A Group Tour that Won’t Leave You Whining

Long-time readers know I’m not generally a fan of group tours, but exceptions can and should be made when traveling with friends or those with a common interest. Here’s what I mean:

USC DC-area Alums

USC Alumni Associated members at Gray Ghost Winery

Recently, the USC alumni association in the DC area (Greg is a member) put together its annual group winery tour in Northern Virginia. We’d been on one of these winery tours with this group and enjoyed it enough to actually sign up and do it again We even traveled back to the Nation’s Capital in order to participate!) Group tours of wineries, it turns out, aren’t like “tours” of cities or travel destinations.

This event gets you a designated driver (in a mini-bus) so you can sample the wines without fear of going too far. It gets you behind-the-scenes tours at wineries. It gets you discounted tastings and bottles. It lets you hang out with a small group of fun people who all have something in common – a connection to Southern California.

Gray Ghost Winery

Gray Ghost Winery’s owner shows us the vineyard

In short – it was amazing and fun!

The day started with a stop at Gray Ghost Vineyards. From the moment we arrived we felt like VIPs. The owner took us to the vineyards and shared stories of how the winery got started. 

Gray Ghost Library

The wine library at Gray Ghost Winery

We went through the wine-making process within arms reach of casks and steel tanks where wine was being aged. He took us down a small slope and into a door where we entered a grotto-like, dark, cool space. He turned on the lights and the entire group gasped — he smiled and welcomed us to “The Library.” It was an underground room stocked with hundreds of bottles on beautiful wooden racks. 

Narmada Tasting

Tasting glasses and wine descriptions are lined up for our group.

 

From there we moved on to Narmada Winery. As a reader of this blog, you probably already know Greg and I are members of Narmada’s wine club. We’ve eaten wine dinners in the barrel room. We’ve chatted and become friendly with the owner. On this particular sunny Virginia day, we followed our guides down the stairs to a back patio space to sample wines in the breeze and shade. 

Our final stop is a perennial favorite of wine tours. Barrel Oak Winery is popular among locals and tourists. 

Pizza at Barrel Oak Winery

Fresh from the oven pizza makes for a great afternoon nosh

It’s proximity to DC, expansive views, and picnic-like setting are family (and dog) friendly and festive. Barrel Oak offers stone-fired pizza in the summer. Our visit was perfectly timed for an afternoon nosh.

You’ve seen that Greg and I are wine lovers. We make it a point to stop and try wines almost everywhere we go. We’ve even sampled wines in an old converted church in Oklahoma off Route 66. Wineries can be small, newly-opened, quaint and cozy or huge, professionally-designed and award-winning. You can visit as a couple, with a small group of friends or on a tour. If you keep an open mind, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. It’s a fool-proof way to have a fun day. 

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored .., grab a glass of wine and toast it with friends.

Here's to wine tastings

Tour members toast the afternoon.

wine glass and menu

Luck or a Nose for Good Food and Wine?

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you have probably noticed we often seem to find really fun and interesting places to eat and drink. This past weekend was no exception.

Friday afternoon we decided it was time, once again, to jump in the car early Saturday morning and hit the road for a day trip. New to Arizona, we have a long list of places we want to see in a day. This particular Saturday, with the forecast for the Valley of the Sun calling for high temps over 100 ˚F,  we opted to head for the hills.

Prescott is in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains and at just over 5300 feet, it tends to be a nice cool getaway on a hot summer day. Saturday was no exception. As our neighbors hid in air-conditioned comfort, we strolled the adorable historic city center under sunny skies at a pleasant 82˚.

Arizona wine region map

A state map shows the wine growing regions of Arizona

While hopes for cool temps helped choose the destination for the day, luck, karma or instinct had us drive right into the town’s celebration of “Territorial Days.”  It turns out Prescott was the capital of Arizona before it became a state and the annual celebration includes dozens of artists selling their crafts  on the town square. Families wandered easily past the displays. Children played in the grass. One vendor offered face painting. Musicians fiddled. It was a fun, festive party!

Wine tasting

Two whites and three reds are featured on the tasting menu

After a bit of shopping and enjoying the scenes unfolding around us, we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting. All Arizona Wines” pointing to the Back Alley Wine Bar. What a great find! Lindsay walked us through five wines from our new home state and dazzled us with her knowledge.

wine glass and menu

The menu offers a refill as I near the end of a delicious red blend.

We ordered another glass each and continued to sip and share stories as other customers came and went.

As the time ticked away, our stomachs noisily reminded us we should eat something, so with Lindsay’s suggestion, we headed three blocks away to Farm Provisions. WOW! A robust farm-to-table menu enticed us with mouth-watering choices. We marveled over the fresh burrata on crostini with slow-roasted tomatoes and aged balsamic. 

Farm Provisions scallops

Farm Provisions scrumptious scallops

The farm fettucini with pancetta, wild mushrooms, Arizona-sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino was exceptional. The incredible day boat scallops were drizzled with a pomegranate gastrique and Arizona lemon beurre blanc while floating on a bed of butternut squash puree. Roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted baby beets and pomegranate seeds added color and perfect taste pairings. With our taste buds celebrating flavor perfection and our tummies happily full, we made a decision to schedule another trip to Prescott just to try the dessert!

As we drove out of town with the sun setting behind us, we wondered how we always seem to find these food and drink havens. Sure, we typically ask a local for options, but there is more to it than that. We asked each other, “Is it luck or is it some sort of nose for good food and wine that we are lucky enough to be blessed with?” Whatever leads us there, we plan to keep finding these amazing spots.

After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … follow lady luck or your nose and go see, eat and drink it all in.

Free! There is a Reason to Join.

I’m a joiner. If a store where I shop has a free club, I join it. The same is true for restaurants, fast food places, airlines…the list goes on and on.

Why join, you ask? Here’s why: June is my birthday month. Beginning around the last week of May, my email box begins to include emails from all these companies with “Birthday Special” offerings. In many cases it’s an extra discount on any purchase in June. For a couple of airlines, it’s more than just a few percentage points off or bonus miles for flights booked in June. Hawaiian Airlines is offering me $50 off AND 2500 bonus miles! For several stores, it’s free shipping AND a discount during June. The best birthday specials, though, are the freebies. Yep – you read that right – FREEBIES.

birthday swag 2017

 

I have coupons in my email for a free slice of pizza from Sbarro, a free panty from Victoria’s Secret, free popcorn at Regal Cinemas and a free snack at AMC, a free bagel from Bruegger’s Bagels, a free BOGO offer for ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery, a free coffee and baked good from Au Bon Pain, a free cookie with a sandwich purchase at Potbelly, and a free glass of wine from my favorite winery – Narmada! That list doesn’t include the cash off a purchase offers from at least four stores!

Sure, I get a lot of “junk” email – ads from these companies – every day. Often the ads include some sort of click bait: “Free shipping today only!” “Special offer for valued customers” “20% off all online purchases TODAY ONLY.”  Every once in awhile I click on the ad just to see what’s on sale or to browse the new items. Those emails are deleted more often than they are opened.

So, the next time a cashier asks if you’re a club member, don’t say no! Say, “not yet” and sign up. Fill out the birthday block on the form then sit back and wait until your birthday rolls around and enjoy your gifts!

Happy birthday.

Disclaimer: Other than e-coupons, I have not received ANY compensation from any companies mentioned in this blog.

Fishing boats

R is for Richmond, British Columbia

The “R” trip will likely go down as the quickest to plan and one of the shortest. We moved across country in April and part of the move meant I am temporarily unemployed. That means when I get a new job, I probably won’t have any available vacation. So … when Greg found out he had to go to Seattle for a week of training, we looked into extending his trip a couple days and popping up to Canada’s Pacific Northwest … specifically, the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, which has been called the most Asian city in North America.

Gulf of Georgia Cannery sign

The welcome sign starts telling the story of the Cannery

There’s a lot to see in the Vancouver metro area and Richmond is the home to several cool sites. We started the day under gray skies with the forecast calling for a partly sunny and slightly warmer afternoon. We grabbed sweaters and headed to the historic village of Steveston. It’s quaint 6 block historic district includes a few cute shops and eateries opening up on the harbor.

Fishing boats

Fishing boats in Steveston Harbor.

Dozens of working fishing boats were tied to the piers; a few hearty souls walked along the boardwalk; and the chilly breeze had us pulling our sweaters tight as we walked along a path dotted with information signs touting Steveston’s fishing past. It dates back to indigenous peoples who have fished the waters for centuries. Steveston became the center of the canning industry in the 1800s. In 1894, a “monster cannery” opened its doors and became the leading producer of canned salmon in British Columbia. Throughout the next decade, the industry changed so much that the cannery eventually closed, but the building is now home to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a Canadian National Historic site and museum.

Can label display

Display traces the history of salmon canning labels.

You can follow the canning lines to see how salmon was canned and herring was processed. When we visited, the museum’s special exhibit traced the history of Salmon canning labels. What a fun and VERY kid-friendly, interactive museum. It was well worth the visit.

From Steveston, we drove to the International Buddhist Temple in Richmond. The website explains the “temple is not only constructed according to the traditional Chinese imperial style, but every structural detail and every object of art it showcases are also authentic expressions of impeccable Chinese craftsmanship.” The Temple’s stunning Chinese architecture and gardens are open to the public and incredibly peaceful. While there is a place to buy incense and souvenirs, requests for donations are conspicuously absent.

The Temple is relatively young (built in the 1980s), but is well-known as one of the most beautiful outside China. It’s one of the most authentic examples of the Chinese imperial style in North America and based on China’s Forbidden City. Take the time to stop and see it. You won’t be disappointed!

Lulu Island Wines

The wines of Lulu Island Winery lined up on the tasting counter.

We had a relatively short “things to see” list for our full day in Richmond, so we headed out to the final stop – the Lulu Island Winery. Tiffany explained the wine all comes from grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley.

Lulu Island Winery Totem

A carved totem with bottles of Lulu Island Winery wines.

Lulu is known for ice wines, but we sampled a couple of whites, a couple of reds and two featured fruit wines before sampling the four ice wines available to taste. The fruit wines – a raspberry and a blueberry wine – are made entirely from the fruit with no grape juice added. We were amazed at how delicious they were and laughed and chatted with Tiffany about how perfect they are for pouring over ice cream or making into sauces!

We learned ice wines are produced entirely from frozen grapes – picked and squeezed frozen – which means some grapes only yield a single drop of juice. Those single drops make some scrumptious wines!

LuLu Island Winery sign

The winery sign shows off the barrels guarded by a heron.

We left with five bottles of wine. One of them didn’t make it through the night as we grabbed a few items from a local grocery store and enjoyed an impromptu picnic in our hotel room that evening for dinner.

Richmond was a whirlwind to plan and experience, but it was fun and interesting, too. Planning and taking a trip in less than a month can be a challenge, but well-worth it! After all … there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … go see it on the spur of the moment.

We Double Dog Dare You

Sometimes an adventure or an idea pops into my head and it’s so “out there” that I actually hear a voice in my head daring myself to go for it.

It could be the idea of bungee jumping (not gonna happen) or going on a grand hike somewhere. It could be the idea of a new phase of my life that involves quitting my job. It could be deciding to finish that book I started writing years ago. The list goes on and on.

We are in the midst of a HUGE change … moving to the desert Southwest from Virginia. Both of us have lived in Virginia for more that 15 years. In fact, I’ve been here for more than 20 years. So … this move is a little of a personal dare for me.

The act of moving isn’t all that adventurous for me. I counted the places I’ve lived in my life today and came up with 36. I kept track. Many of the places I lived are due to my military past – both as a “brat” whose Dad was a career Air Force Officer and as an active duty Airman. As for Greg, the desert Southwest isn’t much of an adventure. He grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley so it’s a bit of returning home for him.

But moving across country after so many years is an adventure. We like to think of it as the great American couple on a great American adventure. We will load a few things into our car (the rest is being shipped out) and make the cross-country drive into a road trip. We’re excited to take this step, but a little sad to be saying goodbye to friends we’ve made and places we’ve come to know.

CK SmilesSo we’ve decided to have one final fling in the home we’ve come to love, but that we’re ready to leave. We’ve invited all our East Coast friends to join us at one of our favorite haunts, Fat City Kitchen in Alexandria. It is here, steps from our Alexandria home, where we made dozens of new friends and created a whole new family. It is here where we were inspired, where our ideas were discussed, and decided upon. It is here where we’ll end one adventure and start a new one. Whether you’ve been a fan of our blog, a casual reader or a newcomer, we double dog dare you to come out Saturday, March 30 to say hello and good luck, and wish us well as we head west. We’re not going to stop doing what we do … we’re just starting from a new headquarters … one that will introduce us – and you – to new places.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … we double dog dare you to see it!

Travel … or Escape?

I am a writer and travel is my muse. Almost every time I board a plane or a train or even get into a car for a road trip my mind begins to work up some sort of story or thought. I have napkins full of scribbled thoughts. I have filled the margins of the magazines in the seat pocket. I even used an airplane “barf bag” once or twice to get my thoughts down on paper.

Flying soothes me. It’s uninterrupted time with my thoughts. No calls, texts, emails, Facebook, work, or any other distractions from time with myself. I read a bit, write a bit, and doze a bit. But, most of all, I enjoy the time to just think.

Sometimes my thoughts wander to my destination, perhaps something or someone I want to see when I get there. I’ve gazed out the window and written about something I could see — the sun rising above the clouds (or setting), the patchwork of fields below, the blur of trees as my train passes through a woodland.

Ahead of our trips, Greg and I always talk about what we plan to discuss in the air, instead we end up comfortably retreated into our own personal head spaces, while holding hands or leaning on each other. The fluffy bed of clouds outside the window evokes relaxation … literally thoughts of floating on a cloud. I love flying for that reason. Even when I’m headed somewhere I‘d rather not be, I find myself in a peaceful, contented cocoon of quiet. Airplanes don’t just take me to fun vacations; they take me above the heavy thoughts that surround me on the ground. Flying is an escape.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … escape sometimes!

Travel is Personal

This headline may seem a little like a no-brainer to a lot of people, but I’m not sure most people take their travel personally. Here’s what I mean: I’ve been to Paris three times and I’ve never been up in the Eiffel Tower. Oh sure, I’ve been TO the Eiffel Tower, but not up in it. I didn’t want to go up. I also didn’t want to go to the Louvre. I’m not particularly an art lover, so why waste a day in a museum when I can stroll along the Seine or watch a street artist or simply sit in a café and people watch? All those things seem a lot more interesting to me than art.

I’ve spent enough time in European churches that they all start looking the same … stunning stained glass, astounding feats of architecture, majestic. Yes, admittedly, the cathedrals of Europe are gorgeous, but after awhile they just start looking the same to me. I’d rather find the hidden gems, sample the food, soak up the atmosphere of the town, not the tourist meccas.

That’s what I mean by travel is personal. Too many people cave to the recommendations of an author who writes about those things you “simply must see” in cities around the world. Those authors apparently don’t think, or live, like I do. I prefer to travel with a vague idea of where I’m going and leave much of my trip to chance. Usually in a week-long trip I only plan one or two things to see and leave the rest to chance.  If you’re the type who prefers a little guidance and direction, just keep in mind that these authors are writing about what they love. If you agree, their insight can be super helpful, but if you don’t agree, don’t feel like just because they are published authors means their suggestions are right for you.

That said, one of the things I typically plan is some sort of walking tour or half-day sightseeing tour. A really great travel agent who takes the time to get to know you before booking your trip can be the difference between finding the right “kick-off tour” for a vacation and spending a week touring sites that bore you to tears. My travel agent, Travel Planning for You!!, does just that. Micky knows the overview-style tours hit the highlights and point me in directions I might not have thought about. Tour guides are a wealth of information about their towns and can often suggest off-the-beaten-track sights that have shorter lines. Once on a walking tour in Prague, another couple was talking about a place called “Spa Beerland.” With a name like that, how could you not be interested? I asked about it, checked it out on the hotel lobby computer and made a reservation. It is still one of my favorite vacation memories.

When you’re planning your next vacation try to remember, travel is personal! After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it the way you want to!