Monday 23 March 2015

40 Days of Starbucks Alternatives

Anyone who knows me now, can attest to the fact that I am a Starbucks addict. My addiction started about five years ago and only worsened once a drive through was opened less then 10 minutes from my house. What would surprise many people is the fact that A) I don't really drink coffee (maybe 5 cups of coffee per year) B) I don't drink many espresso beverages (maybe 30 lattes per year) and C) I used to hate Starbucks.

Yup it’s true, the Starbucks addict once hated the brand that has become the elixir of life. It started back when I was at Niagara College and my friend Brittney and I would drive to Starbucks every day. Initially it was her choice, but soon I was enjoying the beverages just as much as she was. When I moved back home my Starbucks habit continued and I was making multiple trips a week for my fix. My go-to drink is a non-fat no-water chai latte… I find this comforting, warm and just my happy place. At Christmas I LOVE an occasional ristretto, half-caf all Egg Nog latte and this year became addicted to the Chai Nog latte which was a combination of Chai and Egg Nog. In the spring my favorite indulgence has been the Mocha Coconut Frapp (which hasn’t come back this year) or the caramel flan latte. In the fall I will have an occasional salted caramel mocha or a caramel apple spice, and often for breakfasts a strawberry protein smoothie. I wasn’t kidding about the addiction…. Just writing this post makes me want Starbucks!

My addiction was so crazy earlier this year that when my goddaughter brought up Lent, I knew I needed to prove to myself – and everyone else – that I could take a 6 week break from Starbucks. It was hard - especially since Brian and I drove down to Maryland during that time – but it was a success!

I made it into a fun challenge to step outside my Starbucks zone and try other café alternatives. Fun fact…. The Pickering/Ajax area has a number of cafes that I didn’t even know existed until recently.

Here are a few of my notes.  

Independent Canadian Places

Queen Beans (Port Perry): The hot chocolate wasn't memorable – it tasted like cheap powder mixed with some milk. They also had a strange concept of chai latte as they talked about it being a cup of chai tea mixed with a little milk. I dumped both out.

Piano Cafe (Port Perry): While I didn’t really enjoy the food they made an excellent chai latte. It reminded me of a café I used to work at that made amazing chai lattes. I will definitely be coming back here for drinks! 

Ray's Café (Pickering): Very cool atmosphere and they made an awesome chai latte. Tasted rich and had the hint of spice that I enjoy. I will go back here and try some of their other drinks.

Debbie’s Boutique Café (Ajax): I liked this place a lot. Not only did they have board games you could play, but they also had a great drink/desert menu. The hot chocolate was really good, but I didn’t really like the lattes – a little too sugary sweet for me. This is a must-return too and the staff are super friendly as well.

Canadian/American Chains

Panera: Their chai latte is just okay. Not good but not horrible.

McDonald's: Excellent hot chocolate, it tastes very rich and yummy. Their Mocha is also good but according to Brian it’s “recipe driven but with no heart”. I don’t know what a heartless mocha tastes like, but apparently Brian does and McDonalds makes one.   

American Chains & Independent Locations  

Caffe Bean: Makimono meets Starbucks. Very Asian inspired in drinks and food. Mocha doesn't combine well - low quality ingredients and tastes chemical. There is a burnt coffee taste in their drinks. Aztec Hot chocolate horrible - no taste besides a super dark chocolate. Whipped cream kind of lumpy and tasteless.

Bean Hallow (Ellicott City, MD) Mocha was okay – not wroth the money, it’s better to just get coffee there. They use too much regular milk rather then steamed milk – so you end up feeling very full afterward. Nutty Irishman not what I anticipated but good. Without espresso it was a milk steamer with Irish cream and hazelnut. Tasted like Nutty Irishman drink but warm and non-alcoholic. This place was a bit pricey but their biscotti was worth it!

Little French Market (Ellicott City, MD): OMG I wish I lived closer (well of course I wish I lived closer to see Brian’s family more) but this comes in as a secondary reason. The Santa's Hat was hot chocolate with cayenne pepper and it was amazing. It has this spicy bite at the end with a lush chocolate taste. The Peppermint Chai was a vanilla chai latte with peppermint syrup, and it was incredible! vanilla chai is a bit sweeter with less spice then Starbucks and the peppermint syrup adds something nice. I may have to try this at Starbucks! Junk Girl Java – which was Brian's drink – and had a salted caramel taste after each sip. Now that moacha had heart!

Dunkin Donuts: I like their coffee but nothing else (but I fully admit I have low coffee standards). The almond hot chocolate was horrible – very watery, tasteless.

Einstein Brothers Bagels: The hazelnut hot chocolate was made with machine and tasted watery and powdered.  The Mocha was also machine made and similar to Tim Horton’s.   

Soul Full Cup Coffee House (Corning, NY) Turkish coffee was not good - used regular grind not special Turkish roasted grind. Tasted like espresso with beans left in. Hot chocolate was okay - but not anything special. I could make better at home. Service was fantastic! 

Poppelton Bakery (Corning, NY) - Sipping chocolate was incredible. Rich, delicious, and everything sipping chocolate should be.

Old world Ice Cream and Café (Corning, NY) – The mocha got a Brian shrug. It was cold and tasted just okay – apparently another heartless mocha!

Max Brenner: The Italian hot chocolate was incredible as was the white chocolate chai tea. The mocha tasted more like a hot chocolate but everything was yummy, indulgent, rich and chocolaty – just as you would expect a chocolate store to be! I adore this place and am thrilled there is one near my sister-in-laws house. I told Brian Max Brenner will be completing all of our MD trips from now on.  

Sunday 22 March 2015

30 Things before 30: H20 Float Spa

The H20 Float Spa was something that Amanda was interested in doing that seemed interesting to try. It’s basically a sensory deprivation pod where you float and experience weightlessness in warm water filled with over 1000lbs of Epson salts. There are LED colored lights available if you want light inside, or you can shut everything off and float in darkness. You are able to hook up an iPod and listen to music during your float, or you can just float in silence. The H20 Float spa is described as a place that “provides a peaceful and private setting, allowing you to create time and space for yourself while completely disconnecting from the rest of the world. Pure Relaxation”.

Amanda and I booked for a Sunday Afternoon which worked out well as we went out the night before with some friends and stayed out later then planned. The spa is on the Danforth in a busy area filled with shops and restaurants. Parking was easy to find – we parked in a lot that was just behind the plaza that the float spa was in. Once we arrived we had to sign waivers that we understood all the rules and requirements and understood that we were responsible if anything went wrong or if anything happened in the pod.

We were led into the change room where we were given a robe and told to leave everything in a locker provided for us. There were no private change rooms – just a small room where all of us (4 women in total) undressed and changed into robes. I hadn’t been expecting that. First – most spas offer some privacy or at least private change rooms for those who want. Secondly, the float rooms that Amanda and I had booked had their own shower and facilities. I don’t know why we couldn’t have just changed in the privacy of out own float suites.

A staff member lead us to our rooms and showed us how everything worked. We had to start with a shower before entering the pod, and then once finished our float session we were to have another shower. The overall experience was okay. The float session was different – the water was warm and I found that it helped my muscles, but I was bored and ready to be done after 30 minutes. The float session was supposed to take an hour, but there was no way I could have stayed in there that long. I got out early, had my shower and spent the rest of the time in the waiting room playing on my phone.

I don’t see the benefits to this treatment matching the cost in any way. It was expensive (almost $100.00) and I could pretty much replicate the experience with my own bathtub, a bag of Epson salts and an LED light. While my muscles felt better, it was temporary and not worth the time or money spent. Even Amanda felt the same way after her session – she also finished early having gotten bored, and found that it wasn’t anywhere near as awesome as she thought it would be.

If you have some money you want to put towards a relaxing spa day, do that! Don’t waste it floating in water like we did!

Tuesday 3 March 2015

30 Things before 30: Cocktail Making Class – Amanda’s Birthday

For Amanda’s 30th birthday her sister-in-law and I planned both a night out with friends and a surprise party. It was a busy weekend but totally worth it! For the night out the first stop was to a Mixed-Up Relay at the Pantages Hotel in Toronto after getting picked up by this awesome pink party bus which was covered in fur inside and a pole in the middle! The event was two hours and consisted of us breaking off into three teams. Our host showed us how to make 4 different classic cocktails (a cosmopolitan, margarita, long island iced tea and one other I can’t recall). Then as a team we had to make them – being judged on speed, taste and quality. It was a lot of fun and an excellent way to start off our night. While it wasn’t a very in depth cocktail making class I would definitely look into doing another because I found it interesting and fun.

It also helped me cross something else off my 30 by 30 list - cocktail making! 

We spent the rest of the night at two Toronto bars which were a lot of fun. Then on Sunday we managed to completely surprise Amanda with the party which included her friends, family and some co-workers. It was an excellent weekend and made me realize yet again how much I enjoy event planning. While it doesn’t seem like a career in it is going to pan out, I am starting to consider doing something on the side from home. Maybe event consulting or small-scale event planning. I’ll have to do some more research and see what options are available!