Vagobond Travel Museum: The Amtrak Amtrek Across the USA

Back in 2008, I left Hawaii and set out on an adventure that took me across the USA by Amtrak train, I called it the Amtrek. This week, for the Vagobond Travel Museum, I bring you the collected articles and videos from that trip. The trip began in Honolulu and then went to Portland, Oregon from where I crossed the country and ended in New York City with a one way flight to Barcelona – the truth is, the trip has never ended since I’ve never gone home.

Along the way, I couch-surfed and asked my hosts the same set of questions, those videos are below and worth watching. Keep in mind, this was before couch-surfing had gone mainstream.

Here are the ten lessons I learned on that trip:

  1. The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
  2. Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
  3. Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
  4. I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
  5. I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
  6. Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
  7. It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
  8. Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
  9. Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
  10. Making the wrong friend can suck out part of your enjoyment of life and destroy a train trip – the right friends can make a boring stretch very exciting.

 

Art at the Met and Thoughts Before Leaving the USA

Exploring Chicago in the Cold

The Host Videos
Couch Questions in Hawaii

Lost. ;(

Christmas in Portland

Couch Questions in Portland

Couch Questions with MJ in Sacramento

Couch Questions in Salt Lake City

Couch QUestions in Chicago

Couch Questions in Boston

Couch Questions in Providence

Couch Questions in New York City

Syncopated Family Travel: Yes, I’m a Mouseketeer at Disneyland!

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Dirty Disney MousketeerMecca. Nirvana. The Holy Land. It goes by many different names to the faithful, but for the uninitiated it is known as Disneyland. I prostrate myself at its hallowed turnstiles and I am filled with a shuddering ecstasy: one of those big bastard Pentecostal grand mals.
After numerous trips to Walt Disney World in Florida, I finally get to touch the sacred soil of the California mother park. What’s the first stop? Space Mountain? It’s a Small World? The Matterhorn? All in due time. First I pull up a stool at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel.  The bar, named after the infamous Jungle Cruise headhunter, is a piece of kitschy South Pacific heaven.

Disneyland Bar - TikibarThe interior is a cramped space festooned with exotic Polynesian decorations. Outside, luau musicians serenade people lounging around an impressive stone fireplace. The Tiki Bar is everything I love about Disney on amphetamines, it’s not a bar, it’s an experience. I’m served up a tropical drink called the Uh-Oa in what can only be described as a large tiki cereal bowl. As the skipper sets it down before me the whole bar erupts in a chant over throbbing drums: “uh-oa, uh-oa, uh-oa.” Pinches of cinnamon spark as they are flicked on a flaming sugar cube floating atop a pool of rum and fruit juices. Around me, lightning flashes, water sprays, and a volcano goes off. I take a drink and my head spins. It’s that classic wholesome Disney debauchery. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up in the middle of a magical princess orgy. If I’m unlucky I’ll end up floating in the castle moat.

Hotel room at Disneyland HotelMost likely it’ll just end with me sinking into my posh bed near the top of the Fantasy tower at the Disneyland Hotel. It’s decked with fluffy white comforters and navy blue throw pillows reading “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” The dark wood headboard lights up with a twinkling display and plays a soothing When You Wish Upon a Star. Elegance like this comes at a hefty price. In order to pay for the room we nearly had to sell our daughter as an indentured servant in the Disney college program when she turns eighteen.

Disneyland hotel president NixonIt’s worth it for the pure nostalgiagasm of the place. The hotel was opened in 1955, soon after the park opened, and today history oozes out of every crevice.  Just off the main lobby is a collection of frame photographs of visiting celebrities and dignitaries over the years, including that lying crook Nixon. Our room has a framed, black and white portrait of the master of the mouse, Walt Disney, standing under the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Outside the elaborate pool includes water slides made out of old monorails winding down underneath a vintage Disneyland sign. It’s a Disney time warp.

At Trader Sam’s I run up a serious bar tab and chat with another couple. I spotted them out of the crowd and could tell that they worshiped at the altar of Disney. We bond over the fruity drinks and our mutual love of the mouse.  They are California natives so we trade stories about the differences between the two parks.  This particular family one ups me by sharing that they had the opportunity to go to Disney’s new Aulani resort in Hawaii. How was it? “Expensive, but so worth it,” they replied with familiar ecstatic eyes.

Disneyland Small WorldAs a Disney World veteran, it is great to check out the source material. When I clear the Disneyland railroad berm I’m no longer in the middle of busy downtown Anaheim; rather, I’m transported into that happy place.  I skip through the hallowed castle. I bask in the beauty of Mary Blair’s whimsical Small World facade. I join Mr. Toad on his wild ride straight to hell. I loudly catcall to the “red head” as roguish pirates raid the Caribbean town. I never, ever stop smiling.
The Disneyland park is a historical testament to the dedication of one visionary who had invested himself in making so many people happy. It’s an amazing legacy I’m happy to pay homage to.
Disneyland Buean Vista StreetJust across the entrance plaza is the much-maligned California Adventure park. After an extensive billion dollar remodel, the park seems poised to reestablish itself. Through the gates I stroll past the art deco style buildings of Buena Vista Street, a tribute to Las Angeles circa 1923. We enjoy a fantastic meal at the new Carthay Circle Theatre restaurant. The interior of the restaurant evokes strong images of olden Hollywoodland high class.  The first floor bar is a particular treasure. Their specialty is classic cocktails served up proper. I enjoy a gin martini, chilled to perfection with an ice sphere and garnished with an olive.

Beyond is the new Carsland, which note for note recreates Radiator Springs from the animated Pixar movie Cars. When the sun goes down the area sparks to life with brilliant neon.  Life Could Be A Dream drifts romantically out of the loudspeakers. However, for all of the fun of the cartoon version, the real Route 66 awaits us, as we must soon say goodbye to the west coast and head home.

Neon at Disneyland CarslandOur days at Disney end with a viewing of The Wonderful World of Color water show.  Acrobatic fountains of water dance to sweeping music in a wild array of pulsating color. Dr. Leary would be impressed. We ignore the “you may get wet” warnings and take up a position right up front near the cascading jets. To quote the Flight of the Conchords, “I’m not crying, it’s just raining on my face.”  This is heaven.

Syncopated Family Travel – Los Angeles – Beaches, Bums, and Cults

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Los Angeles Irony?Hollywood California: swimming pools, movies stars, and a man passed out on the sidewalk with his pants down. This is what we are treated to as we take a morning drive to see LA’s famous sites. The only thing distinguishing this particular scene from New York City is that his bare ass has a nice California tan. Instinctively, we hit the door locks.

It’s a good thing as a machete wielding maniac in a hockey mask approaches our car at the next intersection. It’s startling until we realize that he is just one of many costumed tourist-trappers bilking bucks on the crowds flocking to see Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The tourists size up there hands with those of the stars impressed on the concrete, while being prayed upon by Marilyn Monroe, the Incredible Hulk, and a shitty Spiderman selling photographs. We nope it out of there and careen through the Hollywood hills for a vantage of the famous Hollywood sign. I have an interest in none of this, but today is the kid’s day and she is calling the travel stops.

Jim Jones Cult, Los AngelesThere is but one exception; I can’t visit Los Angeles without visiting the historic church at Alvarado and Hoover. In the 1970’s, this tan brick building served as Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. It’s most impressive feature is the semi circular front porch with rounded arches and fluted columns. A stately brick tower rises up over a red tiled roof. Inside, not much has changed since the Reverend Jim Jones preached here. The building still has the same burgundy church pews were the members of Jones’s cult ecstatically listened to their smooth tongued master and hoped for a better life.

After paying my respects, we leave the former cult building to go see the Cults. Coincidentally the NYC indie pop band is playing the Make Music Pasadena festival. The annual music festival takes over multiple city blocks in Pasadena. Its a great lineup on four stages and, since it is absolutely free, the cost of admission can’t be beat. In addition to fantastic music there are plenty of activities, lots of great food, and some brilliant chalk sidewalk art.

Los Angeles Music FestivalIts shoulder to shoulder as we pack in before the crowded main stage where the Cults are set to play. The crowd is diverse, but as a whole pretty laid back. A group of hispanic men with long black heavy metal hair openly smoke medical ganja and more surreptitiously pass around a gigantic bottle of Jack Daniels. Many of the young ladies around sport the nerd look with huge black glasses covering their faces. Hipsters abound, dressed in sock garters, cut off jean shorts, bandoliers, fringed vests, and rain boots. One holds a small tartan umbrella to block the blinding hot sun.

Hollywood - Here we are!“Holy shit look at this crowd,” says Cult’s guitarist Brian Oblivion, shielding his sunglass covered eyes, as he peers outward across the sweating mass of flesh. The band launches into a soiree of synth infused retro-pop. Singer Madeline Follin croons into the microphone, “I knew right then that I’d been abducted.” Guitarist Oblivion comes in with a wash of distorted electric guitar. She sways in a baby doll dress. He’s a windmill of long black hair.
The crowd erupts at the opening glockenspiel notes of “Go Outside”. It’s accompanied by a sample of Jim Jones. “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” his ghostly voice intones. Follin earnestly sings, “I really want to go out. I really want to go outside and see your day.” The packed crowd sings along, everyone swaying together like a salty ocean. It’s religious.

pop star Soko playing in LAA few blocks down SoKo is playing. She’s one of my daughter’s favorites who she got to meet outside of the vegan restaurant in LA. Born as Stéphanie Sokolinski, she’s a french singer with a fragile voice. The crowd is smaller at the Playhouse District Eclectic Stage, but no less enthusiastic. A guy in the audience yells something out in bad french, causing SoKo to laugh. “I love that’s the only french you know,” she said, then explained to the audience he asked her to take off her clothes.

I’m not so far removed from my childhood to remember the joy of seeing a favorite band perform. Even more, the excitement of getting to meet them. My daughter enjoys watching the show up front, as the musician works through an assortment of songs, from gentle guitars ballads to a raging punk missive while playing drums. During I Thought I Was An Alien she cackles into the microphone in high-pitched alien tongues. It’s definitely a highpoint of the trip for my kid.

LA BeachesWe end the long, sunny day with a drive to Laguna Beach to look at the ocean. It seems that LA traffic alternates between crawling at a jammed snail’s pace to race car fast. We cruise along twenty miles over the limit, trying to keep pace only to come to a dead stop. In this herky jerky fashion we make it to Laguna Beach. The area is appealing, with interesting shops, nice restaurants and quirky houses. If there are half-naked bums, they keep them well out of site.

We manage to score a parking space in a busy area near a beach side park. It’s a pretty relaxed scene. Well dressed elderly men are playing a game of bocce. A family grills out, filling the air with the savory aroma of sizzling flank steak. The beach front is pretty small, but it affords the opportunity to sit on a rock and watch the tide come in and the sun set. It’s a calm end to an energetic day.

Syncopated Family Travel – Leaving Las Vegans

Story by Anthony Mathenia
Photos by Rebekah Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Mojave Desert“I’m hungry,” my daughter whines from the backseat. I can think of few things worse than traveling with a newly minted teenager, especially one that happens to be vegan.

“Food This Exit” declares another Interstate sign. However for her the options at this exit are no better than those at the last.

“You want some fries?” my wife offers.

“I’m sick of french fries,” my daughter moans.

“How about a mandarin orange?”  We have a bag of Clementines in the trunk.

“I’m sick of oranges.” Her voice is fingers on chalkboard.

I must have done something really awful in a past life. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the meatless horizon: the culinarily diverse cities of  Las Vegas and Los Angeles are coming up.

A Las Vegan's Best FriendAs we head west we make a brief side visit to the City of Sin to take my daughter to Veggee Delight. I’m a little worried as the GPS leads us through the Vegas Strip deep into the heart of Chinatown. However, the Vietnamese cafe owners are welcoming to this mid-westerner. It also seems to be popular with non-Asian locals; a few trickle in and take up seats in the tiny dining room.

Wet Noodles are funI scan the menu offering a variety of Asian dishes with fake meat: chicken, beef, pork, tuna. TUNA? I double-check that I read that right. Yes, they have a meatless tuna. I shun the “tuna”, which is barely passable in its legitimate version. My daughter orders some kind of “beef” bowl. I’m not big on fake meat, so I choose something called “wet fried vegetables with noodles”.

I take a moment to ponder the ancient, oriental mystery of how a vegetable can be both wet and fried. Service is quick and soon I am tearing into my dish as fast as my preschool chopstick skills will allow. As it turns out the “wet” is a thin sauce over some fried vegetables (carrots, snap peas, shoots) and some crispy noodles. The food is surprisingly satisfying and soon we are back on our way.

We are only miles down the road before I hear again, “I’m hungry.”

“You want an orange?”

“I’m sick of oranges.” So it goes with vegan teenagers.

Continuing southwest into California, we watch the temperature escalate: 100, 101, 102, 103 … Through the vast Mojave Desert, Joshua trees dot the crispy landscape stretching out into a shimmering, hazy horizon. It looks wet and fried.

Flore Vegan Restaurant in Los AngelesOur travel is interrupted as we are commanded off the road to a mandatory car search. State agents wave our Nissan up to a checkpoint. What are they looking for? Drugs? Booze? Illegal immigrants? “Ma’am do you have any citrus in the car?” a no-nonsense woman leans forward to ask.   My wife nervously looks at me, her eyes as wide as saucers.  Should we run for it Dukes of Hazard style?

Minutes later we are on our way again, but without our contraband in tow. California takes their citrus seriously and our illegal Clementines are not welcome in the Golden State.

“I wish I had an orange,” laments my daughter.

Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaIn L.A. we treat my daughter to another vegan meal. We arrive at Flore Vegan Cuisine on a Saturday morning while they are serving their weekend brunch. The diminutive seating area is packed with Californians enjoying a leisurely mid-morning meal and the daily newspaper.  For the diners, there is no haste to finish so we join a small line forming outside. I impatiently wonder if vegan food is worth the wait. It is. When our name is finally called we are treated to an outstanding meal, rivaling some of the best I have ever head. I order some beautiful buckwheat blueberry waffles topped with bananas. My wife enjoys a southwest scramble, a tasty tofu version of huevos rancheros.

Another Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaMy daughter enjoys something even better than her vegan breakfast.  She delights to spot SoKo, one of her favorite musicians, out for a walk. The French actress/singer is gracious enough to pause for a cell phone picture.  She informs us that she is performing at the Make Music Pasadena festival later.

“Can we go?” my daughter begs.

When she hears my answer she responds with the usual.

“I never get anything I want.”

So it goes.

Southern California Wine Travel

Story and Photos by Linda Kissam
Wines of California TravelIf you miss that feeling of carefree abandon and going on a road trip…then read on my friends. Frankly, I think many of us in our college years were too busy prepping for finals, looking for summer jobs, or just didn’t have the cash on hand or an airplane to fly to do much with their last spring break. So I am offering you a chance to go back in time and have the spring break you should have had in college–but better, because you’re a little older, a little more responsible, and of course better funded!

Picture this: Southern California’s two most impressive wine countries, Temecula and Julian, filled with fun people, all looking to have a blast as they sip, swirl and nosh their way through the vineyards. I can promise you incredible food available all day and all night, premium wines, great accommodations, music, and fun stops, all laid out for you. Think wine tasting, hot air ballooning. Olive oil tasting, golf, hard cider tastings, glider plane rides and more. This is an ideal vacation for anyone, but I am thinking this is really perfect for those who are 35+ and really ready to get loose and have a good time. Sound like you? Strap in and read on!

Day One – Temecula Wine Country

10 AM – Arrive in Temecula Wine Country
About 45 minutes from Ontario Airport, about 12 miles from the French Valley Airport (Private planes), andjust about 7 miles off the I-15, this is an easy place to fine. Whether you fly or drive in…take Rancho California Road east. The key to enjoying yourself is pacing yourself and visiting 4 pre-selected wineries. I’d give you directions, but we all have GPS, so I won’t waste the space. Here are my favorites.

10:15 AM – First up, Thornton Winery

California Wine TravelThis is a beautiful French chateau looking property that offers both indoor and outdoor sit-down tastings in the Champagne Bar or their famous Café Champagne Restaurant. Winemaker David Vergari has created premium still and sparkling wines to die for. Just added to the menu – chocolate wines. Yup, they’re actually quite good! Personable service, good prices and a killer hors d’oeuvre menu created by Executive Chef Steve Pickell sells this place. Check out www.ThorntonWine.com for hours and 2 for 1 tasting coupons.

11:30 AM – Briar Rose Winery

Just around the corner, and maybe 8 minutes from Thornton Winery, this upscale boutique, by reservation only winery takes itself seriously…and for good reason. Their amazing wines ranging from $28 – $1,300 and will knock your socks off. It’s a special experience from start to finish from the Snow White Cottage theme, to the smooth, complex wines. Check out www.BriarRoseWinery.com for hours and reservations.

1 PM – Ponte Winery

Bacon Wrapped BBQ Meatloaf
Time for lunch. Just about 10 minutes from Briar Rose you simply must stop in at the Smokehouse Restaurant at Ponte Winery where you will sit out amongst the vineyards. Views, menu, and hospitality are incredible. Great wines for every palate and plate. You’ll want to linger for a while and after lunch enjoy their wonderful gift shop – one of the best in wine country. Reservations a must on the weekends! (www.Pontewinery.com)

3:00 PM – Keyways Winery

This winery is on De Portola Wine Trail, about 15 minutes from Ponte. You’ll quickly notice the terrain changes from your Rancho California Road to one that focuses on more of an equestrian feel on the DePortola side. Gorgeous, relaxing, unique is what makes the area and this particular winery worth the drive. The wines are fabulous; the décor is thoughtful and engaging. The best bathrooms in wine country – almost art -like in concept! This owner knows details. The grounds give of a Zen vibe, and when this winery showcases local musicians indoors or outdoors, guests find themselves caught up in the moment. Truly a memorable experience. (www.KeywaysWinery.com)

4:15 PM – Check into your hotel
Temecula CreekI recommend Temecula Creek Inn. Good rates and they often feature special packages that include golf and wine tasting. Try their Temet Grill for superior wine country cuisine. 
6 PM to 8 PM – Head off to Old Town Temecula

About 10 minutes away. Park your car at Front and Main and walk to late afternoon olive oil tasting at Villa Di Calabro or the Temecula Olive Oil Company. It’s a fun, unique experience. There are also four or more tasting rooms to visit. My picks include Lorimar Winery’s tasting room and Tesoro Winery’s tasting room (
www.TesoroWinery.com). Both are staffed by fun knowledgeable people and stocked with premium wines you are going to love. Lorimar Winery is known for their incredible promotions. Tesoro features a classy, well-stocked gift shop and an outdoor tasting garden that allows you to people watch well into the evening. For evening fun, try The Collective featuring many local small lot wineries without tasting rooms.
Day Two – The Wynola Business District in Julian

8 AM – Road Trip!

lavendar - California wine travelAfter a great breakfast at the Temet Grill, you’re ready to get into your car and head out to the Wynola Business District in Julian. Much has been written about the town of Julian, but I am giving you an insiders tip – spend some quality time in Wynola before you browse the town of Julian. It’s about a 90-minute trip. Take Highway 79 South to Highway 78 (left) to Wynola. You’re going to enjoy the pastoral wide, two-lane highway drive. It meanders past cow pastures, the Warner Springs Golf Course
www.WarnerSprings.com/golf.cfm, Santa Ysabel Casino www.SantaYsabelCasino.com, and the Sky Sailing facility in Warner Springs www.SkySailing.com. If you stopped at each place, it could be an 8-hour trip. You can also catch an awesome wildflower display in nearby Borrego Springs. Each stop is unique and worthy of a spring break experience.

10 AM – Wynola Business District

Southern California Winery
Lorimar Winery and Vineyards

Watch out for this quirky, strip mall kind of business district on the left hand side. The easiest sign to read – and your first stop – is Orfila Winery. What a find! Seriously good wines here folks. Manager Jeff is a great host and often offers samples of unique cheeses: Local lilacs are blooming so Jeff will be selling fresh lilacs by the bunch. You cannot possibly imagine what a special spring break sensory treat a tasting room full of Lilacs presents. Linger awhile, take it all in. And hey, Jeff even offers non-alcoholic cider for your designated driver. A must do! Check out their Web site for tasting coupons (www.Orfila.com)

11 AM


Hard Cider, Julian Head CiderNext door check out the Julian Hard Cider store. It just recently opened. Yup, with 7.27 percent alcohol, this refreshing drink has a good kick to it. The Julian Hard Cider recipe originates from 1670 colonial America and is comparable to the finest British ciders. It took 4 years to build the tasting room. According to owner Paul Thomas it was built using all reclaimed wood from the Julian area. History buffs will be delighted with the interesting photos on display. Seems Paul tracked down a bunch of old photos with historical significance from Julian neighbors, scanned them, and then framed them using frames from the local Goodwill. Paul is a wealth of information and as energetic and friendly as they come. This is a pleasant stop not to be missed. Check out hours, tasting fees, etc at www.JulianHardCider.biz.
12 PM

Walk a few more feet and you’ll find Country Cellars. This small tasting room features San Diego wines and beer. I loved the names as much as the beverages. Who wouldn’t love beers named Inferno Ale, Serpents Stout and Black Marlin Porter? How about wines from Cactus Star/ Scaredy Cat Ranch, or Woof n Rose Winery? This is a perfect place to sample local San Diego adult beverages in a casual atmosphere. Check out all the options at
www.CountryCellars.com.

1:30 PM

Julian – You can check out Julian on your own now. Spend a couple of hours browsing and strolling the charming town. A great lunch and some more wine tasting is available. It’s just 10 minutes from the Wynola Business District. (
www.JulianCA.com)

3:30 PM Julian Pie Company

Who can resist having the best apple pie ever? Certainly no one on spring break. Heading back to the I-15, at the convergence of Highway 79 and Highway 78 , you’ll find the pie place of your dreams. This is a casual place – self-service and counter stools. They’re focused here. No fooling around, it’s all about the pies. Stop in for a slice and cup of coffee or a latte. I am pretty sure you’ll be taking a whole pie to go.
www.JulianPie.com

4:30 PM

Time for your designated pilot/driver to head back to the airport, it’s about a 90 minute drive, but you’re refreshed, invigorated and loaded down with bottles of wine, beer, and pies. Seriously, did we have fun or what?

Private Plane Pilot’s Guide

Glider rides California wine travelFrench Valley Airport is located in Southwest Riverside County, adjacent to the communities of Temecula, Murrieta and Winchester. The airport, located on Highway 79, is only minutes away from Interstate 15 and the 215 Corridor . Outstanding climate and minimal congestion make takeoffs and landings easy at French Valley Airport. The wide-open approaches and ground support services accommodate most aircraft including jets and turbo-props. The filed is composed of two runways 18 Left, 36 Right. More info here www.rivcoeda.org/Default.aspx?tabid=522

The Fine Art of Fantastic Family Road Trips

One of the great things about being back in the United States is the opportunities it presents to engage in that greatest of American pastimes, The All American Family Road Trip. Like the Griswalds, I can load my family into the car with a minimum of explanation, make sure the tank is full of gas and we’ve got a credit card with a bit of mileage left on it, and then we can hit the road for parts unknown.

San Francisco, California

Personally, I like to engage in as little solid planning as possible – which leaves plenty of opportunity for that most wonderful of road trip wonders – improvisation. I like to think of myself as a bit of a Miles Davis when it comes to catching everyone off guard with a new and sudden direction – and like Miles – I have the skills to make those improv moves work. It’s a little hard on my wife – she still likes to pack for a specific situation and bring everything that she might need in any eventuality – which is hard when she doesn’t know if we will be going to a theme park, staying in a posh resort, spending time in the city or the country, or even leaving the country. I will give her credit though – she’s starting to get it – bring a rain coat, a swimsuit, a passport, a sweater, and sandals. And what you forget, can usually be found along the way in a thrift shop, a mall, or at a garage sale. Yes, it’s these trips that I love most about the USA.
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Over the coming days and weeks, I will share some of the trips we’ve taken since landing on these shores back in 2013 – but for right now, I’ll give you a little teaser. We’ve camped up and down the Oregon Coast and into the Redwoods, the San Juan Islands, and the Olympic Peninsula. We’ve also made spontaneous trips to Seattle, Portland, Astoria, San Francisco, Sacramento, Redding, Bandon, Florence, Yachats, and Eureka. We’ve explored the deserts of Arizona and the streets of Victoria, British Columbia along with traipsing through the Coastal Redwoods, hitting the Las Vegas Strip, and of course, seeing the lights of Los Angeles. I don’t want you to misunderstand – these are fast trips with lots of road time, lots of driving, and a relatively short amount of time spent at our destinations. That’s the thing with road trips – they are as much about the road as they are about the destination. The time spent singing in the car, the games we play with other people’s license plates, and the mystery of where we will stay in a given night – whether with friends, in a nice hotel, or a roadside dive.
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I will begin with our most recent trip – which we just returned from day before yesterday. It was an epic jaunt from Reedsport to Roseburg then down to Redding, straight down the I-5 to Anaheim, a visit to Disneyland, then a trip to Southern Arizona near the Mexican border before journeying straight through Phoenix and Tucson to Las Vegas, then turning back westward to the Central California Coast where we went though Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and straight through the Redwoods back to Oregon and where we started in Reedsport. It was a crazy 3000 mile figure-eight shaped road trip in which we almost never drove on the same road twice. I’ll start telling you about it in the next post…stay tuned.
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Exploring California’s National Parks

California may well be famous for its sun-drenched beaches, but we think that when it comes to having a really exciting, memorable holiday, it’s the California’s National Parks you should look to. There are 26 in total, and today we’re going to take a look at three of the very best.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite, photo by SmifLet’s start with Yosemite National Park, which is around a four-hour drive from the bright lights of San Francisco. In this reserve can expect to stroll with views of some of the most beautiful mountain terrain in the world. It’s this stunning landscape that the park aims to protect, and for which it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1984.

First, a few basic facts. The park was formed by millions of years of glacial activity and spans 1,170 sq miles. Without doubt it is best known for its striking scenery, which includes vast monoliths like El Capitan (3,000 ft high), waterfalls and sequoia coves. While there are plenty of activities you can try in the park, including hiking and rock climbing, arguably the best thing to do if you’ve never been here before is to visit some of its most famous landmarks.

Yosemite Valley should be high on your list, with its gorgeous waterfalls and dramatic cliffs. For the ultimate vista, head over to Tunnel View, which is at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel – from here, you can see El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. We also recommend visiting the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which is around 36 miles south of Yosemite Valley (which should give you some idea of just how vast the park really is). This is the reserve’s largest group of giant sequoias, and standing among them you’ll feel utterly dwarfed by their size.

By the way, if you’re planning a fly-drive holiday to California  don’t miss driving along Tioga Pass. Usually open from late May to early October, it spans the entire length of the park and offers incredible alpine scenery.

 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

California National Parks Sequoia & Kings Canyon by Satosphere

Over in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range are the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Now, technically these are two reserves rather than one, but as they are twinned and often treated as a single entity, we will look at them as one park. And, as they stand side-by-side, that’s perfectly easy to do when you visit as well.

Both these parks preserve granite peaks and lush forests and, as you can probably guess from their names, the giant sequoias and Kings Canyon are the top things to see. Looking at the latter first, Kings Canyon might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon, but it is actually the deepest in America. Expect to be totally wowed by the views – think sheer granite cliffs rising 1,000 ft sprinkled with spectacular waterfalls.

The sequoias, meanwhile, are best viewed in the aptly-named Giant Forest. The largest tree of them all is dubbed General Sherman, and is approximately 275 ft high. As you stare up at it, it’s worth remembering that this is thought to be the biggest tree in the world by volume.

Other great things to do here including taking a tour of Crystal Cave. A really popular attraction that’s home to some fascinating marble formations, it is open to the public from May to November, but you’ll need tickets to get in and take the tour. It’s worth bearing in mind that because of its popularity these tend to sell out fast, so try to book first thing in the morning. Sometimes you can reserve places the day before, so that’s worth checking when you arrive.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacle National Park in California

Our final suggestion is Pinnacles National Park – another aptly-named reserve, having earned its title from the huge spires and monoliths found here. Located just to the east of Salinas Valley, this ancient volcanic field is in the Gabilan Mountains and has some of the most exciting and unusual terrain in California – at least we think so anyway!

Over millions of years, the volcano here eroded as it gradually moved along the San Andreas Fault. Left behind are sheer-walled canyons, spectacular spires and massive monoliths that have to be seen to be believed. Most people come to the park to hike or rock climb, but you can also visit simply to admire the view. As a quick tip, Pinnacles is one of the few national parks that’s well suited to exploring in the cooler months and is generally open throughout autumn and winter.

Since the park is home to more than 30 miles of excellent hiking trails, it’s definitely a must-visit for keen walkers – even if you’re not after anything too challenging. For instance, there are several short routes starting out at the Pinnacles Visitor Centre, such as the 2.3-mile trail to Bear Gulch Day Use Area and the 6.5-mile path along the South Wilderness Trail. The latter is fantastic for wildlife spotting, while it’s worth bearing in mind that spring is the best time to come for seeing wild flowers on any of the trails.

 

Returning to Ojai, California – The Town L.A. Didn’t Ruin!

Story by K. Pearson Brown

Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)
Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)

It was my third trip to Ojai in five years, and delightfully, not much has changed. This adorable town of about 8,000, nestled in the Ojai valley, seems to have escaped the shuttering of independent shops and eateries that has plagued LA. Surely the recession has hit Ojai, but perhaps because of its small-town attitude, where folks take care of one another and life is simpler, they have managed to maintain their charm and economic vitality without giving in to Pottery Barn and Taco Bell.

The Inn Place

Ojai Hotels
Bungalows at Blue Iguana Inn feature private entrances and gated patios (photo credit Betty Jane Brown)

The accommodations in Ojai reflect the way of life of its residents. Mostly visitors will find small inns, with all the creature comforts of high-end hotels, but with a low key and casual atmosphere. My family lodged at The Blue Iguana, a Santa Barbara style bed and breakfast with modern amenities such as HD flat screen TVs in every room, but also with its own full kitchen, so we could prepare meals at “home.” Our bungalow also featured its own private fenced-in outdoor dining area and patio and French doors in every room opening to the outdoors.

Each morning at the Blue Iguana we enjoyed a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels, pastries, cereals, juice and coffee, and my son’s favorite, hardboiled eggs. Guests could take breakfast to their own private patios or bungalows or sit with other guests in the breakfast nook or on the communal patio outside.

It was a couple of minutes by car from the inn on the town’s main street, Ojai Avenue, into the center of town, heralded by what used to be the only stop light in town, at Signal Street. Shopping in town offered many charming small boutiques that thankfully resembled nothing of the GAP. My favorite clothing shop was The Kindred Spirit, featuring comfortable and stylish modern hippie fashions and shoes, like the Spring Step European wedge loafers I picked up there. Another fun to browse was Kingston’s Candy shop, which is like a trip into a Little Rascal’s episode with its bins of vintage-style candy, sodas and other novelties, like Big Buddy chewing gum.

Eat Local

An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)
An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)

I had thought I had tried all the best restaurants in town during my previous visits, but I was thrilled to find a plethora of undiscovered outstanding options for gourmet tastes, including the enchanting Azu. The restaurant had an earthy, artsy feel, with a cozy fireplace, wood benches — for which I asked for and was given a cushion for my poor bad back – and a front-room bar with well-dressed locals gathered for conversation and laughter. The service was friendly and casual, and Chef Laurel Moore’s Spanish and Mediterranean comfort cuisine menu was creative and reflective of the local bounty, such as blood orange and spinach salad, Cabra salad of Ojai organic greens and honey baked brie, drizzled with Ojai organic sage honey.

The next day we lunched at Feast Bistro, a quaint eatery along the town’s famed Arcade, a long pavilion of shops, that backs up to a grassy landscaped area where purveyors sell locally grown fruits and vegetables, jams, honey, bees wax candles, olive oil, free range eggs and chicken and a variety of crafts at a year-round weekly farmer’s market, every Sunday, rain or shine.

The knoll behind Feast Bistro restaurant was a great place for my son to play while we waited for our food. Since we all had walked up an appetite, and everything on the menu looked so yummy, we ordered entrees to share. We started with the locally sourced Eel River organic beef burger with cheese, a perfect complement to the Buffalo Blue spicy chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens and veggies, topped with Bleu cheese crumbles. My son enjoyed a huge platter of pomme frites, served as he ordered, half garlic, half parmesan. We finished off our hearty meal with a plate of still-warm Cookies of the Day.

All Aboard 

Ojai, California
Downtown Ojai offers shoppers plenty of boutiques and restaurants and not a single chain establishment (photo credit Michael McFadden)

We wanted to see more of Ojai outside of downtown, so we hopped aboard the Ojai Trolley, which for a fare of fifty cents is a great way to get around the town. Though the wooden bench seats didn’t make for a very comfy ride, and the trolley meanders through some of the less glamorous sections of town, it was still a fun ride. The trolley also offered the chance for us to see some of the good-neighbor attitude of Ojai in action, as the locals aboard the trolley greeted each other as they boarded and were quick to help a man in a wheelchair get aboard.

The Ojai Way

We were happy even as tourists to experience the small town feel of Ojai, which by the way is Ventura County’s smallest city. At the local park across from the Arcade I met a mom who lives in town. We pushed our kids on the swings side by side as she gave me the local scoop on the schools and community, which was all good. Then my son joined in with a group of kids on a spinning merry-go-round, and I chatted with their parents, more friendly locals. We strolled deeper into the park to find an outdoor concert theatre with a magical gate made of handing pipes that actually played music when you walked under them.

The Road to Ojai

Kids in Ojai
The friendly small-town feel of Ojai is a welcome change from city life for visitors from LA

Though this oasis sits in Ventura County, just 12 miles inland from Ventura, the great thing for Angelenos is that it is just about a 90-minute car ride from our bustling city. We made the trip in a luxurious seven-passenger Mazda CX-9, which featured super comfy reclining leather seats and was more than roomy for our family of four, with space to spare for all of our luggage and even my son’s 20” bike that we brought along. It also featured the best navigation system that I had ever used, which not only led us directly to our final destination and a few side trips, but it warned us of traffic ahead and offered alternative routes and advised me when I had drifted over the speed limit, which can be easy to do when the ride is so smooth. The rear-seat entertainment center with a DVD player also came in handy for my son.

Our trip goes to show that three times is a charm, as were my first and second visits to Ojai. And already I am planning a fourth.

 

 

Paradise Point – A Kid’s (and Parents) Paradise

Story and Photos by K. Pearson Brown

Beach, Sunshine, Action!

Paradise Point offers a nearby island escape for Angelenos. (Photo courtesy Paradise Point Resort & Spa)

It makes sense that a Hollywood director conceived of Paradise Point Resort & Spa in Mission Bay. The movie set-like gorgeous landscape, the private island appeal where VIPs can escape their public, the world-class amenities and the nearby location to LA all lend themselves to a celebrity worthy getaway. Yet this family oriented resort is accessible to everyone, literally, as it backs up to a public beach where boats dock for the day to enjoy its sandy shores and beautiful vistas.

Bungalow with a View

The 44-acre grounds offer plenty of walking to features on the property such as a lush tropical gardens, lookout tower, a tranquil lagoon and the Island Market. (Photo courtesy Paradise Point Resort & Spa)

Celebrating its 50 year anniversary since it was established in 1962 by Jack Skirball, the AAA four-star rated resort looks as fresh as a starlet back from rehab, thanks to a $20 million renovation in 2010. The 462 bungalows and suites that line the beach and lagoons are modernly outfitted with contemporary furnishings and amenities, including wet bars, granite bathrooms, luxurious designer bed linens, plasma TVs, wi-fi, leopard patterned rugs, and padded leather lounges perfect for reading that paperback you’ve longed to finish.

The upscale and sophisticated décor belies the fact that the resort is made-to-order for kids. Just outside our door was a patio lanai where I could relax and watch my four-year-old play in the sand a few feet away. We could walk everywhere on the property, or hitch a ride with the friendly attendants cruising the resort in golf carts. We rented bikes, with my son pedaling behind me on a tandem-like trailer, to explore the 44-acres grounds and sites, including a lookout tower with 360-degree views of the resort’s lush tropical gardens and its one-mile expanse of beach.

Kid’s Paradise

SeaWorld Adventure Park has plenty of wildlife shows and several thrill rides that kids love, especially if they don’t mind getting wet. (Photo by K. Pearson Brown)

Besides the beach, other great attractions for families and kids are Paradise Point’s Island Adventure Club, a day camp offered during peak season which includes arts and crafts, treasure hints, seaside frolic, nature walks and other activities. The whole family can enjoy “Dive-In” Movie Nights where guests watch films poolside or on floats. Ask any kid though and they will tell you the coolest thing about Paradise Point is building a bonfire at night in one of the fire pits along the beach and roasting s’mores. Don’t worry if you forget your supplies, as the Island Market sells s’more kits complete with sticks and bundles of logs.

It is no wonder Forbes.com designated the resort as one of the “Top Ten Family Resorts in the World.” Families can partake in abundance of exciting activities without leaving the island, earning the swimming in the five pools, mini-golf, sailing lessons, court sports, jet skiing or kayaking, one of the most popular attractions of the resort is its proximity to SeaWorld Adventure Park, just a five-minute drive, or guests can take Paradise Point’s own water taxi service to SeaWorld, bypassing the entrance lines and parking fees while touring beautiful Mission Bay en route.

Shamu Who?

Five pools give kids plenty to do, along with mini-golf, sailing, jet skiing, kayaking, and many other beach and water sports. (Photo by K. Pearson Brown)

My four-year-old loved his first trip to SeaWorld, though he was more exhilarated with the rides than shows. He got fidgety during Sea Lions Live, and he groaned when I suggested the Sesame Street show. I tried to convince him that seeing Shamu was a huge deal, but after a few minutes watching the famed killer whale swim in his aquarium, my son was tugging on my arm to go to the rides. I was leery after seeing other park guests in drenched clothes, but I was assured by those in line that as long as we avoided the front boat that we would not get soaked on Journey to Atlantis, unlike Shipwreck Rapids which was sure to be a bath. We rode a half dozen times, daring to ride in the front boat at last, which sure enough left us soaking wet. Luckily I was a prepared with extra clothes and shoes in my backpack.
Cheeseburgers and Sea Bass in Paradise

The marina at Barefoot Bar and Grill offers views of the marina on Mission Bay. (Photo by K. Pearson Brown)

Three eateries at Paradise Point offer distinct options. Barefoot Bar and Grill serves farm-fresh casual fare in an indoor or outdoor setting with spectacular views of the marina and bay, wonderful for a lazy morning of reading the newspaper, enjoying the early sun and watching the sail boats drift past. Tropics Bar and Grill at the main pool also offers salads, sandwiches and snacks along with a variety of refreshing drinks.

Bike rentals are available by the hour or day at the Island Market. (Photo by K. Pearson Brown)

Baleen is a family friendly fine dining restaurant with creative dishes of seafood and land cuisine. Entrees include a delicious Matcha Crusted White Sea Bass served with mascarpone polenta, wild mushrooms, sweet pea, tendrils, blistered tomatoes, cauliflower soup, chive oil and a micro salad, and a divine Angus Filet Mignon with Point Reyes blue cheese chive butter, truffled potato puree, asparagus and Cabernet sauce. My son opted for chicken quesadilla from his choices of sophisticated kid-size dishes, such as petit filet, soy-orange black tiger shrimp with pasta, or grilled wagyu burger, all made better with a side of Truffle Parmesan Fries, served in a stylish tall spiral basket deserved of the delicacy. For dessert, the treats on the menu looked fabulous, but for my son nothing could compete with s’mores we made later under the stars on the beach.

For more information on the resort and its offerings, go to www.paradisepoint.com

 

 

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in California

Story and Photos by Linda Kissam

a mountain relaxation retreat

There are all types of getaways. The choices are limitless…from big adventure to soft adventure, romantic to family, glamping to camping. The key to getting it right is understanding what your heart and soul needs. Is it downtime you crave, or do want to scale a mountain, or maybe you just need time to listen to your “creative” without distractions? I call this last kind of getaway, Going Away To Go Within. If you’re an artist of any kind you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Mountain Artist Retreat

Occasionally, we need to pause – step away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. One way to do this is to get away from our daily life and go on a getaway that is a mixture of retreat and vacation. A Dorland Mountain Arts Colony Getaway integrates some traditional aspects of seclusion with some more modern traits of a vacation. Far more than a vacation, this artist couple’s getaway offers time to rest, reflect, and renew your creative spirit. It allows time to slow down, breathe in and breathe out so that you can emerge renewed, refreshed, and ready to pursue your creative passions with a new found perspective. Think time for reconnecting with your creative self to produce something of merit, with a splash of soft adventure to remind you what uncomplicated “fun” is all about. It’s that “ah” moment; the convergence of the exact right place, with just the right people, with just the right level of activity.

Music retreat in California

You’ll find Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Southern California, about 90 minutes from San Diego or Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit artist’s community set on 300 acres along a ridge overlooking the Temecula Valley. The Colony covers about 10 acres with the rest of the land left in its natural state. It also happens to be just 10 minutes from the trendy Temecula Valley Wine Country. The mission of Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is to provide a unique working and performance retreat fostering creativity, and a community connection to the creative process, in a secluded natural setting. They do this by offering a unique residency program in their two self-contained cottages that can accommodate up to two people per cottage. Residencies are intended as professional development opportunities for writers, composers, visual artists and most other artistic media’s. So whether you’re trying to finish your latest book, compose a new song, paint a masterpiece, or do some serious scrapbooking, this is the place for you. And you can do it for about $250.

Cottages rent out for a minimum of one week at $250 a week. Artists must apply to stay at the retreat. Artistic merit and promise are the basis for selections. Mature and emerging artists are encouraged to apply. Applicants 21 and over may apply. It’s an easy online application that starts your adventure. You’ll need to give about 2 weeks to 30 days for confirmation of acceptance.

Artist Retreat in California

Once accepted, Residents are housed in individual, furnished, small cottages with complete kitchens, one bedroom with full bath, a great room with a wood burning stove (wood is furnished by Dorland), and a veranda or porch with magnificent mountain, canyon or Temecula Valley views. Residents structure their own time and activities. Residents may choose to maintain their privacy or to engage with other residents and activities at Dorland. In order to protect individual privacy, residents are encouraged to communicate with each other by leaving messages in mailboxes located by Dorland’s gazebo and Reflection Pond. Residents are responsible for their own personal living expenses, food, beverages, supplies, telephone and expenses related to the production of their work during the residency.

Dorland Moutain Retreat

I’ve visited Dorland several times. The residents come for the distraction free environment – the beauty, the inspirational moments…and the occasional outing to fine wine, dining and gaming. Dedicated sessions to their craft, long nature walks on the property, and the occasional trip to the lush green vineyards, wineries, a nearby glitzy casino (Pechanga Resort & Casino), and small town amenities seem to be the key to the success of this artist getaway.

Check out www.TemeculaNightOut.com for a complete listing of what to do, where to eat, and where to go in the Temecula.

Wine retreat and Artist Residency

Some of my favorite “must do’s” are Thornton Winery & Café Champagne, , Hart Winery, Keyways Winery, Tesoro Winery , The Temecula Olive Oil Company (ranch and store), Rosa’s Cantina, and Baily’s Bar & Grill and Fine Dining. If you go into Old Town (a mixture of tasting rooms, antique shops, dining, and more) be sure to plan at least 2-3 hours. New food & wine tours, as well as historic walking tours are available.

Without the pull of deadlines, relationships, the Internet and other media, you and a partner can give yourselves the gift of time and reflection. Hopefully, when you return home, you can take a little bit of this time alone back with you creating the space for deep reflection, a creative life renewed , ready to take on the world.

Desert Hot Springs, California: Spas, Mineral Soaks & Soleil Chilled Avocado Soup with Tomato Salsa

Pics & Story by Linda Kissam

Desert Hot Springs, CAIt’s a shame that not much has been written about Desert Hot Springs near Palm Springs, Ca. I am not sure if those who know about it don’t want others to be “in” on the values and fun of it all or the press just hasn’t discovered it yet. One thing for sure, this is one of those wonderful USA holidays that hasn’t yet been ‘discovered’.

No matter, I’ve been there, experienced its rich treasures, and am here to tell you – it’s a great place to relax and rejuvenate. It’s hasn’t wrapped itself in the glitz and glamour cloak of its neighbor Palm Springs yet, but …it can certainly hold its own until that time comes and is worthy of a 3-day stay. If you’re the kind of traveler who can appreciate the raw essence of a natural jewel, this is the place for you.

Desert Hot Springs is built over one of the world’s finest natural hot mineral water aquifers. Naturally occurring mineral waters bubble to the surface making this a mineral bath and spa destination. There are over 22 unique (many family owned and operated) inns where you can Zen out, relaxing in polished marble resorts, retro-hip motels, clothes optional, or dog friendly retreats.

Desert Hotsprings, CAAlmost every inn has spa treatments available on property, so you can just roll from the comfy rooms, to the pool, to the mineral baths, to the spa treatments. No need to bring your own stash of designer bottled water as the city boasts pure and delicious award-winning municipal drinking water.

I’d forgotten how good the health benefits of mineral-rich, hot springs can feel. Mineral waters around the world are famous for their healing attributes, and Desert Springs is no slacker in this department. What a treat to experience stress relieving natural heat, while minerals absorbed through my skin rejuvenating my body. Ready to relieve sore muscles and treat the stiffness that accompanies arthritis, the water in Desert Hot Springs is rich in silica leaving the skin soft and smooth.

This destination is perfect for some serious alone time, girlfriend getaways, or some romantic rejuvenation. There are a variety of inns to choose from. My favorites (including a refreshing recipe) are below, but whatever you’re looking for…it’s here for you.

Desert HotspringsAqua Soleil: This was my host hotel for two days. Savvy General Manager Sabine Pollerman welcomed me with open arms. I must say the ground floor suite she assigned me was amazing. Just imagine your own mammoth Jacuzzi in your suite. By count I think I could have gotten at least 10 people in it. Also, lots of space to work on the computer or lounge on the couch. If I were writing a book, I’d like to start or end it here. The grounds were immaculate and inviting with a large swimming pool, two Jacuzzi’s and inviting well-kept outdoor conversation areas. Sabine tells me that her goal for her guests is for them, “To relax, refresh, and leave with abundant energy to return to their normal life.” The on property spa offers a variety of treatments and uses the upscale Body Deli products. Think Blueberry Fusion Micro-Scrub. Sabine encourages potential guests to check the property’s Web site for specials, and to call front desk manager “Ella” for any daily deals not shown on the Web site.

Desert Hotsprings, CAEl Morocco Inn & Spa: A Moroccan inspired luxury inn in Desert Hot Springs, CA. run by owner Bruce Abney , one of the most gregarious inn keepers I have ever met. A day here is not only going to provide relaxation via the natural hot mineral water pool and spa, but when the evening rolls around… charm and deliciousness is the order of the evening. Between the delightful Bruce and the Inn’s signature cocktail, “The Morocco-tini” you’ll be raising a glass to pure relaxation. And hey…make sure you ask Bruce for the Sultan’s Tent Tour

Dog Spa Resort: This is an inn created from the ground up for dog lovers. Dogs vacation free with their owners. The owner and inn keeper are outstanding guardians; you’re going to love this place. No size limits or breed restrictions. Soak, swim, and rejuvenate in some of the world’s finest hot mineral waters.

Desert Hotsprings, CADoes it get any better? Yup! The pet nanny is on duty from 12 – 6pm to care for dog guests while you play off site. The rooms are large, clean and gorgeous. All you have to do is pack your bag, grab your significant others and get ready for a unique experience.

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Soleil Chilled Avocado Soup with Tomato Salsa
The recipe serves 8-12
Compliments of Aqua Soleil

Ingredients

6 large ripe avocados, peeled and seeded
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
6 spring onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups yogurt

Salsa —

4 ripe tomatoes, deseeded
2 seedless cucumbers, deseeded
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sweet chili sauce
4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Desert HotspringsChop avocados roughly, leaving 1/4 cup for the salsa. Place in a food processor with lime juice, garlic, spring onions, cumin and stock – puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Add yogurt and blend for 30 seconds. Chill soup until ready to serve.

For the tomato salsa, finely dice tomatoes and cucumber, then combine with the remaining avocado left from the soup. Stir in spring onion, lime juice, sweet chili sauce and chopped cilantro.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with a small amount of salsa.

Exploring California’s Golden Triangle – Gold, Startups, Agriculture, and Wine

California is known as the Golden State for a good reason – the gold rushes of California pulled an estimated $20-$40 billion dollars worth of the precious metal from the rivers, rocks, and streams of the state.
2013-05-04 13.44.32Some of the greatest fortunes in the world were built with that gold, but that wasn’t all California had to offer. Today the state is home to Google, Facebook, Oracle, Apple and many other tech giants. The aerospace and space industries laid a solid groundwork here. The golden state is also a breadbasket for fruits, vegetables, and livestock. There’s also oil in them thar hills and offshore rigs with massive reserves that are currently untapped. And let’s see – a little thing called Hollywood which generates huge profits. California – if it were a country, would have the world’s 12th largest gross domestic product at a massive $1.9 trillion. That puts it in about the same range as India, Russia, or Australia – not bad for one state out of 50!

California capital

 

In fact, California provides nearly 15% of the USA’s annual GDP! California is the third largest and most important wine producing region in the world (after France and Italy) and ‘California cuisine’ is now a fact of life nearly everywhere on the planet. Fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Panda Express were all founded in California – there is no mistaking the impact this region has had on the world. Perhaps instead of globalization, people should refer to Californization of the world! Our own journey is still only just beginning.

San Francisco Skyline

We started in San Francisco, took a quick trip North to Redding to visit my mother, and then we landed in Sacramento – home of the original gold findings at Sutter’s Mill. We’ve been house sitting for a little under two weeks and this gig is just coming to a close as our first month in the USA. From Sacramento we will head back to San Francisco and then make our way North along the Pacific Coast. If all goes according to plan we should be in Seattle and Washington State sometime during the perfect weather of summer.

Here are a few of the highlights from our explorations thus far in Sacramento: Folsom, California – while Folsom is mostly known for the prison of the same name thanks to the late, great Johnny Cash, this little suburb of Sacramento has a lot to offer with a small train musuem, an enjoyable history museum, and a cute little old town filled with reasonably priced antique shops. Nearby is Folsom lake which was created when Folsmo Dam was built in the 1950’s.

Folsom Prison Blues

And – I forgot to mention the microchip and processor industry above – but Intel has their headquarters in Folosm.

Sacramento’s Old Town and Sac History Museum The Sacramento Farmer’s Market The California Museum of History California State Capital and Garden McKinley Park Rose Garden and Pond were also pretty incredible. One of the sad things coming back to the world of car culture is seeing the effect it has on wildlife…this raccoon, however, was obviously living the good life before he got hit by that big truck in the sky…

racoon road kill

 

First published May 14, 2013

Disney on a Dime in Time: Getting the Most from Your Disneyland Visit

Disneyland Tips and Ideas
Arrive at the park when it opens, and use FASTPASS to reduce your time spent waiting in lines. Credit: K. Pearson Brown

 

Story and Photos by K. Pearson Brown

A trip to Disneyland can be expensive, with the lowest price SoCal resident one-day, one-park tickets starting at $81 for kids 3-9 years old. Admission is only one cost. There’s gas, meals, snacks and souvenirs, and if you plan to stay overnight, the cost of a hotel.

Hotels Near Disneyland

In order to truly enjoy your visit and not worry about money, figure out which elements of your trip are worth splurging on for you and your family, plan ahead to help defray costs, and then just have fun.

If you have the buckage, staying at one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels is the way to go. The Disneyland Hotel, The Grand California Hotel & Spa and the Paradise Pier Hotel are all fabulous and carry over the Disney brand of extreme hospitality and spirit in décor, ambient music and other touches, and there are added perks, like Magic Hour early admission and a private park entrance. All three Disney hotels also have great pools and waterslides.

Keeping Cool in California
The Anaheim Hilton Hotel has many amenities for families such as a kids water feature a Disney Desk at the hotel. Credit: Courtesy Anaheim Hilton

The Disneyland Resort site (http://disneyland.disney.go.com/)  features a number of packages that slightly discount Disney hotels plus admission tickets and dining options.
You can save a lot by staying off-Disney, at one of the partner hotels, which offer much lower room rates.

The nearby big convention hotels have a more corporate ambience, but hotels such as the Hilton Anaheim Hotel , with room rates starting at $94, cater to Disneyland visitors with child-friendly features, such as a terrific water feature at the hotel pool and an on-site Disney Desk staffed by resort cast members. The Hilton is also walking distance from the park, if you are a sturdy walker, or you can hitch a free shuttle bus across the street to the park that will drop you off right at the park entrance.

Eating Cheap at Disneyland
You can save on meals by shopping at a local supermarket and eating at a complimentary picnic area just outside the park’s main entrance. Credit: K. Pearson Brown

Count on food at the park being expensive. Entrees at the restaurants are pretty generous, so you can share if you have a modest appetite. If you are really hungry, the all-you-want-to-enjoy buffets are a pricey but satisfying option, and some offer character dining, such as at Goofy’s Kitchen, where the characters come by to hang with you at your table – which can be a two-fer option if you don’t want to wait in line at the park to pose with characters for photos. If you are on a tight budget for meals, dining outside the park offers the usual cheap fast-food and moderately priced casual dining options, or if you can shop at the local supermarket and eat at the complimentary picnic area just outside the main entrance. No outside food or beverage is allowed in the park, and security does search your bags when you enter.

It will cost you a little sleep but no extra money to get in more Disney by arriving when the park opens so you can maximize your visit. Lines are shorter for the first hour or so, so head to the attractions that historically have the longer lines, which are generally the rides that feature FASTPASS, which is also a great program to take advantage of to reduce your time waiting in lines.

Dining at Disneyland
Character dining options feature all-you-can-enjoy meals and an opportunity for photos with characters, without standing in line at the park. Credit: K. Pearson Brown

The themed merchandise at the shops is tempting, so set a budget for yourself and the kids each day. Use gift cards or Disney Dollars to enforce the limit. Once the allowance is gone, that’s it. Better yet, tell the kids that you are saving the last hour of the last day for shopping, so you can stave off the constant pleas for souvenirs at every turn.
Lastly, be prepared. Take along extra batteries, a change of clothes and towel for wet rides, and a sweatshirt or jacket for when the sun goes down, so you don’t end up buying these things at the park.

And remember, don’t feel deprived just to save yourself a few bucks. Budget in one or two spontaneous purchases, and enjoy the Happiest Place on Earth without regret.

Trees of Mystery – A Northern California Coast Roadside Attraction featuring Giant Testicles

I’ve never been one to pass by a roadside attraction – many of them disappoint – but not Trees of Mystery in Klamath, California.

I remember visiting it as a child when my family went camping in the Redwoods – the giant fifty-foot statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe made an impression that never went away…so when I got the chance to take my family there – of course I did not demure, even though an ox is generally castrated and Babe has the largest pair of testicles in North America (I’m guessing). There is a control room inside Bunyan that allows an operator to move the head and arm and interact with guests…rumor has it that there is a sign inside that forbids asking women for their phone numbers – probably something that would be a huge temptation for a teenager working a summer job.
Trees of Mystery
Founded in 1931, this historic redwood landmark about 35 miles south of the Oregon border was first conceived as a natural history park, but the addition of the two giant statues turned it firmly into a roadside attraction.The first Paul Bunyan statue was made in Long Beach California and melted in the rain after only a season. and the The second, at a mere 24 feet tall was designed and built by the park’s owner, Ray Thompson and lasted until 1962. It wasn’t until 1951 that Babe the Blue Ox joined Paul and the current 49 foot statue of Bunyan came on the scene in 1962. The statues get you to stop, but there is more to Trees of Mystery.
trees of mystery
Inside the gigantic gift shop, your admission ticket will also get you into their gigantic collection of Native American artifacts. It is one of the largest private ethnographic collections of Native American dress, tools, and art in California. For me, the museum collection was worth the price of admission and the actual attraction itself, the winding trail through the Trees of Mystery (aka impressive very old Redwoods) was a bonus. The last part of the trail has recordings and carvings which recount the many tall tales of America’s most famous lumberjack (Paul Bunyan, in case you don’t know) and his many exploits. Bunyan was a sort of Maui demigod who harnessed forces of nature.
trees of mystery
Finally, don’t pass the Gondola ride through the trees to a glorious view of the Pacific – it’s worth the cost, because seriously, when are you going to do it again? Finally…is Trees of Mystery a tourist trap? Absolutely…and you shouldn’t miss it – at least once in your life…and by the way…the fudge in the gift shop is pretty good too.

Old Pasadena Walking Food Tour A Melting Pot of Flavors

Pasadena Food TourStory by Linda Kissam for Vagobond.com

What could be better than to taste your way through historic Old Town Pasadena, California?

Thanks to the popularity and growth of food-obsessed walking tours and local Melting Pot Food Tours (based in Southern California) tourists, visitors, and locals can get to know the unique culinary neighborhood that makes up this special city.

On a beautiful June weekend morning, Melting Pot Tours treated a team of press people to an unforgettable 3-hour, 1.5 mile epicurean excursion to enjoy some of the best off the beaten path artisanal restaurants and unique shops in heart of Old Pasadena.

The tour group met in front of a local wine store and was made up of about 10 people from all kinds of places, ages, and walks of life. The tour started promptly with a quick explanation of the day’s itinerary. The walking pace and amount of information given was perfect. My group especially appreciated that owner/tour guide Lisa kept us on task and on schedule. We never felt rushed, but neither did we feel bored at any time.

Pasadena Food TourOld Pasadena is well known for its food. Delicacies of every variety can be found throughout the city, from dim sum to truffles. Our tour took us to an eclectic mixture of nine great shops, cafes, and restaurants. Each tour is different so you can go multiple times and experience something different each time. Ours took us to an old-world boutique chocolate shop, an award-winning gelato shop, an authentic Mexican torta café, a Mediterranean café serving crispy falafel balls, an edgy Asian fusion restaurant (the group’s favorite stop of the day), an exquisite olive store, a delightful family-owned and operated Peruvian style restaurant, a gourmet tea and herb shop—complete with a tea bar- and an upscale soap shop. If there’s one thing the owners of Melting Pot Tours know—it’s good food!

Pasadena Food TourEach place was thoughtfully chosen to be unique and probably not something I would have found on your own. In my opinion Melting Pot delivered on its promise, “…to entertain and educate locals and visitors alike.” At just $53 (adults) and $28 (children) this is the bargain of the century. I’ve taken similar food walking tours for double and triple the price.

A walking food tour is appropriate for almost anyone, but is best suited to adults with a curiosity about local food, architecture and history. The dining experience will provide enough food to satisfy any appetite. Water is the only beverage served, but you can purchase other beverages if you like. My advice is to wear sun block, comfortable shoes and a hat if it’s a hot day. No time has been set aside for shopping, so you’ll most likely have to go back on your own time if you see a special treasure you want. The route is flat, but if you have knee or hip issues, the course will be a challenge for you. Each stop is less than 10 minutes from the next one and you will be spending about 20 minutes or so at each stop.

Pasadena Food TourTours are given year round (except major holidays). Guides are patient, knowledgeable and engaging. Most are day tours, although April – October an evening tour is added on. Feel free to join an already organized group or you can book a private tour with 10 or more people. Advance tickets are required. So come hungry and be excited about the Old Pasadena Walking Tour, as you eat your way through the best restaurants, and shop your way through some of the most unique shops in the diverse, best tasting city in Southern California, Old Pasadena.

Once you finish your foodie tour, think about strolling back over to the Everson Royce (ER) wine shop and tasting bar (named for owner Randy Clement’s two twin boys). The shop is located across from Memorial Park where the food tour started. April Langford and Randy Clement have created a shop that offers small production, high quality, artisanal wines …and a few surprises. For starters, there’s draft wine – from an eight-tap dispenser to be exact. You can find that treat in the tasting section of the wine shop. The taps dispense four California reds (cooled to 60 degrees) and also four California whites (cooled to 43 degrees). Wines change often, but look forward to small lot beauties such as Butternut Chard, Blue Plate Chenin Blanc, Andrew Lane Merlot, and Hobo Zin.

Pasadena Food TourYou can find owner Randy Clement there on most days. You can feel his driving energy and passion for exceptional customer service and value. He also seems to have a knack for choosing the right staff. As Randy told me, “It’s all about customer service; we want to kill our customers with kindness.” I can confirm that. My experience is that the staff is attentive, knowledgeable and engaging.

Once you’ve finished your tasting, there’s a large selection – about 500 bottles – to choose from, from just about everywhere. Prices run from $7 – $2,000 a bottle. Special orders are welcome. Think eastern European wines, Italian, French, Spanish and lots of California wines showcasing whatever you can think of from varietals to blends. Be sure to ask for your 10% off discount off as a participant in the Melting Pot Tour experience.

Until you’re able to take the tour, here’s a quick and refreshing recipe from our first stop Tortas Mexico to tide you over. It was a group favorite.

Watermelon Agua Fresca
Compliments of Tortas Mexico Pasadena
www.TortasPasadena.com

Tortas Mexico Pasadena offers an authentic casual dining experience with recipes from the owner’s homeland of San Juan Yucuita in the Nochixtlan District of Oaxaca. They use only the freshest ingredients and each food item is made to order.

Serves 6

This light, refreshing drink popularized in Mexico is a terrific thirst quencher on a hot summer day. The trick with making agua fresca (Spanish for “fresh water”) is to infuse the water with fruit essence without turning it into a smoothie or slushy drink. Feel free to experiment with other flavors such as strawberry, mango, cantaloupe and honeydew.

Ingredients

6 to 8 pounds seedless watermelon, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups cold water, divided
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon honey (more or less to taste)
Ice cubes

Method

Cut the watermelon flesh from the rind. In a blender, process half the watermelon pieces with 1 cup of water until smooth. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher. Repeat the process with the remaining melon and water. You should end up with about 8 cups of juice. Stir in the lime juice and honey. Pour into ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime slices and mint.

160 calories per serving

The Ultimate Adult Pit Stop at Bravo Farms in Traver, California

Article by Linda Kissam for Vagobond

Bravo FarmsThere’s a lot to be said for the adult “pit stop” on a road trip. Long after the kids have left the backseat empty and are on to their own adventures, there comes a time when adults pile in a car and are off on their own wild escapades. No longer is there the constant whining in the van of, “Are we there yet?” Now, just a mild war cry “Is it wine time yet?” floats melodically through the Mercedes.

The most interesting pit stop I’ve experienced lately is at Exit 106 on Highway 99 at Traver, California. Somewhere on my San Francisco to Porterville road trip I discovered Bravo Farms. I’ve heard it described as a “…small, enhanced Knott’s Berry Farm without the entrance fee.” Maybe. I thought more of a casual Bristol Farms or Whole Foods in a sprawling barn kind of atmosphere. I think it just depends on whether you bring kids or not. We didn’t, so I am sticking with a casual gourmet barn kind of experience.

Bravo Farms could be classified as a tourist destinations so don’t forget to bring your camera and a working credit card. You’re going to find wine, cheese and produce shops. There’s also hundreds, if not thousands of antiques. Get ready to cruise the aisles for old artifacts: barrels, antique advertising signs, bicycles, meat grinders, and so forth. What you may think of as a 30 minute stop will surely whirl its way into a 2-hour extravaganza.

Since my roadies were looking for wine we started at the wine tasting bar. The wine shop is stocked to the gills with hundreds of wines – some local and some not so local. The wine bar is not always open but when they’re pouring enjoy the experience of pre-selected wine and expect to leave with bottles of terrific local wines that qualify as true liquid gems. A slight wine tasting charge is in play, but don’t fret, you’ll get your money’s worth.

There’s also a cheese factory where you can watch cheese being made and a cheese bar where you can sample several different types at your own pace. I liked everything they offered. The chipotle cheddar was tasty, with rich smoky overtones and a nice hit of spiciness. Their sage cheddar surprised me with its herbal notes. I bet it would be magic melted onto toasty slices of artisan bread, olive bread, or a plain French baguette slice. The sharp aged cheddar was also magnificent. Yup, you guessed it…a whole lot of cheese went into our car’s cooler in preparation for a great cheese and wine pairing that night.

Bravo FarmsHaving had our fill of wine and cheese we were off to discover the grocery store area. We found local nuts and olives from the valley, along with an endless assortment of gourmet food including a cold case of prepackaged items. We lingered a bit at the unique nostalgic memorabilia and reproduction signs, greeting cards, seasonal items and garden décor. It was easy to find a gift and score more tasty treats for the road. This is exactly what an adult pit stop should be.

All this sampling primed us for lunch. There’s a couple of ways to go. A stop at the indoor/outdoor 99 restaurant is a good idea. A mix of lively Mexican style dishes as well as Americana staples like sandwiches and burgers are there to please. Or visit the interior patio area for some rocking lip smacking BBQ. I liked the festive picnic atmosphere and the prices were reasonable for the food offered. Leo’s BarBQ is perfect some of the best, slow cooked Tri-Tip or BBQ Chicken roadside stop sandwiches ever. Expect a line…but it moves pretty fast, and its well worth the wait.

Ending our visit we mozied (more like waddled) over to the ice cream shoppe. If creamy ice cream, date shakes, or coffee/lattes/espressos are your thing, it’s a great final stop. It certainly was for us.

If you find yourself with children, these added features will enhance their visit.

Bravo Farms7 Story tree House: 25 cent admission…entered in the Guiness Book of World Records as the Tallest Real Tree House. The kids can climb and climb.

Petting Zoo: A multitude of smaller animals like donkeys, hens and flying rats is sure to amaze and amuse you the kids. For 25 cents, get a handful of grain to feed the animals. You may just get the best parent / grandparent award.

Mini Golf: 9 old time golf holes…some easy, some not so easy. $4round…if the kids get a hole in one on #9, they get a free round and you’ll have time for another bite of cheese.

Shootin’ Gallery: One of the most advanced interactive “shootin” galleries anywhere

Resources

Bravo Farms: http://www.bravofarmstraver.com

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