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.

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.

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!

Rollin’ on the River – Q is for the Queen of Europe’s Rivers

(First in a seven-part series about our great European River Cruise Adventure from October 2018. We’re only posting now because as soon as we got BACK, we closed on our new home and dealt with moving most of our furnishings out west, the holidays, living out of two houses, etc. We know …  excuses, excuses. Nevertheless, here you go).

On deck in Vienna

River cruises are all the rage, and for good reason … they offer breathtaking views from your stateroom, an opportunity to visit several locales that are often off the beaten track, smaller ships that offer more personalized service, window shot 1 and all the conveniences — great food and wine, especially — of more traditional ocean cruises. So when our dear friend and associate Micky Dixon of Travel Planning for You!! offered us a chance to cruise down the Danube in utter luxury, we jumped at the chance. 

Let us state for the record that we are not typical “cruise” people. Our personal style is to plan just enough to ensure we see the important things in any given new place, then fill-in the blanks with whatever strikes our fancy. To us, ocean cruises with their, “If it’s Tuesday, you are now in Key West…go enjoy Duval Street and be on-board by 5” approach just doesn’t suit our style. Now, to be fair to the cruise industry and those who like this approach, we recognize this is a vast oversimplification and perception on our part (we’ve never taken a cruise but we’ve been on Duval Street many times when the ships come in) and many, MANY people like a fully tailored approach. If this is YOU, please see your travel professional, they will hook you UP.

 

Given that, however, we had long believed a river cruise would be different for the reasons mentioned at the outset, and Micky’s trip down the Danube from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary on one of Uniworld’s uber-luxurious ships sounded right up our alley. Greg on deckSince adventure often starts with trying something new, we booked our passage and designated that this trip would aptly fill the requirement for a “World A to Z” trip. After all, the Danube is the “Queen of Europe’s Rivers” so it became our Q Trip.

We weren’t disappointed. We arrived in Munich on a cloudy Sunday morning and were met by the pleasant Uniworld staff at the airport, connected with others who would become shipmates who had arrived from Atlanta, and whisked to Passau to board the SS Maria Theresa. As we were quite early, the staterooms were being cleaned from the previous week’s guests, so our bags were tagged for delivery to our staterooms and we were invited to enjoy the lounge for drinks and a delightful lunch. Our adventure was about to begin.

Maria Teresa at sunset

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a river!

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!

Yes You Can!

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Greg and I have spent the last few weeks obsessing about a decision we’ve made. We’re a few years from retirement, but we found where we want to retire and we’ve decided to build our retirement home there. It’s a big step that means we will either carry two mortgages, sell our current home or come up with another solution. Since we live and work near Washington, D.C. and want to retire out west, moving into the new house isn’t really an option. So, we’ve spent this time asking ourselves, “Can we do this?” “Should we do this now?” “Are we really making a wise decision?”

Home or Travel

Before you ask why this is in a travel blog, you can probably guess that owning two homes would take a serious bite out of our travel budget … and we LIVE to travel! That part of the decision has us asking, “How do we make this work without giving up what we love?”

I’ve mentioned it before … finding the money to travel is a priority choice. If you need to drive an expensive car, you won’t have as much money to travel. If you need to buy loads of expensive shoes, you won’t have as much money to travel. If you need to go out to eat three times a week or buy an expensive latte every morning … well, you get the point.

Our solution is to sell our current home and move into a smaller, less expensive apartment until we can move west. It’s a big step! But perhaps by providence, I’ve seen several reminders this week that pointed out if you don’t take the leap off the cliff, you cannot soar. This is our leap. Sure, it’s scary, but we want to soar. I’m 17 letters into my plan to See the World A to Z … only nine letters to go. I can’t give up now. Greg is also fully vested in the plan. He’s excited to see it through to the end.

We’re giving up a little for a potentially HUGE gain – our dream home in retirement and the continued freedom to see the world. You can do the same! Anyone can. Take a deep breath and take the leap. Soar! After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.

You’ll never get there if you don’t start somewhere.

From Exes to Ohs

Greg and I make no secret of the fact that we are each other’s third wife/husband. One of the things we say is that it took three tries to get it right. It’s only half in jest. We both recognize that with age comes a self-awareness and comfort that makes it easier to know what you want … but more importantly, what you won’t put up with anymore.

Our exes didn’t travel, not like we do. Neither of them craved it. When we realized the intensity of our love of travel and experiences, it deepened our attraction for each other and our wanderlust. We went from camping and destination-based driving slogs to exploring downtowns and wandering on backroads. — from Friday and Saturday nights spent swatting bugs by a campfire to toasting friends at our local bar and snacking on brick-oven pizzas.

Pin Map

We mark the places we’ve been together, where we want to go, and where our friends hope to travel.

In my quest to see the world alphabetically, I went from being primarily focused on Europe because it’s the only place my ex would consider, to eyeing locations I’d never even imagined. As we look ahead to this year’s trip (we’re up to “O” in the ABC The World plan), we are excited to be taking our first cruise.

It’s a river cruise on the Danube. Yes, it’s back to Europe, but to the Eastern side. I have a map with pins of the places we’ve been; Eastern Europe is sadly almost entirely pin-less. (Colored pins on the map show where friends want to travel).

Europe map close up

Yellow pins are where we’ve been together. Colored pins represent our friends’ bucket list trips. The letters mark our “See the World A to Z” trips.

But we are not sitting around waiting for the cruise date in the fall. We continue to plan and explore and be amazed by our world. We have trips planned to Pittsburgh and its foodie scene, Arizona where our winter visit left us wanting more, and Minneapolis to check out the biggest mall in the US.

I joke that the only reason I have a job is to pay for my next trip, but it’s more truth than jest. I love that moment you see, taste, hear or feel something new. It’s an “Oh” moment for me. “Oh, wow, that’s beautiful!” “Oh, wow, that is delicious!” We’ve both gone from exes to ohs and we aren’t interested in slowing down. After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … go find your “Oh” moment.