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.

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.

Flying is His Happy Place

Looking out at the worldI wake from a quick nap at 37,000 feet and look over at Greg. He’s in his happy place — the window seat this time. We take turns because we both love looking out the window as we fly.  He doesn’t see me looking at him. He is turned away; his face is pressed against the window pane like a small child looking into the window of a candy shop.
After a moment, he turns slightly and looks down at his iPad. He’s got flying charts for the entire US open and he’s following our flight … making a note of airports, private runways, landmarks and anything he can match between his view and the chart in his lap.Sky is the Limit
He notices I am awake and looking at him and breaks out into a grin. It’s a smile that says a thousand things: Good “morning;” Thanks for flying with me; Thanks for giving me the window seat; I love this whole experience. We say these things to each other all the time. On this particular occasion, I just smile back and ask, “where are we?”
He knows right away and points out a river and a small runway. Off in the distance is Oklahoma City. The skies are clear and the view spreads out for miles in every direction.
 J&G Flying
This flight is no different from others. We both love to fly. The majesty of the world spreads out below. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a commercial jet at 37,000 feet or in a Piper Arrow at 6,000 feet. There are always marvelous things to see.
He turns back to the window with a childlike sense of curiosity as I reach for my novel. Flying is his happy place. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … find your happy place.

When Fear Kills a Dream

Fulfilling a lifelong dream can be exhilarating. Realizing it is within reach, planning the details, booking the flights, and making the reservations add to the anticipation of checking that item off your bucket list … an item that has been there since you were eight years old.

Grand Canyon view

This was my first view from the rim.

In my case, the dream was to ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and spend a night next to the Colorado River in a cabin. In October, I was talking about the dream with my husband when he said, “Why wait? Let’s do it!” I was shocked and thrilled all at the same time. No one had ever embraced the idea before. I went online, checked out the process and made a call. I was able to find two available openings in mid-February. Sure … it can be cold, even snowy, that time of year, but why let a little harsh weather ruin a dream?  I booked the trip and started ironing out the details.

This kind of trip requires some planning. I knew we would need riding clothes and warm weather gear, but what else? Back online for research. There are “must-have” items and “optional” gear. There are videos to give you an idea what to expect. I created a packing list and watched a couple of the videos. I have a little fear of heights, so I was trying to get a visual idea of what to expect. Several websites made it clear that this ride is not for those with a fear of heights. I looked at a couple more videos and decided this was a case of mind over matter. I would defeat this fear and make my dream come true.

I bought cold weather rain gear. I ordered hand and toe warmers for the ride. I bought a strap to secure my glasses. I watched the videos over and over. I can do this!

Arriving at the Grand Canyon the afternoon before the ride, we checked into the Bright Angel Lodge, confirmed we would make the weigh-in restrictions (it is a FIRM 200-pound limit and my buff husband was close) and headed out to walk along the rim. I bravely walked to the edge and looked down – STRAIGHT DOWN!  “Um, OK, I got this,” I said to myself as I took a couple steps back, “No problem.” I worked on that mind over matter thing. I smiled at Greg and we wandered along the rim taking in the views. I’m not sure if he realized I had positioned him between me and the edge.

Grand Canyon luggage

All packed … two nights provisions.

We snagged a table with a canyon view for dinner, then headed to our room to pack our “Grand Canyon luggage” – two small plastic bags that were our limit for the ride. We were spending two nights at the bottom, so we got one bag per night. Packed and ready, we hit the hay with the alarm set for an early morning call at the stone corral.

Bright and early, we layered on the clothes, grabbed a quick breakfast and, with our breath visible in the sub-freezing morning breeze, we walked to the corral to meet our guides and riding mates. There would be six of us, plus two guides, for the descent. Stable master, Don, gave us a 30-minute safety talk, filled us in on what to expect and introduced us to our rides. I would be on Burt. Don laughed as he explained that Burt was a bit noisy and would snort and grunt all the way down. I gave Burt’s nose a little nuzzle, climbed up into the saddle and settled in for the five-hour ride along the edge of the paths on the Bright Angel Trail.

Mules at Stone Corral

The mules were saddled and ready for the ride down.

We walked out of the corral and immediately stepped out onto the trail. I did all the things I had talked to myself about. Look out across the canyon and the magnificent view. Trust your mule to stay sure-footed (no one has EVER died on this ride). Look at the rider ahead of you. DON’T LOOK DOWN.  Then I did it – I looked down. We were maybe 50 paces into the ride. I gasped! Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I have hyperventilated ONCE in my life and all of a sudden I was gasping for air and wheezing. Ten more steps and we approached the first turn on the path. My lungs were screaming. My brain was screaming. I wheezed out a whisper, “I can’t do this.”  Gasp, gasp … louder this time, “I can’t do this.” I felt tears start falling. The guide must’ve heard me and turned in her saddle, “Are you OK?”

“No,” I gasped. She looked concerned. She got on her radio and called back up to the corral. She stopped the group as we had discussed in the safety talk. We would all stop, turn our mules out to face the canyon, enjoy the view and take a drink of water. I barely remember stopping. Someone was standing next to me helping me dismount. The guide at the back of the group was repeating, “Breathe, just breathe, you’re OK.” I hugged the wall as far from the edge as I could get. I started walking back up, both my clear plastic bags in my arms. I don’t remember how they got from the saddle bags into my arms, but there they were.

Boda bags -- our "canteens" for the ride.

Our souvenirs from the trip … we got to keep our “canteens” even though we never finished the ride.

I stepped over to the corral wall, dropped down onto it and started to cry. Greg showed up a couple of minutes later and Don walked us over to the Lodge to check us out of the ride group. I was feeling a sense of loss. I would be fine one second, then crying again. Greg got me some water. We walked over to the restaurant and got a table – one without a view! I was scared, shaking, finally breathing again and crushed.

I was experiencing the end of a dream. We made other plans for our vacation and Greg distracted me as I started to get over it. It’s been a week and I’m OK today, although a little weepy as I relive it. I have other dreams. I know I tried. Life goes on and I will move on stronger for the attempt.

The Grand Canyon is no longer on my bucket list, but there are hundreds of other things still left to see and do. After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored – don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.