Author Archives: Elaine J. Masters

Country bliss – Lajitas, the best of Texas Resorts

Banner for Lajitas Resort

Dawn in Lajitas one of the best Texas resorts

Dawn reveals things magically. We’d pulled into the Lajitas Golf and Spa Resort while the morning sky was still black. In minutes the world came to light, filling the dining rooms’ towering glass windows. That and the strong coffee cleared my head. I’d just started to discover why Lajitas is considered one of the best Texas resorts.

Lajitas golf and spa resort breakfast

It was too early to check in but we dropped off our luggage and went off for a day of horseback riding and paddling the Rio Grande (more of that story here.) Dinner was accompanied by wedding festivities on the terrace. The bridal party was perfectly Texan – the groom’s men wore rhinestone studded jeans and the bride pivoted on embroidered cowboy boots!

Lajitas ranch one of the best Texas resorts

What makes Lajitas one of the best Texas Resorts

The ranch sits center stage. As we wandered the acres, the history of the place opened up. Close to the Terlingua community with its eccentricities, Lajitas offers a quiet and graceful contrast.

Lajitas golf resort and spa arcade

There are shops and a spa of course, but I didn’t take the time to investigate. I wanted to be outside. The Lajitas resort is famous as a magnificent golf course rolling over hills and between mesas. There’s no wonder it’s award winning – voted the #1 most beautiful golf course in Texas by Golf Magazine, Best of Texas resorts for golf by Texas Outside and the Dallas Morning News considers it the # one public course you can play in Texas.

lajitas golf course always beautiful

Once handicaps were mightily challenged – one hole lay across the Rio Grande in Mexico! Those days are gone now but the course still runs along the border and that meandering river. If it weren’t for a light rain, you’d be seeing pictures of me in a golf cart careening along the course trails. Along with trails galore, the resort sits close to a marked nature walk flush with local flora and fauna.

lajitas trail sign

There’s a historic chapel filled with local artists’ work.

lajitas chapel

Nearby, a zip line sat ready, its lines looped up into the highlands. There are nine lines with three different courses for various levels and ages. We met the guides who were getting ready for fall guests. Their shop also manages shooting activities: Five stand sporting cays, a cowboy action shoot full of Wild West arms, a combat course, and packages combining them.

One glimpse of the Lajitas zip line

 

Inside the outfitters shop in one of Texas resorts

My favorite spot, the key to this being one of the best Texas resorts, is Black Jack’s crossing. Don’t let them tell you it’s just a golf shop – there’s much more inside. The owners manage one of the largest collections of Longhorn displays in the West. Rooms are full of the noble horns. Historic pictures, branding irons, log books, and a wide mural surround the golf shop amenities. I don’t play golf but would go out of my way to see this collection.

inside blackjacks crossing

Another historic space that makes this one of the best Texas resorts is the Ocotillo event space. Once a fine dining restaurant featured in Gourmet magazine, now the two-story building hosts private events. It’s worth a stop to climb the tower and admire the views. There’s even a Texas state shaped pond!

ocotillo event space in Lajitas resort

Last but not least are the stables offering equestrian adventures including sunset and sunrise trail rides.

horses in Lajitas stables

As we completed our visit, dining as the stars emerged, I felt closer to the heart of this land in Lajitas, definitely one of the finest Texas resorts.

lajitas resort grounds

If you explore Lajitas golf resort and spa, one of the best Texas resorts:
  • Make reservations for lodging, golf, spa and activities at the resort (http://www.lajitasgolfresort.com/)
  • Getting there: There’s a small airport nearby but most visitors arrive by car.
  • Spend some time on the River with Big Bend River Tours (http://www.bigbendrivertours.com/)
  • The Barton Warnock Visitors Center has lots of information about Big Bend National Park (http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/barton-warnock)

A horseback riding, saddle and paddle adventure – Lajitas, Texas

horseback riding at lajitas stables in Texas
Horseback riding on the mesas above the Rio Grand River in Texas

Horseback riding on the mesas above the Rio Grand River in Texas

Seasoned road trippers, my sister and I had grown up taking long drives with the family but we’d never veered off road to go horseback riding. Our annual trip together, this road trip through West Texas, had us pulling over on a whim often, but this morning we were rushing to make a rendezvous with a singular cowpoke.

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We knew that we had to be at the Lajitas Stables corral early and left our modest motel in Terlingua while it was still dark. The idea was that we’d pick up coffee and a light breakfast somewhere along the 26 miles between our launch and destination. What we didn’t realize taking off in the early morning dark was how deserted the road would be and how few places would be open. Two city girls, we marveled at the lack of breakfast places. The idea of a Starbucks or all-night Denny’s on a corner of that prairie land was hilarious and charming.
Dawn breakfast at the Lajitas Resort

Dawn breakfast at the Lajitas Resort

The Lajitas Golf Resort saved our day. While it was far too early to check in, the breakfast buffet was just opening up. Caffeine kicked in as we looked out across the mesas and dawn’s light broke. Tummies satisfied and the cobwebs of sleep wiped clear, we headed to our rendezvous.
Kelly the cowgirl and Lajitas Stables guide

Kelly the cowgirl and our Lajitas Stables guide

I’d envisioned joining a group and horseback riding for a few hours. What unfolded was a half day ride up rocky hillsides with expansive views across the Rio Grande River, spotting wildlife and tossing rocks down into box canyons. It was just my sister Julie, me and Kelly with our sweet horses. The pace was rambling and Kelly graciously tolerated my grilling her with questions. Just before noon, we entered a shallow canyon. “It’s time for our box lunch,” Kelly joked as we stopped at the granite terminus of the box canyon.
Elaine taking notes during our box canyon lunch on a horseback riding adventure

Lunchtime during our horseback riding adventure

She looped the reins loosely, knowing the horses so well that there was no need to restrain them. They were distracted quickly, nuzzling into new greens from the recent rains. That was the hardest part of the ride – keeping them moving with all the luscious new growth along the trails (tasty if you’re a hungry horse and, ‘They’re always hungry,’ Kelly says.)
As Julie and I watched chipmunks leaping on the rocks above and circled the low pools where butterflies flittered, Kelly prepared our lunch. Miraculously, her slim saddle bag held a feast. We gorged on smoked chicken breast, a wondrous bean and corn salad, tortillas, and pickles. Cookies and lots of water capped our meal before we swung back onto our waiting steeds.
Mesa view into Mexico across the Rio Grande river

Mesa view down to the corral and into Mexico across the Rio Grande river

As we rose on a crest we spied the corral and the one horse who had remained behind began whiny-ing. She was lonely! We picked up the pace slightly as the afternoon’s heat peaked. Once we dismounted, I strode over with my bag and felt a sudden flush. Kelly took a glance up and told me to bend over. She took her bottle of ice water (frozen the night before) and poured the chilly liquid over my neck and head. I hadn’t realized how quickly heat stroke can creep up! In moments my skin and temperature were back to normal.
Our paddle master at work on the Rio Grande

Our paddle master at work on the Rio Grande

Good thing too as we turned to say our goodbyes, a van pulled up. It was our second rendezvous of the horseback riding, Saddle and Paddle adventure. I regretted leaving the horses and Kelly but climbed into the cool van as we rode to a low dirt road. Our guide, Matt, backed the van trailer close to the water’s edge and shifted a Zodiac raft into position. Within minutes we had our life jackets on and were slowly cruising down the lazy river.
butterflies on the Rio Grand River

Butterflies on the Rio Grand River

Around us, sagebrush grew close to the lapping river. Birds darted overhead. I tried time and again to capture pictures of the bright yellow butterflies sipping at shallows as we passed. At one point the river split around an island and we were positioned for running the rapids. It sounds riskier than it actually was. My apprehension evaporated at the chance to get into the water. Matt had the four of us link arms as we shuffled into the river. A few moments later, he positioned himself to sit in the water, cautioning us to keep our feet up and forward. One by one we dipped. It was a thrill – brief, fun and a great way to cool off after horseback riding too.
Matt and snack on our Saddly and Paddle adventure
Before we parted with Matt he manifested a quick snack as the skies turned dark and a light sprinkle erupted. I spied lightning over the mesa and marveled at the adventure, horseback riding, paddling and the peace of the Big Bend and Lajitas region.
 Horseback riding above the Rio Grand.

An experience I’ll never forget. Horseback riding above the Rio Grand.

My sister and me practicing our familial head tilt. I won!

My sister and me practicing our familial head tilt. I won!

Go horseback riding, river rafting in the Lajitas area of West Texas:

Read more about exploring West Texas in my 2 part, Road Trip planner. Part 1 and Part 2

Special thanks to El Paso and Brewster County Tourism offices for making our West Texas adventure possible. While we were hosted all pictures and opinions are my own. 
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Travel Notes & Beyond

How to find edible mushrooms – Forager, Adrienne Long

Wild edible mushrooms can be found in Southeast Alaska
A glimpse into the wilds of Ketchikan, Alaska where edible mushrooms hide

A glimpse into the wilds of Ketchikan, Alaska, where edible mushrooms hide

 

We met on a long weekend camping trip in SE Alaska. I had no idea that Adrienne was a fungi expert until the two of us took off on a trail into the woods and she began pointing out edible mushrooms and more suspicious varieties.
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Adrienne Long works as a forager and guide based out of Mendicino County. Her biggest passion is getting out into the forest, into the wild, and being able to live off the land. Most of us don’t have a clue about where to find them, which are edible mushrooms or might be fatal.  I asked what got her interested in mushrooms?
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A – I always really enjoyed nature and something called me to the fungi. I knew I wanted to learn more and it exploded from there. First I studied in botany classes, mushroom, and natural history. So, I know a lot about what we have growing wild in the Mendocino area, where I’ve lived about 16 years.
mushrooms on trees are sometimes edible mushrooms
E -You can learn a lot about mushrooms in a book but it’s also an experiential thing. Who did you work with to learn about mushrooming?
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A – My husband taught me the basics, then I took a class at College of the Redwoods with Teresa Scholers. We had a Teacher’s Assistant, Dr. Ryan Snow, a well-known mushroom forager and internationally recognized. With Teresa, the class was half lecture and half in the woods. Every year that she taught I would T.A. so there was more opportunity to be out in the woods and learn about new mushrooms. Maybe one year you didn’t see it and the next year there’d be a bunch of them out, so with the quantity of mushrooms we have in that area, the more you go out the more you learn.
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E – The conditions along the California North West coastal region are prime for edible mushrooms because of the weather?
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A – Weather and the trees are important. A lot of mushrooms are reliant on a specific species of tree. That makes for prime mushroom habitat.
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E – I used to think that mushrooms were a sign of death; that they broke down things as parasites but you’ve said that they often work with plants. Do you see that often?
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A – Oh yeah. Mushrooms are the most important decomposers we have on this planet. If we didn’t have mushrooms we’d just have piles and piles of plant matter that would never decompose. But we also have mushrooms that work with the trees to survive. They help the trees to gather water. There are some that weaken trees and allow other pathogens to enter the system to weaken the tree. So, there are all kinds of fungi out there. When you’re out it’s important to know what kind you’re looking for; if you want a decomposer or a Mycorrhizal mushroom that’s connected to a tree.
Our SE Alaska crew, Adrienne is seated with her daugher on her lap.

Our SE Alaska crew, Adrienne is seated with her daugher on her lap.

E – I wasn’t a very good hippie but remember that some people loved to find certain kinds of mushrooms which were hallucinogens. Do you have those in your area?
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A – Not so much. They’re some of the hardest to come by. They’re little and brown. The forest is full of hundreds of species of little brown mushrooms. You could pick one that is extremely toxic or one that is Psilocybin, those are the ones that are hallucinogenic but where we are it’s not very common to find them.
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E – One of the most surprising things I learned from being in the forest with you is that the biggest part of a mushroom is not what you’re going to see.
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A – They found in Oregon the largest mycelium, the roots of the mushroom underground. The largest one is four miles wide and it grows in a circle. So if you see a fairy ring, a circle of mushrooms, that circle is the mycelium and the mushrooms are on the outside. That ring if it’s large it means that it’s really healthy and the only reason the mushrooms are there are to spread spores and reproduce. The whole fungal body is either in the ground or in a tree decomposing and eating the tree matter.
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E – It sounds like something out of a science fiction story but it’s happening all over the world. Is there anywhere you’d like to go to forage for edible mushrooms?
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A – Anywhere and everywhere I possibly can. We’ve been to Mexico and I saw Chanterelles but they don’t really forage for edible mushrooms there. I’m willing to go anywhere in the world to hunt and see what species of mushrooms different places have.
Our chariot, the Resurrection, in a SE Alaska fjiord

Our chariot, the Resurrection, in a SE Alaska fjiord

E – One of the most popular edible mushroom varieties are truffles. Do you ever find them in your region?
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A – Not along the coast, we don’t have the right tree situation for truffles. I think it’s more the Washington and Oregon areas that have those. But even going to Washington is a great thing to do because they have such a great foggy climate. There’s a lot of wild crafted mushrooms that come out of Washington and Oregon.
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E – We’re sitting in Ketchikan, Alaska, and spent some time in the forest. Did you find some surprising things?
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A – I found a slime mold but it’s not really fungal. That’s another whole organism.
It’s a single cell ameba that goes wandering around the forest and then when it finds something to eat it will send out a hormone. Then all the other little ameba join up and make this mass. It’s pretty amazing and comes in all different colors. The one I saw was a nice shiny black.
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E – They come together and then come apart at different times too. Does it react if you touch it?
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Here’s a cool, short video about the kind of slime mold Adrienne found in the forest:
A – This one kind of molded together when I touched it but you can watch them move if you want to sit there for a long time. Once it’s finished eating and full, then everyone re-disperses into the forest until they’re ready to procreate. Then they’ll have a big ameba orgy later.
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E – There were yellow mushrooms coming out of a tree on our SE Alaska trail and you pointed out that some are better to eat at certain times.
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A – Yes, that was called “Chicken of the Woods” and they’re better to eat as little buttons. Some species can be toxic though and you need to watch out. They’re also called “Chicken of the Woods!” if they’re growing on something that’s toxic they could be absorbing those toxins and possibly be toxic to you.
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E – That brings us back to an important aspect of mushroom hunting, “Go with someone who knows what they’re doing, who has the experience” like yourself. You work out of Mendocino and Fort Bragg with different organizations. What is the best time of year to go foraging with you?
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A – Usually first rain into February, so usually October to February is great. If you want really high mushroom count, December is the best depending on what species of mushroom you’re looking for. Google ‘Mushroom foraging in Mendocino County’ to find me or look for the Stanford Inn in Mendocino. I do nature tours and guided walks out of the inn.
Wild edible mushrooms can be found in Southeast Alaska
E – You have children, are you teaching them to forage as well?
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A – Of course, I have a four year and a ten-year-old and that’s one of their favorite things to do in the winter time. My son loves to go out with his friends and bring home mushrooms. He’ll go, “Oh, see this gelatinous mushroom?” and he’ll eat it. Audrey just loves to carry her basket around and go hiking with me. I feel it’s definitely something they need to learn.
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E – Do you have a favorite edible mushroom that you like to cook with? A lot of people are familiar with Chanterelles, but you want to find a particular kind, right?
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A – Yes, but there are false Chanterelles but those can be toxic and give you gastro-intestinal disorders, so you want to be careful. You want to know your edibles but more importantly, you want to know the toxics and toxic look-alikes so you don’t mistake those. One of the most important things when cooking mushrooms is to do a double sautee. So you cook them in a dry pan with no seasoning and no oil until the water comes out and evaporates. Then you add butter, oil, garlic, or whatever for flavor and they’ll absorb all that flavor. It makes them much tastier that way.
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E – So, when you’re cooking, all that moisture out is it also for safety reasons or just for the flavor?
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A – Just for the flavor. You want to cook out the moisture first before adding other ingredients, say for a sauce. I’ve ruined a few just by adding raw mushrooms. It cooks all that water into your sauce and can be very overwhelming. With all mushrooms, it’s better to pick a small mushroom than a larger mushroom. All mushrooms have the same number of cells, whether they’re small or large. They don’t grow by cell division. They grow by cell elongation, so when they’re really big it’s because their cells are elongated and water logged.
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E – So bigger is not better.
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A – Right, bigger is not necessarily better!
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This has been so much fun. What a world you live in! I look forward to seeing where you take all this.
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Interested in finding edible mushrooms?
Find Adrienne at mendomushroomforager@gmail.com or at the Stanford Inn in Mendocino, California.

Where to find the best places to eat in Oceanside

Best places to eat in oceanside are mostly at the weekly night market

Best places to eat in oceanside are mostly at the weekly night marketMuch more than a surf and beach getaway, Oceanside is a dining destination where parking is abundant and you can always get a seat at the table or bar. That is unless you need to get into the 35 seat speakeasy, 101 Proof, on a busy night. The city ripples with tantalizing eating and drinking options. And not just individual places, the Thursday Night Market overflows with curated vendors offering affordable and unique tastes. Choose from plank fired Salmon, Ghawazee small plates, Japanese cakes, Polish pierogi, gluten free pastries for example. Entertainment fills a plaza with live music, Bungee jumping, henna painting. Strolling, eating and enjoying the crowd makes for a relaxing night. I loved simply watching an expert baker toss pizza crust overhead next to a wood-fired grill at one the best places to eat in Oceanside.

The west entrance to the night market, one of the best places to eat in Oceanside

The sunset market on Thursdays is one of the best places to eat in Oceanside.

With all the culinary excitement across San Diego county, it’s taken awhile for Oceanside to get its due. Once it was a bit shady, downtown was punctuated with tattoo parlors and rowdy military bars. The rowdies have moved onto lower rent burgs. The city center and south along the Pacific Coast Highway are bubbling with new energy. Families enjoy the beach and wander downtown day or night. Couples nuzzle in comfy booths and friends mingle everywhere. Cutting-edge chefs, urban farmers, distilleries and ale-houses – there’s a lot to love. Here are several food spots I look forward to visiting again and again.
Urge gastropub is one of the best places to eat in Oceanside

Urge Gastropub / Mason Aleworks / 101 Proof Speakeasy

Urge Gastropub
Once a boxy bank sat on a corner of Highway 101. Today a consortium of brewers, chefs and mixologists have transformed it into a feast for the senses – the Urge Gastropub. I stepped inside the dining room and central bar to face a wall of fine spirits. Behind the kitchen, the brewing prowess the Mason Aleworks team of beer masters fill kegs and tanks.
The boys in the band from Mason Aleworks and the Urge Gastropub kitchen

The ‘boys in the band’ from Mason Aleworks and the Urge Gastropub kitchen

For a behind-the-scenes look into Mason Aleworks and the exclusive 101 Proof Speakeasy, check out my video:
Outside around the corner, there’s a simple sturdy door. Enter and you’re in a classic speakeasy. The Whisky vault, 101 Proof, is an homage to the luxurious drinking salons of the 1930’s. There’s a refined menu, plush upholstery and the talented ministrations of the bartender. The space is intimate and reservations are suggested. Tell them Bugsy sent you.
Bartender inside the 101 Proof Speakeasy

Bartender inside the 101 Proof Speakeasy

Cyclops Farm

Get a taste of the freshest, organically-certified produce from the weekend stand at Cyclops Farms. Meander up to the top of the hill for a beautiful view of the Pacific. Farmer, Luke Girling, spent the last few years filling this huge, residential acreage with unique greens, fruits, and flowers for local chefs. His inspiration has caught on as part of an urban farming movement that’s filling suburban neighborhoods with clean and bountiful harvests. The community loves it too. As I stood there on the morning of a tour, he waved to the street several times as neighbors passed by. Follow his Facebook page to sign up for one of the exclusive ‘Water Bill Dinners’ he hosts monthly at tables on the property.

Luke Girling, founder of Cyclops Farms inside his farm stand

Luke Girling, founder of Cyclops Farms inside his farm stand

Staci Miller, founder of Miller's Table one of the best places to eat in Oceanside

Staci Miller, founder of Miller’s Table

Millers table sandwich
The Millers Table

Staci Miller has a flair for unique details, creating a restaurant that’s an experience, as well as delicious presentations. The intimate space contains a huge community table decorated with lights and candles. Focusing on artful sandwiches, inspired vegetables, and fresh locally sourced proteins, the culinary team serves their creations without waitstaff. Curious about your hummus, where the delicious rolls come from, what the best wine or beer pairing is? Ask Staci or her team as they stop by the table. Savvy locals know to call ahead for seats or order a picnic basket for a patio or beachside meal.

The dining room of LTH on South Coast Highway

The dining room of LTH on South Coast Highway

The Charcuterie plate at LTH

The Charcuterie plate at LTH

Local Tap House

Don’t let the casual vibe fool you. LTH takes great food and drink seriously. Yes, the patio is pet-friendly, garage doors open to the sea breezes and bicycle teams may fill tables. It’s all affordable fun based on a menu full of surprises. LTH embodies a laid-back beach style with an eye to delicious quality.

Chef Davin Waite and his creations from Wrench and Rodent
Wrench and Rodent

With a name like that you’d better be good. Chef and founder, Davin Waite, twists his punk rock sensibilities into the freshest seafood presentations imaginable. Each ingredient is ‘chef selected.’ The ‘Sebasstropub’ is irreverently decorated (yes, there be rodent art,) and small, with a large patio in front and back, and an entrance from the parking lot through a taco shop. Sushi lovers wax eloquent. Fish connoisseurs hum with approval. Just go!

 

608 pork loin from Chef William Eick

Think you know short ribs? The tender meat is served with roasted vegetables on a bed of Thai Coconut curry. Scrumptious.

608 Oceanside's Chef William Eick explains his bold flavor inspirations

608 Oceanside’s Chef William Eick explains his bold flavor inspirations.

608 Oceanside

This new restaurant is making waves in the San Diego culinary scene. While Chef William Eick serves ‘small plates based on a contemporary American cuisine’ don’t assume that you’ve had anything like this. The restaurant is slender, intimate, and set along the main downtown block of Mission Boulevard. 608 is definitely buzzworthy as one of the best places to eat in Oceanside.

Alicja Miechowski of Taste of Poland at the Sunset Market

Alicja Miechowski of Taste of Poland

Plank roasting with Michael Bossle in the Flamin' Salmon booth

Plank-roasting with Michael Bossel in the Flamin’ Salmon booth

The Stone Brewery beer garden at the Oceanside sunset market

The Stone Brewery beer garden

Mainstreet Oceanside Sunset Market
Erase any preconceptions of a night market. Every Thursday evening at sundown the event fills several cross streets of downtown Oceanside. The International Food Court is packed with curated stands and inspired vendors. They’re some of the best places to eat in town – all affordable and great fun. I was entranced by the buzz. Live bands play in the square, there’s great people-watching, date-night couples, family diners, and more delicious food in one place than imaginable.  Of course, you’ll also find shopping with crafts and activities like pony rides, henna painting, and bungee jumping. It’s a carnival without the barkers or rides. Also, Stone Brewery has set up an open-air pub in a garden on a side street for those looking for more adult brews. Definitely worth the trip to town.
Getting to the best places to eat in Oceanside
Come down from OC, over from Escondido, pace the traffic and wind up the Interstate 5 from San Diego central. You won’t regret the drive. Better yet take the train. The Amtrak station is steps from town and a few blocks from the beach. On weekends, the Metrolink rolls in from LA and San Bernadino with a discount fair. The Coaster stops in too and one line swings out to East County as well.
sunset over the oceanside pierBest places to eat in Oceanside

I’ve been in and out and past Oceanside so many times while cruising between San Diego and Los Angeles. It was been so much fun discovering more about this coastal gem and I thank the Oceanside Visitors Bureau for arranging a tour for the members of IFWTWA. I’ll be back!

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Travel Notes & Beyond

Desert wildflowers – Anza Borrego road trip tips

desert wildflowers and ocotillo

desert wildflower lily

Anticipation ran high and rumors began before the rainstorms stopped. Is this the year for desert wildflowers Superbloom? Winds, hard rains, and long years of drought have stymied the annual desert blooms over the last few years. So we waited to see if the conditions were right for the desert wildflowers to pop and finally got lucky.

My shoes covered in desert wildflowers pollen

My shoes covered in desert wildflowers pollen

Watch this video about the desert wildflowers road trip:

Careful timing and preparation for a desert road trip can save your life

The area can be scorching with temperatures regularly over 105 degrees for a good part of the year. Make sure your car is topped out with antifreeze and water whenever you go. There’s a steep climb to navigate over the mountains from the San Diego region. It’s also one of my favorite drives. The boulders surrounding the summit are formidably beautiful and the views as you emerge from cloud-filled peaks are breath-taking.

Wind conditions

When heading east along the southern route, it’s also good to know what the wind conditions are. Take extra precautions or another route if you have a high profile vehicle. I’ve seen trucks blown onto their sides and it can be a long wait for assistance in the remote area.

road sign on the way to find desert wildflowers

We set our trajectory to the timing of the first desert wildflowers reports. Wildflowers emerge first in the south just north of the Mexican border. We headed there guided by various tracking sites (see the list below.) There’s a wash on a side road from the freeway that leads to Calexico and it’s been our lucky spot.

carpet of desert wildflowers

From there we reversed our route driving north along Highway 78 towards the town of Ocotillo Wells. Before we crossed the freeway we made a pit stop for coffee at the Ocotillo Wells Chevron truck stop. A great discovery was the freshly made coffee in individual Keurig-style machines. We also discovered some pretty unique snacks on the counter (and left them there!)

larva and cricket snacks

Larva and cricket snacks at a desert truck stop!

Ocotillo Wells is a tiny town but worth a slow cruise. The locals keep it light with creative yard art. It’s also where off-roaders find repair and body shops. We cruised through on our way to lunch in Anza Borrego. (Read more in my earlier post about desert nomads and where the locals eat)

Ocotillo wells nose sign

Spotted in Ocotillo Wells

Campers and weary road warriors often stop at the Agua Caliente Hot Springs. The pools are managed by the county, so this isn’t a spa experience. The adult-only indoor pool has jacuzzi jets and the outdoor pool is family friendly. There are lockers, changing rooms and a few other amenities.

Anza borrego desert state park sign

Once you’ve entered the Anza Borrego Park bee-line to the Visitors Center. It’s natively landscaped and a carefully-positioned building full of interactive exhibits, trail experts, and information about where to go. Movies will entrance the kids and the gift shop is a fun diversion too. The Visitor center packs its calendar with lots of events whether desert wildflowers are out or not.

Borrego Springs – First Dark Sky Community

Star-gazing is wonderful year round in the Borrego Springs area. As the first Dark Sky Community in California, airplanes flying into the small airport angle their lights down and lights are modified on streets, businesses, and homes. Check out star-gazing opportunities if you are staying in the area.

desert sculptures near Borrego Springs

Sky Art

Make sure to save time to see some of the immense metal sculptures that dot the desert landscape. Sculptor, Ricardo Breceda planted his ‘Sky Art’ in the open reaches of the area. Most evolved from his imagination (A giant sea dragon crosses the road!) to Plio-Pleistocene animals and dinosaurs. Spanish explorers, turtles, fantasy creatures and bighorn sheep make great photo opps. In fact, on busy weekends, you might have to wait in line to get your shot. (See link to map below.)

Desert art between Ocotillo Wells and Borrego Springs

Desert art between Ocotillo Wells and Borrego Springs

The flowers drew us to the desert this year and we weren’t disappointed. So many plants were in stages of blooming and the desert floor had a low mesh of green growth that I’d never witnessed before. Nature wasn’t wasting a moment to take advantage of the rainfall. Our bonus as we headed home and up the incline into the cloudy summit was a full rainbow.

desert rainbow

***Check out my earlier post about the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve north of Los Angeles for more wildflower encounters.

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Travel Notes & Beyond

Sled down a dark mountain! An Outdoor Interlaken adventure

mountain view interlaken
Night sledding from the mountaintop with Outdoor Interlaken

Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

There was no going back. Our small group piled into the last gondola of the night and glided up to the top of the mountain. Within minutes I was fanny down, legs splayed on a small, blue, plastic sled. I was also praying that I got through this without tumbling into the dark abyss on the far side of the road. The only way to steer or slow the descent was to dig my boots into the icy road. The only light was a tiny red glow on the back of the sled in front of me. That light soon disappeared as I kept breaking to catch my breath and slow the ride by grinding my lug soles into the ice and snow. This wasn’t my vision of night sledding. I’d imagined a well-lit ski slope like those in California’s mountains and a toboggan piled with quilted sledders to hold onto. Here I was, a boomer, flying solo through the winter night on a high, deserted road above Interlaken.
night sledding interlaken blue sled
The fear gave way to gumption. There was no way out but through. I swore that I wasn’t going to be the only person stranded on the mountain. Around a bend, I spotted the red lights moving in the dark. Voices then the group materialized, stopped to wait and strategize with our guide, Petr. I was with three young women from Korea and Japan. None spoke much English but we grinned till it hurt, our cheeks red with cold and climbed back on our blue flyers to follow Petr. The winter had been warm and there were icy patches ahead, he warned us, so be ready to stop and walk for a bit.
A fondue dinner after night sledding with Outdoor Interlaken

A fondue dinner after night sledding. Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

It got easier. Natural night vision kicks in surprisingly quickly. It really wasn’t that hard, as Petr suggested, to steer the sled clear of the big white shapes and stay on the road. Soon I was no longer last in line. Perhaps Petr slowed a bit too, but within 40 minutes we spied the pine tree strung with lights near our starting point. We stopped and dragged our sleds into the shed at the back of a restaurant. Our reward? A modest dinner of delicious fondue with chunks of bread, a bowl of cheesy pasta, salad, and a pitcher of beer to share. The best part was a sense of accomplishment. The worst – wishing I hadn’t come to Interlaken solo and could share the experience with my friends. I don’t know if they’ll believe that I’ve actually done this. No matter. I’ll convince them to grab a sled when we return to experience the wonders and challenges of winter in Switzerland and especially, all that Interlaken has to offer.
night sledding view of tree tops with Outdoor Interlaken

Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

Where did night sledding come from?
The story is that night sledding is a tradition. Swiss adventurers would hike up to Alpen Huts, eat and drink (perhaps a bit too much) before heading out and down the mountains after dark. Makes sense to me. I once went night skiing after a surprise Thanksgiving snowfall in Seattle. We slid around the snowy Arboretum slopes well fueled with turkey and copious amounts of wine. It’s no stretch to imagine the same in Switzerland and it’s the purest way to experience the glow of the mountain villages under a massive night sky full of stars.
About that Outdoor Interlaken sled experience
Since 2001, Outdoor Interlaken has been offering all manner of outdoor experiences for the adventurous traveler. John Fauver, an American, Benny Steuri, a Swiss local, and Riaan Mointjes, from Zimbabwe, all ex-guides, opened the company together. In 2009 they purchased and renovated the current storefront that was once a workshop space.
They’re open 7 days a week with activities year round and all within an hour of Interlaken. They offer packages and not only winter sports, there’s water, zip lining, parasailing and other land-based activities.
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The Outdoor Interlaken site has great information on what to expect and bring for each of their trips. I was picked up at my hotel and we stopped at the shop to be fitted with gear (for rent.) There’s no need to pack bulky ski pants, boots and gloves when you plan to take a sled to the top of a mountain. Children under 12 need to be with an adult and I’d suggest that those with knee or lower back issues wait at the restaurant to celebrate with the sledding crew.
mountain view interlaken
Interlaken is full of surprises for outdoor adventurists. I’ll never forget walking through the central square as a parasailer descended expertly onto the snow-patched green less than fifty feet from me. That’s an adventure I’ll enjoy from a distance!
Riding to the top of Europe is another fun adventure when you visit Interlaken. Here’s my earlier story.
More about winter sports with Outdoor Interlaken
My night sled adventure was made possible by Discover Interlaken, Outdoor Interlaken, and Swiss Travel System. All opinions are my own. Alltures are from Outdoor Interlaken. 
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Travel Notes & Beyond 

Visiting Oscar – How to attend Academy Awards events

Academy Awards Foreign Film Symposium

 

Academy awards makeup symposium

If you love movies and dream of attending Academy Awards events, there’s hope. While you might not make it to the red carpet, you can still brush shoulders with the industry’s elite.

I attended two of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Science events through the San Diego Cinema Society. There are several ways to toss your hat into the ring to watch the stars as they enter the Awards. Also, it’s not too late to plan a trip for the 90th anniversary of the Oscars in 2018! It’s bound to be one of the biggest galas ever. (See links below.)

Bus for ride to Academy Awards Symposium

My brush with cinematic greatness began modestly early the Saturday before the Academy Awards. Our bus left at 7 am. By 10 my Cinema Society pals and I stepped into the Academy Headquarters, tickets in hand for the Foreign Language Symposium. We had a block of seats reserved in the spacious, plushly red Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Samuel Goldwyn Theater entrance

Over the next few hours, we were introduced to the directors and their co-directors of the five nominated best Foreign Language Films. It was a tickle to hear about their processes and challenges. I’d only seen one, Tanna, a long-shot for the Oscar, but an unparalleled film. It was shot using solar batteries over the 7 months the director/camera man, his sound editor, and producer-wife lived in a remote village amongst the Tanna Island people. TANNA is available on Netflix.

Painting by Charles E. Gordon of Tanna Tribe

Tanna Tribe by Charles E. Gordon Frazer (1863-1899) – Bonhams, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17330887

Over the months of filming over 100 hours of footage and endless discussions with the tribe, a story emerged based on an actual event. The Romeo and Juliet tale incorporates an active volcano and no CGI effects. It’s a remarkable film that I’d love to see win the statue. Several of the Tanna villagers attended the Symposium. Seeing them was an experience none of us will forget.

The original Farmers Market in full Mardi Gras mode on a Saturday afternoon

The original Farmers Market in full Mardi Gras mode on a Saturday afternoon

Between the two Symposiums, we rode up to the Central Farmers Market for lunch. Love that place! The historic, open market was percolating with a Mardi Gras vibe. Several bands, cafes, and restaurants competed for our attention.

Hair and Makeup artifacts from Suicide Squad

Hair and Makeup artifacts from Suicide Squad

The Hair and Makeup Symposium opened my eyes to the vast art and hard work it takes to create the creatures as well as age actors for the big screen. Three films were nominated this year: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, and Suicide Squad. The first ever Oscar winner in this category is Rick Baker who won for his 1982 film, An American Werewolf in London. He stood to wave to the adoring crowd.

The teams behind the nominated films took the stage. Ten-minute clips of each film that the Academy members voted on in the ‘Bake Off’ reels were shown and the session ended with a Q&A from the audience. It was fascinating to hear about the 56 alien creatures designed for Star Trek, the wig-making and prosthetics created for Ove, and the creative inspirations behind the comic book, wild ride film, Suicide Squad.

A few of the prosthetics created for Star Trek Beyond.

A few of the prosthetics created for Star Trek Beyond.

I’m already planning on a return trip to soak up more of the grit behind the glitterati that the Academy Awards provide. Maybe I’ll be cheeky enough to take my pictures with the big gold guy.

Posing with the Oscar statue before the Academy Awards

Want to go to the Academy Awards (and other Academy events)?

  • Sign up for the Academy newsletter and be among the first to get notices about special screenings and events. Enter the Oscar Night Lottery!
  • Join the lottery for bleacher seats along the red carpet route. The website, The Gold Knight, covers the specifics and offers tips on how to win.
  • Join the Cinema Society and attend Academy Oscar Week events on a day trip to Hollywood. Join as a member (San Diego, Scottsdale, Arizona’s West Valley) or sign up as a guest. There are probably other groups attending but this is how I reserved a seat at the Foreign Film and Hair/Makeup Symposiums.
  • Follow the People Magazine Oscar Fan Contest and enter for a chance to win.
  • Visit the original Los Angeles Farmers Market day or night.
  • If you can’t make it to the Academy Awards or related events, don’t despair. The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences is opening a state of the art museum that will be open to the public in 2019.

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Travel Notes & Beyond  

Escape to a luxury resort – Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch

Luxury resort vacation at Hacienda Del Sol

Hacienda windows

Escaped. I turned off the news and fled from work to relax with a few friends and indulge in delicious flavors. The beauty of the Tucson foothills did their best. Leaving the manic world behind, I dove into something extraordinary – a few days exploring a historic luxury resort, the Hacienda del Sol guest ranch.

The entry fountain to the Hacienda Del Sol luxury resort

The entry fountain at the Hacienda Del Sol luxury resort

Hacienda del Sol WildlifeA little history

In the 1930’s, Josias T. Joesler was hired to design a girls school on the sixty-acre ranch in the foothills outside of Tucson. He built in the authentic Spanish/Mexican adobe style using tile, stone, hand-hewn beams, thick walls set with deep windows. The non-denominational prep school for girls opened with a staff of six teachers with 28 students enrolled.

HIstoric girls girls at Hacienda del Sol

The girls came from some of the wealthiest American families and most brought their horses to explore the canyons and hills surrounding the Hacienda. The trail riding tradition continues in a more luxury resort style today.

A view of the main hall in the original school wing at the Hacienda del Sol

A view of the main hall in the original school wing at the Hacienda del Sol

hacienda del sol luxury resort courtyard

Tucson is modest about its treasures. Locals don’t boast about being the only UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States. They’ve always nurtured their harvests and gardens, and regularly use grains discovered here 4 thousand years ago. My first taste of ancient Mesquite flour was in the cookies waiting for me in my hotel room. They were moist and flakey with a satisfying, grainy texture.

The garden at Hacienda del Sol

The garden at Hacienda del Sol

In the heart of the resort is a net-draped garden where executive chef, Bruce Yim, nurtures plants and trees for the luxury resort Grill and Terraza Patio restaurants. He incorporates seasonal harvests and regionally sourced greens, beans, dairy, meats and even flowers into his menus. Other botanical garden plots and pots flourish across the resort acres.

The ever-mobile, Executive Chef, Bruce Yim in action

Hacienda del Sol Scallops

Coffee service in Hacienda del Sol

Coffee service in Hacienda del Sol

In January the weather is changeable. I woke to the sunshine, then misty rain, then sweeping clouds turned to rainbows at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Coming from a drought-plagued region, the mists felt wonderful. My pores opened, each breath filled with fresh, rain-washed oxygen. It made my in-room massage all the more profound and I dozed, waking to quiet and then dinner.

Hacienda del Sol Room

The luxury resort grounds are highlighted with local artist's work.

The grounds are highlighted with local artist’s work.

On my first evening, I joined friends on a terrace above the golf course with views of the peaks. Craftsmen hand-chiseled each rock for the wall and there was a door-sized mural with a little girl facing a sunset vista. It was a workman’s tribute to his little sister. Personal touches transform so many things at the Hacienda del Sol.

Sandy's vista Hacienda del Sol

 

tombstone distillery

The Director of Wine and Spirits, John Kulikowski, passionately introduced the table to local brews. I grew fond of the Tombstone Whisky and each wine pairing was a discovery. Why didn’t I know about the wineries of Sonoita and Elgin, not far from Tucson? Tastings at the distinctive wineries will be another highlight when I return to Tucson.

One of the Sunday Brunch tables at the Hacienda Del Sol Luxury Resort

One of the Sunday Brunch tables at the Hacienda Del Sol Luxury Resort

Hacienda brunch room

At Sunday brunch the waitress generously poured champagne with a colorful splash of blood orange juice. She expertly knew the right proportions and kept them coming. Pastry chef, Cara Valadivia, made certain that tables overflowed with sweets and cakes. Her expertise and the caring staff keep locals returning to fill weekly brunch tables.

Hiking with a naturalist in the wilds near luxury resort Hacienda del Sol

Hiking with a naturalist in the wilds near Hacienda del Sol

Saguaro cacti dot the landscape near the luxury resort

Saguaro cacti dot the landscape

From luxury resort to wild canyons

All was not indulgence. One morning we hiked along a trail into the river basin with Geoffrey Campbell, Hacienda Del Sol’s resident expert hiker, and Assistant General Manager. While sharing highlights of the history, geology, flora/fauna, he pointed out the secrets of the Saguaro sentinels and why barrel cactus tilt, and learned about the entire Tucson basin. With his help, we spied tracks and spotted a bobcat lair above the whitening remains of a coyote. There are trails across the resort for beginners and advanced hikers can venture into nearby Finger Rock Canyon. Saguaro National Park, with acres of the nation’s largest cacti, is close to Tucson as well.

The view from ridge rooms in the luxury resort, Hacienda del Sol Resort

One view from ridge rooms

The days sped by as I learned more about the area, falling in love with the subtle charms and casual luxury of the Hacienda del Sol.

Find out more and put together your own luxury resort escape: Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.

Special thanks to Hacienda del Sol management and staff for hosting our small group of travel writers. All opinions and photos are my own.

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Travel Notes & Beyond

Pebble Beach Golf Resort – Indulge in sustainable luxury

Pebble Beach Golf Resort greeen.
Between the petite village beauty of Carmel-By-The-Sea and the boardwalk diversions of Monterey lies one of the most iconic drives in the world – California’s 17 Mile Highway. The world class golf resort of Pebble Beach is tucked into that drive. The course is usually reserved there is usually reserved for the members, the wealthy and deep-pocketed international tourists. During tournaments, those willing to watch and party with the world’s best golfers can visit for a pittance of the price to play (about $500, if you can get a reservation.) Otherwise, there’s a guard house entry but that needn’t keep you from visiting whether you play golf or not.
Marker in the green commemorating the founding of the golf resort.

Golf course medallion commemorating the founding of the golf resort.

Historic sustainability
Nearly a hundred years old, the Pebble Beach Company has flourished through keen sensitivity and observation. Abundant water is a requirement for any golf course. In the 1970’s, a drought clenched water use throughout the state. Long before saving water became trendy the PBC thought about conservation. The efforts paid off and Pebble Beach gracefully sailed through the recent drought after investing millions in a water reclamation plant. Today it supplies all the water necessary to maintain their idyllic panoramas. Golf courses around the world have taken notice.
The 2017 IAGTO Sustainability Award
The PBC was recognized by the IAGTO for Resource Management, specifically for their water and renewable energy projects. The global golf tourism organization celebrates the outstanding sustainability achievements of golf facilities, resorts, and destinations around the world.
Tournament trophies in the Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge.

Tournament trophies in the Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge.

I spoke about the award with David L. Stivers, Executive Vice President, and Chief Administrations Officer. Solar panels built above the maintenance building were part of the accolades. A sophisticated sprinkler system helps avoid flooding in low-lying areas and makes sure sun-drenched spots never turn brown. Going green isn’t onerous, Stivers emphasized, “It’s also good business.”

journeys of discovery podcast

Listen here to the NPR Podcast interview about Pebble Beach Resort’s sustainability and conservation efforts

The Executive Vice President and Chief Administrations Officer, David L. Stivers talks with Elaine Masters about the award and the long-term sustainability efforts at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

David Stivers in the Lodge lobby of the Pebble Beach golf resort.

David Stivers in the Lodge lobby

At the upcoming AT&T Pro-AM Tournament, thousands of pounds of recyclable materials will stay out of landfills. Pebble Beach Golf Resort is working with partners to make recycling a comfortable part of the event. It’s no simple task with tens of thousands of visitors arriving for the event.

Sea Lions relax near the Pebble Beach Golf Resort greens.

Sea Lions relax near the Pebble Beach Golf Resort greens.

I’m not a golfer but appreciate golf resort landscapes. Scooting around the greens in a cart on a lightly overcast morning, I peered into a cove where sea lions lolled. Deer were munching near multi-million dollar estates bordering the southern greens. They’re such regular visitors that the staff rarely notices them!
The mobile amenities cart is available for players at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

A mobile snack and drink cart visits players at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

I asked about where to stop for lunch along the 17 Mile Drive to Monterey. It turns out there aren’t any lunch options along the coast drive, so we opted for a window table overlooking the 18th hole in the Bench Bistro.
The bench and plaque commemorating American ownership of the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

The bench and plaque commemorating American ownership of the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

Dirty Harry played here
In 1999 ownership of the resort came back into American hands. Significant among the names on the plaque outside the Bench restaurant (next to the actual bench) is Clint Eastwood, the actor-director who once was the Mayor of Carmel, a long-time resident of the area and a Resort investor.
Extraordinary! Wood-baked strawberries with balsamic reduction sauce at the Bench inside the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

Extraordinary! Wood-roasted strawberries with balsamic reduction sauce at the Bench inside the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

The sun shot rays through dark clouds as we ate and I saved room for dessert – a wood-roasted, strawberry cobbler. It was served directly from the oven in a small ramekin with a warm, balsamic reduction. A scoop of ice cream melted into the crust. I will never forget how the textures complemented each other, the sweet balanced with the sour, the crunch and the cream. It wasn’t a sophisticated presentation. It was simply perfect.
What a day! To quote a song, “I’ll never be royal,” but for a brief time, I felt like an American aristocrat.
Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge

The lodge with the Bench Restaurant lower center.

Can anyone visit Pebble Beach Golf Resort?
Yes, even without a reservation to stay (although the packages may tempt you.) There is a fee to enter but not to park. The website is welcoming, noting that, “While dining at our restaurants, please present your gate receipt to your server. With a purchase of $35, your gate fee will be reimbursed.”
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Many thanks to the Pebble Beach Company for hosting our visit and congratulations again on the IAGTO award.
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Travel Notes & Beyond

Tucson Bike Tour – Pedaling Southern Arizona, past to present

Tucson bike tour begins downtown

 

Bikes ready for our Tucson bike tour

The forecast was dire. Thunderstorms were headed towards Tucson on the day of our planned bike tour. With a bit of juggling, Tucson Bike Tour guide, Jimmy Bultman, quickly switched gears and arranged for us to meet a few hours early. By the end of the ride, we were stuffed with new stories, pictures and made new friends. The sky burst open a few minutes after we rolled into tour headquarters. Lucky break!

Tucson bike tour begins

In the office courtyard, we met our chariots and adjusted each seat. A few minutes later we were going over the route of historical downtown Tucson.

Ride along in my short YouTube video:

Each of us had a basket or gear bag to store our cameras and a water bottle was attached to each frame. With a self-deprecating sense of humor, Jim gave us an outline and we were off. The city is fairly flat, so riding for hours was easy and I’m no jock.

Bikes ready for our Tucson bike tour

 

The Buffet Bar in the Iron Horse neighborhood of Tucson

The Buffet Bar in the Iron Horse neighborhood of Tucson

Central Tucson isn’t that large but encompasses several distinct neighborhoods. Each has its own personality and history. With showers threatening, we kept moving but still had time for questions as Jim shared his expertise and passion for the city. I made mental notes on which spots I wanted to return to – a good bike tour is like that. For one, The Buffet Bar and Crock Pot seemed like a great dive bar. It’s notorious as “The oldest bar in Tucson – since 1934!”

The Iron Horse that connected Tucson to the world.

The Iron Horse that connected Tucson to the world. Engine 1673 hauled a million miles of freight and appeared in the 1954 movie ‘Oklahoma.’

The El Jefe mural is new in Tucson. It honors one of the two, wild Jaguars left in the United States.

The ‘El Jefe’ mural is new in Tucson. It honors one of the two, wild Jaguars that remain in the United States. This one lives in the desert mountains outside of the city.

Just one of the colorful adobe houses in the Barrio Viego neighborhood.

Just one of the personalized adobe houses in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood.

The entry into Hotel Congress where outlaw Dillinger and gang were arrested. Today it hosts great food, reasonable room rates and music.

The entry of Hotel Congress where outlaw Dillinger and gang were arrested. Today, the hip interior hosts great food, reasonable room rates, and performances.

The Tucson Museum of Art

The Tucson Museum of Art

Soldier from Living History day in Tucson

Soldier from Living History day (once a month) in Tucson’s El Presidio de San Agustin

Tucson Barrio Viejo Mural on the former site of Lee Ho's store, the most important of the Chinese markets.

Detail of the Tucson Barrio Viejo Mural on the former site of Lee Ho’s store, which was one of the most important of the local Chinese markets.

Cathedral

Cathedral San Agustin

Posing at the doors of the Cathedral San Agustin

Congregants pose at the doors of the Cathedral San Agustin

We stopped our bikes at El Tiradito, a little shrine in memory of a ranch hand who was killed due to romantic involvement with his mother in law!

We stopped our bikes at El Tiradito, a little shrine in memory of a ranch hand who was killed due to a romantic involvement with his mother in law!

Tucson has a drive through liquor store. Handy for thirsty bicyclists! Our Tucson bike tour host treated us to little bottles of tequilla.

Tucson has a drive-through liquor store. Nice stop for thirsty bicyclists and our Tucson bike tour host treated us to little bottles of tequila!

Why a bike tour?

Tucson is laid out in the flat basin area above river plains. It makes for an easy bike ride that most anyone can manage. Another reason I’d recommend it is how simple it is to stop whenever you want. There’s no need to search for a parking place, get in and out of the car and traffic in Tucson is light enough to make a bike tour safe.

Tucson bike tour sign on the office door

My favorite destinations make me want to stay longer. Visiting Tucson is like that. One day I’ll return to attend one of the many celebrations, like Dillinger Days and the Jazz Festival. I’ll set up base camp in town then explore the outlying regions; go wine tasting in the prodigious vineyards, to see the old movie sets in Tombstone, hike through the Saguaro National Park and explore nearby Kartchner Caverns.

If you go on a Tucson Bike Tour:

Many thanks to Tucson Bike Tours, Visit Tucson and the luxurious Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch for making the bike tour and adventure possible.

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Travel Notes & Beyond

Oysters and Champagne – Seafood in Sydney

Seafood in Sydney - Oysters and Champagne

Seafood in Sydney - Oysters and Champagne

Fine seafood in Sydney

Guest contributor: Marie Nieves

Nothing says elegance and style like oysters and champagne. These are the essential ingredients of any glamorous and extravagant occasion and are bound to bring your experience to a more sophisticated level. Therefore, if you’re looking for fine seafood in Sydney and you want to explore it in style, visit some of the best restaurants to savor the rich flavor of oysters and champagne. After all, who can resist the lure of living in luxury for even a little while?

Bellevue Restaurant - Great for seafood in Sydney

Bellevue, Image source

Bellevue

Not only will Bellevue lure you in with its delicious oysters, but it will also keep you inside as long as you can eat with its special offers. The former Bellevue Hotel was restored and transformed into an elegant restaurant where you can live the high life while spending no more than a dollar per oyster in November. On weekdays, you can save money on large dishes from noon until 6 pm. There’s more – keep in mind the happy hour from 5 pm to 7 pm on weekdays, and time your visit to Bellevue accordingly. Who says that seafood in Sydney has to cost you a fortune?

Sydney Cove Oyster Bar for fine seafood in Sydney

Sydney Cove Oyster Bar. Source 

Sydney Cove Oyster Bar

Have you ever started a day with champagne? If not, Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is the perfect place to try it for the first time. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to have the champagne breakfast in a relaxed atmosphere while enjoying the most spectacular view of the Sydney Harbour. Of course, you should pair up your champagne with delicious, fresh oysters served with various dipping sauces and watermelon. Start by visiting the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar and be in high spirits for the rest of the day.

The Morrison Bar serves delicious seafood in Sydney

The Morrison Bar, Image source

The Morrison Bar and Oyster Room

As a new star among Sydney restaurants, the Morrison Bar and Oyster Room has big shoes to fill, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem. With its stylish ambiance, an extensive oyster library and finest champagne, this bar is swiping its guests off their feet leaving them wanting for more.  If you’re lucky enough, grab a seat at the center bar and begin your tastings. The Morrison Bar and Oyster Room offer nearly 30 different types of oysters, so make sure to get there early, because it might take you a while to try them all.

 

Fine seafood at David Jones Oyster Bar in Sydney

David Jones Oyster Bar, Image source

The David Jones Oyster Bar

The best way to round up your day of shopping is by relaxing in style at the David Jones Oyster Bar. While waiting for your meal over a glass of champagne in a simple, yet elegant atmosphere, you can watch the chef prepare your fresh oysters. Once you’ve tried Sydney rock oysters, you’ll quickly realize why they are among the world’s best. If you want to try something different, Tetsuya’s dressing makes it a perfect choice. Other options include Mornay and Kilpatrick oysters, which might be a better choice if you like a more regular version.

Kensington Street Social for seafood in Sydney

Kensington Street Social, Image source

Kensington Street Social

After visiting many attractions in the Chippendale area, you should also take some time to have a taste of its superb food. Kensington Street Social is just one of the Chippendale restaurants that will charm you in no time. With its elegantly presented oysters and champagne, be prepared for a truly sophisticated experience. The menu features many delicious options, including native rock oysters served with cucumber, chamomile and gin pickle that you can either have as a snack or share with two or more people when dining with company. Of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a glass of a bubbly. Fortunately, Kensington Street Social offers a range of the best French champagnes.

While visiting Sydney, don’t miss the opportunity to explore its luxurious side. With their most delicious oysters and finest champagne, seafood in Sydney is definitely the crème de la crème.

About the author

Marie Nieves is a lifestyle blogger who loves unusual trips, gadgets and creative ideas. On her travels, she likes to read poetry, prose and surfing the Internet. Her favorite writer is Tracy Chevalier and she always carries one of her books in her bag. An avid lover of photography, Marie loves to talk about her experiences. You can find Marie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

Thank you, Marie, for introducing us to these luxurious options for seafood in Sydney.

Travel Notes & Beyond

 

Celebrating Baja Wine and Food – A day in the Valle

winemakers and chefs baja wine and food celebration
Baja wine and food makers making merry

Baja wine and food makers making merry

Salud! Glasses and conversation clicked. Three of us were deep into happy hour at Baja Betty’s in San Diego but the talk was all about our travels on the other side of the border. I’m fortunate to live close to Mexico and wander there as often as I can. Not one to skip an opportunity to dine deliciously and commiserate with fellow foodies, the year ended with a spontaneous escape to join a party full of Baja wine and food.

The field behind La Cocina de Dona Esthela

The field behind La Cocina de Dona Esthela

Our van from San Diego rumbled down a dirt road and into the parking lot of Dona Esthela’s Cocina in the midst of the Valle Guadalupe. We tumbled out after the two-hour ride, stretching as we wandered to the backyard, past the small group of men tending to outdoor grills and paused at the field fence where a small cadre of pigs, cows, and geese wandered.

Baja Wine and Food Celebration

Dona Esthela’s is always morphing (Read about her accomplishments in this earlier post.) On this morning several workers were demolishing the old latrines. The new ones, shiny with their fresh tile, were open across the yard just steps from the dining patio. As she has many times over the past decade, it appears that Dona Esthela’s home restaurant is expanding again. It was Monday and the restaurant was closed to the public while a celebration of Baja wine and food was in progress.

Dona Esthela and her Sonoran Chicken

Dona Esthela and her Sonoran Chicken

Beans, Machaca, fresh tortillas, salsa and cheese.

Beans, Machaca, fresh tortillas, salsa and cheese.

Well into the afternoon we were feted with platters of Dona Esthela’s famous machaca, grilled pork, spiced chicken and endless bowls of gravy-like pinto beans to slather over toasty-warm tortillas. Most of us started drinking well before noon. It would’ve been impolite not to! Wine bottles were cradled like favorite sons as vineyard owners appeared in the doorway and were ushered in with hugs and back slaps. Throughout the day they came and departed, their bottles uncorked and prized vintages savored. Soon a chorus line of empties stood near the door.

Pinata fun with Baja wine and food

Largesse brought me there. Fernando Gaxiola, the founder of Baja Wine and Food, is a master at curating experiences. This time he ushered a small group across the border but not before picking up four ‘special guests’ – pinatas – from a house outside of Tijuana’s Zona Rio.

Chef Andrew Spurgin and friends

Chef Andrew Spurgin and ‘friends.’

After our meal, we stepped into the covered patio to swing and cheer as the pinatas were demolished. Surprisingly enough my American compatriots swung hardest. There was no rancor from our hosts about the pinata model. In fact, one of the vintners said,”Kicking Mexicans out of the Napa Valley? Fine, come to the Valle. We have jobs here.”

Spooning on the deck at Cuatro Cuatros.

Spooning on the deck at Cuatro Cuatros.

Sunset at Cuatro Cuatros

The day wore on in sweet companionship then we piled into the van to ride back to San Diego, but not without another treat engineered by Fernando and company. On a hillside above the wide Pacific, through a gated arch we rode into the Cuatro Cuatros property, less than ten miles north of Ensenada. Sunset was racing to its conclusion and soon gilded everyone at the platform bar.

cuatros cuatros sunset

Monte Xanic Especialle

Monte Xanic Gran Ricardo

Cuatro Cuatros tentalows

Cuatro Cuatros tentalows

A few ‘very special bottles’ emerged alongside shots of Mescal. The views from the bar swept south to Ensenada and far north. Not far from where I stood, rows of swanky tents waited for guests to tuck in for the night. I look forward to resting there one day and waking to the sunrise glimmering on the waves below. This time, however, it was reward enough to have my Sentri pass help me cross the border swiftly. I was home in time to share tales of my Baja wine and food adventure with my family before bedtime.

Where to go on a Baja wine and food excursion:
Wineries to visit: (There’s dozens more!)

Thank you to Fernando Gaxiola and his team for making the trip possible. As always all opinions are my own. 

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Twelve tasty food adventures from a year of wanderlust

cuatros cuatros sunset
cuatros cuatros sunset

Wine tasting at Cuatros Cuatros on the coast in Baja, Mexico

A sip of a ginger-infused cocktail, a mouthful of deeply spiced Machaca whose flavors swell with each bite, a glance spurred by the scent of clove cigarettes – all smells, sounds, and tastes. Often that’s all we need to flashback to a place and time. Tasty food adventures are like that.

My life is gratefully marked with delicious and audacious bites and sips, but this year has been especially full. Most often eating well is more memorable because of the ambiance and the company – it’s an alchemy of sorts. Taste also becomes the marker of a location on an emotional level. A flood of sensations and memories may flash to mind from months ago. The following foods do that for me. I hope you enjoy the feast too.

Tasty food adventures in Switzerland

I took off for Switzerland in early spring after scoring a ridiculously low airfare through a Cyber Monday airline sale. The flight went from LAX to London and then onto Geneva. Over ten days I wandered alone, mostly via Swiss Rail Pass, and always looking to eat the local specialties.

My Alpen Hut tasty food adventure at Cafe des Alpes

My Alpen Hut dinner at Cafe des Alpes

One of the first stops was in Interlaken. I arrived as a light snow was falling and sloshed to my hotel. As the day darkened, the weather lifted and I ventured into the village ending up in a bright Swatch store full of colorful displays and a friendly staff. The manager recommended the Cafe Des Alpes for dinner as it was on my walk back to the hotel and reasonably priced. What made the meal spectacular was a rich combination of luxuries. My ‘Alpen Hut’ plate was a small but overflowing skillet with ‘jugged’ deer, spaetzle, the most delicious spiced cabbage, mushrooms and hazelnuts all topped with a petite, stewed pear. As I finished and the empty plate was whisked away, the waiter set a bottle of Pear Schnapps on my table with a shot glass and left. It didn’t take me long to indulge in an aperitif or two. Luckily the hotel was a short walk away!

Reindeer visitor on the Glacier Express

A visitor to our car on the Glacier Express!

I wouldn’t have thought that a memorable food adventure could be had by train but that’s what I encountered on the famous Glacier Express. I sat at a table in the first class car when dinner was served. The meal was delicious but not outstanding. What was astounding though was the waitress stopping by with Schnapps (again!) and filling a tray of glasses in the middle of the train with a flourish, without spilling a drop! Looking up a few moments later into the face of a reindeer had me thinking I was drunk but it was just the gift cart dressed to impress.

The Philippines – Kalui Garden and Haim Chicken

After diving for several days in the Sula Sea, my guy, Dave, and I explored Puerto Princesa with two nights in a modest inn off the main road to the airport. One day we stepped off the dusty street into an artistically decorated restaurant, the Kalui Garden.

A tasty food adventure inside Kalui, Puerto Princesa

Inside Kalui, Puerto Princesa

Once instructed to leave our sandals by the door, we were led to seats next to the garden. Our first meal there was family style and plates of chili crabs, prawns and fish soon filled the little bamboo table. The fruit salads served in half coconut shells became our favorite lunch over the next few days.

Wood Worms, Tamilok, one of the traditional Filipino foods found in Puerto Princesa

The Wood Worm dish

One day we rode out of town for a short canoe ride into the Mangroves. Our guide pointed out tropical birds and lizards, then held up a bumpy stick and explained that monkeys like to eat the mangrove roots, especially when they find wood worms inside. The worms are also a local specialty for humans. You guessed it, I had to find them before leaving town. We checked several places before finding Haim Chicken where they dispatched a waiter to stand by to help us eat the long mollusks. Here’s a short video about the meal:

They were served raw and tasted something like oysters but when chewed the dark wood taste flavor escaped. It was a tasty food adventure I’d regret missing but they must be an acquired taste!

Appetizer in Drew Deckman's, El Mojor

Appetizer in Drew Deckman’s, El Mojor

Tasty food adventures in Mexico

Living in San Diego makes venturing into Baja a relatively easy day trip. I’ve been going back and forth for years and always enjoy discovering new places to eat. There are so many in Tijuana – Mission 19, the bullfighter’s hangout near the Grand Hotel, Talle with their menu of ‘pizzas.’ A bit further south and east is the Valle de Guadalupe, a rich vineyard region with high and low dining options. I confess to visiting more wineries than restaurants, so my favorites don’t come out of exhaustive research. However, I will never forget lunch at Drew Deckman’s outdoor cafe, El Mojor.

El Mojor, Chef Drew Deckman’s Valle de Guadalupe destination

Originally from Georgia, Drew spent years in Europe and was awarded a Michelin star in Germany for his culinary prowess. Lucky for us that he’s settled in the Valle. El Mojor is lovely and unassuming with tables set along shaded patios. Drew cooks at a traditional outdoor grill. A few lucky diners grab one of the few seats at the grill to watch the maestro more closely. I will return to savor more of Deckman’s magic.

La Cocina de Dona Esthela

Down a dirt road at the base of a hill in the Valle there’s a famous ranch house. A pair of stone columns mark the entrance to La Cocina de Dona Esthela. I had the honor to join a small group venturing from San Diego to present her award from Foodie Hub for the Best Breakfast in the World! Inside the house is a large patio and a living room set with small tables. A few years ago Telenovella stars, filming at the nearby Lomita winery, brought their friends and spread the word online about Dona Esthela’s cooking. The rest of us venture in for her delicious Sonoran Machaca, grilled meats, fresh cheese, and beans. Meats are cooked long in her famous spices and served in large portions. Scooping up the mixes in warm, fresh tortillas with a dollop of saucy beans and a spoonful of salsa remains high in my foodie memory.

Duckfoot Brewery Bar

Duckfoot Brewery Bar

San Diego: Duckfoot Brewery

San Diego has an ever-rotating palette of tasty food adventures for diners and drinkers. I could rhapsodize about the beers (Current favorite: Duckfoot Choco Nut Lust, their Chocolate Hazelnut Porter which, as with all their beers, happens to be gluten free.)

Pop up entrees: Opah meatballs, granola greens , white and red sangria.

Waste Not Pop Up Dinner: Opah meatballs, granola greens, white and red sangria.

The Red Door

The Waste-Not Pop-Up dinner at The Red Door restaurant was one of my year’s most notable and tasty events. Read my full review of it here. Joining a group of passionate, sustainably-minded diners was special in itself. Having Chef Miguel Valdez present a menu full of stem-to-root, nose-to-tail ingredients was a treat. I’m a fan of whatever he cooks and that night, eating to support the Food System Alliance was doubly delicious.

A bit of the Campfire experience in Carlsbad.

A bit of the Campfire experience in Carlsbad.

Campfire in Carlsbad

I’m not one for making a big deal out of my birthday. This year I picked a well-known restaurant in San Diego for a dinner with family and a few friends. It will remain nameless for the over-priced, hasty presentations and tiny portions. However, the evening before I experienced the new venue, Campfire in Carlsbad with a girlfriend and that is an experience I won’t forget. Launched recently by John Resnick, who’s behind many of downtown San Diego’s trendiest eateries, the large space has indoor and patio dining alongside a small campfire, of course for smores, and a full-sized teepee for the little ones. The dishes, each presented with care, overflow with smoky goodness from the oak flame grill overseen by chef Andrew Bachelier, of Addison and Cucina Enoteca fame. The cocktails nod to tradition, while anything but ordinary. My favorite dish was the grilled Kabocha Squash with its spiced yogurt sauce and mustard seed relish. Splendid. This is one tasty food adventure I look forward to repeating.

Nostalgia at Cliftons Cafeteria Los Angeles

The renewed storefront on the 600 block of Broadway, Los Angeles

Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles

Clifton’s Cafeteria reopened last year in Los Angeles Downtown district and it’s one of the most delightful, tasty food adventures I’ve had. It will be hard to top, especially now that the new speakeasy-style, Tiki-inspired, Paradise Lounge has opened. Get there early as they lift the rope to the upstairs entry to score a seat at the bamboo tables and just soak up that ambiance! There are historical and creative touches throughout, including an Italian Vaporetta speedboat jutting out from the bar. The cafeteria menu features new and retro dishes. All are simply prepared and very tasty.

Friends with Rick Bayless at Lena Brava

Friends with Rick Bayless at Lena Brava

Laminados dish at Lena Brava

Laminados dish at Lena Brava

Lena Brava – Chicago

It was a lark to make our way to the opening of Rick Bayless’ newest restaurant, Lena Brava, in Chicago. The restaurant pays homage to the culinary arts and sustainable seafood of Mexico. Experiencing Rick’s family and team’s take on fresh ingredients, wood grilling, and mescal cocktails is an experience worth visiting Chicago for. Bayless is committed to quality on every level and is admirably training young chefs to manage and run his venues. That’s evidence of wise expertise and grand heart. Go.

A tasty food adventure during a Lajitas stable ride

Lunch during our Texas trail ride

Tasty food from a saddlebag

Texas. Never thought I’d visit but all my preconceptions evaporated over the week I spent driving through the small towns and the vast spaces of the western region. The people were so generous and kind, and the natural beauty knocked me out, mainly because we drove through after the late summer rains when wildflowers pop and fresh green blankets expanses. The trip was heavy on experience and my favorite was a saddle-ride through the mesas and canyons of the Lajitas Resort lands. My sister and I rode for hours with our guide, Kelly, mosying through the range north of the Rio Grande. Lunch was a surprise as we stopped in a box canyon to rest the horses. A welcome spread of roasted chicken and corn salad, rolls and cookies appeared from Kelly’s saddle bags.

Tagging wild abalone.

Tagging wild abalone.

An Abalone Feast and Walnut Roll Indulgence

I just can’t omit two other tasty food adventures, although these came out of my home kitchen. We dug two, fat, wild Abalone out of the freezer for Christmas dinner. Dave caught them free-diving in the frigid waters north of Mendocino. Preparing them is a big job – digging the flesh out of the shell, slicing off the foot muscle, cutting the meat into oval steaks and pounding them into tender slices. Cooking is the easy part and if done carefully, in two minutes you have lightly encrusted buttery Abalone steaks.

Helen Serving Potica

Mother Helen, proud with her creation.

We finished with Potica for dessert, my mother’s traditional walnut roll, that I’ve finally mastered. After years of killing yeast in every loaf or pastry, I managed this year’s well enough. The dough rose, the filling of walnuts, dates, cinnamon, orange zest and honey was spread. My son helped me roll it up carefully and lift the bulky roll into the pan. The sweet treat has been enjoyed by many, sent across the country, and a few slices are preserved in the freezer for the next family gathering. It’s a much-loved and tasty food adventure from the Slovenian Women’s Union Cookbook that my mother brought west with her from Minnesota in the 1940’s. The pages are loose but I treasure it as a connection to that generation and the old country, my relative’s home in Croatia.

Quite a year!

All these tasty food adventures have definitely impacted my waistline but that’s a temporary setback I don’t regret. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tasty food adventures.

Where to find these tasty food adventures

Happy to share with these linkups full of fine travel tales!

Travel Notes & Beyond  

Longwood Gardens – Winter lights and bright nights

Longwood Gardens Conservatory entrance
Longwood Gardens Conservatory entrance
The weather was unseasonably warm for Christmastime in Philadelphia. I unzipped the padded liner on my coat and joined the family for an outing to Longwood Gardens. We’d procrastinated and bought our tickets the day before – grabbing a few of the last.  The crush of crowds is kept to a minimum with numbers limited on the property at a time.
Longwood light reflections
What makes Longwood Gardens such a hot ticket for the holidays?
The lights!
Spread out over 1,077 acres, Pierre du Pont (Yes, of the famous Dupont family) built one of the greatest gardens in the world in the 1920’s. In winter it’s especially tantalizing with thousands of light displays spread across limbs and roots, across bridges and around fountains. But I think that the vast labyrinth of Conservatory buildings are the real treasure.
Tree decorated inside the Longwood Gardens conservatory
Boiler room of Longwood Lights worked to warm the Conservatories into the 1960's!

Boiler room of Longwood Gardens worked to warm the Conservatories into the 1960’s

A plaque on one Conservatory entrance reads:
“Longwood Gardens is the living legacy of Pierre S. du Pont, inspiring people through excellence in garden design, horticulture, education and the arts.”
I was unprepared for the impact that walking through the dark and acres of trails would have on me. The night was chilly for a Southern Californian but mercifully still. As we strolled, children and families chattered, giggled and strode by. Some brought flashlights but I was glad we didn’t; preferring to let my eyes adjust to the dark and splashes of illuminated color.
Longwood lights wrapped tree
Poinsettia display inside the Longwood Gardens conservatory.

Poinsettia display inside one of the Longwood Gardens conservatories.

At one point, four G-scale trains wound over a 17 foot steel bridge, past a 5-foot wide waterfall, and past miniature Longwood landmarks. The landmarks are built from natural materials – roof tiles are laid of magnolia leaves and there are handrails of honeysuckle vines.
Longwood lights miniature train building

Longwood lights miniature train building

Du Pont in Banana room

Du Pont in his Banana House

A Banana House for Philadelphia
Mr. du Pont had a passion for growing fruit indoors – including tropical crops. Just after the Conservatory was opened in 1921, the Banana House was one of many areas where he grew fruit for his employees, friends and family. In 1983 the space was reduced to expand the Orchid House. How times and priorities have changed. A plaque near the entrance is inscribed:
To Pierre Samuel DuPont and presented by the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for his ‘generous and unselfish service.”
Inside one Longwood Lights conservatory

Inside one Longwood Lights conservatory

The main house was closed that evening but we spent a few minutes listening to an organist as he brought the historical pipes to life. The space inside the Conservatory was warm and rows of chairs inviting. As the music lifted up to the lofty glass ceiling above us, our spirits rose in kind. It was a bittersweet moment – remembering the lyrics and mumbling along, remembering loved ones gone and missing, remembering childhood and how special this time of year was and remains. Misty eyed, hearts full of the spirit of the season, we left soon after to drive back to central Philadelphia.

Longwood Lights organist

If you go to Longwood Lights:
  • Miss the crowds at the ticket booth and purchase tickets online. (They do sell out!) Longwood Gardens Website.
  • Be prepared to walk and dress in layers.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and bring a little cash for hot chocolate or cider in the Gardens.
  • Read a pleasant exploration of Pierre du Pont and the Longwood estate history on The Short History Blog

Visiting Temecula wineries – Old world style and new world tastings

Mount Palomar Winery fountain one of the Temecula wineries worth visiting
Anabel Brut is a sparkling vintage at Europa Village amongst the Temecula wineries

Annabel Brut is named after the Europa Village owner’s effervescent mother, Annabel Stephenson

Those in the know go! It shouldn’t be a secret but in the rolling hills of Southern California, well east of the coast, Temecula wineries are making a scene. Private wine clubs, live music, restaurants, villas, spas and abundant tastings are uncorked throughout the growing region. I’ve visited several times over the past few years and always return home impressed and a bit buzzed by the beauty (and yes, the tippling.)

There are two Temecula wineries that stunned me recently – Mount Palomar and Europa Village. Over one slowly paced day, I joined a small group of foodies to sip and eat, walk and marvel at all that’s been created and is on the drawing boards.

Admiring the view inside the Anata Bistro and Bar

Admiring the view inside the Anata Bistro and Bar

Mount Palomar Winery

Since 1969 the Mount Palomar winery has been garnering awards. The public vineyards are full of trails. We sauntered through the gates, past stone fountains and flower beds to a large building open to views of the countryside. Inside Anata Bistro and Bar, an open and appealing space, the chef offers a rotating, seasonal menu. In late fall, two cocktails with ingredients from the garden as well as the vine made it to our tables. The Pomegranate Martini was slightly sweet above a flourish of the signature red seeds. The Ginger Crush was muddled with a basil garnish and vanilla bean simple syrup.

pomegranate and blood orange cocktails

An appetizer plate in Anata Bistro

An appetizer plate in Anata Bistro

Lunch was inspired by Meditteranean cuisine as we were feted with appetizer plates full of hummus, marinated olives, and crostini. Steak and fries, lamb and beef kebabs, salads and various flatbreads soon covered the table. No one was going hungry and I can’t wait to return with family.

Wine maker, James Rutherford, in Mount Palomar cask room at Mount Palomar one of many award winning Temecula Wineries.

Wine maker, James Rutherford, in Mount Palomar cask room

Prepping our tummies with food was a good strategy as we next stepped into the barrel room to meet the vintner, James Rutherford. He tapped tall, stainless casks with flair and then swept us out to the Solara where Sherry casks were aging in the open sun! The cream sherry process at Mount Palomar is based on Moroccan, then Spanish traditions before it was brought to California in the days of the Conquistadors. Stepped rows of wooden casks cook for five years in the sun before being bottled! It was a surprising set up for this wine fan!

Special Offer: Enjoy a Temecula winetasting at Mount Palomar winery

Download a coupon for 2 for 1 wine tasting coupon!

Europa Village

Inside the gates of the Europa Village Winery is a gracious world. Taking cues from Old World wineries, there are inviting gardens with shaded sitting areas, a comfortable patio, tasting room and gift store adjacent to a long Pergola, sheltering tables reserved for wine club members and events. Beyond all that grapevines flick their broad leaves in the sun.

The planned Europa Village Spainish, Italian and French-inspired wineries

The planned Europa Village Spanish, Italian and French-inspired wineries

Europa Village is becoming even more idyllic as the John Goldsmith, the General Manager, described the vineyard’s future. A grand villa is already open for guests but, over the coming years, a true village has been laid out. Soon luxury accommodations and three wineries featuring grapes and wine-making styles from France, Spain and Italy will be complete. Europa Village is a destination already but the future developments will have wine tasting fans flocking to the Temecula wineries to stay for days.

It takes a community

Over the last century, the region has had its challenges. Wineries have changed hands with the fluxuating economy. They’ve closed and then opened in new configurations. Infestations once decimatdecades-old vines. Today growers work together to alert each other of any signs of blight. Developers have attempted re-zoning the relatively affordable acerage. A passionate association of residents, winery owners, vineyard owners and affiliated businesses has grown to form the Protect Temecula Wine Country Association. They are actively working to preserve the wine making and rural atmosphere of the area for the future.

My day visiting Temecula wineries ended too swiftly but knowing how close to Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego the region is. It won’t be long before I’ll return with friends. How lovely it is to taste and meander amongst the relaxing and beautiful Temecula wineries.

If you go wine tasting at the Temecula wineries:
  • 2 for 1 Wine Tasting Coupon! Mount Palomar winery exclusive.
  • Taste the Palomar Mountain wines, have lunch, enjoy live music or dinner theater in the Mount Palomar, Anata Bistro and Bar.
  • Stroll through the gardens, attend performances, shop, and sip in Europa Village
  • Arrange tours, transportation and explore all there is to do in the Temecula wine country with help from the Visitor’s Center.

My wine tour and lunch were arranged and hosted through my membership the IFWTWA.

Travel Notes & Beyond

Charlie’s always home in Chaplin’s World, Switzerland

Visit Switzerland and Chaplin's World Museum
Inside Chaplins World with Oona and Charlie

Inside Chaplins World with Oona and Charlie – © 2016 Marc Ducrest for Bubbles Incorporated

Visiting Switzerland solo was a leap for this tropics lover. I arrived in the midst of winter with my pack full of warm clothes and an over-flowing itinerary. Of all the places I looked forward to seeing, Chaplin’s World was high on the list.

Celebrities have always flocked to Switzerland. Charlie Chaplin ended up there almost by accident. While in Europe promoting his silent classic, Limelight, London-born Chaplin received a forboding telegram. America was in the midst of the McCarthy era. He would be banned from returning to the United States unless he testified before the House on Un-American Activities. He refused, saying, “I’m not going back.”

Visit Switzerland and Chaplins world to step inside Charlie's studio

Inside the Chaplin’s World studios, Switzerland, © 2016 Marc Ducrest for Bubbles Incorporated 

Eugene Chaplin remembers that his father was considering property in Southern France with it’s temperate climate. However he fell in love with the beauty of the Geneva region. After purchasing a 13-acre property facing the Alps, Manoir de Ban became the family home for the rest of Chaplin’s life.

“We love Switzerland more and more each day.” Charlie Chaplin wrote in a letter to Clifford Odetts, 1954.

More than sixteen years ago Michael Chaplin, the oldest son, told Yves Durand and Philippe Meyland, that the home was going to be sold. The architect and designer soon convinced the family to turn it into a museum. Today personal archives full of mementos, costumes and props are preserved in displays. The family dining table is set for dinner. Chaplin’s movie studio is intact and has been enlarged. Most innovative are the mannequins fashioned laboriously in Madame Tussaud style and placed strategically throughout. Charlie Chaplin is reincarnated. Wax actors stand in front of scenes from his silent films. Visitors can stand next to Oona Chaplin and Charlie in their private screening room. Everything is designed to be touched, to be photographed.

Video from the opening of Chaplin’s World.

Unfortunately, the museum opened after I left Switzerland, but on a chilly December night in Hollywood, I met Eugene Chaplin in the Raleigh studios where his father, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks worked under contract.

Eugene Chaplin speaking in the Chaplin Theater inside Raleigh Studios

Eugene Chaplin speaking in the Chaplin Theater inside Raleigh Studios

Eugene spoke about his father’s perfectionism. The piano where Chaplin composed music for his silent films, still sits in the living room. A folding movie screen was set up and scenes were projected repeatedly until Chaplin felt the music was a perfect match. It was a ground-breaking transcription process for film music.

Me and Eugene Chaplin at Raleigh Studios

Me and Eugene Chaplin at Raleigh Studios

Of all Eugene’s stories this one makes me want to explore Chaplin’s World more than ever: A visitor told Eugene that her young son was a big Chaplin fan. Eugene asked which movie was his favorite. It’s not the movies, she replied, “He’s a fan because of the museum.”

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith on the day they signed contracts with United Artists

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith 1919, on the day they signed contracts with United Artists

“The Tramp never had a home,” Michael Chaplin has said. Today he has.

If you visit Switzerland and Chaplin’s World:
Travel Notes & Beyond

This holiday visit one fun park – Knotts Merry Farm

Charlie Brown Chritstmas

Charlie Brown Christmas

Strains of the music from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ swirled around me as I stepped into Knotts Merry Farm all decked out for the holidays. Memories flooded in. I’ve always loved theme parks. Riding rollercoasters, seeing shows and running around with family and friends was easy growing up in Southern California. Knotts Berry Farm was fun no matter what age and visiting the fun park kicked my holiday spirit into overdrive.

Photo Opp with Snoopy at the holiday fun park Knotts Berry Farm

Photo Opp with Snoopy

Snoopy and I go way back. As a young graphic designer I worked for Determined Productions adapting the beloved Charles Shulz characters for toys and accessories. Snoopy and Woodstock were the most popular and I met them once again in the fun park.

Snoopy on ice in Knotts Holiday Show

Snoopy dances in the holiday show!!

Knotts started in the 1930’s when Mrs. Knott started serving home-fried chicken and berry pies for pennies to locals. The home kitchen expanded, the hybrid Boysenberry was discovered and grown on the farm and Mr. Knott built a small ‘ghost town’ to entertain visitors while preserving local history. It’s all still there, if you look.

Mrs. Knott cooking in Knotts Restaurant

Mrs. Knott cooking.

Boysenberries are still grown on a memorial plot inside the park but today kids run around Camp Snoopy, teenagers get their thrills on towering rollercoasters, adults do too when they’re not taking in the Ghost Town sights and shops. Trains, stage coach rides and saloon shows run all day.

Santas Christmas Barn in Knotts Merry Farm

During the holiday season a tall Pine tree stands decorated in the main square and each evening at dusk a small crowd draws near. Carolers, dressed in Victorian garb, cover the stage. A ‘sheriff’ steps up to the microphone to address the good people and signals the lighting of the tree. It’s a lovely ritual in the middle of the fun park.

Here’s a short video of the fun park:

Snoopy dances and serenades families in a holiday show running November 19th to January 8th. There’s hot cider and chocolate in Santa’s Barn (and a fortified version for the grownups!) but most families gather for snow. Each evening right on schedule it falls from overhead. Even in warm Southern California the wintry spirit of the holidays perseveres.

The show inside the Mystery Lodge is a thrilling nod to Native Americans who once lived nearby

The show inside the Mystery Lodge is a thrilling nod to Native Americans who once lived nearby.

Ride the train through the Calico Mine

Ride the train through the Calico Mine

One thing I discovered is how affordable Knotts Merry Farm is compared to other parks. It makes sense that families and friends of all ages filled the fun park. Entrance is less than half of the other giant theme park near by and the experience is less crowded and more intimate.

Discount tickets can be found online and inside the California Welcome Center (see links below.) Housed in a historic building on the original stage coach line, it’s worth a visit on it’s own. There are tours, maps, brochures and ticket specials for all the Buena Park activities.

Photo opp outside the historical California Visitors Center Buena Park

Photo opp outside the historical California Visitors Center Buena Park

Whatever the reason or season, I look forward to visiting Snoopy again and eating more of Mrs. Knott’s famous berry pie in the fun park, Knotts Berry Farm.

Links for visiting the fun park, Knotts Berry Farm

Knotts Website: https://www.knotts.com/

Tickets at the Buena Park Visitors Center: http://visitbuenapark.reservedirect.com/da/knotts-berry-farm-buena-park

California Welcome Center: http://www.visitbuenapark.com/visitors/california-welcome-center/

Safe travels for women in India – Tips from JD Viharini

The view from JD's window in Ladakh
Travel safety during the holi festival in India

Photo: Thomas Hawk

For a solo woman in India, travel safety may be a concern. Are the fears real or manufactured? I explored the question with JD Viharini, an American who has traveled through India for decades and calls it home. With education and some cultural understanding she feels that safe travels for women, solo or not, can be enjoyed across India.
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JD’s extensive travels throughout the country have been mostly solo, by first class or, as she says, sardine class plus everything in between. She earned her masters degree in Vedic Studies and now, to encourage travelers, has released a new book, ”Travel fearlessly in India, what every woman should know about personal safety.” We connected via the internet to talk about her tips for safe travels and how to enjoy India.
Did you grow up traveling to exotic lands? What inspired you to travel?
I grew up in California and never went farther than Canada and Mexico until I took off to hitchhike around Europe at the age of 18. When I was growing up, I read National Geographic cover to cover every month, longing to visit all those exotic lands. Later, when I was in my 20s, I lived in Europe for several years.
Pushkar rider enjoying safe travels in India

Pushkar rider – Photo: Achilles Mind, Trover

How did you become enamored with Indian culture?

I learned Transcendental Meditation when I was in college, and since Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the TM movement, was from India and there were other Indians around, I got exposed to the culture and was charmed by it. I had long wanted to visit the Himalayas, though it was many years before I was able to do so.

From the first time I came to India, I felt at home with the culture. In some ways, I feel more at home in India than I do in the US. I love the people here. And India is one of the most fascinating places in the world.

What do you mean by ‘fearless travel’?

Good question. Being fearless in this context means freedom from that useless kind of fear of something that hasn’t happened and probably won’t happen; the kind of fear that holds us back for no reason, that keeps us from traveling and doing the things we’d like to do. Knowledge is the best weapon against this kind of fear and that’s what this book is about.

What are some of the differences between Indian and Western men in relation to women?

That’s a pretty complex question. Generally, there is a lot more separation between the sexes in India than in the West. Indian men are taught to keep their distance from women they aren’t related to or married to. Western women, however, are often considered to be different, especially since we are much more open to being friendly to men we don’t know or have just met. It’s also because many Indians are seriously misinformed about Western women because of the media. For the majority of men, all they know about us is what they see in the movies, too many of which portray us as ready and eager sex objects.

How important is dress when you travel in India?

It’s really important because it has everything to do with respect for the culture as well as respect you receive from those you meet. Respect is one of the most important factors of Indian culture. If you are respectful of others and you look like a person deserving respect, you are less likely to be harassed.

Indians attach considerable importance to dress, but having clothes that are neat and clean and sufficiently modest are the most important things. I usually wear a fairly long kurta over straight pants.

To my surprise, I’ve had two or three Indian men come up to me at one time or another and thank me for dressing so modestly! Someone else recently told me she had a similar experience.

JD in front of the Taj Mahal

JD in front of the Taj Mahal

So what’s the best way to dress for safe travels?

Although I recommend trying some Indian clothes if for no other reason than they are usually far more comfortable than Western ones, it’s by no means a requirement. It’s fine to wear Western clothes, but it’s important to wear them in a way that honours the local standards of modesty. While that varies in different places, there are some general guidelines that I’ve described in my book so you don’t have to rethink it all the time. Otherwise, you would need to pay attention to what the majority of the locals wear in any given place, not what the tourists wear. There can be a huge, huge difference, especially in places like Goa, where you may see foreigners in bikinis side by side with Indian women swimming fully dressed.

Like travel experts everywhere, I advise people not to dress like a tourist.

Avoid the souvenir t-shirts and hats and bags, as well as those cheap clothes that are designed solely for the tourist market that Indians almost never wear. Keep your eyes open and you will soon see what I mean.

We all know that men should behave themselves and control their wayward impulses, but it’s obvious that many men everywhere in the world simply don’t—and they come up with all sorts of specious excuses for their bad behavior. That’s why we have to be proactive about protecting ourselves.

My book is all about safety. It’s not a handbook for activists who want to change the culture. And it’s not for outsiders to impose change, anyway. But I have to mention that although some women undoubtedly feel oppressed by having to cover up completely, it’s important to understand that not all women are desirous of wearing Western clothes, especially revealing ones like shorts and bikinis and miniskirts. Many women feel empowered by covering up rather than by uncovering. It’s important to honor and accept the cultural differences. There is no one ‘right’ culture, and the idea that every woman should be able to wear anything she wants anywhere is not a universal.

JD's home in Ladakh, India

JD’s home in Ladakh

Is it different to travel in one area or Indian city over another?

It’s not like there is a single, homogeneous culture in India. In fact, India has the most diversified culture of any country in the world. There are around 125 different languages, and each one has cultural differences associated with it, some of which are pretty extreme. One of the biggest challenges about writing my books has been finding the commonalities that apply to most of those cultures.

It is said that whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also. But still, it’s possible to generalize to a certain extent. Most of India is quite conservative, though more so in rural areas than cities. Delhi and Mumbai are cities that encompass the whole range of values and behaviours because people come there from all over. The South is generally much more relaxed than the North. And there are parts of India that are under Indian rule but much different than the rest of the country, like Ladakh, whose culture is more Tibetan than Indian. Although the culture is different, there are similarities; while the style of dress is different, it’s no less modest than other parts of India.

What do western women need to know about eye contact with men in India?

In general, it’s best to avoid eye contact with Indian men. It’s usually regarded as flirting, which is seen as an open invitation to intimacy. In other words, unless you want to end up in bed with a guy, it’s best to refrain from flirting with him.

You have a chapter on Crowdsourcing but you mean something far different than raising funds for travel.

I discuss crowdsourcing as reaching out to people around you for help if you are being harassed. Of course, since there is so much variability in the culture and in any given situation, there’s no one right answer. For instance, in a situation where some guy gropes you on a crowded bus, one way to handle it is to loudly call him out to make sure everyone knows what he’s up to, like: “Hey, you in the red shirt, get your hands off me!” While you might be tempted to respond physically, it’s often not the best way to handle it. And if you specifically need help, single someone out for it, don’t just ask in a general way.

Would you recommend a solo woman traveler go to India now? 

Absolutely! There are plenty of fear mongers in the world who would advise women not to go, but they have a strong tendency to be overcautious. I have been in places with US State Department warnings in effect and found nothing to justify them. You need to talk to locals to find out what the situation really is in any given place. Maybe there was some isolated incident that triggered the warnings.

Being careful and avoiding known trouble spots is important to insure safe travels, but that’s true anywhere.

By known trouble spots, I don’t mean, say, Delhi or Mumbai, which are huge cities where you can certainly find trouble if you decide to throw caution to the winds. I’m referring to areas where there is a lot of unrest and conflict. For instance, Srinagar and certain other parts of Kashmir are not at the moment the most peaceful places to visit, and the general state of unrest could put one at risk.

Occasionally, you will read some report about a tourist who was raped in India. The odds of getting assaulted back home (in the US) are actually far, far higher.

There are several every year, and they all make the headlines in a big way. They are terrible incidents, yes, but what no one thinks about is the fact that considering the number of women wandering around India at any given time, there are relatively very few. The odds of getting assaulted back home (in the US) are actually far, far higher. In any case, I make a point of keeping up with the news, I’ve found that the majority of those attacks could have been avoided with a little more knowledge, forethought and alertness. I’m certainly not blaming the victims. But every female needs to know how to avoid risky situations for safe travels. We all need to understand what constitutes a risky situation, and we also need to know what to do if we find ourselves in a tough spot despite our best efforts.

There are places in India that are amazingly safe. I’m currently living in a remote village in the Himalayas that is so safe that I can walk home alone at night on a deserted road with no fear. At least, there is no need to worry about being bothered by people, as the men here tend to be very well behaved, although leopards and packs of dogs could be a concern.

It’s really no more difficult to have safe travels in India than anywhere else. It requires knowledge and alertness.

Knowledge is empowering, which is why I’d like to see every woman traveling to India reading my book. Share this pin and help your fellow travelers!

Travel Fearlessly in India, What Every Woman Should Know About Personal Safety” is a remarkably comprehensive, sensible, and astute book that’s packed full of perceptive information, tips and strategies. It covers everything from the mindsets of Indian men and how they conduct themselves to what you need to do if you have to go to the police. It’s a book every female should read, and reread, before traveling to India. — Sharell Cook, India Travel Expert.

Follow JD’s travels (and her insights about the currency crisis in India this November) on her blog, Enjoying India. 

I hope you found this interview helpful and will share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, share this pin and help your sister travelers! 

Safe travels in India with this book

Travel Notes & Beyond

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Where to eat and drink well in El Paso, Texas

Breakfast at the Downtowner in El Paso
Whatever you prefer, you'll eat and drink well in El Paso

Whatever you prefer, you’ll eat and drink well in El Paso

El Paso, it was love at first bite. After arriving late and missing dinner, having breakfast was our first Texas task. We found deep mugs of coffee and a meal worthy of any hungry traveler at the Downtowner Restaurant. While I opted for a Rancheros Omelette, my sister ordered the Salmon toast. My tummy was jealous!
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Food is a big part of any adventure. As I was soon to discover not all is Tex-Mex in El Paso. Here’s some of the best places to bite and sip when you’re in the area.

Breakfast at the Downtowner inside the Hotel Indigo in El Paso

Breakfast at the Downtowner inside the Hotel Indigo

Downtowner restaurant el paso

A relaxing and spacious dining room with just the right touch of elegance, the Downtowner became our go-to spot for meetings and snacks. The nooks and booths were tempting to linger in but we had much to explore in El Paso.

Camino Real Dome Bar

Drinks with a view inside the Dome Bar El Paso

Drinks with a view inside the Dome Bar

 

So lucky! We almost missed seeing the Dome Bar inside the historic Camino Real Hotel. Here’s a short video about the experience.

Local Brews

Dead Beach

Yes, El Paso has it’s own craft brewery scene! I fell for the smooth, nutty Abuelita Stout that Dead Beach Brewery creates. Infused with Pecaho Coffee, it was spicy and sweet – just like hug from Grandma. The brewery is just a year old and unfortunately for me only open on weekends, but several bars carry their variations.

Master brewer, Albert, at work inside the ODE Brewery, El Paso

Master brewer, Albert, at work inside the ODE Brewery

 

Ode Brewery

Ode Brewery is out in the University District. Bags of spent hops sat near the brewery door as we stepped towards the restaurant. The place is comfy, simple and authentic. There’s no doubt that the owners are fanatical about their passion. Loved the ‘Spoliated Barley Water’ Menu featuring seasonal beers and recent releases. La Gringa, their American Blonde Ale, is worth importing (Hear that, San Diego?) Look for the label across the country soon as the distribution ramps up.

Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, downtown El Paso

Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, downtown El Paso

Tap Room

No visit to El Paso is complete without seeing the Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, the historic heart of downtown. The statue rises from a central pool and shifting lights flicker across the behemoths. In the 1950’s seven live Alligators lived in the pond. Shennaigans eventually led to them being moved to the zoo. Rumors continue about the Alligators showing up inside the Tap Room bar across from the plaza and other spots around town. Today the neighborhood hang out hosts live Jazz and a full bar. No Alligators in sight.
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Craft and Social

A friendly spot around the corner from Hotel Indigo, Craft and Social hosts local and state wide brews, a tasting menu and live jazz. The happy hour specials are not to be beat.

Vin Valle Vineyards in El Paso, Texas

Vin Valle Vineyards

Vin Valle

El Paso has it’s own wine region and we sped out of town to check out Vin Valle Winery. The shop is hosted by the owners and the barrel room is worth seeing with the lengthy, hand painted table in the center. It matches the cheery and cheeky label designs too.

coffee box el Paso

Coffee Box

Finding local coffee hangouts is tantamount on my tourist list. Downtown, the Coffee Box rises from the edge of a parking lot. Made out of cantilevered box cars, a nod to the history of the railway in El Paso, the Box is open early to late. There’s WiFi and compact lounge areas indoors and out.

Monticello and Hillside Coffee

Monticello

Monticello – Hillside Coffee

The University District has a new development brewing with housing, shops and restaurants. I found the Hillside coffee house a nice spot to cool off and check email for a few minutes. The shops carry local goods.

Crave El Paso East Location

Crave El Paso, East Location

Best Breakfast in El Paso – Crave

With several locations in the city, we decided to visit the east El Paso location of Crave Kitchen and Bar. Chiliquilles to die for, a playful interior, patio and deeply upolstered bench seating and bottomless coffee – I only wish we were there long enough to dig into a meal at each location. The locations are open for breakfast through to dinner.
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Dinner in El Paso

Anson El Paso downtown

Anson soup in El Paso

Anson 11

In the central downtown district, this elegant Bistro focuses on the finer things from table to decor. Cooling sprays keep the sidewalk diners comfortable. Wanting a light dinner I focused on the soups and breads. My sister had a salad and we were thorougly satiated. A mighty painting of the restaurant’s namesake, Anson Mills looms over the space. His local roots run deep as a United States Army officer, surveyor, inventor, and entrepreneur who even named and laid out the city of El Paso. There’s nothing stuffy about Anson 11 with it’s trippy artwork juxtaposed with a librarian’s sensibility!

tabla entance

tabla serves native beef in el paso

Tabla

Infused liquors, tapas and regional flavors kicked into high gear – that’s Tabla. Tucked into the warehouse district close to the stadium, generous servings and one of the best meals I had in the area.

Riviera Bar and Cantina

No visit to El Paso would be complete without enjoying Tex-Mex. We had platefuls at the east side restaurant, the Riviera. Satisfying, casual and full of locals.

cattlemans steakhouse

Cattleman’s Steakhouse

Even though I’m not a big red meat eater, I couldn’t leave Texas without indulging in a bit of steak. I only wish we had more daylight hours at Cattleman’s Steakhouse. The ranch has had lots of media attention; you’ve seen it in TV shows and movies. There’s a petting zoo and odd animal collections to walk around. The sunset views are some of the best – especially enjoyed over dinner. I had an appetizer of tender ‘beef cubes’ and it was perfect. No salads though on the menu! How Paleo can you go?!

Riviera Bar and Restaurant

Where to dine and drink in El Paso

Downtowner: Comfort food in a chic decor inside Hotel Indigo

Crave: Three locations open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Anson 11: Bistro and fine dining with regional, American cuisine

Tabla: Tapas, infused liquors from an award-winning team

Riviera Bar and Cantina: Tex Mex and local hangout

Cattleman’s Steakhouse: East of town but well worth the drive. Famous for steaks, movie sets and animals.

Coffee Box: Casual spot with WiFi, patios and lounge seating

Monticello: Shops, restaurants and the Hillside Coffee Cafe

El Paso Beer and Wine

Dome Bar inside the Camino Real Hotel: Historic decor and fine drinks.

Dead Beach Brewery: Promising new brewery in downtown El Paso.

Ode Brewery:  Ambitious brewery with first location in the University District

Vin Valle:  Family run tasting room in the panhandle vineyard region.

Tap Room: Neighborhood Bar with jazz nights across from San Jacinto Plaza Alligators.

This trip was made possible by the El Paso Visitor’s Office. I thank them for pointing me in the right directions and helping me discover El Paso. All opinions are always my own. 

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Travel Notes & Beyond

Driving West Texas – Road Trip Planner, Part 2

Trip planning requires proper gear in Texas

Make the Prada art building part of your road trip planner through West Texas

Prada art installation outside of Valentine, Texas

In West Texas extremes play well together. International fashion brands mix with far flung art installations, ghost towns host chili cook offs. Dinner may be chicken-fried, wild boar or resort ranch-groomed beef served with beer, long neck or artisinal. There were more surprises than I have room to write about! Welcome to the second half of my West Texas, Road Trip Planner.

Terlingua Ghost Town Motel

Terlingua Ghost Town Motel – Basic, clean & a decent night’s sleep

Terlingua
A week wouldn’t be enough to explore everything in this ghost town area. While on the road with my sister, we spent a night in the Chisos Mining Hotel before leaving at dawn for a Saddle and Paddle tour organized by Lajitas Stables and Big Bend River Tours. Wander we did though – through oddball delights, (just what I love) with trailer murals, roadside attractions, a hillside full of crumbling, adobe buildings from the last century; all of it hosted by a jumble of sweet-hearted eccentrics. We fit right in.
Starlight Theater - must add to your road trip planner
Starlight Theater Dining – A great hangout but I sense it’s seen better days.
Terlingua Church Texas
Ghost town church that’s been turned into new businesses over the years.
  • Travel Planner Tip

    If you love chili, camping out and camaraderie put one or both of the notorious Ghost Town Chili Cook Offs on your itinerary when visiting Terlingua. Held each November, it’s really not about the chili, but dueling parties.

Lajitas Resort - Badlands Hotel Lobby

Lajitas Resort – Badlands Hotel Lobby Photo by Jack Hollinsworth

Lovely Lajitas:
Luxury refinements and true grit hospitality complement each other at the Lajitas Resort and Golf Course. Reach the spacious settlement by road or via the local airport with charter flights from Dallas. I don’t golf but truly regret the light showers kept me from touring the course by cart. What a gorgeous landscape and undulating greens!
Lajitas Stables and bluff
Lajitas Stables and bluff
Adjacent to the resort are historical sites – the golf shop is set into the old Trading Post. There’s a historical chapel, the Ocotillo Event space has seen its share of shootouts, and the Rio Grande borders the golf course. A decade ago golfers could swing to a green across the border and then back!
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Our first night at the Lajitas Resort, a destination wedding unfolded on the terrace. Not surprisingly, the groom wore cowboy boots and his groomsmen had rhinestones on their jean pockets. Our room overlooked the greens and we toasted to the sunset from Adirondack chairs on the patio.

Ocotillo Event space in Lajitas, Texas

Ocotillo Events – Once the site hosted gunslingers & shootouts but peace reigns now. Photo – Jack Hollingsworth

Lajitas dining room at dawn

Lajitas dining room just before dawn

The menu of services at the Spa was tempting for our sore muscles. The Restaurant offers a full buffet at dawn and dinners feature local game.
Lunchbox canyon with our Lajitas Stables guide, Kelly

Riding through lunchbox canyon with our Lajitas Stables guide, Kelly

If you’re looking for adventure, Lajitas makes a fine home base. Guides will help scheduling ziplining, shooting practice, horse back riding and river rafting trips. My favorite outdoor experience in West Texas was a day spent horse back riding through canyons and up to mesas. Next we floated down the Rio Grande and even swam in rapids. The Saddle and Paddle package is an easy way to get into the countryside. If only we had more time for rafting and camping in the nearby canyons.
  • Trip Planner Tip

    Don’t miss the Lajitas Trading Post and Golf Shop. Inside the historic building is an immense collection of steer horns and walls full of photos. The owner was offered a private collection of over 900 horns and they’re displayed from floorboard to ceiling throughout the space.

The famous beer swilling Mayor of Lajitas & his missus
The famous beer swilling Mayor of Lajitas & his missus
  • Trip Planner Tip

    Stop by and say ‘Howdy’ to the ‘Mayor’ of Lajitas. The old goat and his Missus live in a gated community’ adjacent to the Deli, which is a great spot to pick up sandwiches and souvenirs before heading out of town.

 On the road in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend
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I’d been warned that the best of Big Bend National Park lays off the main road. It may be the case but even a few hours traversing the park is a worthy adventure. The bluffs and mesas are stunning. We spied Tarantulas crossing the road, Turkey Vultures and a family of camera shy, Javelinas turned tail quickly, scooting out of sight. The rock formations are formidable and while early fall was comfortably warm, I imagine the blazing summertime heat could melt tires. We drove through on a cloudy afternoon, which made it easier to stop for pictures… and wildlife.
Ranch signs dot the side roads.

Ranch signs dot the side roads.

  • Trip Planner Tip

    Keep to 45 mph when crossing Big Bend National Park and watch highway speed limits carefully. There are speed traps and we would’ve been in trouble if locals hadn’t warned us. Driving slowly is perfect for spotting wildlife and admiring the landscape.

A National Historic Landmark hotel in Marfa, Texas. Headquarters for the cast and crew that filmed "Giant".

The National Historic Landmark Paisano hotel in Marfa, Texas.

Paisano Hotel, headquarters for the cast and crew that filmed "Giant".

Paisano Hotel, headquarters for Elizabeth Taylor, the cast and crew of the classic film, “Giant”.

Marfa
There just can’t be anyplace quite like Marfa in the world! When New York artist, Donald Judd, moved here after WW2, he brought a minimalist sensibility that is still reflected and cherished throughout the town.
Road trip planner for Marfa must include the Judd Foundation

Entrance to the Judd Block. No pictures allowed inside.

Before arriving one tour operator told me, “There’s not much to do in Marfa.” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not a family vacation kind of place with adrenaline-pumping distractions and hangouts for the kids, but they’d still enjoy sleeping in Tee Pees or Silver Stream Trailers at El Cosmico. The Tex Mex meals at Mando’s Drive In (or dine in) are inexpensive and cater to the locals. Transplant hipsters eat there too but are spied more often at the St. George Hotel or sip coffee freshly ground at the Do Your Thing cafe. The main street features the Palacio Hotel, by the architect Henry Troost and the City Hall building, all Victorian embellishments, offers views of the flat countryside from the upstairs windows.
Get Go Grocery in Marfa
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Donald Judd’s presence lives on in a spare, adoring manner inside the compound he left one morning and never returned to. After failing health confined him in Germany, then New York, he spent his final months putting his effects into order. One stipulation for his compounds in Marfa was that nothing be moved. To walk the grounds, where no pictures are allowed, is a study of pensive solitude. The main bulding where he lived with his daughter when not traveling, has his sleeping loft and reflects a more homey warmth – barely.
Chinati field sculptures.

 A few of the Chinati Foundation field sculptures.

We spent a morning on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation on the outskirts of town. Pictures are only allowed in the field where 15 of Judd’s monumental cement works are set into the landscape. The play of angle and light, discovering relationships between edges and alignment would be impossible in any other space. These works are site specific and the dimensions are echoed in pieces arranged indoors, inside the large buildings reclaimed by Judd from the military. The largest buildings offer 48 and 50 rectangles, each different and built of steel. They have never moved from the spot they were designed for and will never be rearranged unless the earth heaves. Judd would approve.
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When we weren’t searching for the Marfa Lights (unsuccessfully but with great company) and peering up at the Milky Way, our nights in Marfa were spent in town, courtesy of an Airbnb host. Our little casitas near the high school was well situated for walking to galleries and restaurants. Other accommodations include the Thunderbird Hotel, Bed and Breakfast Inns and the Palacio Hotel. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
  • Trip Planner Tip

    Don’t plan on taking pictures or recording anything inside Chinati or the Judd Foundation. At first this irked me and I rebelliously took notes and sketched. Resistance was futile. I missed out and that’s kind of the point. To stand in those still spaces and just be, is to get a glimpse of what drove Judd to settle in Marfa. There is space and relationship, light and shadow. I surrendered to his vision and was far happier for the experience.

Return to El Paso
We met many Texans on holiday throughout our drive around West Texas. Most were road-tripping as we were and I wished there were time to continue on into the rest of the state. But our short visit came to an end with our return to El Paso. Before flying home to California, we toasted to the journey at Craft and Social while listening to a jazz combo over a happy hour priced bottle of wine.
Texas, we’ll be back.
  • Trip Planner Tip

    There’s no one Texas. The second largest state in the Union, it’s vast regions are influenced by weather patterns, geography, history and proximity to Mexico. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll ‘get Texas’ with one visit. I imagine it could take a lifetime to discover everything.

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Links and other Trip Planner tips:
  • Chisos Mining Company Motel – Inexpensive, comfortable and a bit rough around the edges, but one of my best night’s sleep!
  • Lajitas Golf Course and Resort offers hotel rooms, villas and vacation home rentals. There are also camp grounds and RV options.
  • Saddle and Paddle day trip with Lajitas Stables and Big Bend River Tours
  • Marfa, Hotel Paisano – An architetcural masterpiece by the renowned Henry Trost. Fully preserved and updated. Don’t miss the pictures from the making of Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and an effervescent, James Dean.
  • Hotel St. George – Chic and austere but still comfortable with an inviting lobby restaurant and the best bookstore in town.
  • El Cosmico – Tee Pee, tent and trailer campground on 18 acres.
  • Thunderbird – Hotel and deep resource list for the area.
  • Marfa Chinati Foundation – The open air exhibit and studios founded by Donald Judd . Open by reservation only.
  • Marfa, Judd Block – The home compound of the artist Donald Judd. “Not a slipper moved” since his death, by mandate!
Food Tips:

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Riding Through West Texas Trip Planner Pin 1

Riding through West Texas with a road trip planner
Thank you to Visit El Paso and the Brewster County Tourism Offices for their arrangements and guidance. As always opinions are my own.
weekend wanderlust April 2016
Travel Notes & Beyond
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