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Alabama Beaches: A Whole Different State (of Mind)

by Desiree Miller on May 25, 2016

With everything from the quirky Mullet Toss Festival at the world famous Flora-Bama bar, to kayaking among the dolphin and egrets in the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, to hanging out with ‘the cool kids’ at the chic Gulf-front restaurant “The Gulf”, where you can kick back on inflatable sofas, you can pretty much find something fun for everyone on the coast of Alabama (watch the video above for a quick look at some of the fun we found).

al beaches

With nearby Florida stealing all the glory for its stunning shoreline, many people fail to realize beaches even exist in Alabama, a state better known for its national championship college football teams than a slice of paradise, where you can sit in the sand and soak up the sun.

But after spending four days with girlfriends (hosted by the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Visitor’s Bureau), playing in what is famously referred to as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, I can attest to the fact that it’s the perfect little place to escape from the world for a bit.

The area’s PR team refers to the coastline with the catchphrase ‘It’s a Whole Different State’, playing on the notion that this state might surprise you when you cross the border to its beaches. I’m taking it one more step, saying it’s a ‘new state of mind’, because that’s how I felt when I was there.

FUN BIG ENOUGH FOR TWO STATES

You can make your way across the border at Flora-Bama, the beach bar that technically resides in Florida, but has a boardwalk separating the sand so that you can step foot in Alabama, too. This bar is big on parties, with a rich history of fun (which you really need to hear from Compton, who you can spot in a kilt and crocs, because he knows the inside scoop on all the best stories). One of it’s best events is the annual Mullet Toss, when tens of thousands of people visit to witness the fish flying from Florida into Alabama, all in the name of good times.

compton

FOOD (AND FUN)

The Flora-Bama Yacht Club sits across the street and is the perfect place for a quieter slice of fun, along with some delicious food that will satisfy any appetite, including the chef’s pick of Lionfish Sashimi. Chef Chris Sherrill is a bit of an environmentalist, too, concerned about the lionfish overrunning the Gulf waters, becoming the underwater equivalent of kudzu on land.   He explained they’re tough to get rid of, with no natural predators, and are essentially choking out the other breeds of fish that we’re more accustomed to eating. Some regions of the world sell lionfish for top dollar, but Chef Sherill wants us to eat more, so he keeps it affordable, serving it up as an appetizer, along with some of his other famous dishes like Chargrilled Fresh Gulf Cobia topped with New Orleans Barbeque Softshell Crab, Alabama Blue Crab Hushpuppies and Beignet Fries with White Chocolate Ganache.

yacht club food

GET FUNKY

A little further into Alabama you’ll find ‘The Gulf’, a funky hangout where I could see spending every Friday or Saturday night if I lived close enough. The burgers are the best I’ve ever eaten—anywhere—with the special house made garlic, and the grouper sandwiches are pretty good, too (I suggest you do what I did and find a friend willing to order one while you order the other—then split each so that you can try both of these favorites). You can slip off your shoes and walk through the sand to one of many inflatable sofas they have peppering the sand. Or, keep those shoes on and kick back in the grass or boardwalk areas situated on the property.   Do not miss the gift shop, though. It’s packed with some of the coolest finds on the beach—all relics you’ll want to take home to remind you of the fun you had while you were away. This beach bar embraces the natural setting, merging old and new, with the building made from a repurposed shipping container and the record player spinning vinyl. Seriously. It’s retro-wonderful and shabby chic. The very definition of a coastal hipster.

gift shop

GET HOOKED

Over on the river side you’ll find Fisher’s, a fabulous restaurant and bar that is famous for its oysters (get the Murder Point farm raised oysters if they’re available), and I highly recommend you try the fried crab claws, too. The chef, Bill Briand, trained under Emeril Lagasse, and there’s a definite Louisana lean to the menu. The décor is to die for—the kind of comfy upscale look you’ll find on the pages of Coastal Living magazine—classy without feeling snooty—with furnishings you’re going to want to take pictures of so that you can duplicate the look in your own home. In fact, the owner, Johnny Fisher, told me enough people have asked for the name and brand of the paint color that the local Sherman Williams paint shop should change the shade to Fisher’s, in honor of all the business he’s sent them. Every area of the restaurant upstairs feels like a home you’ll never want to leave, from the plush pillows plumped perfectly, welcoming you with ‘Hello Beautiful’ printed on the front, to the dining tables with coral pieces decorating the tops, belonging there as much as the salt and pepper shakers should. You can see boats docked around the marina and take in the river views from both the upstairs and downstairs bars. If you want a great drink, do yourself a favor and order up the Double Nipple. I know you won’t really want to even say the name out loud, but this combo of a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada is worth any embarrassment you might feel placing that order.

fishers oysters

GET WILD

If you feel like you need to work off some calories from all this food and fun, you can sign up for a kayak excursion with Wild Native through the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.  No experience necessary. Your guide will help you figure out how to row just right, and she’ll take things at your pace if you’re not looking to row like a madman across the bay. But even the rowing is relaxing when you’re in this natural setting, with dolphin swimming a few dozen feet away, and birds soaring overhead. This experience in the wild is the other extreme to beach life that you expect to find on the coast, away from crashing waves and sandcastles, and totally worth spending a few hours of your vacation sampling.

kayaking

RELAX

Your muscles might ache the next day, so do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a massage at the Spa at the Beach Club in Fort Morgan.  There are several different massage treatments to pick from, along with skin care, body treatments, and salon services. You can request the intensity level you prefer for the massage therapy, along with aromatherapy options intended to help relax you. And after your treatment is done, don’t race out too quickly. Spend half an hour or so in the hot tub, or work your way out to the pool and beach.

spa sign

STRETCH

And since you’re treating yourself so well for a few days, do yourself a favor and drop in for a yoga session on the beach with Glow Yoga. If you don’t normally attend yoga classes, you might struggle with a position or two, but the instructor won’t pressure you to push yourself. Go at your own pace, but keep going, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll make it through the hard stuff and be so glad to get to the poses at the end. The soothing sounds of the waves help it feel more like a spiritual experience, relaxing the mind with the body. And, they offer drop in classes for people vacationing in the area (as it so happens, those classes are typically held at The Gulf that I mentioned earlier).

sunset

SAIL AT SUNSET

If your idea of relaxation goes beyond stretching and spas, book yourself a spot on a sunset cruise with Sail Wild Hearts. You’ll climb aboard a 53-foot, open-ocean catamaran and, if the weather cooperates, head from the bay out into the Gulf of Mexico, where you can typically spot dolphin and enjoy views of the white sand beaches from the water.  The main sail will soak in the warm, Gulf breezes and have you soaring through the water, feeling like a sailor in no time.  It’s a nice escape with a group of friends or a perfect way to spend a romantic evening with your favorite person, watching the sun set for the evening.

condo

SLEEP

And if you need a place to stay, don’t forget to consider VRBO, along with the other traditional options. We stayed in this unit at the Edgewater condo that offered stunning sunrise views, along with some great night time light shows during an overnight storm while we were there.  The unit was clearly decorated by an owner with exquisite taste. Once again, I was snapping photos of furnishings and features that I hoped to duplicate in my own home some day.

If you’re like me, when you have to pack up and leave, you’ll already be planning your return trip to the region. Between all this food, fun and fabulous venues, it truly did offer up a whole new state of mind.

feet up at gulf

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The crash of another airplane once again has travelers concerned about air safety.  It leaves us all asking, is it safe to fly? Where is it safe to fly? How are the terrorists (assuming they are involved in this latest incident, which experts aren’t yet confirming) able to continue attacking and why can’t we stop them?

In a recent Blab (a livestream broadcast) with co-host Kymri Wilt, I was discussing the bombing in a Belgium airport and we were joined by a pilot (Fabrizio Poli) who has some experience dealing with all of these topics.  What he had to say was incredibly interesting and educational to both Kymri and I, and I think is important for us all to hear, so I’ve edited it down from our one hour broadcast to the 13 or so minutes that seemed most relevant.

He covered everything from the kinds of terrorists that out there (according to him–there are three kinds: mad, bad and sad). He discussed having to kick terrorists off one of his planes in the past and acknowledges those terrorists were most likely just testing the security system to see what they could get away with, most likely for a bigger purpose. He talked about airports where it’s common knowledge that the security guards could be bribed to get through line quicker or to get access directly to the planes.

Crazy stuff, right?

Have a listen and let me know in comments your thoughts about it all…

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sanctuary

The Sanctuary Salon Atlanta is now the Sanctuary Salon & Spa, thanks to some incredibly talented staff additions and some newly remodeled rooms.  When I was invited to come review the new services, I jumped at the chance to see what it was all about.  I have to say, I’ll be back often.

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See this little girl, all screaming, sad and stressed out? That was me just before I walked into Sanctuary Salon & Spa in Atlanta last week.

It had been a rough week. Despite my best efforts, nothing seemed to be going right.

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That all changed when I walked into my appointment there. I was booked for a facial, massage, and blow dry. Basically, they were treating me like royalty, which is how they treat all their clients.

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I’ve had facials before, but this one was designed for my attempts to stop the clock. It was an anti-aging facial, and I have to say, an hour with Aga certainly made a dent—in a good way. A week later, my skin is still feeling the impact of her magical touch. Aga has all the tools at her fingertips, massaging and rolling the skin to rework gravity, while using the best in skin care peels and lotions to repair decades of damage. Aga is a professionally trained, licensed skin care specialist with extensive experience with a wide variety of facials (from peels and microdermabrasion to facial acupressure and sinus relief). Plus, she’s good people (hey, you get to know a girl when she’s ‘in your face’ for an hour).

I walked out feeling younger, and looking it, too.

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From the facial, I went to a full body massage with Anne, a licensed massage therapist who has been working in a chiropractic clinic for the last several years and, in the hour that I was in her care, told me more about the muscles and joints in my body than any doctor I can recall. You can barely hear the Irish accent (she moved to the states many years ago), but you can feel the Irish grit in her determination to leave you feeling fabulous. She worked through all my stress spots, like an artist molding the perfect sculpture. I left her room feeling like she had my back…and my shoulders, and neck.  You get my point.

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Next, I took my turn in the salon, where Mark unbraided my long mane of hair (look, when I’m overloaded, a braid is my standard go-to look)… he washed it, easing away what little stress I had left, then used the blow dryer to transform me into a new person…someone who looked human again, ready to take on the world.

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Now, I’m ready to go back again for a cut and style, too. The salon is clearly packed with talented people who love what they do…who want you to feel your best, inside and out. I call it good ‘juju’… They’ve mastered the art of making you feel good…

The only problem with that is you’re going to want to go there all the time, because, well, it’s fun and makes you feel good. And isn’t that what life is all about?

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If you want to feel this good, too, check out the specials they are running for new clients until the end of June. The deals are good enough that you’re going to want to create a fake identity or two so you can go back again and again as a ‘new’ client. Just don’t tell them I suggested that.

newsanctuarypromo

Visit the new Sanctuary website HERE to get a sneak peak at the beautiful salon and to browse their menu of services.  Tell them I sent you!  (And feel free to buy a gift card to give this special treat to a friend…it’s the best massage and facial I’ve ever had!)

 

 

 

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Lumix photo of Rivers of Light character

(Note to readers: I was given a Panasonic Lumix ZS60 to put to the test while at a retreat at Walt Disney World. I am not otherwise compensated for this post and, as always, my opinion remains my own.)

It’s good to keep things simple when you travel, packing as little as possible, but sometimes, you may find a little extra weight necessary, especially when it comes to making sure you have the right tech gear with you, including a quality camera that will help you document your trip forever. For example, I have a top of the line (and yes, very expensive) camera that’s always been my go-to on trips, but have to admit, I’ve been getting lazy lately, hesitant to haul the heavy camera around with me when I know I can just use my smart phone that fits right in my pocket. Yet, quite often, I get back and look through the photos and kick myself over the poor quality in those pictures, especially if I’m using it at night.

Those pictures so often end up grainy because of poor lighting, or the zoom just doesn’t cut it, or they’re blurry because the camera just can’t keep up with the action.

Well, I think I’ve found the perfect compromise in a camera.

Meet the Panasonic LUMIX ZS60.

theperfecttravelcam

This camera has the benefits of a top of the line (and yes, again I’ll say it, expensive) models, without the drawbacks. And although it’s not as thin as my iPhone, it’s skinny enough to fit into a pocket or small purse, and I’ve found that has more advantages than you might realize (more on that later).

This camera can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like, and still end up with vibrant, beautiful color.  vibrant color You can point and shoot and keep things easy if you don’t want to have to think about much when you’re using it. Heck—it even lets you go back in later and change the focus on certain parts of the picture, bringing things that were blurry before into focus.

zoom detail

It has 4K imaging, so your quality is as good as it gets, whether you’re taking pictures or shooting video.

Not just that, you can now easily turn that 4k video into still shots. Once you have the 4K turned on, press the capture button like you normally would and you’ll see 30 images stacked across the bottom of the screen. You can swipe left or right on the touch screen (yes—it has a touch screen!), picking the shot you like best… then you can use the 4K Post Focus.

lumix front

You can also turn the point and shoot into more of a DSLR-type camera by using the mounted control ring on the front of the camera. That lets you adjust the aperture, shutter speed, focus and zoom manually.

There’s an OIS or Optical Image Stabilization feature, too, but this Lumix ZS60 also offers options like the Level Shot Function that will maintain the horizon, even when the camera is not level.

The High Sensitivity MOS sensor is probably the part that makes this camera so much better than what your smart phone offers. It is night and day in comparison (ha, I did not intentionally make that pun, but it works).

And this is the part I referred to earlier regarding size: it looks small enough that most people have no idea the zoom is so powerful. So, when you are at an event that might not allow a big zoom lens (maybe a sports competition or concert), nobody will have any idea that your camera is getting you up close and personal with the action—even though you may be very far from it. I am not telling you to break any rules, I am just pointing out that it is possible (do not ask me how I know).

I do love that I can slide it in my pocket or small purse and not be bothered by extra weight.

You can use dozens of different features, from a ‘star feature’ that makes images dazzle, to a ‘one-color’ option that lets you highlight one color in each image.

rolbeforeshow daisies

The only drawback I see is that I would be tempted to use up a whole lot of storage with the 4K feature and I am bad about putting photos on my computer instead of a hard drive. It is a habit I will need to break soon.

Beyond that, in my book, the Panasonic ZS60 is the total package—all the good stuff and almost none of the bad.

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What NOT to Give a Woman for Mother’s Day

by Desiree Miller on May 4, 2016

des payne

I’ve been a mom for 21 years now…almost 22…and I can tell you, I’ve seen the cruddy end of Mother’s Day presents more than once. It sucks. So, here’s my PSA to those of you out there who haven’t put any thought into your Mother’s Day present yet.
START.
As Nike puts it, ‘just do it’.
After all, you count on ‘Dear Ole’ Mom’ for a lot all year long. Don’t you think she’s worth giving a little consideration for this once-a-year holiday in her honor?

Maybe you’re clueless on things your mom might like.
Let me shed a little light on that for you, speaking in very general terms.

Here is a brief list of things she does NOT want.

  • To be forgotten.
    When I tell you my son was 4 years old before I got my first Mother’s Day present, and that was one I bought for myself, it still makes me sad inside. And no, I am no longer married to his father (not just because of this, but who knows how things might have turned out if a Mother’s Day card or present had popped up one or two of those years…but, as some men argue, I was not HIS mom, so it wasn’t his job to buy my gift…I’m sure my one year old could have crawled down to the store on his own if I’d paid him allowance back then, but I digress). Don’t be that jerk that forgets Mother’s Day…or worse, knows it’s a special holiday, but doesn’t bother to give her something.
  • A crappy gift
    I know I’m vague-booking here, but seriously, put a little thought into what your mom might enjoy. I’m not saying you have to spend a lot…some of my favorite Mother’s Day presents were totally free, but took a little time and creativity, like homemade cards. They’re my favorite anyway. Expensive gifts are nice, too, but when the kids put their heart into making something, it means they cared long enough to stop everything else in their world and spend a few minutes thinking of you. That matters. (Another tip–a quickly scratched out sentence saying ‘thanks mom’ on a sheet of paper does not count as a homemade card…we know you took all of two seconds putting it together and it’s just going to piss us off…do better than that…be better than that.)
  • A recycled gift.
    Look, she might reward your attempt at being frugal, but inside, she’s not going to like being given something you already gave her some other holiday, or something someone else gave you. Unless she gushed over that gift then, don’t even try re-gifting her something crappy just because it was sitting around and available…that’s taking the easy way out and could easily be something she later re-gifts back to you for your birthday–not to be cruel, but as a good mother taking advantage of a teachable moment.
  • A sink full of dirty dishes.
    Yep, this happens every year when some sweet little one decides they’re going to make mom ‘breakfast in bed’. While that might be delicious, burnt toast and all, it’s not fun for mom to wake up to that mess in the kitchen afterwards. So, unless you know you’re going to leave that kitchen cleaner than you found it, just take her out to eat. And pay for it, too. what not to give
  • Anything that involves cooking or cleaning.
    Just don’t be that jerk. Unless she specifically asked for that amazing new upright vacuum, or kitchen mixer, this goes in the ‘hell no’ department. You’re supposed to be making mom feel like the queen for the day, so don’t go reminding her that she’s really more like ‘the help’ the rest of the year. Odds are, if she needs a new cleaning tool to keep the house spotless, she’ll go buy it ‘for herself’. Don’t cheat her out of a gift on her special day by buying something you don’t know she’ll love with all of her heart (and sorry, but I don’t know a woman alive who LOVES a new vacuum cleaner).
  • Anything that involves fitness.
    I know, I know. Wearable fitness trackers are all the rage, and your mom might actually want one this year. If that’s the case, by all means, buy it! But unless she has specifically said how much she’d love keeping track of her calorie count, just don’t. Don’t. Otherwise, she’ll read all kinds of things into the gift, like maybe you think she needs to lose weight, which is the last thing any mom needs to be thinking about on her special day. Issues with weight will ruin any holiday, so avoid this if you want her smiling when the day is done.
  • Coupons.
    I know the little kids who make these ‘free hugs’ coupons mean well. But, I can tell you I have a drawer full of unredeemed coupons that really should be in the garbage now if I was following that book about purging ‘stuff’ (because honestly, these little pieces of paper promising to do the dishes, or wash the car, don’t ‘bring me joy’). They ultimately are like foreign currency—worthless unless you use them while you’re still in that country—which in kid speak, is right away.

So what IS a good gift idea?

Show your momma some love with your actions… plant her a new rose bush… take HER shopping for a new blouse and use your own hard-earned allowance to pay for it… write her a letter about your favorite things she’s done for you, or your best memories together… heck, you could even go for a walk together and share those memories…or share a scoop of ice cream (unless she’s lactose intolerant…then, find whatever it is that people who can’t eat ice cream eat for dessert and give her twice as much because that’s a very sad fate to be handed).

My favorite Mother’s Day present is the one I gave myself my first year as a single parent—a photo session with my son—so, why not tell her you want to go take some pictures together? Heck, you can even use your selfie-stick…it might be the only photo she’s actually IN with you for a very long time. Those end up being pretty priceless.

Just make an effort. Spend time with her. Show her how much she is loved.

What am I forgetting? What rotten gift were you given for Mother’s Day–or what gift would you want to hand right back if your family tried ‘presenting’ to you?

roses


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Vote for Travel as a Great Gift (for Mother’s Day, Hint Hint) Giveaway

May 3, 2016

This month, I am part of the Vote for Travel series hosted by my fellow travel-loving friend, Jen Reyneri, and Word Traveling. There are 30+ bloggers taking part, sharing their thoughts on what makes travel great, along with incredible ways to travel. And, since it’s an election year, we figured we’d make it easy to show your support for something this simple. Vote for… At Stress-free, baby!, you know how much travel means to me already. I believe there’s no greater gift you can give your family than travel—especially when you […]

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Andre Agassi in Atlanta Again–Rematch of 1996 Olympics at BB&T Open

April 29, 2016

Andre Agassi is headed back to the tennis courts of Atlanta, 20 years after the former World No. 1 tennis player won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics.  And guess who he’ll be playing in that match?  None other than the Spaniard Sergi Bruguera, his opponent who took the silver in those Olympics. The match will take place Sunday, July 31 at 730pm as part of the BB&T Atlanta Open at Atlantic Station. Agassi is eager to return to this hotbed of tennis action, saying “I’ve always loved playing tennis in […]

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Make Homemade Hummus Like a Boss (Even if You Don’t Like to Cook)

April 28, 2016

  (Note to readers: I was paid to try to make this special dish and share it with my friends. I’m proud to say it turned out well and am happy to show you how it’s done. I was not otherwise compensated and my opinion remains my own.) I have to let you in on a little secret. I hate cooking. Not even cooking. Making food, in general. It’s just not my thing. As a child in my family, part of our responsibilities included a cooking rotation. One night a week […]

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Be Good to Yourself on the AL Gulf Coast

April 22, 2016

With my head buried into my mat, arms stretched in front of me and the rest of my body balancing on my bent knees, it hit me that I’m not being kind to myself lately. I expect my brain and my body to run 24/7, basically on four hours sleep a night and not very healthy food. I know I need to do better, but I don’t. I realized this during a beach yoga class this morning, part of a press trip I’m on to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, […]

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ATLANTA BABY AND CHILD EXPO 2016, #AtlantaBabyExpo

March 6, 2016

New parents and those who are ‘expecting’ won’t want to miss the annual Atlanta Baby and Child Expo, planned this year for April 16th at the Fabulous Fox Theatre ballrooms. The event runs from 11am until 2:30pm, with VIPs gaining early access at 10:30am. This annual event has established a reputation as  THE event of the year for anyone expecting a baby, or couples with little ones. The Atlanta Baby and Child Expo is well-known for its fun, party atmosphere. There’s a fashion show, Cravings Corner, thousands of dollars in prizes and one-of-a-kind […]

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