seen his fair share of crazy, half-clothed women yelling at the menfolk to get their guns. Pawley ran back to me, but my parents’ dog was still down in the field barking at the coyote. So, I decided my next move was to go after the coyote in my dad’s truck.

I threw Pawley in the house and sprinted for the truck keys. I passed my dad who was walking by at a remarkably casual pace in his bathrobe and carrying a shotgun. We didn’t even speak. I sped across the yard and into the field with the truck, which finally scared off the coyote and then my dad fired after it into the woods.

Personally, my favorite perspective on this story was from my brother, who woke up irritated because Rosie was barking from my bed where I’d left her as his toddler was trying to sleep. He’d come downstairs to find Rosie barking, Pawley—who is never allowed inside—running around freely, the truck gone, and no one else in the house. Then he heard a gun shot and saw me driving across the yard. It’s moments like this that probably make him happy he married a woman from Connecticut and moved to Massachusetts.

We spent the rest of the weekend using a coyote caller (yes, that exists) to try to draw the coyotes back out to shoot them. (Side note: I’m probably the most anti-gun person on the planet. But I’m like one coyote sighting away from purchasing an AR-15 for my next visit home.) Anyway, we didn’t kill any. But it made for an interesting weekend. And the best part? Pawley got a little more access into the house. As she curled up on the living room rug on Saturday night, I sensed she’d be totally fine with coyotes swinging by any time they wanted.

Summer Reading List

Books

I haven’t written about books in awhile. In large part because I’ve been too busy reading them. I’m determined to hit my goal of at least 52 this year. I won’t bore you (or me) with reviews of all of these. But here are my Top Five Favorites for your beach reading this season:

How to Stop Time: I loved this book. It’s imaginative and fantastical, but feels so real and possible. It’s a fun perspective on history with a wonderful love story mixed in. It might be my favorite read so far this year.

The Child Finder: I picked this one up at the famous Powell’s bookstore in Portland. It was a staff rec, which makes sense because this book gives one of the best descriptions of the wildness of the Pacific Northwest that I’ve ever read. It’s a poignant and mysterious page turner.

Everybody Always: I want to be Bob Goff’s best friend. This book is a light hearted and entertaining life manual for people who want to live a life that reflects Christ. It’s full of sweet stories—I cried at least half a dozen times. And its premise—love everybody always—feels so timely in America today.

Luckiest Girl Alive: This was a really interesting book to me for a reason I can’t share without giving away one of its biggest plot twists. Let’s just say that it’s also timely. And disturbing in a way that gets in your brain and stays there. It’s an fast read—un-put-downable, as book reviewers say.

The Great Alone: At times, this book gets cheesy. Let’s just get that out of the way. Now, that aside, this is a great read. It’s a fascinating look at Alaska as one of the world’s last frontiers, an interesting glimpse at American life in the 1970s, a story of the love between mother and daughter, and ultimately a love story.

Honorable Mention Beach Read

Something In the Water: It wasn’t one of my favorite five, but if I was going to pick the best beach read, this would be it. It’s the perfect mix of gratuitous descriptions of luxury, fun mystery we all kind of wish would happen to us, and semi-predictable plot twists. Pair this easy read with a fruity drink and a view of the ocean.

French Connection

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It had been 16 years since my last trip to France—which is way too long to spend away from the Land of Cheese. So when my friend Paige suggested that we spend a week exploring the French countryside, I was happy to oblige. Below I’ve included some of my favorite spots on our trip (mostly food and drink related), as well as a few things we learned along the way (like I’m pretty sure there’s only one automatic transmission car in all of northeastern France).
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Stop 1: Honfleur
Honfleur is a colorful seaside city that couldn’t be more charming. It’s a perfect spot to recover from jet lag with an afternoon wandering down its stone streets and around its postcard-perfect harbor. Pop in and out of Normandy cider shops, French soap stores, and chic boutiques, and be sure to visit the Sainte Catherine church that was built in a way that looks like an old boat.

Stay: Our Airbnb here was amazing. It was up a tiny staircase (you’ll need to be relatively fit to hoist a suitcase up that thing) at the top of a centuries-old building overlooking the harbor on one side and the famous church square on the other. Seriously, the best location in town. It was also spacious with a lovely shower—things you don’t take for granted in France.
Eat: First, make a stop at one of the gelato stands on the harbor for rose gelato while you wander around. There are tons of Michelin star restaurants, but we ended up escaping a rainstorm at the cozy Chez D.D. wine bar drinking wine and eating bread, cheese, and charcuterie. The perfect French entry dinner.
Stop 2: Normandy Beaches & Mont-Saint-Michel
You’ll need a car to get around this part of the country. My advice (learned the hard way): Reserve an automatic transmission car in Deauville, near Honfleur. Then, drive down to visit the cliffs of Point du Hoc, the wide sands of Omaha Beach, and the poignant American Cemetery. After a day of WWII history, drive the following morning to the picturesque Mont-Saint-Michel, an island commune dating back to the 8th century.
Stay: Tucked in the Normandy hills about half an hour from the beaches is Le Ferme du Pressoir, a working farm that’s hundreds of years old and run by the most kind couple you’ll ever meet. You’re greeted at the kitchen table with cold cider and crackers. The rooms inside the historic stone home offer views of the garden and fields beyond. And the family-style breakfast features fresh fruits, cheeses, herbs, and eggs from the farm. It couldn’t be more inviting.

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Eat: We didn’t make it in time (see car troubles), but I’ve heard great things about Restaurant L’Omaha on Omaha Beach—evidently it’s a perfect spot for mussels and cider on your day of sightseeing.
Stop 3: Loire Valley
This was my third trip to the Loire and it really never gets old. I mean, it’s gorgeous rolling countryside dotted with lavish chateaus, pristine gardens, and charming villages. Be sure to visit Chenonceau (the one over the river), Villandry (the one with the amazing gardens), and Cheverny (the one with the dogs). Also, save some time for meandering around the historic riverside town of Amboise, which was once home to the French royal court.
Stay: Right in the middle of Amboise is Le Vieux Manoir, a restored 18th-century mansion that feels like walking into a fairytale with its fragrant French rose gardens, beautiful antique furnishings, and bright breakfast sunroom. It’s owned by an American couple who could not be nicer (but, fair warning, are getting a bit up in their years). Be sure to bring home a bottle of wine and snack to relax with in its secluded garden after a day of sightseeing.
Eat: We planned one serious splurge night for dinner at Chateau du Pray and—seven courses later—it was so worth it. Set in an elegant chateau with impeccable service, every perfect dish made it obvious how it earned its Michelin star. For a more laid-back—but equally enticing—meal, make reservations at Chez Bruno where you’ll find classic French dishes like duck and creme brule in a street-side setting that overlooks the Amboise chateau. Finally, while you’re spending a day of chateau-hopping, plan on lunch at Chenonceau, which has a beautiful restaurant featuring a tree-shaded patio with views of the chateau.
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Stop 4: Paris
What is there for me to tell you about Paris that you don’t already know? It’s magical. Some of my favorite things to do there include strolling around Ile St. Louis, sitting on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower as it sparkles at night, picnicking in the Luxembourg Gardens (followed by a scoop of Laduree ice cream at the nearby shop), and having crepes and coffee for breakfast in Montmartre before the hordes of tourists arrive.
Stay: This was another lucky Airbnb pick. We stayed in this suite, which is actually at the top of the luxurious Hotel Ampère. It was amazing. There was huge balcony with views of the city, and a spacious bathroom and living space. But the bedroom was the coolest part because you could literally see the Eiffel Tower from bed. I could get used to waking up to that view.
Eat: I mean, where do you even start with eating in Paris? We had an amazing traditional French dinner at Le Pere Claude. (It was the first time I’ve ever been so full that I left foie gras on my plate. Mark the occasion.) We also had an incredible contemporary dinner at the trendy Les Chouettes. (I would eat that buratta every day for the rest of my life.) But honestly, my favorite dining experience was afternoon rose and bites at the Bar Vendome inside the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a sunlit patio under a glass canopy filled with gorgeous drinks and food, and the best people-watching in Paris.
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Trip takeaways: Normandy is beautiful and so worth the trip. Even the most casual meals are better in this country. Take trains wherever possible, but driving is relatively easy here compared to a lot of other countries in which I’ve rented cars—as long as you don’t drive in Paris. Leave that to the pros. Overall, to borrow—and slightly edit—the words of Audrey Hepburn, “France is always a good idea.”

Perfectly Portland

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The first time I went to Portland I spent a solid six weeks after the trip perusing jobs and home prices in the area. How could you not love this city? It’s in one of the most beautiful parts of the country with lush trails and rivers less than a half hour from your door. Its food and drink scene is mind-blowing. Its people are laid back and friendly. It has adorable neighborhoods filled with charming bungalows. And it has some really cool names in the business sector—Nike and Columbia Sportswear among others.

Anyway, I obviously didn’t move there. But I did recently pay it another visit, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorite spots from this trip (Note: I’ve eaten about 17 meals a day each time I’ve been in Portland. Everyone should do that. This is just a small sampling of my favorites.):

EAT & DRINK

Coffee

This part of the country seriously knows its coffee. The Stumptown adjacent to the ACE Hotel is a great spot to grab a latte. Take it with you to read an authentically paper (!) New York Times on one of the worn couches in the ACE’s hip lobby next door. Coava, which was featured on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, is as Portlandia-ish experience as you’ll find. It’s a coffee shop and wood shop combo. Naturally. Get in line with the flannel plaid shirt folks and order a honey latte.

Donuts

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People will tell you to go to Voodoo donuts. And yes, it’s certainly an experience. But the WAY better donut experience is at Pip’s Original Doughnuts & Chai where they fry the mini donuts to order and you can enjoy them alongside a variety of the housemade chai lattes. The donut drizzled in honey and Nutella changed my life.

Snacks

Olympia Provisions is a charcuterie-lovers dream. Get one of the oversized wooden trays and load up on meats cured in house at this edgy warehouse district spot. If you’re in the mood for cheese and drinking (which I always am), I’d suggest Cheese & Crack (they serve cheese on cookie sheets!) or Urban Farmer, which has an amazing bourbon selection alongside some tasty cheeses. Clyde Common, which gets well-deserved James Beard nods basically every year for its cocktail program, serves a honey butter popcorn that you’ll want buckets of alongside its potent drinks.

Dinner

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So. Many. Good. Choices. My favorite from this trip (and easily in my top five restaurants ever) was Han Oak, a small restaurant serving AMAZING Asian dishes with a chef who lives just off the kitchen. From its hidden entrance in a nondescript parking lot to the chef chopping wood in the yard as we ate, everything about this experience was incredible.

Other favorites include Tusk, a restaurant that looks and feels like Southern California, but is serving flavorful Middle Eastern food. Pok Pok, which has been getting national attention for years for its creative Thai street food and lively atmosphere, is always worth the wait. And I had two unexpected fun finds this trip: Ned Ludd made for a cozy night with its homey ambiance and family-style feast, and Departure Restaurant + Lounge was a luxe evening with wagyu grilled on a stone and wine on a rooftop.

Dessert

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Salt & Straw. Honey lavender ice cream. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

PLAY

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Portland is an easy town to just walk around. There are cute shops and a great trail next to the river. Powell’s Books is a mandatory stop just to see the massive selection of books (the world’s largest, evidently). But every neighborhood seems to have its own little curated stores.

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The Portland Japanese Garden, which is right on the edge of town, is said to be the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. It’s beautiful and, as you’d imagine, very zen.

Personally, my favorite thing to do is drive out of the city and into the Columbia River Gorge. It’s just stunning. You’re literally driving along the old Oregon Trail. There are picturesque waterfalls and vistas seemingly everywhere. Multnomah Falls are a must and the Vista House offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the gorge. On your way back into town, stop at the McMenamins in Edgefield. I could write an entire entry all about this quirky place, which was once a poor house and is now home to restaurants, bars, a brewery, a distillery, a winery, a hotel, and a spa. Just go. (I’ve also heard great things about the spa, but they were booked up the day we went.)

STAY

The first time I went to Portland I stayed at the ACE Hotel because it was Portland and that felt appropriate. Turns out, I’m not cut out for a life that includes dorm-like bedrooms with bulbs swinging from the ceiling and showers in the room. So, this time I went to the far opposite end of the spectrum and stayed at The Nines. Luxury linens, cool art, spacious rooms, and river views. Now we’re talking. This opulent modern hotel was the perfect retreat from the busy city outside its doors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read, Listen, Watch

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I’ve had a weird series of annoyances in my life lately. Nothing catastrophic. Things like the windshield wipers on my car not working and seemingly no mechanic on earth being equipped to fix them. Or things like back-to-back expensive vet trips for a big dog with knee problems and a little dog with stomach issues that keep her—and me—up all night.

No one writes novels about this stuff. No one is going to pay to see the movie of my life. They’d cry into their popcorn with boredom. It’s been a lot of the mundane stuff that unfortunately seems to permeate too much of all of our time. Which is exactly why I like escaping with books, podcasts, and shows like these—and I’m betting you will too.

READ

The cover story of the current issue of The Atlantic magazine, The Last Temptation, tells the story of evangelical Christians and Trump. You know how when you’re thinking something and then someone says it so much more eloquently than you ever could? That’s me and this article. Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post and former Bush (43) speechwriter, dives deep into the issue of how evangelicals have elected a President with values far from their own. It’s fascinating and disturbing. Which could really be said for anything to do with the current administration.

LISTEN

If you’re not listening to The Daily, the podcast from Michael Barbaro at The New York Times, you’re missing one of the coolest current news sources. I’m obsessed. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about. Last week, The Daily featured the first of a new mini-series called Caliphate. It’s a podcast with Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism for The Times, that follows her to the front lines with ISIS. I’ve only listened to one (because I am cheap and refuse to pay for the subscription required to listen early to more), but they’ll be releasing them for free over the next few weeks. If the first one is any indication, this is going to get really good.

WATCH

I was in Oregon last week for work and for fun. I love the West Coast. Like, really love it. But I love it in the same way I love other countries. Because the Pacific Northwest and the American South might as well be different planets sometimes. Anyway, I keep thinking this while watching the new Netflix docuseries, Wild Wild Country. The show is about the Rajneesh movement and commune in Oregon in the 1980s. The group clashes with the locals. It’s an interesting series. There’s criminal activity and free love—all the fun stuff with cults, you know? But it’s mostly just a really interesting look at that period in history.