Well, rather than giving a physical gift that can be wrapped up all pretty and adorned with a bow, why not consider giving the experience of a lifetime? You see, with more and more people creating "bucket lists", sometimes the gift of experience is far more valuable than anything tangible.
Have you ever wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride? Or maybe you've wanted to race a stock car? Skydiving? Or maybe you're a little more tame and like the finer things in life such as the ultimate gourmet food experience, complete with your own personal, world class chef? Maybe you're into thrills and mystery, and would love to go on your very own scavenger hunt that unlocks hidden secrets?
This is where Cloud 9 Living comes into play! Cloud 9 Living is an Experience Gift company that offers unique and memorable experiences as gifts. There are so many options all across the country that are sure to delight anyone. Here is a bit more about Cloud 9 Living, from their website:
Founded in 2005, it was our belief that giving a gift should be more meaningful than just fulfilling an obligation; it should be about showing your recipient that you took time to find something they will truly love and remember for years.
We have partnered with over 600 "Best in Class" experience providers to create an unparalleled experience portfolio consisting of more than 1,700 experiences in 43 regions.
With experiences ranging from thrilling and adventurous to relaxing and cultural, we truly have something for every taste and every budget.
When I learned about Cloud 9 Living, I was very intrigued. As the busy mom of 3 kids, I rarely get the opportunity to do anything extraordinary outside of the home. Sure, being a mom is the most rewarding thing I will ever do, but sometimes I crave adventure....luxury....things that my rather ordinary life just doesn't provide on a regular basis.
So imagine my excitement when the folks at Cloud 9 Living offered to send my husband and I on an exclusive guided food tasting tour of Cleveland's iconic West Side Market! I know all you foodies out there are familiar with this historical gem that's nestled in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. It has been featured on Man VS. Food, and Adam Richman said that the gyros at Steve's Gyro are one of his favorite eats ever! Iron Chef and host of The Chew, Michael Symon also sings the West Side Market's praises. His favorite? The beef jerky found at Czuchraj Meats.
There is a lot of beauty to be found in Cleveland as well. This city is rich with history and features gorgeous architecture, famous artwork and landmarks, and loads of locally owned family businesses. The folks in Cleveland come from very diverse backgrounds, mainly Slavic and Eastern European countries, and this sense of heritage is preserved and still shines to this day.
Take a look at just a few of the sites Dan and I saw as we headed towards the West Side Market for our food tasting tour:
The West Side Market got its start in the early 1900's. Before this, the residents of Cleveland shopped at an open air market knows as the Pearl Street Market. (This is now known as Market Square, and is located directly across the street from today's 30,000 square foot marketplace.) As the city grew in population, this outdoor market was no longer meeting the needs of Cleveland's citizens. So the lot across the street was purchased and the West Side Market was built. The architects, W. Dominick Benes and Benjamin Hubbell, took great care in their design and spared no detail. The market features a 137 foot clock tower, a majestic tiled ceiling, external adornments that keep with the markets food theme. The West Side Market even has a balcony inside that's perfect for people watching or just enjoying a hot meal from one of the many vendors.
Many of these stands have been family-run for generations, and have been passed down from one member to the next. The sense of pride these families take in their work is something that is so hard to find in today's world. At the West Side Market, small business is thriving and the personal touch you'll find is unlike anything you'd experience at mass retailers. Here, the folks truly care about the happiness of their customers. They will learn your name and ask how you're doing and how your family is doing...They will tell stories, share their knowledge, and even give recommendations and praise to other vendors. You see, the folks at the West Side Market are one big family, working together to give the citizens of Cleveland an experience that's unlike any other in the city.
The other thing that's second to none at the West Side Market is the quality of the products for sale. Here, you can find just about everything under the sun. It's all fresh, locally sourced when possible, and prepared by true culinary experts who have been, along with their families, honing their craft for generations.
Want to see some of the amazing finds we encountered on our tour? Get a napkin ready....You'll be drooling. Take a walk with me through Cleveland's West Side Market!
My husband is a big time seafood lover. If it comes from the sea, he will happily devour it. The market has a huge selection of fresh seafood that is brought in daily. During the local fishing season, you'll find locally sourced Perch, Walleye, and more. You will also find many other varieties of fish, crab, shrimp, scallops, lobster, and for you more adventurous folks, they even have escargot!
Here's a sneak peek of some of the sugary goodness that awaits:
I happen to be a meat-eater, so I was salivating as we perused the many meat stands at the market. Here are some of my personal favorite finds.
Just a heads-up: This stand is wildly popular, so if you want to make sure you're served, you will need to arrive before 2:00PM. The lines tend to get very, very long. Yep, us Cleveland folks know a good thing when we see it! And Steve's Gyros are a very, very good thing!
One of my favorite stops on the food tour was our visit to Orale! Contemporary Mexican Cuisine. Orale! offers freshly prepared heat and eat authentic Mexican cuisine with contemporary flair. Their selections include rich and flavorful tamales, enchiladas, and empanadas; paired with a variety of spicy and mild salsas. Their items range from the traditional fare, such as chicken mole enchiladas and red bean tamales, to the contemporary portobello and caramelized onion empanadas and mango-habnero salsa. All of their food is prepared on a daily basis with an emphasis on fresh and healthy cuisine. Orale! also offers a wide vegetarian selection, and is also available for catering where specialized menus are created by their owner and esteemed chef,Roberto Rodriguez.
We got to sample the Jicama, Mango, and Cactus Salad, as well as a very inventive potato cake made from purple Peruvian potatoes and filled with a creamy goat cheese. I was literally blown away by these dishes! The salad was incredibly fresh, and the flavors were bright and very cleansing to the palate. I especially enjoyed the dressing which has a nice, crisp cilantro base. Yum! The potato cake was very filling, and the flavors were a bit of a surprise. First, I had never seen a purple potato. The potato was rich, moist, and wonderfully seasoned. The goat cheese filling was decadent and very delicately flavored, making this a dish that is sure to please even the most discriminating of palates.
I was thrilled to hear that Chef Rodriguez also owns a well-known restaurant in Cleveland, very near the West Side Market. I am hoping that my husband will take me there for a nice dinner one evening. This is the best, Authentic Mexican food I have had since returning to Ohio, and I love the creative spin Orale! puts on traditional fare.
Now I don't know if you've ever sampled this middle-eastern food before, but a falafil is made from a combination of chick peas (high in protein!) and fresh herbs and spices. They are formed into balls or patties and are deep fried. Falafil can be served on its own, dipped in sauce, or even served on pita bread, sandwich style.
We had ours on on its own served with a special, top secret dipping sauce. The falafil was beautifully crisp on the outside and a nice golden brown color. The inside was creamy, rich and full of flavorful herbs and spices. Add to that the tang of the sauce and it was like a flavor explosion in my mouth!
These were courtesy of Maha's Falafil. This family owned stand has been in the market for over 21 years. They even received the honor of being rated Best Falafil Stand in Cleveland by Cleveland Magazine, and have been on Rachel Ray's $40 A Day show on Food Network.
Rita's has so many unique foods! My favorite would have to be all of the olives. Oh. My. Goodness! There were olives from all over the world and many are stuffed with creative fillings like gouda, prime rib, and even smoked chorizo!
When I got home, much to my dismay, they were nowhere near what I expected. Sure, there is feta and spinach...There were also big chunks of onion, and it seemed that the filling had been marinated in some sort of wine vinegar. While they were alright, these were not my Spanakopita. Not by a long-shot. They're still quite tasty and worth trying, but my quest for my favorite Greek dish has definitely not come to an end.
The next place we stopped on our tour was The Cheese Shop. AKA Brandy's Personal Heaven. I am a cheese fanatic. I love cheese so much that I literally have an entire large drawer in my fridge dedicated completely to cheese. (Yes, I am very, very serious.) So when we approached The Cheese Shop, I was visibly excited. I felt like I had just a million dollars!
Lisa, who is the cheese expert there, was amazingly friendly and has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the world of cheese. She was able to tell me all about several cheeses from all around the world, and even taught me a few things about my favorite food group. (Hey, in my world, cheese IS its own separate food group!)
For one, I learned that Bleu Cheese is not one kind of cheese. ANY variety of cheese can be blued! I was never a fan of this kind of cheese before, and I told Lisa that. She rushed over to her cheeses and came back with samples of 2 very different bleu cheeses for me to try. One was a bit astringent and too strong for my tastes. The other was mild, creamy, and absolutely amazing. So I suppose I do like bleu cheese after all, as long as I find the right kind!
We also got to try several other varieties of cheese. One of my favorites was an aged cheddar that was creamy but also had some great crystallization within it. Another good one was a very unique cheese made with beer and chocolate! It was really interesting, because the chocolate was solely in the aftertaste. This would be fantastic with a nice glass of wine and a fruit plate!
Speaking of wine and cheese pairings, Lisa is an expert there as well. She is happy to make any recommendations to customers as well as help find the perfect combinations for any occasion, whether it be the Holidays, intimate dinner parties, or even tailgating! I plan on getting to know Lisa much better, since I know I will become a regular customer of The Cheese Shop!
Another thing I love is that the market offers some great organically grown produce. These organically grown fruits and veggies can be found at The Basketeria. Here is a little about this great shop:
Specializing in Organic Produce, local Ohio grown Amish produce often less than 24 hours off the vine when sold. Canning produce such as pickles, Hungarian Sweet, Median Hot and Hot peppers available all summer long. Tasty home grown and heirloom tomatoes available through the summer as well. Stop by and experience quality produce at an affordable price. With unmatched service, The Basketeria is what you expect fresh to be.
Tom was incredibly friendly and is very passionate about his work. He was even eager to let us try some organic grape tomatoes! These were so delicious! They were juicy, flavorful, and incredibly fresh. It's funny because I don't usually like raw tomatoes. I prefer to cook them before I eat them. I found that I enjoyed these very much, even in their raw state. These tomatoes had a hint of sweetness that I just couldn't resist!
Tom often works with local farms, and offers Ohio grown produce whenever possible. (Again, these pesky Ohio winters prohibit year round farming!) While not everything they sell is organic, a great deal of it is. I love the fact that the Dundermans are friends to local farmers and do everything they can to help keep Ohio's farms thriving.
Tom proudly showed us some of this beautiful, locally grown organic broccoli, as well as some kale. Don't these veggies look absolutely beautiful?! My kids love their veggies and affectionately call broccoli "trees". I know where I will be heading when I want to buy the best broccoli on the market!
Another very cool part of the West Side Market's produce arcade is Jorgensen's Apiary. Yep...They have a bee-keeper on the premises! This stand was a very fun stop on our food tour. Here you'll find a ton of great products like fresh, locally sourced raw honey in a wide variety of flavors like Ginger and Blackberry, just to name a couple. You will also find a creamy, white honey that has a buttery consistency. (Yum!)
Honey is best used when it's in its raw form. Most honey is heat-processed, which eliminates all of the nutrients and vitamins found in bee's pollen. I am a huge believer in the powers of raw honey, as I have been buying organic raw honey for years. When I have a cold or an allergy attack, I always take a teaspoon of raw honey and it helps me bounce back rather quickly. It's important to note that this honey must be taken on its own. Adding it to tea or other hot food and drink causes all of those benefits to be heated away.
But the fun doesn't stop there! Jorgensen's Apiary also specializes in personal care products made from bee pollen and honey, and they even have some great jams, jellies, and mustard. We likes the HOT! HOT! HOT! Honey Mustard! It was definitely full of heat with a nice hint of sweetness to balance out the flavor.
Take a look at this delicious dried kiwi. It has a very light sugar coating to complement the tartness of the kiwi, and the flavor is out of this world!
I was also very impressed by the fact that the West Side Market is rich with Cleveland's unique flavor that exists solely because of the many people who chose to make it their home over several generations. Here you'll find a melting pot of cultures, a gallery of smiles, and people who are always happy to see you. At the West Side Market, you'll not only find some of the best foods out there, you'll find new friends, too. It's no wonder that this gem of a market is not only a celebrity favorite, but a local one as well. In a world where small businesses are becoming extinct and customer service is lacking, the West Side Market keeps these time honored traditions alive. Here's to another 100 years of excellence!
So if you're ever in the Cleveland area and want a once in a lifetime experience, definitely check out the West Side Market Food Tour offered by Cloud 9 Living.
If food isn't your thing, Cloud 9 Living has a ton of other experiences to offer as well.
You can connect with them on their website, as well as on Facebook and on twitter to stay on top of their latest experience gifts and promotions!
Want to win your own Cloud 9 Living experience?
Starting November 1st, you can win your own experience by entering Cloud 9 Living’s “9 Days of Christmas Contest” here.
***Disclosure: I received a complimentary experience from Cloud 9 Living. No other compensation was provided, and all opinions are 100% honest and have not been influenced in any way.***