2016 Travel Year in Review: 6 Countries & 25 Michelin Stars

Approaching the end of the year, the past 12 months seem like a blur.  We’ve traveled quite a bit this year, earning American Airlines elite status for the first time!  We’ve also had some great dining experiences this year, adding 25 Michelin stars to our collection.  We thought it would be a good idea to recap the year and share some quick thoughts.  If you don’t want to read lengthy reviews about our trips and dining, here’s a quick year-end summary of a great 2016:

Chicago in January was freezing cold (of course). Even with Under Armour base layers and heavy jackets, we were still shivering.  We usually stay in the River North area when we go to Chicago, but this time we decided to Hotwire a hotel further south by Millennium Park, which ended up being the Renaissance Blackstone.  Overall, it was nice and had great character (the Starbucks downstairs was great), but it was a bit far away.

Goose Island Tap Room Fulton Chicago West Loop Beer Illinois
Goose Island Taproom on W. Fulton in Chicago

We added three Michelin stars during this trip, dining at Acadia (2 stars) and Topalobampo (1 star). Acadia had an elegant atmosphere, and the food was unique. Topolobampo, on the other hand, was a bit loud, the service wasn’t very formal, but the food was good.  On the more casual side, we went to Revolution Brewing for brunch, which was a much larger establishment than we thought it would be.  The food was quite good for a brewery, too.  This was also the first time we went to the new Goose Island Taproom. Great place with great beer – highly recommended.  Finishing out the trip, we went to The Kitchen in River North (awesome place), Villains (good food but a little underwhelmed by the beer selection at the time), and Hackney’s (always a chill place for good beer and a snack).  We always love going to Chicago.

The Great Maple San Diego California Brunch Breakfast Maple Bacon Doughnuts
Maple Bacon Doughnuts at Great Maple in San Diego

San Diego is a hip city.  It’s also saturated with amazing craft breweries.  We went to San Diego to visit a good friend and drink beer with him.  We stayed downtown at the Westgate Hotel in a spacious, yet dated, room. After an early morning flight, we ate at Great Maple – delicious brunch. Take a break from your diet and splurge on their maple bacon doughnuts!  Over the course of only a few days, we went to 15 – yes, 15 – different breweries.  Our favorites were Stone, Lost Abbey, Intergalactic, Ballast Point, Bolt, and Mission. Every brewery had something unique and fun to offer.

Coast Walk Trail La Jolla California San Diego Ocean Beach Hiking
Coast Walk Trail in La Jolla

While in San Diego, we went to the San Diego Zoo (which Male DINK had been to when he was a kid and Female DINK had never been to).  We were both underwhelmed.  Our last day, we drove out to La Jolla, which we really enjoyed.  It’s a pretty area, even though it is busy and developed.  The Coast Walk Trail was easily walkable and had great views. We could definitely spend more time in San Diego.

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View over La Concha Bay in San Sebastian

Half of Spain we enjoyed, the other half not that much.  San Sebastian was great – there’s so much to love about it.  The tapas were very good, the view from our balcony room at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra was amazing, and the city itself was clean and interesting. Plus, dinner at the nearby Martin Berasategui was one of the best meals we’ve had.  Skipping to the end of the trip, Barcelona was not our favorite.  The food was good, and La Sagrada Familia is an absolute must-see.  Other than that, we thought it was overrun with tourists and a bit dirty and rough.  The view from our balcony at Hotel Colon was great, though.

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La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Our time in the Bordeaux region in France had its highs and lows.  We actually enjoyed touring the wineries more than we thought we would – we learned something new at each one.  The wines were amazing, and there’s something romantic about drinking some of the best (and highest priced) wines in the world at the source.  All of the tours and tastings seemed to be a great value, and we came home knowing a lot more about Bordeaux wines.  However, there wasn’t much to do in the area we stayed, Pauillac. The hotel – Chateau Cordellian-Bages – was very nice, even if we weren’t impressed by the in-house, 2-Michelin-star restaurant of the same name. The tiny nearby village of Bages had one restaurant – Cafe Lavinal – which was decent. Next time, we would probably stay in St. Emilion, which looked like it had a lot more going on.

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The Barrel Room at Chateau Mouton Rothschild

The city of Bordeaux was a lot larger than we were expecting, and we were glad we stopped and poked around for a few hours on our way to Sarlat in the Dordogne Valley. In Sarlat, we stayed in an “apart-hotel,” La Villa des Consuls, where we had a nice patio area and kitchen and were able to cook a few meals on our own. The city of Sarlat is quaint and a good home base for exploring the nearby towns of Beynac-et-Cezenac, La Roque-Gageac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, and Rocamadour. This area is incredibly scenic.  Although we didn’t get to go to a goose farm, we enjoyed our time in the region.

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View toward Beynac-et-Cezenac from Castelnaud-la-Chapelle

Costa Rica was not a sightseeing trip; instead, we went to San Jose to attend our good friend’s wedding (which was out of this world). The free time we had, we went with the wedding party to the Poas Volcano National Park, an active volcano that was fun to see. While we didn’t get to spend much time in Costa, the scenery was beautiful, the weather was great, and it seemed like a place we’d like to return to some day.

Poas Volcano San Jose Costa Rica Latin America
View over the crater of Poas Volcano in Costa Rica

Chicago, again.  It’s just so easy (and cheap) to get to Chicago.  This time, though, we tagged along with another couple over a long weekend.  We stayed at the brand-new LondonHouse Chicago (a Hilton hotel), which was in an amazing location and had a great view of the river.  It’s supposed to have a crazy rooftop bar, but we didn’t plan far enough ahead (or want to wait in line) to go up.  The main reason for this trip was to go (back) to Alinea.  As you can read in the review, it was our first 3 Michelin star restaurant a few years ago, and we were eager to return since its renovation/reinvention and share the experience with our friends.  It was a great experience.

Buckingham Fountain Grant Park Chicago Illinois Downtown Skyline
Buckingham Fountain in Chicago

Other dining included the Girl & The Goat, The Kitchen, and The Gage.  All were very good. We also went to Goose Island Clybourn – always a great place.  This time, though, their beer selection was quite disappointing.  So, after having a single beer, we headed to the taproom (on Fulton Street), which had a much better selection of limited release and rare beers.  Another fun trip to the windy city.

The Forbidden City Beijing China Ancient Imperial Palace Qing Dynasty World Heritage Site
The Forbidden City in Beijing

We crossed China and the Great Wall off our bucket list this year.  China was much more approachable than we thought it would be, and we felt very comfortable there. We stayed at the Regent hotel in Beijing, which was in a great location (right next to a subway stop). The hotel itself felt a little dated, but the concierge was very helpful in getting us a great driver for the day to take us to different parts of the Great Wall. There’s no Michelin Guide in Beijing, but if there were, the Temple Restaurant Beijing would probably be on it, as it was a great dining experience.  The air pollution in Beijing was awful, but the sights – such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and simply walking around the different hutongs – make the trip more than worth it.  The city is huge, and we would need several more trips to Beijing in order to scratch the surface.  The Great Wall (at least the Mutianyu portion) was everything we hoped it would be, and we’d love to go back and spend a day hiking the less restored portions.

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu Ancient Wonder World Heritage Site Hiking
The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Shanghai was much more westernized and normal than we thought it would be.  We did have a bit of misfortune with the weather (it rained a lot) while we were there, which kept us indoors more than we would have liked. Luckily, the hotel that we stayed at – JW Marriott at Tomorrow Square – was very nice, and the free lounge access (through status match from SPG Gold Status from American Express Platinum) was great for breakfast, snacks, and drinks in the evening (the view was great, too). Dinner at newly-starred Yi Long Court in the Peninsula Hotel was a good experience.  While there’s not as much sightseeing to do in Shanghai (vs. Beijing), the sites we did see – such as Jade Buddha Temple, Jing’an Temple, and the Yuyuan Garden and surrounding area – were worthwhile. Of course, the view of Pudong across the river from the Bund (the Shanghai skyline) is a must-see and was amazing to finally see in person.

View of Pudong from The Bund at Night Shanghai Skyline China Modern Architecture Bright Lights
View of Pudong from The Bund in Shanghai

A few years ago, we had an intentionally long layover in London so that we could go into the city for a few hours and see a few of the big sights.  After that very quick visit, we said we didn’t need to go back to London any time soon, as it wasn’t that “different” for us.  Due to some cheap airfare and unused vacation days, we gave London another shot, and we enjoyed it more than we thought we would after spending a few days in the city.  It is busy, old, and sophisticated.  We were able to dine at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, which was overall a good experience, even though it didn’t place in our top five.  There’s so much to do in London, and we felt very comfortable without being burdened by a language barrier – we’ll be back to explore more.

Tower Bridge London England United Kingdom Great Britain Thames River
Tower Bridge in London

The relaxing portion of the England trip was supposed to be our time in the Cotswolds, where we rented a small cottage in Bourton-on-the-Water.  Even though the area and small towns more than lend themselves to relaxing by the fire at the local pub after doing a little window shopping or taking a stroll, we were the victims of our want to eat at many of the nearby Michelin-starred restaurants (Lords of the Manor5 North StreetThe Dining Room at Whatley Manor, and The Wild Rabbit) and visit many of the nearby sights.  We were pleasantly surprised by Stonehenge, as it was larger and more interesting than we were expecting (it also helped that we had tickets for the first time slot of the day = no crowds). The city of Bath was architecturally interesting, and the Roman Baths were worth the visit.  If we could pick a favorite day trip, though, it would be Oxford.  Seeing the different Oxford colleges, being in awe in the Bodleian Library, having a pint at Eagle & Child, and contemplating all the great thinkers who called Oxford home for a while is a great way to spend a day.

Bourton on the Water Cotswolds Oxfordshire England United Kingdom Great Britain Hiking Fall Colors
Walking along one of the many public footpaths in the Cotswolds

2016 Travel Highlights:

  • Dinner at Martin Berasategui.
  • Seeing La Sagrada Familia.
  • Seeing The Great Wall of China.
  • Spending time brewery-hopping with a friend in San Diego.
  • Oxford.
  • Tasting Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau d’Yquem at the source.

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