Sleeping in Napa Valley

The first time I visited Napa, over President’s Day Weekend in 2008, I became enamored.

The lush, green rolling hills. The yellow blossoms of mustard carpeting the ground not occupied by vineyards. The gorgeous and grandeous wineries. The trailer wineries. The Napa area immediately captured me and held my interest well beyond the days I spent drinking wine.

In the years since I first visited, Napa was never too far from my mind. I had met Kiran Patel, the owner of Chardonnay Lodge, on my first trip to the town.

My best friend from childhood, Becca, and I had decided to stay at her property and were quickly taken with how adorable it was. And Kiran, well, she was just wonderful. When Becca and I checked in, she enthusiastically greeted us and took us on a tour of the rooms. They were in the process of being renovated, and Kiran was not only the owner of the lodge, but also the interior decorator.

“Each room has a theme,” she explained, ushering us in and out of a few of them. “And all of the paintings on the walls are original …”

“They are beautiful,” we had both commented.

She smiled. “I painted them.”

Wow.

Over the years, Kiran and I stayed in touch. I helped her with some PR, and she always offered a room for my next visit to Napa.

Of course, when Abby, Kristin and I were planning our Napa leg of the adventure, Chardonnay Lodge and Kiran came up in my mind first.

I messaged Kiran the night we bought our tickets, and she graciously offered us a room.

After an afternoon of leisurely sipping champagne and wine around Napa, the three of us pulled into Chardonnay Lodge.

From the outside, the place is unassuming … easy to miss, except for the  statue of a girl in the front lawn thick with roses, and the little vineyard on the side of the road. It looks like a motel, but, the interior of the rooms … so beautiful. So lovingly created with little touches of comfort and home (I totally dig the complimentary bottles of water and granola bars placed in baskets in each of the rooms.)

Kiran was out of town, but her husband checked us in. We were in the last room on one side, the Paris Room. Outside our door was a cute little iron bistro table and chairs set-up, next to the vineyard thick with bushels of green grapes.

So. Cute.

Inside, we were greeted with a king bed, two flat screen televisions, a huge jacuzzi tub and, the perfect touch, a hand-painted mural of the Eiffel Tower on the wall.

It was charming, unique, even more luxurious than I had remembered.

The three of us unwound for a little bit before we decided to venture out to Oxbow Market for some wine, cheese and more wine.

It IS Napa after all.

Americas Blog California Reviews

Napa, wine and girlfriends

I was raised on Manischewitz, so I like to think it is a miracle I like wine.

I remember very well the too sweet, too sugary grape “wine” I used to drink growing up in a (not really) Jewish family … the Friday night Shabbat dinners; the bar/bat mitzvahs; Passover with the four glasses. In fact, the first time I was ever buzzed was thanks to the purple stuff.

In my early 20s, my friends and I drank wine because we thought it was “grown up.” Except, we would get those huge wine goblets (think Courtney Cox’s monster glass on “Cougar Town”) and dump a bottle into two glasses. I couldn’t tell you if it tasted good or bad. If we were drinking $2 or $20 wine. I wasn’t drinking it to enjoy it. I was drinking it to get a little bit saucy.

OK, a lot saucy.

Fast-forward to my mid- and late-20s. Suddenly, I realized wine is good. It should be enjoyed. It pairs well with breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and, best of all, moments. Some of my best memories in my late 20s are sitting outside in the Las Vegas night, sipping wine with my friends, just talking about life.

Today, oh, I love my wine. Like LOVE. Yeah, I’m on a budget, so you won’t see my buying any super expensive bottles, but, I never turn a good glass of wine down.

In fact, some of the best “grape juice” I’ve had has been from the gorgeous Napa Valley.

Thankfully, Abby and Kristin also happen to like wine, so our trip to Napa this go ’round was full of yummy tastings and general awesomeness.

Our first stop?

Domaine Chandon.

 

The entrance to Domaine Chandon

OK, so we didn’t drink wine. We drank the bubbly, light, crisp and super fine champagne. But, still. It was delicious. The largest facility of the three vineyards we visited, Domaine Chandon offers a wide range of champagnes for the tasting (and the buying). They also make still red and whites, but we stuck with what they do best for this tasting.

The winery is set on a gorgeous plot of land, complete with pond, tasting room and restaurant, etoile, which offers dishes that are perfect for pairings, and a large outdoor terrace. If you have time, check out the rotating art exhibits around the property.

The three of us purchased our $20 three-course champagne tasting and headed for a seat in the early afternoon sun. We sat for a good hour-plus, sipping and chatting. Of course, while I was there, I ran into people I knew from my previous amateur wine drinking days of yore. From Maryland.

 

One of the gorgeous trees on Domaine Chandon's terrace

Thanks to my boss, the next winery we were scheduled to hit was Caymus to have a private tasting. We had about 30 minutes between the Chandon and Caymus and drove down the hand-crafted iron gates of Peju.

“Oooo,” I breathed, looking out the window at the gorgeous countryside and wineries, “Peju is supposed to be really good.”

We pulled in to determine if it is possible to go through a tasting in under 30. It could be done.

Napa Tasting #2: Peju.

 

The beautiful Peju entrance

Unlike other wineries I have been to, we waited with others in a bright and airy room, and then were ushered into a gorgeous tasting room with stained glass windows and a gift shop. The tasting was more of a presentation, with a staff member who was ridiculously knowledgeable about the wines (as he should be). We tried four wines and I think its pretty safe to say, both Abby and I really liked what we tasted.

I don’t like Merlot, but damn. The Peju Merlot was fantastic. Of course, I had to purchase it.

Then, we rushed on to Caymus and were sent straight to the private tasting room where a representative guided us thorough four tastings.

 

The rustic Caymus winery

And, another bottle was purchased.

At that point, it was about 4 p.m. and we needed to add some food to the day, so we headed to a roadside burger joint for hot dogs, grilled cheese, milkshakes and general yum.

The three wineries we went to, I loved.

I would also recommend the following wineries for additional tasty Napa goodness:

Darioush: This place is palatial. I wore jeans and a little sporty jacket, but would have felt more comfortable wearing something a bit more dressy. It is gorgeous. And, so are the wines.

Black Stallion: Rustic atmosphere and lots of natural lighting inside. The wines are great, and the staff is really friendly.

Chimney Rock: I liked the wines from Black Stallion more, but this winery scored major points for its gorgeous courtyard and grounds. Little touches like trickling fountains, towering trees and plenty of ground to have a picnic, make it one of my favorites to go for some relaxation. And good wine.

What’s your favorite winery in the Napa region?

 

Americas Blog California Travel

The San Francisco Foodgasm: Off the Grid

Living in Las Vegas means there are tons of amazing food options. You name it, we’ve got it. Five-star restaurants. Michelin rated. Celeb chefs with numerous outlets across town. But, what we don’t have a lot of is food trucks.

Yes, there are some. Las Vegas has, what you could say, a burgeoning street food scene. But, step outside of Las Vegas and into another city, and holy. cow. The street food options are overwhelming.

Abby, Kristin and I had planned on having a low-cost San Francisco/Napa weekend. Before Abby and I even stepped foot on the amazing Virgin flight, we had discussed, at length, our dining options for the weekend.

We were for sure hitting: Oxbow Market in Napa. And, Off the Grid in San Francisco.

I’ve never really been into the street food scene, mostly because I work in the back of a restaurant and I eat, sleep and breathe restaurant food. But, this … this street food orgy, sounded pretty fantastic.

It started with a conversation between us and the awesome blogger, Spencer Spellman, a recent newbie to San Fran. His goal? To eat his way through the food trucks at Off the Grid.

Naturally, we decided to join him on this adventure.

The day of our flight, also the day of Off the Grid, Abby and I were messaging each other back and forth. Apparently, the weather in San Francisco was not what we were used to in Las Vegas.

Low 60s. Drizzle. Which, in Las Vegas/desert life translates into “holy shit, it’s f#$%ing cold.”

“What do we wear? What does 60 degree weather even feel like?” We asked each other.

“It’s soooo cold.” We lamented.

So, when we finally arrived to town, the clouds were thick and the threat of rain hung in the air.

Abby pulled her winter coat tighter, and  I, clad only in jeans, Chucks and a cardigan, wondered what the hell I was thinking when I packed.

Quick enough, Kristin was at the BART station to pick us up and drive us over to our hotel, the historic and palatial Fairmont Hotel.

We quickly re-grouped. I grabbed a sweater. Then, we headed down to grab a tiki cocktail with some PR ladies from the hotel. And then, it was getting late. And we were hungry.

The three of us headed over to the marina and Fort Mason, where we were greeted with the ultimate street food festival.

Our first stop: The Taco Guys

Yes, we had heard about it. But, what we encountered was immense.

An entire huge parking lot was converted into a food festival. Trucks. Tents. Smells. Plates. In all about 30 trucks were parked there offering just about everything under the sun.

Off the Grid, founded by Matt Cohen, is a rotating street food market. Monday through Saturday, it stops in various locations across the city, with anywhere from a few to a little more than 10 food trucks. But, Friday night is the Grand Daddy of all Off the Grid’s. It’s when people flock to the street food scene. The love the city feels for the event is apparent.

Entry is free, and then it’s a free-for-all. Want tacos? No problem. How about a new drink concoction (I tried hibiscus cinnamon tea)? OK. Gourmet rotisserie? Cajun? Korean? Artisan burgers? Check. Check. Check. Then, there’s the desserts. Creme brulee. Cupcakes. Cakes.

You want it, Off the Grid has it.

Plus, there’s a beer and wine tent and live music.

Our group ended up being six total, and we took turns going to trucks and getting food for everyone to taste.

Somehow, between the mix of plates and wine, I tried duck.

On accident.

I have sworn up and down I would never eat the cute lil’ guys. Every night at work, I see them hanging, featherless, ready for consumption. And, I have just never been able to convince myself to try the game.

We were eating tacos, and they saved one for me. I rolled the meat around in my tongue.

“This … tastes … not like chicken,” I said.

Abby and Spencer looked at what I was holding. The not-chicken-colored-meat glared back at us.

“It’s my duck!” Abby exclaimed.

One of each

I washed it down with some red wine, then we headed over to the infamous creme brulee stand where Nutella strawberry and french vanilla with honey was being offered.

Of course, I had to sample both little bowls of yum.

Sinful.

And, then it was 10 p.m. and the stalls were closing.

We wrapped up our night with some drinks at a local Japanese restaurant, then Abby and I headed back to the Fairmont.

Stomachs full. Ready for our Napa leg of our whirlwind NoCal weekend.

 

 

Americas Blog California Nevada Reviews

I need an airplane ride

After my trip in May to Maryland, I had convinced myself I needed one more visit to see my family and friends before Thanksgiving. May to late November was simply too long to go without a Family Fix.

I hemmed and hawed for a bit, deciding dates, asking work if I could have a quick trip back to my hometown. I got the go from them, and then I pulled up flights.

Holy. Mother. Of. Pricey.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Gone were the flights of yesterday, when I could go one-way from Las Vegas to Baltimore for $99 on Southwest. A one-way ticket had nearly tripled since the last time I lived in Las Vegas, two years ago. $240 one-way.

No way.

I tried to figure out a way to get a cheaper fare. I looked at SkyScanner. I searched Kayak. I applied for a Southwest credit card to get my free 20,000 miles (which only gets you one-way). Finally, I decided it just wasn’t worth the hard-earned $500+ to go home for a few days.

That money could pay for an entire vacation.

Yes, I wanted to see my family. But, I also knew there was a good chance they would be out here again before I took my Thanksgiving trip. (As evidenced in July when Mom was in California.) So, I let the idea go.

But, I still wanted to go somewhere before my Big Trip in September. I was in the throws of the denouement of my Las Vegas Honeymoon, and wanted to get out for a little before I became engrossed in the panic that had begun to set in. The panic of being stationary.

It all happened so quickly.

One night, Abby, Kristin and I were having a conversation about blogger ethics. We’re talking 50+ threads on my Gmail before we said “goodnight.”

“We should have this conversation over wine,” one of us had suggested. I don’t remember which one of us had the brilliant idea. Knowing us, it is a 33% chance of any.

And then, the idea was born.

Napa. July.

Within 24 hours, Abby and I had gone back and forth, picked dates and booked flights. I messaged my friend who owns a cute little place, Chardonnay Lodge, in Napa that we were coming to visit. I had done some PR work for her years back in trade, and had yet to cash in on the trade.

We had a hotel for the Saturday we were going.

A few days later, Kristin messaged we were set for Friday’s accommodations.

And then, my boss was working to set us up for tastings at wineries.

Kristin began planning our Friday evening activities — a meet-up with another awesome travel blogger, Spencer — and some low-cost noshing at San Francisco’s weekly food truck festival, Off the Grid.

Justlikethat my July Wanderlust and need to get on an airplane was quenched.

Everyday for three weeks, I thought about the trip. About getting out of town. About a girlie weekend. About the fact that the same time last year I had met Abby in Istanbul.

This was the first trip I had been on in years that actually had some semblance of a plan. Was being taken simply because it was three friends (even if I had yet to meet Kristin in person) who wanted to hang out, drink wine and talk travel.

Another first? I was flying Virgin America.

Americas Blog California Travel

Hello, California. You are a lovely neighbor.

I have lived in Las Vegas for basically five years.

Sure, I had that year in Atlanta I like to refer to as the Catalyst for the Rest of my Life. And my career-break/adventure through Europe and Africa. But, basically, the place I have called home since 2005 is Las Vegas.

You’d think living in Las Vegas would mean I have explored beyond the world of resorts and desert.

You’d think.

Yes, I have hopped quickie flights to Los Angeles, San Diego and Monterrey, but never really took time to vacation next door in California. I never truly went anywhere simply to take in the beauty of the Pacific Coast, the lush wine region, the hills (and fog) of San Francisco.

Well, things have finally changed. This go-round in Vegas, I have learned how to drive in Southern California, which is really more like sitting in a parking lot and the creeping along as life passes you by, and fine-tune the art of cruise control on the I-15 to and from Las Vegas and LA.

And, finally, finally, I have ventured outside of Nevada sans passport and had some little adventures in Cali.

For two weekends in a row — yes, two weekends in a row — I left the heat of Las Vegas (spare me the “it’s not that bad, it’s a dry heat” comment … it’s like turning your hair dryer on high and blowing it in your face) and headed to the cooler climates housed in one of my new favorite states, California.

The first weekend jaunt came courtesy of my mom being in Newport Beach for a wedding. She was so close to me, I couldn’t not get in my car and drive out to see her. I wrapped my work week up early and headed southwest on a Friday to make a weekend out of it.

She didn’t arrive until Saturday, so the night before I met Shane in Orange County.

“Don’t worry, I have a hotel room. You can stay with me,” he assured me before I even got in my car.

Of course, the hotel room fell through so at 9 p.m. that night, he and I sat in my car while we tried to book a room. We settled on sharing a bed at a 2 1/2 star motel near where he was working for the weekend.

He tried to talk me into spending a few more dollars and staying in a nicer place.

“Nah,” I said. “Do you have any idea the crap I have stayed in when I was backpacking? This can’t be that bad.”

Ha.

We arrived and walked into the check-in room.

Bullet proof glass. Classy.

I couldn’t remember a place in Europe which featured that, uh, safety measure.

The room was OK, nothing great, but it was a place to sleep. Plus, there were no bed bugs, so I was pretty happy.

Then, the next day, I went and checked into the Newport Beach Fairmont, the complete opposite of our highway motel the night before. It was grand, with a marble-floored and airy lobby, plush seating, crisp white linens on the bed … beautiful.

I spent the afternoon with an old friend of mine wandering the streets of the beach town and parking ourselves on a bench overlooking the Pacific for awhile, catching up on life. Even the thick marine layer which had yet to burn off didn’t dampen my sheer joy of being in front of the ocean again. The cacti, the flowers spilling over walls, the bite in the air … it all soaked in, leaving me feeling content and happy. Happy to be with my friends. Happy to see my Mom. And happy to be somewhere other than what I was used to … somewhere free of the bells of the video poker machines, the smoke swirling in the air … the landlocked valley. It had been way too long since I had been outside of Nevada for pleasure. (And it has been way too long since I have been outside of America, but that’s another story coming soon.)

Then, it was time to pick-up Mom from the airport. Seeing my mom always makes everything all better. She has that calming effect on me. Sometimes, all I need from her is a hug and then all is right in the world.

After a stressful few weeks, Mom Time was exactly what I needed.

For exactly 24-hours, I was at her side. We caught up on life, ate, drank at the Fairmont bar, explored Laguna Beach, and then hugged good-bye.

I made it back to Sin City in record time for me. I was refreshed. Rejuvenated. Ready for the week … and the next weekend when I would head to San Francisco and Napa Valley with two of my favorite travel bloggers for a girlie weekend of awesome.


Americas Blog California Nevada Travel