Category Archives: World Travel

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,

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.

Proud member of these linkups full of great travel stories:

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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Winter getaway to a luxury resort at Hacienda Del Sol Pin

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.”
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 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.

Proud to be a member of these blog networks with all their travel expertise:

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


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:

Tickets at the Buena Park Visitors Center:

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.
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

Revealing West Texas – Your Road Trip Planner, Part 1

Make sure that Balmorea is in your road trip planner
Mural in the Gage Hotel, Marathon Texas

Detail of one mural in the Gage Hotel, Marathon Texas

 Brake for Turkey Vultures, Javelinas and Auodads
Americana, escape and wide open places – West Texas is good for what ails the urban spirit. I didn’t know how far gone I was until silence swamped me at a roadstop. A literal road stop. Just before entering Big Bend National Park, I couldn’t help but stop the car in the middle of the road and run out. On a rock cropping, as if posed for a John Huston western, at least a dozen black Turkey Vultures swooped and sat. There were no cars for miles until a Park Ranger pulled his rig close and cautioned us to pull over. The last thing he needed was a pair of tourist road kills.
Texas critters for your road trip planner
Several times we did pull over for Javelinas. First we sped past an almond shaped creature who stood about four feet wide in the road. By the time we’d turned around he’d disappeared. They were good at staying out of camera range but I offer this picture, taken near Lajitas by the resort guide. The family of Javelinas, which are related to Pecaries, were in a canyon just beyond her home.
Spying Javelinas can be part of your Texas road trip

Javelina family spied near Lajitas

Auodads, large brown sheep, were imported into Texas after WW2 when soldiers returned from Africa. They’d learned what a delicious game animal they were. They also quickly learned that Auodads were not easy to keep. The animals escaped the original ranches and have flourished in the wild across West Texas.
One night in Lajitas, I looked out to the silhouette of a craggy mountain across the Rio Grande. The rocks moved! It was too far to capture on camera but there was a large four footed animal on the crest. I like to think it was an Auodad and so my only sighting.
  • Trip Planner Tip 1:

    Research your options. The best we had for our road trip was a loose schedule. Lodging was set but how to get there and what to see was left up to us. It’s too easy to say that West Texas has something for everyone. I look for the off-beat, the historical quirks, the local hangouts that are usually just off the tourist radar.  I’ve learned to surrender to the fact that you can’t see everything but look for the things that bring you joy and you’ll return home the happier.

The original El Caminio Real lobby

The original El Caminio Real lobby

Dig into El Paso
El Paso brims with energy, history and revitalization. The city is easier to visit than ever with new flights at the El Paso International Airport. At this writing, five major airlines fly in and out. Of all the treasures we discovered, discovering El Paso was our road trip gold nugget. The city is full of urban delights – a restaurant and craft beer scene, theater, classic architecture and contemporary upgrades, sports, concerts, plus outdoor adventures nearby and the percolating exchanges of a long history with Mexico, just across a bridge from downtown. Read more about it in this post.
Enjoying the Balmorea Pool

Enjoying the Balmorea Pool

Splash down in Balmorea
It’s not just the Tex Mex peppers, West Texas gets hot. The summers can be brutal and scorching. It was still warm when we visited in late September, after the monsoons passed, but comfortable. The idea of leaving downtown El Paso and diving into a natural spring pool less than 3 hours away, thrust us into the greening countryside early on our third morning in Texas.
The BIG Pool:
Part of the sweeping 1930’s New Deal plan brought workers to West Texas where the Civilian Conservation Corps built Balmohea State Park. Nearly eighty years later families, tourists and courting couples cool off in the waters of the ‘World’s Largest Spring Fed Swimming Pool.’ The depth goes from about three feet to nearly thirty and the water shelters small fish plus a feathery green growth coating the bottom. The fish were cute, the green slime bothered me, but the pool was clear and cooling. The reservoir is so unnusual that it’s a Texas Aquatic Science Certified Field Site and school field trips make good use of that in their curriculum. The idea that nearby fracking might impact the water tweaks my heart but it’s still in discussion across the region.
  •  Trip Planner tip 2:

    Don’t miss the drive from Balmorea to Fort Davis along Route 17. You could blast through in a half hour but leave time to meander and gawk. The canyon road is lined with rugged cliffs and on the afternoon we drove, sweetly devoid of big trucks that dog the main highways. It’s a short 32.4 mile drive but consider pulling over to hike or picnic.

The Drug Store Counter in Fort Davis

The Drug Store Counter in Fort Davis

Fort Davis
This small town is a find. The narrow main street hosts a few gift shops and small hotels. We stayed upstairs in the Drug Store in a large two, queen bed room with our own bath. Downstairs the old time drug store counter menu offers ice cream and milk shakes. A chorus line of round topped, red leather stools fronts the counter and wooden booths fill the dining room. The cash register sits atop a glass case full of fudge.
Fort Davis Drug Store Hotel

Fort Davis Drug Store Hotel

On our morning there I enjoyed a mug of complementary coffee downstairs before heading out for some exercise and to investigate the red rock bluff on the edge of the neighborhood. Turkey vultures caught the morning currents, their shadows crossed mine as I walked past small houses, churches and watched a backyard goat take to a tree. My sister and I had a fine dinner at the Blue Moon Restaurant across the street.
  • Trip Planner Tip 3:

    There’s an Ice Cream stop on the outskirts of town. The Red Caboose is a local favorite and came highly recommended, plus it’s pet friendly.

  • Trip Planner Tip 4

    History buffs can explore the old fort where Confederate General, Jefferson Davis, held his ground. The managers of Wall Drug Hotel are distant relatives!

Eve's Garden BnB

Eve’s Garden BnB Marathon Texas


One of our draws to Texas was seeing Marfa, but we kept it for the end of our trip. Our night in Marathon was like an appetizer of things to come in the ‘art town.’ We swept into town late on a cloudy afternoon and barely checked in before taking off for dinner at the Gage Hotel.
Eve’s Garden is a visionaries delight with bright walls, colorful collections of art and less than 10 rooms, each unique and hand textured from recycled Papercrete blocks.
Seeing is believing, check out my video:
Gage Hotel Dining Room

Gage Hotel Dining Room

  • Travel Planner tip 5

    Don’t miss the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon. The Gage Hotel nods to shotgun culture but the sophisticated menu and graceful layout make this spot worthy of a celebrity sighting.

Part 2 of the West Texas Road Trip Planner is the next post. Continue the road trip through Terlingua, Lajitas, a bit of Big Bend National Park and Marfa.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Road view between Balmorea and Fort Davis

Road view between Balmorea and Fort Davis

Links and other Trip Planner tips:
  • We used GPS but there are other sites with ample route suggestions for drivers and bicyclists, like:
  • Plan your trip around weather. Check temperatures and weather patterns, then pack for comfort.
  • This list isn’t exhaustive. There’s so much to explore in West Texas like the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis
  • Balmorea State Park has camping, trailer options and hiking trails as well as the famous natural spring reservoir. Check the website for hours and reservations.
  • Eve’s Garden in Marathon is worth a detour. The hospitality is warm, the organic cooking delicious and the space a unique, artful experience.
  • The Gage Hotel in Marathon is listed as #1 on many noted travel lists.
  • Fort Davis, – Spacious, comfortable and affordable. The upstairs room, with abundant WiFi, couches and tables is a great space for digital nomads!
  • Fort Davis, Lumpia Hotel: Fully restored historic property with a garden begging to be enjoyed.
Food Tips:
  • El Paso Craft and Social – Jazz bar, beer on tap and Texas wines by the glass or bottle.
  • Fort Davis Red Caboose Ice Cream stopna
  • Fort Davis, – They don’t make them like this anymore. Family style cooking and a full service counter.
  • Fort Davis, Hotel Limpia Restaurant – Blue Mountain Bistro a fine dining experience with a full bar menu or dining room. Tapas and much more.

This trip was spurred by an invitation from Visit El Paso and the Brewster County Tourism Offices. Many thanks for their arrangements and guidance. All opinions as usual are my own.

Share please (and thank you!)

Visit West Texas and stay at Eves Garden in Marathon Texas on your road trip

Junp into adventure in West Texas with a stop at Balmorea Springs

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Travel Notes & Beyond

Visit Rosarito – Beach, hotel and fine dining in Baja Norte

Visit Rosarita Beach at sunset
Visit Rosarita Senorita Archway
Long before it was full of Spring Break beach clubs and taco stands, Rosarito was a glamorous hub. Hollywood stars and U.S. servicemen partied at the few great hotels along the strand. I remember it differently as a kid. We often camped near the beach. I loved playing in the warm water with my siblings, a few feet from my parent’s teardrop trailer. One afternoon my mother had a big pot boiling on the back kitchenette and pulled a steaming red alien from the waters. It was my first lobster, caught by my dad who tagged along with locals. Over the years, each time we would visit Rosarito, the city had new amenities and returning now still excites me.
The beach and tower Rosarita Hotel

The Hotel Rosarito tower from the beach.

Camping has moved much further out of town now but finally I had a chance to visit the historical, Rosarito Beach Hotel. My young parents couldn’t afford the luxury then, but today travelers have the benefit of a generous exchange rate. Whether one of the traditional beach rooms, a villa, a suite in the tower or a visit to the spa, the hotel has managed to retain its historical, Spanish Colonial style while upgrading with all the amenities a visitor could want.
Here’s a glimpse of a rest stop on the coast route to visit Rosarito:
Today, Rosarito is an easy getaway, less than two hours by car from my hometown of San Diego. It’s fairly simple to drive from the border but I prefer being a passenger and watching the changing landscape. The coastal route along the toll road is my favorite ride south. There’s also an interior road from Tijuana which, while more crowded, is actually shorter. Those not wanting to drive have the benefit of bus and van services too. I left the driving to others on the most recent trip while joining a few friends and enjoyed a pleasant, air conditioned Tiketon shuttle van from the border. Before I knew it, we were walking into the historical lobby of the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Rosarita hotel lobby
We checked in quickly and walked from the historical side of the property to the newer tower. This is the part of the hotel that I’d often seen from the freeway on trips to Ensenada or La Bufadora. The tower lobby ceiling loomed over us and opened to a tempting, spacious pool and bar. I had to pass on a swim as we were meeting soon for Margaritas and a short tour of the spa.

Rosarita Hotel Margarita

Tower Bedroom Rosarita Hotel

Tower bedroom suite

The hotel is partly condos and members have their own pool – on the rooftop with the best views in the region. On one side is the ocean, on the other the hill country of Baja spreads to the horizon. Beaches stretch as far north and south as one can see. It’s a beautiful spot for a swim too!
The Rosarito Beach Hotel, members only, rooftop pool

The Rosarito Beach Hotel, members only, rooftop pool

Tower lower pool Rosarita Hotel

The view to the Tower pool from my room veranda

The original owner’s home has been converted into the Casa Playa Spa and a private dining space. Above the tiled entrance lobby, guest rooms are now service spaces for massages, facials, body wraps and other services. We learned that booking must be done in the spa itself and not to rely on the hotel desk.

Visit Rosarita Hotel Spa

The original home that now houses the spa and event space.

North of the hotel the beach area is spotted with big dance clubs that still roar to life on weekends but now there are more Mexicans partying than boozy, American college students. Weekends find families on the beach where tables can be rented by the hour, with or without umbrellas. Mariachis and food vendors come to you!
Susannas Restaurant
Dinner at Susanna’s
In the evening we went south from the hotel and stepped through a stone archway for dinner at Susanna’s. Susanne Stehr is a California girl who fell in love with the graceful beach style of Rosarito years ago. A natural interior designer, her restaurant is glowing with color and textures. Chairs are deeply upolstered, charger plates gleam as if in a home dining room and fresh creative dishes are served ‘California Style.’ Favorites include the Citrus Fruit and Sonoma Chicken Salad, Strawberry Salmon and Sonora Ribeye Steak entrees. Appetizers updated from local traditions like Jalapeno Cream Cheese Empanadas and Susanna’s Gourmet Tamales are moist and mild. The wine list overflows with vintages drawn from the famous Valle de Guadalupe wine region not 25 miles away.
You’d think we would never eat again but the next morning found us in the hotel main dining room for breakfast. So hard to choose from so much! Soon after being seated the table filled with platters of (shredded, roasted beef) machaca and eggs, fluffy omelets, home made sauces and delicious breads accompanied by fresh squeezed orange juice and mugs of aromatic coffee.
Rosarita Hotel Dining Room

Rosarita Hotel Dining Room

Luckily there was time for a walk before returning to the border and we sauntered along the main road, passing cafes and restaurants, night clubs and shops. Across the beach road, neighborhoods stretched up to the main highway. Kids in uniforms walked past quickly on their way to school. There were several churches and more cafes full of locals. Here the village life style still works side-by-side with tourism. It’s a big part of why I love Baja and to visit Rosarito.
A food truck on the main street of Rosarito

A food truck on the main street of Rosarito

When you visit Rosarito enjoy the boulevard full of cafes and shops
Watch the video and subscribe to my YouTube Channel!

If you plan to visit Rosarito:
  • Crossing the International border takes a bit of preparation but recent improvements are making it easier and wait times shorter. Here’s a post about what to expect. I update it often.
  • Transportation around the region from the U.S. – Contact Tiketon for van pick up and prices: 619-428-0011 / To and from the Tijuana airport: 683-8113
  • Rosarito Hotel:  Reservations and questions.
  • Visit the spa: Packages and services by reservation only.  Email:, Tel: 61-4-44-10, ext. 11364
  • Reservations at Susanna’s: 661-613-11-87 / Facebook: Suzsanne Stehr / Email: /

Thank you to our Binational Liason, Juan Arturo Saldaña Angulo with Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and tour organizer, Alexa Williams Meisler. The trip sponsors were the Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and Rosarito Beach Hotel with transportation provided by Ticketon and Turismo Express.

Visit Rosarito Beach Hotel

Travel Notes & Beyond  weekend wanderlust April 2016

Plan to visit El Paso, Texas, before it’s discovered!

Refurbished Electricity Sign in downtown El Paso
“I can’t wait to get back to El Paso,” said the young man sitting in the next seat. He was flying back alone from a long weekend in California with his girlfriend. They’d spent time on beaches, played at Disneyland and relished fish tacos. Still home was calling, ‘There’s so much to do in El Paso,’ he said as we parted at the airport. He was telling the truth.
El Paso is a city on the verge. It’s not just the edge of the country, a short bridge span over the Rio Grande from Mexico, but it’s poised for glory. There’s an energy in the city that grabs you. The surprises include: a burgeoning craft beer scene, murals, a hillside of Bhutanese architecture, bike and running trails over mountains less than half an hour from downtown, a wine trail and vast green swaths of desert at the end of the monsoon season. The historical architecture downtown hosts bold lobbies by noted architects and retro, neon signs that still look new. Over three days I walked and drove, shopped and ate, drank and marveled from East to West. There’s still so much to see when you visit El Paso.
Downtown was the biggest surprise. Before I checked into my room at the sleek Hotel Indigo, rooftop lights caught my eye.
Less than two blocks away an expansive neon sign shone. Electricity, spelt out in tall glowing letters, sits on the top of the historic Martin Building. It’s an adaptation of the original neon work from the 1940’s and one example of the revitalization going on. Originally it spelt out: Use Electricity.
Original Use Electricity sign in downtown El Paso

Original Use Electricity sign in downtown El Paso

Today the sign shines proudly from dusk to dawn. Local businessman, Lane Gaddy, is behind the renovation of the sign, and the building it tops, with a small group of local entrepreneurs.

Refurbished Electricity Sign in downtown El Paso

Refurbished Electricity Sign in downtown El Paso

The Martin building has great bones and Gaddy’s turned it into a residential, commercial and retail blend, keeping the best features. He admits, “I love the juxtaposition of historic and old (features) contrasting with future and modern elements.” The Martin is filling up with downtown dwellers taking advantage of the great restaurants, theaters, shopping and services within walking distance of work. While his determination is taking time and persistence there’s still much to savor now downtown.
The original El Caminio Real lobby

The original El Caminio Real lobby

Step into the El Camino Real Hotel, under arches created in an expansion from the 1970’s and you might miss the best features entirely. Walk past the stucco add-on and into a room overflowing with embellishments from the early Industrial Age. The original “Million Dollar” lobby, named for its pink marble and gold leaf, was supplanted and turned into the Dome Bar. Over a circular bar that rises in the center of the room, a giant dome refracts shifting light through petals of glass in faceted jewel tones. It rivals the sister Tiffany dome in Chicago and has been authenticated by the Library of Congress.
Tiffany dome in the El Camino Hotel

Tiffany dome in the El Camino Hotel

When the Camino Real Hotel was new guests could tip bell men and watch the Mexican American War raging across the border fron the rooftop. North American imperialism finally won and over time a wide bridge was built to bring commerce and workers between Juarez and El Paso. Tourists would shop and eat in the Mexican plazas. Goods moved freely. It all shifted, of course, when 9/11 brought border closures and then rival cartels began their reign of terror. Today things have calmed and  business men like Lane Gaddy still move back and forth across the border daily. Gaddy sees glimmers that tourism is returning too. I was tempted to set up a day tour but there was so much more to see and my time to visit El Paso was short.

Dusk building facades in the original downtown El Paso

Building facades downtown in El Paso

Top of the Kress Building in downtown El Paso

Top of the Kress Building in downtown El Paso

One evening just before dusk my sister and I grabbed our cameras and took to the streets. Downtown architecture and vintage signage had me curious. We found a large Kress store facade looming next to one of the first independent Hilton ‘sky scrapers.’ It’s currently under contract with the Hilton Corporation for renovation into a multi-use facility. The days of architect Henry Troost are visible all around the main, San Jacinto Square.
Henry Trost designed the elements inside the Hotel Cortez

Henry Trost designed the elements inside the Hotel Cortez

My favorite find? The Cortez Building. Stepping inside was a time traveling trip. So many details remain and still look new. There were alcoves in the main lobby set with vintage furniture and the elevator exterior was a wonder of artful tile work, brass and sconces.
Nearby the Plaza Theater has been completely renovated and I can’t recommend a tour or attending an event in the vintage performance palace enough.
A few blocks away the new baseball stadium is open on one side. A wrought iron gate stands between the field and street, where, as part of a compassionate civic mandate, those who can’t afford tickets can watch a game. It’s a short walk from the Chavez Theater, built to resemble a sombrero and the adjacent convention center.
Museum of History El Paso

Museum of History El Paso

Just north of the stadium, the Museum of History looms. It’s no stuffy showcase. Visitors first walk past the Digital Wall where, with a finger tip, they can touch a lengthy collage and open up notes from photographers, historians, culinary experts and artists. The vast art museum sits next to the Plaza theater filled with Texas creative works and rotating exhibits from both sides of the border.
The Rio Grande River marks the area still. Just outside of downtown since the 1990’s, Heritage Gardens volunteers have been working to preserve wetlands and native vegetation in a graceful park laced with trails featuring sculptures, ponds, and rock walls set with a gallery of mosaic murals. There are play areas and picnic tables, benches to sit and ponder upon, plus a raised platform over tidal pools that fill with migrating ducks and wildlife.
Looming over El Paso is the Franklin Mountain range. It’s inside the city limits! When you visit El Paso you must head for the hills. The mountains above town offer a network of trails and roads and it’s close. The Wyler Mountain Tramway winds up the east side and from the west, the Franklin Mountains State Park is a wildlife refuge. Outdoor experts like Don Baumgartner, founder of Geo Betty Tours, leads groups and bike rides. Climbers are fond of granite outcroppings. When you visit, bring plenty of water and snacks, better yet plan a picnic in one of the many shaded seating areas and scan the hills for goats and other wildlife.
Don Baumgartner, GeoBetty founder and guide in the Franklin Mountain State Park visit El Paso

Don Baumgartner, GeoBetty founder and guide in the Franklin Mountain State Park

Ivonne near the Sneed's Cory climbing rock in the Franklin State Park

Ivonne near the Sneed’s Cory climbing rock in the Franklin State Park

Once the trolley is back in service it’ll be easier to move from downtown to the University District Entertainment Center. The campus stands out from a distance as most of the buildings were built on dimensions from Bhutanese temples. Founded in 1914 the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy took its inspiration from Kathleen Worrell, wife of the first dean. She was fascinated with a National Geographic magazine photo-essay about the ancient kingdom and convinced her husband that the new campus be built in the same style.
Bhutanese Temple in the center of University of Texas El Paso

Bhutanese Temple in the center of University of Texas El Paso

The homage is more than skin deep as many Bhutanese artifacts are housed there. The University sponsors bi-annual Bhutan Days and enrolls a growing number of Bhutanese students each year. In the center of campus sits an authentic Bhutanese Ihakhang, house of god, but it’s not there as a working temple. Made with no nails or modern machinery the building was slated for demolition after a show at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I walked around it and peered in windows. The campus and the temple are things of beauty and the closest I’ll probably get to the kingdom of Bhutan.
Boots inside the Rocket Buster workshop

The biggest boots! Guiness World Record winners inside the Rocket Buster workshop. More about El Paso’s cowboy boot workshops in the next post!

Getting around when you visit El Paso:
From the airport: Visit the Airport Ground Transportation pages for schedules and options.
The Trolley Returns
Once El Paso and its neighbor Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River had reached a detente the two regions and countries worked together. They supplied each other with labor, jobs, shopping, restaurantes, tourism and an efficient transnational trolley line was in use before every family had a car.
Unfortunately once cars and freeways ruled, public transportation declined across the Americas. One reason for the El Paso – Juarez line’s demise is cecause it was “too successful!” A cross-border rivalry between merchants cut the service. Finally, in 1977, Mayor Ray Salazar ordered the El Paso trolley tracks removed.
If only those lines were still intact! New tracks are being laid and stations set. After retiring the line, a half dozen of the original Art Deco cars had been baking in a field near the airport.The good news is that by 2018 the historical Trolley system will be back in service with the line extended from downtown out to the University.
I’m looking forward to returning to ride and discover more when I visit El Paso again.
Next post we’ll be dipping into the craft brewery and food scene in El Paso. Subscribe and don’t miss a story!
Special thanks to Visit El Paso for making this trip possible.As always, all views are my own.
weekend wanderlust April 2016

Five casual dining spots serving the best food in Tijuana

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana
Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Ban the thought of filling up on nachos, rice and beans when dining on a budget in Tijuana. You can save the bucks for fine dining, and there’s plenty of that here, and still explore the city through it’s more modest eating establishments. Here are five places with fine brews and some of the best food in Tijuana. You will eat very, very well!

After 9/11 it wasn’t easy to enjoy Tijuana’s culinary scene, but cross-border systems are being stream-lined and now heading over for a day or dinner is becoming simpler. Long before the 1970’s spring break bacchanals in Tijuana, the city was the west-coast Prohibition escape for celebrities and mobsters. During WW2, it was the drinking hole for the Pacific Fleet. Tourism dried up with terrorism fears as new passport restrictions were enforced. Recently innovations have made visiting Tijuana much easier (Border crossing tips here) and cartel business has moved south of Mexico City. The area’s opened up again to its glorious heart – full of feasting and celebrating life through serving the best food in Tijuana.

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Here’s a few of the fantastico places to find great meals and drinks that will help you save money for shopping and more travel:

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo a great place to find the best food in Tijuana

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo

1.Mercado Hildalgo – The oldest open marketplace in the central city buzzes with activity every day of the year. It’s most fun to visit during the holidays, when sugar skulls and decorations abound for Dia de los Muertos and other Mexican Celebrations. Fresh fruit, cheeses, cafes and bakeries surround a central parking area where a permanent Chapel rises and seasonal altars rotate below. If you’re courageous, look for roasted crickets or Tequila imbued with rattlesnake!

Eating fried crickets inside Mercado Hildalgo

One adventurous bite! I tried fried crickets – salty, crunchy and delicious!

2.El Taller, Baja Med Cocina – Not far from the Racetrack (now greyhounds rather than horses, and casino.) Their celebrated pizza innovations slice easily with the thin crust and fresh, original ingredients (escargot anyone?!) A bit trendy, the open kitchen and lengthy dining room is often packed.

The entrance to El Taller, Baja Med Cocina

The entrance to El Taller

3. Telefonica Gastro Park – Set up in a large lot at the base of the old Telephone building, this food truck/small business courtyard is packed with fresh, local and creative drinks and bites, many based on traditional recipes. Black Zapote tea anyone? Craft beers, long tables and hammocks make it a perfect hangout for a meal with friends. Save room for coffee and desserts!

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana


Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

4. Norte Brewing Company – Not everyone enters through the parking garage but it’s easier to manage than finding the Norte Brewing Companyentrance via a narrow passage set deep off Avenida Revolucion. The effort is worth it for the breezy space looks out over rooftops and the beer is stellar. Flavors rotate but inventive beers such as Foreign Club Robust Porter (Nitro y CO2,) Penthouse IPA and the thickly delicious, Sugar Daddy Chocolate Oatmeal Stout just might be on tap. If you’re a true craft beer afficianado, and very lucky, ask about Súpermash, which uses the nugget of the hop flower. The blooms come direct from Rancho Loza-La Casa Del Lupulo, precursors in the cultivation of organic hops in the valle de Guadalupe.

Norte brewing company is one of the best food in Tijuana spots for the casual drinker

5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos – Now that the Tijuana airport bridge is open you can walk in and out of the country, airplane reservation in hand, simply enough. It’s a great convenience but you miss visiting Tijuana. Should you be heading in or out of the U.S. at the Otay Mesa border crossing and find yourself hungry, stop at the blue storefront of Hua Huis. The seafood is traditionally prepared as ceviche, grilled, or marinated, and the meats are tender as well. A small bar keeps drinks flowing too.

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Here’s a brief video on where to find some of the best food in Tijuana:

Where to find the best food in Tijuana for casual diners:
  1. Mercado Hildalgo – The central market isn’t far from the CECUT cultural center in the Zona Rio.
  2. El Taller Baja Med Cocina: Full bar, sauces and salsas, and famous for their Pizza Baja Med
  3. Telefonica Gastro Park: Full courtyard surrounded by food trucks and temporary vendors. Dog-friendly and open to all ages.
  4. Norte Brewing Company: In Zona Centro off steps from Avenida Revolucion.
  5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos: Seafood specialties served minutes from the Tijuana Airport

Thank you to our Binational Liason, Juan Arturo Saldaña Angulo with Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau. The trip sponsors, Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and Rosarito Beach Hotel. And the transportation provided by Ticketon and Turismo Express.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and will share! Three images to pin:

best food in tijuana bites and brews

Best casual dining for the best food in Tijuana

Best food in Tijuana Telephonica Gastro Park

Riding a Segway – See San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company

Riding a Segway in San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company
Riding a Segway in San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company is fun for the family
Where would we be without wheels? They keep us spinning, moving, exploring. We sing children’s songs about them and Tina Turner immortalized Proud Mary’s big wheel. In San Francisco, the city is full of wheel configurations. Bus, trolley, BART, cable car, taxis, bicycles and ride sharing – but none is as fun as riding a Segway through the city streets.
The morning was cool as we stepped from our Airbnb apartment to catch a bus. One ride took us entirely across town to within blocks of our destination, the Electric Tour Company in North Beach. The weekend was a first for my son, Josh, and me vacationing together as adults and he was more than happy to get up early for the chance to scurry around the city while riding a Segway.
We easily found the Electric Company space, between buildings just steps from the Cannery shops and cafes. Before touching the machines, we were ushered into complete registration, shown a safety video and given helmets. Questions were asked and answered, then the coaching began. I was assigned the ‘Sedgequey’ (a common mispronounciation we were told!) and soon we were confidently starting, stopping, and spinning our machines.
Riding a Segway is simple with these easy controls

My ‘Sedquey!’

Within minutes of getting his Segway moving, Josh was racing in circles – well, racing is relative. The maximum speed is capped and each machine slows automatically as you reach that. Still, he had fun pushing the limits well before we took to the streets.
Our guide, Aaron, handed out small transmitters and ear buds, connecting us to his guidance and narration for the tour. I was concerned about riding a Segway through city streets packed with pedestrians, buses and cars, but didn’t need to be. Brilliantly, Aaron positioned our group of 12 in formation as if we were the wheels of a bus. We were assigned a place, riding two by two in parallel lines. It made us easy to see and simple to follow. Soon North Beach was whizzing by and while stopped at a signal, Josh reached over for a grinning fist bump. Nice!
Lauren and her birthday crown while riding a Segway

Lauren and her birthday crown

Aaron kept us entertained with bit of history and puns. We cruised close to famous landmarks and took at break at Washington Park. Riding a Segway uphill was fun and downhill was easy too. There was no way our Segways could runaway with us.
Pausing to check in at Washington Park while riding our Segway

Pausing to check in at Washington Park while riding our Segway

Near the end of the tour we left the busy streets behind and headed out along the breakwater near Fort Mason. Only a few hikers were on the path, intrepid swimmers splashed nearby and the views were astounding. A historic schooner sat in the bay with the skyscrapers of downtown behind. Ferries and sailboats scooted past Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge sat in full glory.
View of downtown San Francisco while riding a Segway
After time out for pictures, we headed back to the barn, as it were. What a great family adventure. My 20 year old had as much fun as mom. The youngest in the group, 14 yrs. old, had as much fun as his grandmother. Twenty five year old, Lauren, taking the tour as part of her birthday celebration, rode proudly – her helmet embellished with a tall, golden crown. She seemed to enjoy riding a Segway more than anyone and giggled street by street.
Riding a Segway bliss
Riding a Segway through San Francisco:
  • The Electric Tour Company has weekly specials and a detailed website. (Say hi to Aaron for me!)
  • Use public transportation to get around San Francisco. Save anxiety about meters, tickets and finding parking places. I used my cell phone GPS and Google Maps to find the best routes and buses. There are numbers to call at bus stops throughout the city.
  • If buses and trolleys aren’t your thing there are taxis everywhere plus…
  • The Uber and Lyft community is huge in San Francisco.
 Special thanks to the Electric Tour Company for hosting our ride. All opinions are my own.
weekend wanderlust April 2016

How to find the best local food – San Francisco’s Valencia Street

Bi-Rite flowers in front of the local food emporium
Bi Rite Local Food market in San Francisco's Valencia Street food scene
When you’re hungry in a new city you can settle for simply filling your tummy or aspire to great eating. Knowing I’d be famished during my stay in San Francisico’s Mission District, where to eat in the trending neighborhood was a mystery. When Edible Excursions founder, Lisa Rogovin, suggested a tasting tour featuring local food along Valencia Street, my tummy growled in anticipation.
Decades before local food tours were a concept, I tasted my first Tempura in a bamboo-panelled Japanese bar on Mission Street. If I’d visited Tokyo before stepping into the red lantern-lit space, it would’ve felt familiar. The shrimp and batter-slathered, veggie wedges were crunchy and cheap, perfect for a student budget. In the intervening years the Mission’s ties to Mexico have dug in deeper. The Tempura house has disappeared but the road still hosts street vendors peddling roasted corn elotes and fruit stalls spill over the sidewalk. Taquerias now open to the street in designerly tones with prices much steeper than my salad days.
The street is still grungy but safe. Low riders have moved on and artisans have moved in, knowing there’s opportunity with the influx of tech hipsters. Iron bars still criss-cross over windows and at night, the marijuana cooperative crouches behind a roll-down garage door. One block away however, Valencia Street could be on the other side of the city and that’s where the new foodster central is growing. Boutique cafes, craft patissieries and artisinal breweries are flourishing.
Dandelion small batch chocolate roasters' cafe

Inside the Dandelion small batch chocolate roasters’ cafe

Surprisingly Lisa began our tour at the corner of 18th Avenue and Mission in front of the Duc Loi Market. No flashy store front or sparkling renovations? No, we met at a historic intersection, an apt metaphor for the next few hours.
Duc Loi Market
Cities morph. If the neighborhood was different outside, then inside should reflect that as well. The Duc Loi Market embodies that and has been successfully rolling with the changes for over 25 years. The name means “ethical earnings” and it’s become a model for the demands traditional businesses are facing in the swiftly gentrifiyng area. The owners, originally from Vietnam, continually renew their dedication to serving the needs of the neighborhood with its churning mix of Caucasian, Asian and Latino roots and wide economic diversity.
Bah Mi Duc Loi market local food San Francisco Valencia neighborhood

Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich at Duc Loi market.

Lisa led me to the back, near the long cooler counter where a sandwich, a tradional Banh Mi waited. Further down the long case were cheeses from Italy, specialty meats and she looked for a pig’s head on the counter too. It was no where in sight on the Monday we visited.
After digging into the fresh crunch of the French baguette and through the delicious spiced meat with traditional sauce, we ventured into the rows of products. One collection of BBQ sauces said it all. Artisanal bottles with monochrome, letterpress labels and tony price tags sat on the top shelf. Other shelves held equally delicious, well-known brands for half the cost. Just another testament to a neighborhood in transition.
Lisa founded Edible Excursions before food tours were a trendy part of travel. She’s been at the forefront of gustatory adventures from the Ferry Building to Uptown Oakland, from Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto to the Mission; helping tasters discover “the importance of local, seasonal and sustainable eats plus signature dishes.” Her custom outings, business groups and weekly tours have gained notice and awards from SF Weekly, San Francisco Magazine and Viator. Craft cocktails and local brews have won her focus recently and soon Drinkable Excursions will be on the regular rotation of tours.
Tacolicious and Mosto local food on Valencia Street in San Francisco

Tacolicious’ Valencia Street storefront

Lisa Rogovin of Edible Excursions with Joe Hargrove and Sarah Deseran of Tacolicious.

Lisa Rogovin of Edible Excursions with Joe Hargrave and Sara Deseran, founders of Tacolicious.

We strolled to Valencia Street and into the subtle Mosto / Tacolicious digs. The Mosto tequila bar opened last year as a new focus for Joe Hargrave and his partner, writer and marketing pro, Sara Deseran, after the success of Tacolicious (three locations in addition to the Valencia Street space.) The moment we stepped in from the Valencia sidewalk and past the subtle-to-the-point-of-missing taco sign, I knew this place was unique.
House tequila and sangrita at Tacolicious

House tequila, Sangrita and sides at Tacolicious

A patterned Mexican tile floor warmed the chic, open space. Large windows and a side patio were open to the mild Mission micro-climate. Once we sat at a tall booth, a steep shot of the smooth, house Jimador Tequila appeared next to a matching portion of fresh Sangrita. That afternoon’s batch was a spirited melange of tomato, chipotle and habanero pepper salsa. Small, succulent taco plates featured fresh tortillas from La Palma Mexicatessen, another San Francisco treasure. We surely weren’t going hungry.
Inside the Craftsman and Wolves patisierrie case

Inside the Craftsman and Wolves patisierrie case

Craftsman and Wolves
Across the street in a low lying, re-purposed autobody repair building with stunning brick bones, sits Craftsman and Wolves. The CAW location is one of three in the city. In a case that could display jewelry, curvacious confections waited emancipation. Each was a work of subdued, edible art.
Lisa introduced me to the signature pastry, The Rebel Within, sliced open to reveal a soft-boiled egg within an asiago, sausage and green onion bun. The skill it takes to place a peeled egg within the dough and cook all to perfection is a testament to owner Chef William Werner’s tenacity. His expertise and commitment flow from over 15 years working in fine restaurants on the East and West coasts. The ‘contemporary patisserie’ is named with a nod to predatory challenges often facing those dedicated to craft. It appears that he’s winning the battle.
CAW signature bun - The Rebel Within

CAW signature bun – The Rebel Within – served with a vial of tabasco-infused salt!

Dandelion Chocolate

Two doors down is a wonder that would inspire Willy Wonka – the bean-to-bar, small batch chocolate factory, Dandelion. Begun by a pair of intrepid chocoholics, Todd and Cam. They’ve grown their own cacao plants and roasted beans in home ovens, then toured major chocolate factories around the world before opening Dandelion in San Francisco.

Watch the video:

Today the company roasts and grinds a batch from one farm or cooperative at a time, creating distinctive chocolate bars with fine-tuned discipline. We watched the process, and tasted from their cafe before walking on.

Dinner counter inside the Bi-Rite Market

Dinner counter inside the Bi-Rite Market

Bi-Rite Market

Vistiing Bi-Rite deli and market brought us full circle. The Italian deli has been serving the neighborhood for decades and Lisa often brings home dishes from the dinner counter, which opens daily at 4:30 pm. With art deco signage, the market opened in the 1940’s and has been run by the Mongannam family for nearly sixty years. Brothers Raf and Sam took over from their father in the late 1990’s, instilling a chef’s aesthetic to the small market and stocking the highest quality ingredients. Now lines form at the counter for the Wagyu beef, imported sliced cheeses and much, much more. That’s where I left Lisa as she ordered entrees for her family.

San Francisco organic creamery ice cream truck

San Francisco organic creamery ice cream truck

Valencia Street buzzes around the clock. One night, searching for local food desserts, my son ordered goat milk and berry ice cream off a vintage, yellow fire truck. Parked in an empty, corner lot, the San Francisco Organic Creamery truck and it’s menu, was a world away from the industrial strength food trucks I’ve seen elsewhere.

Tart cider and Lao food at Hawker Fare.

Hard, Apple cider and Lao cuisine at Hawker Fare.

We also ate Issan Lao food at Hawker Fare, sipping tart hard cider, a simpler choice for dinner than one of their Tiki-inspired cocktails. They looked fantastic, however. I’ll just have to return and explore the upstairs bar menu next trip.


Another evening I slid up to the bar at Dosa and slowly cut into a paneer and pea filled chick pea ‘crepe’ between sips of Transylvanian white wine. A young man sat across from me and ordered the $44 tasting menu. For himself. Before drinks. On a Monday night. The neighborhood has certainly turned. It’s gotten to the point where regulations are being placed on preserving Legacy Businesses and limitations are being proposed on the number of new restaurants or bars.

dosa local food san francisco
Lisa will keep savoring the old and supporting the new. Her local food tours and Edible Excursion’s motto is: Eat. Walk. Enjoy. Repeat. I did happily until my feet were sore and my jeans were tighter.
If you’re hungry for delicious, local food in the Valencia Street area:

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weekend wanderlust April 2016

Hurricane Katrina Encounters – Visiting the Lower 9th Ward

Leann wide NOLA
Leann, Hurricane Katrina survivor and our guide

Leann, survivor and our guide through the Lower Ninth Ward

It was supposed to be a day of kayaking and bird-watching in New Orleans, but Mother Nature had another idea. Rains started at dusk the night before and I woke early to learn that our tour, launching from the lip of the Bayou in the Lower 9th Ward, was cancelled for safety reasons.

A more profound adventure of a completely different kind unfolded as the tour driver suggested she drive us around the landfall epi-center of Hurricane Katrina. Leann was one of the lucky ones and escaped the storm in New Orleans but Hurricane Katrina changed her life.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit

“We rode out storms all the time and assumed on Friday that we’d see each other on Monday.”

Leann worked at a radio station when the storm warnings came in. She fled New Orleans at the last minute, finding refuge in a Texas hotel until she was allowed to return. There wasn’t much to return to as her station was closed due to water damage. With severance pay she moved onto to work at a TV station in Baton Rouge until the glass ceiling had her looking for another job. Moving back to New Orleans, closer to family, made sense.

As I looked out over the bridge into the lower 9th ward, my heart sank. Leann paused the car in the middle of the deserted bridge for me to see the levee walls. It was clear that the 9th Ward was built well below the water line.

Bridge view - Lower 9th Ward on the right

Bridge view – Lower 9th Ward on the right

Now, weedy green overflows vacant lots where homes full of families lived. Celebrities and government agencies have rebuilt some streets. President Obama visited when the new Andrew P. Sanchez & Copelin-Byrd Multi Service Center opened. Actor Brad Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to create 150, flood-proof, environmentally-sound homes. Other homeowners returned with insurance money to rebuild but many did so in the same style as before. I imagine they’ll be vulnerable to devastation the next time flood waters breech. The contrast was startling.

Fixer upper post Hurricane Katrina

Help welcome.

A chance encounter

Leann showed us her last packet of rations passed out by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. She carries it as a reminder in her cab. On one street she pulled the taxi over. “Hey baby,” she softly spoke to a man walking the sidewalk. I thought they were friends, but it’s a  familiar NOLA greeting. Her easy call brought Wendall over and the questions began.

Here’s the video of the encounter:

As Wendell finished recounting his rescue and rebuilding traumas, Leann asked if he’d accept a donation and he nodded yes, with a slight smile. She passed him the packet of rations and some cash we’d collected. Blessings were exchanged and we drove on to see the Musicians Village across the bridge.

New home, post Hurricane Katrina, living space still built below the flood line.

New home, post Hurricane Katrina, living space still built below the flood line.

One of the raised houses that Brad Pitt's organization has helped construct post Hurricane Katrina

One of the raised houses that Brad Pitt’s organization has helped construct

I’ve waited a year to tell this story. There have been scores of reporters and gawkers wandering through the 9th Ward. The ten year anniversary passed in 2015 with reviews and photo journalists’ galleries full of what’s left of the neighborhood. I didn’t plan to join them but it’s important to remember, especially as new life-changing floods have returned to Louisiana. That encounter continues to impact how I travel.

“Nothing else we could ever describe would allow us to meet any other way.”


~ Leann

Just Getting Through

A pair of girls in jeans and t-shirts pulled their hoodies close as we drove past. I imagine them growing up after the storm tore through. They have to walk out of the house every day, past empty lots and houses still waiting for demolition. Whether they stay in the ward or join the diaspora, the daily routine midst the scars of Hurricane Katrina remain. As Leann knows well, it takes energy to keep on, “Just getting through.”

Hope house in the Lower 9th Ward

Hope house in the Lower 9th Ward, 2015

I offer this as a remembrance and a request for those of us more fortunate to take action, to help when we can. My words are my means.

Boxing club in the Lower 9th Ward

Boxing club in the Lower 9th Ward

How to make a difference in the Lower 9th Ward

Five years ago David Young came to the Lower 9th Ward to volunteer. He felt a calling to stay and has founded Capstone Gardens on more than 25 vacant and blighted lots. The fruits and vegetables grown there are given to organizations serving the hungry.

As the area is considered a ‘food desert,’ where locals need to take several buses to buy fresh produce, David has begun selling his harvests at a local convenience store, Galvez Goodies. If you can’t visit to help in the garden, check out his honey. His bee hives are helping the plants and trees flourish.

Ready to adopt a beehive and help Hurricane Katrina survivors?

Sharing is caring! Thank you.

Tales from Hurricane Katrina


Tastiest Breakfast Food in the World – Delivering the award

tastiest breakfst at la Cocina de Dona Esthela in the Valle Guadalupe
Tastiest breakfast food in the world - Machaca con Huevos, tortillas, cheese and beans

Tastiest breakfast food in the world – Machaca con Huevos, tortillas, cheese and beans

Merely two hours south of San Diego, deep in the Valle de Guadalupe, sits an unassuming restaurant. Inside platters of marinated, roasted meats vie for attention with griddle fresh tortillas, salsas, grilled nopales and home made cheese. This is the home of some of the tastiest breakfast food in the world and I arrived in time to see it made official. The long delayed award from Foodie Hub was about to be presented to chef Dona Esthela.
La Cocina de dona esthela - The home of the tastiest breakfast food in the world!
Rumbling down a bumpy and dusty dirt road, our van slid into a parking lot populated with cars and trucks. It was midweek and most of the Valle was still deserted. But the crowds are no surprise to the neighbors.
Tastiest breakfast food next door to Lomita Winery in Guadalupe Valley

Lomita Winery, next door to La Cocina de Dona Esthela

On the hill adjacent to Dona Esthela’s sits the sleek slab and arched winery, Lomita. Family owner, Fernando Perez Castro recounts how Dona Esthela’s grew with fondness. Fernando says, “The first time I ate there, I sat at her kitchen table and you felt like you were part of the family, invited to her place. She didn’t have a menu but served what she cooked for the family just before.” Dona has gradually been building her place out, but Fernando says the enduring secret to her success is, “The essence is still the same.”
Step into the kitchen where the tastiest breakfast food in the world is made:


Dona Esthela cooked for the Lomita building crew in early 2008, when there weren’t other choices in the neighborhood. Her fate changed when a popular Mexican telenovella decided to use the Lomita winery as their set. Soon the TV celebrities were eating at her table and posting pictures with Dona Esthela, tweeting and bringing their friends to the Valle location.
Dona Esthela and Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods plus telenovella stars.

Next to the cash register – Dona Esthela and Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods, plus telenovella stars.

In the kitchen of la Cocina de Dona Esthela

In the kitchen with Dona Esthela

Machaca and beans at La Cocina de Dona Esthela

Machaca and beans

Our little group was served a table full of incredible breakfast food. The award-winning Machaca con Huevo won over Foodie Hub contributor and blogger, Scott Koenig, over a year ago and led to the nomination of Dona Esthela’s place. Machaca was once a staple of Mexican cowboys who ate the dehydrated, shredded and fried meat in the early 20th century. At Dona’s Cocina I found the meat moist and full of complex, smokey flavor.
Dona Esthela Cocina tortillas and husband

Pitchers of fresh orange juice and baskets of wrapped tortillas were served by Dona’s husband.

We gorged and drank Baja wines provided by our guide, Fernando Gaxiola founder of Baja Wine and Food. When it seemed we couldn’t eat another bite, platefuls of Hotcakes de Maiz materialized. Dona has taken an American breakfast food and made it uniquely her own with a juicy batter full of fresh corn kernels. No syrup was necessary.
So much more on the menu!
I will definitely find my way back as the menu is packed with so many delicious options and daily specials. What a great day trip beginning with the tastiest breakfast food in the world!
“The secret in the flavor of our food is to cook it with love and care. And to be able to serve it on your table. It’s a joy. Be welcome. Our house is your house!!”
~ Dona Esthela
Dona Esthela, family and friends

Dona Esthela, family and friends

If you go:
  • Directions and location on the unofficial Dona Esthela Facebook page
  • Dirt roads be darned! Follow signs, make sure someone in the car has international GPS, and check out routes before you cross the border.
  • The restauant isn’t open on Mondays but don’t let crowds deter you. Pick up a few bottles of Lomita’s best and sip while you wait.
  • Eat inside unless the patio’s been completely screened. Flies can be a problem.
  • More about crossing the border through Tijuana on my earlier post here.

Proud to be part of these linkups:

weekend wanderlust April 2016
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