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

Escape of the Week: Sunny Beach, Bulgaria

It has been just about one year since Abby and I bounced around Istanbul and Bulgaria together. Poor Abby saw the worst of me during this time — I was in the full clutches of Travel Fatigue, mixed with being sick.

We didn’t really have any set plans other than meeting in Istanbul. From there, we tried to do Eastern Euro Exotic. After doing a search for top Black Sea beaches, I came across Sunny Beach. If you’ve been to Sunny Beach … well … it is a beach. Whether it deserves the title of “best Black Sea beach” is another story (read my Sunny Beach experience).

It’s fun. It’s rowdy. It has an international flavor (I am pretty sure we heard more Scandinavian and Russian than Bulgarian). From the resorts lining the sandy beaches, to the all-night parties, to the boardwalk complete with little trinket shops, Sunny Beach is the ultimate let loose vacation spot in Bulgaria.

It may not have been my match, but it was certainly gorgeous. Especially when the sun started to sink in the green rolling hills.

Here, a parasailer catches the sunset from a different perspective: above the Black Sea

 

 

Bulgaria Destinations

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

Escape of the Week: The Colors of Portugal

I spent time in Portugal, but not quality time. Mostly because I was sick. And, then I was drunk , and then I was hungover.

Fortunately, there was at least one good day in the middle of my 10 or so days in the country when I was moderately healthy and totally sober.

I met a few girls in Lisboa and convinced them (thanks to the fantastic advice from Abby) to head to Sintra for a day-trip. The city did not disappoint. Curling up a hill, the city offers so many gorgeous colors, textures, and of course, a view of the ocean from many vantage points.

I love taking photos of buildings … especially in the coastal cities of Portugal, where the salty air mixes with the once-vibrant colors.

This is one of my favorites:

 

Destinations Portugal

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.

 

 

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Escape of the Week: Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, also known as Mısır Çarşısı, is one of those attractions visitors should put on their itineraries. Built in the 1660’s, the bazaar is one of those places which simply mesmerizes.

It’s crowded. The people inside stroll from each business, stopping to sample the Turkish Delights, to capture the images of the pops of color on display in the form of magenta and gold spices, dried flowers, stacks of homemade soaps, tea leaves and more. They chat with the shop owners and try to get a good deal on their purchases. Often times, the crowd spills to the outside of the bazaar, too, where even more stands await offering juicy figs, hanging displays of various Turkish spices, fresh-caught fish and more.

Getting lost physically in the bazaar isn’t easy (unlike the Grand Bazaar down the road), but it is easy to get swept away in the colors, the atmosphere, and the sweets and spices on display.

I know I did. Twice.

This photo comes from the Spice Bazaar.

(And here’s a post I wrote about Turkish tourist spots for your additional reading pleasure)

 

Destinations Turkey

A Virgin America Virgin

Funky purple lighting is just one thing I love about my new favorite airline.

I could see the purple glow before I even got close to the door of the plane.

Oh, sweet Virgin America airplane. How I have waited for you.

Slowly, slowly, we crawled in our line to the cabin door.

Sparkles!! The exterior of the airplane is glittery white!

I crossed into the cabin, surveying the plane. First class looked normal enough. Except the front and the back of the section had thick purple-tinted plastic to make up a wall. And, the seats. They sure did look nice, all black and leathery and big.

I continued walking through the main cabin section and came to my seat. 17F. A window. Abby and I had selected seats at the same time. She wanted an aisle. Me, a window. Neither of us had bothered to see if the middle seat was taken when we checked-in the day before.

It was.

We grumbled for a moment. And I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes when the person in the middle seat simply swooshed her legs to one side and expected me to climb over her.

It’s economy seating. There is no way I can squeeze between you, your legs and the seat.

I digress. Back to the airplane.

I sunk into the surprisingly cushion-y chair, resting my head in the adjustable headrest.

Ahhh.

I kicked my feet under the chair ahead.

I swear, there’s more stretch space than normal.

I pulled out my phone and took a picture of the cabin, which of course prompted me to turn to Abby and exclaim, “It even photos well!”

Then, I turned my attention to the screen embedded into the white space-age looking seat back in front of me.

Oh hello, I’ve heard stories about you, sweet screen.

Like Homer at the Springfield Power Plant, I begin to push all of the little buttons on the touchscreen. On Demand movies! Foreign Films! Satellite TV! On Demand TV! I am in airplane traveler heaven.

It’s not like I am not a seasoned flyer. It’s just that my normal trips don’t have the perks this quick flight to San Francisco had. In fact, most of my international flight can’t even hold a flame to the amenities this Virgin America plan was offering.

After my excitement waned with the multiple viewing options, I began to poke around the other selections available. E-mail. Chat. Yes. Chat. I pulled up the little screen and it showed the airplane seating chart.

I can type a message and have it go into the Airplane Chat Room. Seriously?

My mind reverted back to my teenage days, when unbeknown to our parents, my friends and I would hit up chat rooms to stir trouble.

I don’t suggest it on a Virgin flight, but still.

I dug deeper.

The rumors are true. Seat-to-seat chat. I can send a message to another passenger.

I had joked with Abby earlier about this, remarking how funny it would be if I found some hot guy to harass somewhere else on the plane. Of course, I wouldn’t do it, but still …

Instead, I chose to harass Abby.

I pulled up the screen to type her a message, expecting a keyboard to pop-up on the screen.

We are such an iPhone generation.

Nothing. Instead, an illustration told me to pick up the remote tucked into the arm of my seat. On the backside was a keyboard. A keyboard/remote. I quickly typed “so cool,” and then I was off to the next part of my exploration on my personal entertainment device.

Suddenly, I have ADD.

There’s music. Music videos. Radio stations. There’s games. There’s food and drink selections. There’s shopping.

This little touch screen has it all.

I sat back in my seat, looked out the window at the Las Vegas skyline from the McCarran runway. I smiled.

It’s time to go.

Abby and I were heading to San Francisco and Napa Valley for a Travel Blogger Girlie Weekend with Kristin. The idea was born quickly a few weeks ago, and within 24 hours after our initial discussion, tickets were purchased, hotels were secured, wineries were contacted.

We were ready to get down to business. Whatever that means.

And my favorite new airline was going to get us there.

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