Travel with Dogs

My friend G. Bruce Smith is not only a crazy talented playwright with many works presented in Paris, Los Angeles, and beyond… but he’s also a huge fan of travel. So it stands to reason that his new blog Travels With Luca is going to be tons of fun. I can’t wait, and neither should you.

If you are considering taking a road trip with your best canine friend, he’s got some handy links that will take you to pet friendly locations on the road from Southern California to British Columbia, Canada.

An Ode to the Barcelona Metro

On this 4th of July I have a wide range of thoughts on travel and I promise I’ll share them, but first a bit of an apology. I know I’ve been gone for a while. My wife and I went to Spain for 3 weeks. The day after I returned my employer of 14 years (with over 200K employees) advised me of their decision to eliminate my position as being unaligned with the new model for the department. Blah blah blah. Right business decision. No reflection on anyone we laid off. Blah blah blah. At less than a year away from eligibility for an early retirement pension, I was not amused. But it does open all kinds of doors, so I’m not terribly upset.

This means we get to fluff the pillows, wrap up our bathroom remodel, touch up the paint, and put our house on the market in order to manage costs. It also means we get to escalate our retirement planning in order to find a place to live that bridges the financial gap. At our house this is an exciting phase. Moving opens all kinds of new horizons. We meet new people. We find new places to love. We are going to miss some of the people in our current home town like crazy, but we also know that we will stay in touch. So the idea of moving is making us feel a bit festive. We’re strange like that.

Travel around Spain, a country approximately the size of Wisconsin… makes me realize how completely backward things are in the US. Spain has dedicated large sums to creating high speed train service that will get you from one large metropolitan area to another in an hour or two. Barcelona to Madrid? No problem. No checked luggage. No unfriendly security protocols. Reserve your ticket the day before and take a cheap taxi to the station. Barcelona to Girona, the same. There are also slower trains that stop at a long string of small picturesque towns. Most of the country is connected by rail. It’s fabulous.

The Barcelona Metro is a miracle of user friendly signage, automated ticket kiosks, with adequate but unobtrusive security. The bus and metro system in Seville is adequate to the needs of the city, if less spectacular than Barcelona’s.

There is an underlying assumption in Spain that one should acknowledge: private cars are not essential to living a comfortable middle class life.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine no car payment, no auto insurance, no money and time spent fueling up on a regular basis. Imagine walking five minutes to the closest bus or train stop, checking the clock that shows the time until the next train arrives. In under ten minutes you are heading toward your destination. We used a taxi once in our two weeks in Barcelona. Their Metro, by itself, was enough to make me want to stay forever.

Experiencing Spain’s commitment to mass transit does leave me pondering American attitudes toward transportation. I believe different generations have different feelings on the matter. Maybe it’s just the Gen Xers and our parents who wouldn’t feel complete without a personal automobile. I’m not sure, but having seen how well it all works in another country, I admit I’d be willing to give a car-free life a try.

Observations of a City – Seville Spain

I’m trying to capture some of my impressions of Seville, Spain before we move on in our trip. The Wife and I have wandered around here for almost four days, encountering the people and culture in various settings.

If, like us, you prefer to explore a destination by foot… peering into windows and catching glimpses of forbidden private spaces, Seville will prove as frustrating as most European cities. Space in Europe is constantly at a premium, so the local architecture is designed to ensure privacy and support family time. As a result the coy facades of buildings pressing against one another give the impression of life lived in dark, unwelcoming places. What the average passer-by is not privileged to experience, is the fact that most of these imposing and barren facades are simply the garage door and back gate into large multi-generational communities constructed around 2, 3 and even 5 story courtyards. The center of the space is the heart of the home and a way for the architecture to ensure natural light reaches into every level, and every room.

In most European cities, these “back sides’ of buildings are still a source of some care, embellished with tile, ornate iron work, and occasionally face-lifted with a bumped out sun room hovering lightly off the second story.

In Seville, they are often left untended and unkempt – perhaps to discourage the regular influx of tourists from hanging about. In fact, because the heart of Seville is built and rebuilt upon ancient foundations, streets designed to accommodate a horse and rider or a mule drawn cart, and old muddy foot paths (it’s not alone, you will find this in many older cities in Europe) – it can be positively hazardous to walk the streets. Automobiles thread these narrow passageways, and pedestrians are granted scant inches in many places to step out of the way. Your best bet, while visiting, is to scurry through the constrained blocks of residential buildings surrounding whatever tiny hotel you have found that allows you pedestrian access to the heart of town, to reach one of the larger boulevards. Once there however, it is no small challenge to make your way from one destination to the next… Google Maps for pedestrians notwithstanding. There are no straight routes, and wandering around looking for someplace interesting to explore, photograph, or shop – often leads to frustration and blisters. If you plan to use Google Maps and GPS to get around on foot, make sure to download the offline maps you need before you leave, and practice following the directions in a familiar place.

Another challenge for us was to find a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. Our options ranged wildly, from a healthy breakfast at the hotel for the price of a good bicycle, to tiny restaurants where… if we were lucky, we could buy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or the usual bar menu of beef and pork cuts cooked without much interest in sauces, side dishes, or repeat diners – for less than I’ve spent on a single cocktail in most US cities. It frequently took us an hour to find one that was serving food, taking orders, AND willing to serve us at whatever ungodly hour we chose to appear. Breakfast is hard to find before 10am, lunch doesn’t appear until 2pm, and dinner is best from 9pm to midnight. Nap accordingly.

Every now and then we stumbled onto a neighborhood bar or up-and-coming hipster restaurant where the food was actually enjoyable, if not terribly healthy. We started marking these places on our map to ensure we could find them again. Needless to say, these were not places on our printed map from the friendly hotel concierge.

I am not a native of Seville, and as such I have no business passing judgement. I can only convey my various impressions of the city, which is unusually unkempt and inhospitable for Europe, especially Spain. Construction sounds are everywhere, restaurant staff clang dishes around loudly, narrow sidewalks are covered in suspicious substances, pedestrians shoulder one another aside, over-worked bar / food tenders snarl at potential customers about kitchen delays, and roughly boarded up store-fronts and properties for hire are a frequent part of the landscape.

After bustling Barcelona and tidy Lora del Rio, we were particularly surprised by the impression that business was not thriving in Seville. The sidewalks are awash with fast paced pedestrian traffic, but that same energy did not infect places actually providing services or selling products. Empty store-fronts were not neatly contained and ready for the next tenant. They were, in fact, frequently blocked off with shaggy chunks of cracked marble, poorly constructed brick pillars supporting the upper levels, old construction material, and many seasons of weeds.

Store face lifts often involved painting over historical carved marble and the application of pseudo-historical half-brick facing on top of graffiti-laden ceramic tile. It is difficult to know whether this was a deliberate preservation of history, or a lack of ambition on the part of construction workers. Was this irony, or urban post-post modern design? No se. Painters neatly covered filthy surfaces with a fresh coat of paint, obviously more interested in completing the job than ensuring the durability of their work. No one washed sidewalks, constructed window displays to entice buyers, or attempted to ensure the beauty of building facades. Layers of dirt built upon the residue left from previous generations.

There is a general air of exhaustion about the city. Old town squares and public courtyards are untended, or at best… allocated a desultory smattering of red geraniums and magenta bougainvillea in aging pots – planted hastily and left to survive under the tender mercies of a hot summer sun. During school hours, very young men hauled patched-together wagons full of debris picked from large public trash bins and scrawled desperate tokens of their existence on steel store shutters in the later hours.

You can imagine this city several centuries ago, with a few wealthy families providing protection and employment to many workers who kept vast gardens and large private homes clean and beautiful. That wealth has vanished, the gardens have been turned into open parks, and the city’s tax payers cannot afford to keep the streets and public spaces clean and well-maintained. Although the center of town is filled with commerce and a visual history of grand sculpture and design, most of it is now geared to sustain the tourist trade. While I have no doubt there are artisans, musicians, sculptors, painters and other creative spirits all over Seville, there appears to be little outlet for that artistry in Seville’s day to day life.

We stumbled across a number of places where current inhabitants of this city clearly struggled to reintroduce the idea of public art and civic pride. But the efforts were dying, ignored by a population bent on the struggle to evolve and grow amidst a social emphasis on historical traditions and symbols.

Flamenco, a cultural artifact borrowed from Gypsy tribes, is discovering a resurgence thanks to its arresting visual short-hand and lingering fringe of creative pride. Cynical fashion designers have stuffed the local department store with a section of mass-produced replicas of the Flamenco dance dress – flattering to a small-subset of females of marriageable age, and rather appalling on little girls, mothers, and the occasional grandmother seeking to relive that ‘princess’ moment with silk flower hair decorations, cheap lace shawls and a plethora of ruffles in synthetics so cheap even a proper dry-cleaning cannot give it a patina of sophistication. It’s a bit like Halloween in the US, if the only acceptable “costume” was expected to reflect a once-cool dance style from a hundred and fifty years ago.

Finding a place to stay close to the bulk of the tourist attractions is of particular importance. Although Uber drivers are operating here, you cannot depend on the pricing, and it can be cheaper to take a standard taxi wherever you need to go. Beware the buses – signage and announcements are not reliable and anyone unfamiliar with the city will find it difficult to get around using public transportation. All of the Uber and Taxis we have used were clean and the drivers polite. The advantage of Uber is, of course, the fact that they use GPS to determine their route to your destination, so you can be sure they are taking the best route for the moment. We still aren’t certain that the first taxi driver took us on the shortest route given pricing from other rides, but as strangers to the city, it is impossible to be certain.

Since Spanish wineries are subsidized by the government, there is less motivation to perfect the product than in some countries and locations famous for alcoholic libations. Beware white wines, which are frequently “semi-dulce” (sweet) regardless of their underlying grape varietal. Red wines tend to be dry and high in tannins. That being said, you can get a litre of cheap tinto (red) or blanco (white) to make a Sangria for somewhere around 2 euros, and bottles of slightly better grape for less than 5 euros. Alcohol in general is far cheaper in Spain at the Bar-Restaurants than Americans encounter at our equivalent businesses. The wife enjoyed a double shot of Dewars for 2.5 euros. Of course, the fact that she drinks it neat did impress the bar keep, so that may be part of it. Mine, including half the alcohol because I prefer it with ice, cost the same.

While customer (and tourist)-facing Spaniards in Barcelona often speak more than a smattering of English, you will need to bring a pocket full of Spanish phrases to get around Seville… even in high end hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The gratitude of staff here when I strung together my rough Spanglish was more than a little surprising. Because I did speak some Spanish (un peqeno), they often mistook us for Germans, Swiss, or tourists from other EU countries. This doesn’t say good things about Americans, so for the love of all that is good about the US of A, buy Level 1 Spanish by Pimsleur and play it in the car while you run errands for a few months. I promise you it will come in handy.

Hable Castilliano? Un poco? Si? Do you love Seville? Why? What is your favorite memory? Drop a line in the comments for the rest of us.

The Food of Seville Spain

Food is an interesting way to explore the culture and people of a particular place. You can learn a great deal about the hospitality ideals of a locale from the way the hotels there serve an international client base.

In places where hospitality is a primary consideration, a hotel breakfast bar will convey the welcome in a way nothing else does. Food intended to please everyone from a Japanese salary-man to a family of American tourists, or a European palate, tells you that local management understands their customers. A breakfast menu designed around local dishes and scheduled for local mealtime preferences, tells you another story. These displays are generally unconscious and innocent of intent: but they have a significant impact on travel experiences.

The Seville area has a sunny Mediterranean climate with extended growing seasons that easily sustain olives, citrus, and a broad variety of fresh vegetables. It is also a brief hour away from the ocean. Despite this ready access to a broad range of possible ingredients, the traditional cuisine of the area is largely shaped by historical and cultural norms.

Dishes are meat-heavy, with a brief nod to vegetables in the form of potatoes and olives. Tomato and sweet peppers make their appearance as well, but more as ways to add flavor than as main ingredients. If you love meat and potatoes, Andalusian cuisine will appeal to you.

Breakfast, or desayuno, is generally coffee with hot milk added to your taste (cafe con leche), and various types of heavily toasted bread with meat toppings featuring Iberican smoked meat. Small hard-crusted loaves are split, heated on a hot plate, then softened with olive oil and tomato water. (Imagine dicing up a tomato very finely (think puree), removing the bulk of the tomato solids, and using the remaining liquid to render the hard bread soggy.) The temperatures of the food are also significant with hot bread combining with cold cuts, room temperature olive oil, and refrigerated tomato water… the end result being a lukewarm dish with a consistency suitable to all possible dental arrangements.

While some herbs make their appearance in Andalusian style dishes, they are lightly applied… often to the broth used to cook seafood or the common dish Caracoles (tiny little snails in a salty, herbed broth). If you prefer mild, unseasoned foods, this will appeal to you.

Thus far my favorite dishes have been a salad of fresh tomato chunks, chopped sweet green peppers, large pieces of chewy cooked squid, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the inevitable Caracoles with a broth chaser.

Despite fish being a widely varied fresh ingredient, the locals feel the bounty of the sea should be allowed to shine through without assistance. They will serve a tray of five kinds of seafood, all breaded and cooked the same way with the conviction that this is the best way for the diner to enjoy the beauty of local cuisine. Sadly, my palate lacks the sophistication to appreciate this approach. Some of the fish seemed saltier than others, and the consistency of each allowed me to distinguish between various golden brown chunks, but over all – it was fish. Fresh, nicely cooked, but prepared for local tastes. I wanted to ask for tartar sauce or malt vinegar… but there were ample lemon wedges provided, so it seemed like I might risk insulting the cook. Insulting the cook, especially if you’re going to be around for a few days, is never a smart move. So I ate as much fish as my stomach needed and left the rest. The way things go here in Seville, I may just lose weight.

Are you a fan of Spanish, particularly Andalusian cooking? What should I look for on the menu? I’ve already discovered Secreto Iberico (a juicy cut of beef). What kind of vegetable dishes should I watch for that don’t showcase the humble potato?

Skipping the Line – Facts & Fallacies

It is true that you can skip the line to purchase a ticket to a sight seeing destination. For example, the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This does not actually mean you will not spend time standing in line. Purchasing a ticket to a guided tour is a trickier proposition than one might think. It is however, sometimes, the only way for you to get inside. We discovered this when we tried to purchase a ticket directly from the ticket office at La Sagrada Familia… where a nice security officer advised us there were no tickets to be had. Directly. Hence, the internet and “skipping the line” options.

First, you are not purchasing a ticket directly from the organization that operates La Sagrada Familia. You are working with a third party who has an agreement with La Sagrada Familia operating crew. Now that you have your ticket, you need to know who that third party is, and where their offices are in relationship to La Sagrada Familia.

You will need to appear at that third party location a short while before the tour begins. There will be a line involved to check in with the tour operator, be assigned a tour guide, and head over to your destination of choice with your group.

The group will then stand in line… in our case almost an hour from the appointed time of the tickets. High demand locations like Casa Batllo or La Sagrada Familia tend to a bit of airline fever. They oversell tickets in order to meet the demand with the hope that no one will be too fussy if they don’t get in to see the venue at the specific time allotted, so long as they eventually get in.

This works just fine for your average tourist. Where the solution breaks down is for anyone with a physical disability that makes standing around for long periods of time painful. Think bad knees, feet, backs, hips, and the like. A broken tibia, a recent bunion surgery, a hip replacement, pregnancy, sprained ankles, or just a few too many days walking around for six hours can lead to the kind of silent agony that overshadows even the most spectacular location. While you can gimp around through an hour tour, the additional hour and a half of waiting in various lines can really be a deal breaker.

But you’re there. And you really really want to see this place. You know you will regret not seeing it, possibly for the rest of your life. So you grin (or grit your teeth) and bear it.

I have a few suggestions to make the inevitable waits easier. Some of them I have employed myself, some I discovered just standing around observing more savvy travelers than myself. Bring water and anti-inflammatories (aspirin, ibuprophen, aceteminophen, etc…) Take as directed, and of course, as needed.

Spain is one of the enlightened places where cannabis and alcohol are equally respected for their ability to make life better (in the right dosages). You might want to stock up on vape pens and CBD rubs at the local Hemp Shop.

You should also bring things with which to distract yourself. If you’re an extrovert, make sure you have a bit of extra phone data to use Google Translate and strike up conversations with the other people in line. While standing for 40 minutes (in the wrong line – the Sagrada ticket line, instead of the Julia Tours line), we discovered an Italian family in front, and a crew of young Japanese women to our rear. That was good for about 20 minutes before the language barrier made it all too exhausting to proceed. (of course, we are introverts… true extroverts would never allow something as minor as the inability to understand someone else’s language to stand in the way of a good conversation)

If you are alone, and an introvert, bring your eReader.

There are also some handy little physical supports that double as canes and small travel stools. If you’re willing to give up a hand to that kind of device, you’re good on the sitting front… although I suspect they get pretty uncomfortable over the duration. Popular venues are stingy about seating. The intention is for you to see it, buy your souvenirs, and move out to make room for the next tourist. Sitting around just enjoying the view is not on the agenda. That is what a camera is for.

Speaking of cameras, familiarize yourself with its low light settings. The use of the flash is highly discouraged, if not outright banned. Don’t risk a bunch of blurry photos of all the cool stuff you are about to see. If your camera doesn’t have such a setting, invest in a better one (or borrow one). Seriously.

I will never forget La Sagrada Familia with the evening sun flushed through the reds and golds of the Passion facade. There is simply no substitute for actually being there. I could have easily sat there for an hour just basking in its beauty… except of course for the paucity of seats, and the fact that we’d already stood around for two hours before gaining access, and my feet and back were killing me. Being a tourist is not for the faint of heart, or the under-prepared.

What about you? Have you found a real way to “skip the line”? What do you include in your travel arsenal to survive those blistering days on your feet? Share your wisdom (and experiences). Drop a line in the comments!

Jet Lag in Barcelona

I’m a big fan of stepping right into the new time zone. Wasting time during a business trip, or worse, a vacation – calculating what time your body “should” think it is, is an utter waste of time. I keep the curtains/blinds raised so the sun can tell my body when to get up, drink a lot of water (amidst whatever else I might be consuming, depending on the occasion), and try to power through those draggy parts of the first couple of days.

This usually works. What doesn’t work, is to nap. Napping makes the insomnia / exhaustion cycle even worse.

So what did I do this afternoon, 3 days into our trip to Europe? Nap.

As a result I am wide awake after having spent four hours staring at the ceiling, with my brain on Antoni Gaudi, the visual equivalent of crack cocaine. Obviously, this is another case of do what I suggest, rather than what I do. On the other hand, there’s no point in beating yourself up if you do decide to succumb to the siren song of that oh-so-comfortable mattress. It is what it is, and if you’re on Holiday, you get to set the schedule. Tomorrow we have nothing booked until 4pm which is when my much-better-half and I are scheduled for a tour of The Cathedral of the Sacred Family (aka, La Sagrada Familia) – which is generally booked solid.

PRO TIP – if you’re heading to Barcelona, you will want to see the work of Antoni Gaudi. Book ahead on one of those “skip the line” deals.

I would post some photos but all I have is my Chromebook and a bunch of memory cards for my DSLR. Hopefully I’ll have some killer photos from the trip, but they won’t be posted tonight. If you want a sneak preview, check out the picture at the top of the blog page… that is the Mercat Caterina, which is full of seriously interesting food stuff, and as we discovered today, far less jam-packed than it’s older sister, La Boqueria off Las Ramblas. Just saying.

Jet lag tips of your own? Post them in the comments for the benefit of our fellow travel lovers.

Destination – Refuge Day Spa in Carmel Valley California

I’m afraid this blog falls between the categories of ‘places I love’, and ‘miscellaneous carping’. I’m sorry for that. Mainly I’m writing so that if you go to Refuge in Carmel Valley, CA for a day of soaking and massage, you can have a better experience than I had. Not that it was a bad experience, but it would have been faaaabulous if I had been better prepared. I think of this as a bit of a public service blog.

Despite the fact that Northern California is full of natural hot springs and people who love to get spoiled with a day of hot soaks, cool plunges, steam rooms and massages, there is a surprising lack of day spas in California’s Central Valley. I say this in the hopes that someone with deep pockets or ambition will get the hint and build one.

Both the heavy hitters in the hot springs game, Esalen and Harbin Hot Springs have suffered some serious bad luck in the past four years and are just now reliably open. More importantly, both places are a 3-5 hour drive (depending on traffic) away from our home in Modesto, CA. [more hints]

So I went hunting for a reasonable substitute. The best I could do was Refuge… a day spa complete with a ‘thermal circuit’ of pools, steam rooms, dry saunas, and relaxation rooms. I would post pictures but they don’t allow you to take them, and there are no public domain images available on Bing – which is silly. But there you have it. If you really want to see what the place looks like go to their website at

Refuge is located an easy drive south of Monterey, CA – which puts it about a 2 hour drive from the San Francisco airport, and 2 1/2 hours from where we live. It’s the best we could find. Having lived in LA for years with the fabulous Olympic Spa just fifteen minutes away, I’m feeling the hardship.

Anyhow, about Refuge. Plan to spend at least three hours enjoying the various pools, steam and sauna, and a bit of leisurely reading in between. Allow extra time for a massage. Also, don’t be surprised when you drive up to the address only to see a large athletic complex. You’re in the right place. I know it doesn’t look like the home of a zen relaxation experience, but it is.

Now on to the preparations.

  1. Wear as small a suit as possible (I’ll explain)
  2. Bring extra towels
  3. Eat lightly just before you arrive
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat
  5. Bring a book or magazine to read
  6. Book a massage… definitely
  7. Bring a pair of flip flops (thanks Kim!)
  1. Wear a small suit. By this I mean one that has as little fabric as possible. The suit absorbs water every time you get in a pool, and that water is soaked up by your towel (you get 2) or your robe (also included). The less fabric, the less water you’ll transfer to both. I wore a pair of water shorts with a lining, and a top with lots of floofy extras designed to persuade you that I still have the body of a thirty-year old. BIG mistake. My robe and the towel I allowed myself to use in the thermal cycle (because I was saving one for when I took a shower at the end and got dressed)… was totally soaked in the first twenty minutes. Unfortunately we went in February, so despite the sun, it was chilly. I spent more time than was probably healthy in the hot pool just to stay warm. (I found the sauna too hot to stay for long, and the steam room’s eucalyptus oil was a bit heavy for my tastes). Being February the “cool” pool was as frigid as the “cold” pool and despite my best intentions I never put more than a foot in either.
  2. Bring extra towels. See above. Even if I had been wearing a bikini, getting in and out of various pools for three hours is a damp business. If you want the robe to stay soft and fluffy, you need to dry off before you sit down to read or relax. Every time. Two towels is just not enough.
  3. Eat lightly before you come. There is no food for sale. There are no beverages for sale. They give you a large-ish bottle of water because otherwise many people would pass out or get sick from dehydration. Reasonably enough, they don’t want glass or food by the pools. I’m not sure why there is no restaurant or other place to fuel up, but there isn’t. Don’t eat a heavy meal because all the hot, cold, hot cycle will make it feel like you ate a brick. Soup and salad. Half a sandwich. You get the idea.
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat. If the day is bright and sunny, as it was when we visited, the glare off the water is pretty brutal. There are some pools with shady places to rest, but they’re in demand. Sunscreen for your face is also probably a good idea. At least I got that right.
  5. Bring a book or magazine. No photos, right? Ergo, no smart phones, pads, eReaders with a camera, etc… So if your library is electronic, you’re stuck. Also, sitting next to a steamy pool with an electronic device is probably not great for its lifespan. Go old school. Bring a magazine or a book you’ve been planning to read but never got around to because you have so may books on your eReader.
  6. (added thanks to my wife’s good memory) – footwear. Yes! Flipflops or something equivalent. After all the soaking your feet get tender. There are all kinds of drain mats around the property that are brutal if you don’t have something to protect your feet… in the shower, in the meditation room, not to mention the rock paths. Flip flops. A must.

I know all this makes it sound like I had a terrible time. Admittedly, I was wet and cold too much to seriously get my zen on, and I really needed my sunglasses, but overall I’d give Refuge an 8 out of 10 as a place to go and relax. Part of the high score is because of the massages.

I strongly suspect that Refuge has poached more than one massage school instructor from Esalen (which as I mentioned has had a tough time due to access issues with the road washing out in 2015 and 2017… seriously crimping their revenue stream and resulting in layoffs and people being forced to leave their homes on campus).

Although I had requested a female massage therapist for my wife, she got a man. If he is who I suspect he is, she got one of the best Esalen massage therapists around, CJ. So she lucked out. I was about to say something about her preferring a male therapist but she was already trotting off and my own therapist had arrived… looking for Linky… or Limdy… eventually I realized she was asking for me. Lindley. It’s a tricky name. I know that.

Despite that slight bump in the beginning, this woman proceeded to give me the best massage of my life. And I’ve had a lot of them. I had paid for a “Swedish” massage because the “Deep Tissue” was more expensive. What can I say, I’m saving for retirement. I’m not sure why the one is more expensive because there was plenty of deep tissue work involved in my massage. I would have tipped her more than $20 if I’d brought it with me. Seriously. The skies opened up and the angels wept… or maybe that was me. Either way I left that room feeling twenty years younger, and if you don’t know it yet, when you’ve hit your junior senior years, that is a big deal.

So that’s what to expect from Refuge in the Carmel Valley. Do go. It’s a lovely experience and the massages are stellar. You deserve it!  And if you know of other day spas in the Central Valley where we can soak and get a great massage, do tell! Drop me a comment. 

Destination – The Paso Robles Wine Festival

I’ve given you a broad brush idea of all the different wine regions in California in Beyond Napa part I and part II, Way Beyond Napa.

In this blog I want to bring your wine-loving attention to the Paso Robles annual Wine Festival. This four day long celebration of all things red, white and bubbly in Paso Robles, California and the surrounding region is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the various wineries in order to decide which ones you might want to visit for a more intimate and extensive tasting.

Of course, you must pace yourself. Even with four days to spread out your imbibing, it’s easy to over-indulge and dull your palate. I don’t know about you, but I get really sad when I open a bottle of wine I’ve been looking forward to for months, if not years… only to discover that it doesn’t marry up with my memory of the tasting experience at the winery. For this reason I practice the age-old technique of disposing of (pouring out) most of my wine from a tasting.

No, this isn’t rude. In fact, the folks at wine tasting counters everywhere recognize that a person who throws out most of their wine pours is serious about enjoying wine. Tastings should be small to begin with, an ounce or less… but five or six of those at every winery you visit in a day can lead to you drinking three or four glasses of wine in a couple of hours. At this point everything is rose colored and the nice people at the last winery make the most spectacular wine ever. Or not.

So don’t hesitate to pour the wine out into the bucket every booth or wine tasting counter will provide for just this purpose. Never drink the entire pour unless the wine is SO spectacular that throwing it out would be a crime against oenophile tastebuds. (that’s you, an oenophile… which is to say, a lover of wine)

Anyhow, if you’re planning a trip to California to enjoy the wine, the Paso Robles Wine Festival is a terrific place to start. It’s held on the downtown green, and there are a large number of excellent restaurants and shops within two blocks of each side of the rectangle. So when you’re ready for a break, there is plenty to see and enjoy. In fact, if you miss the festival, there are a number of wineries with tasting rooms in the eight blocks surrounding downtown, along with a fun shop (oddly named We Olive,) that has dozens of flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars for the tasting. Go through the back and you’ll find one of my favorite Paso eateries, Thomas Hill Organics where you can savor small plates, creative fresh salads, perfectly prepared fish and steak, and exquisite deserts and enjoy a glass or two of local wine while you take the load off your feet.

Another spectacular Paso Robles sunset
Not all wineries are plush and polished. Some of the best grapes can be found at the end of a long dirt road like this one in Templeton, CA – just south of the town of Paso Robles

Destination – California Wine Country: Way Beyond Napa

There are five (possibly 6) wine regions in California, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).  For anyone who is familiar with Napa, bear in mind that Napa is part of one region.  California has so much more to offer oenophiles.

In case you didn’t catch Part I,  where I talk about the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California, an AVA is a geographical area in California that is recognized for growing grapes with a terroir (climate, soil, elevation) that is clearly distinguishable from other areas.   California contains over one hundred.  Bring your comfortable walking shoes (and possibly, a driver).  Plan to stay a while… or come back – often. 

There are 5 wine regions in California, defined as follows (North to South):  

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes split into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and including some of my favorite wineries. This region includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

As you can see, there’s a lot of tasting to do if you’re serious about learning more about wine… and don’t get me started on those wine club pyramid schemes with the scattershot approach to ‘educating’ people about wine.  If you want to understand wine, you need to get out there and talk to the experts in the tasting rooms and the vineyards. Corral yourself a half-way experienced wine maker, and you’ll learn more in twenty minutes than a decade of getting sloshed on mediocre wine. Admit it, those parties are just a way to get to know people, and for a few people to make a few bucks. Nothing wrong with that; but the real deal is out here in the countryside.  

In Part One I did a light brush over the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California.  Each of these areas is worth a much deeper exploration, but this is a blog, designed to give people who don’t live here a some idea of what else California wineries have to offer in case they were thinking of making the trip. If you live in California, and are just now realizing there may be more on offer than Napa, all the better.  (I don’t hate Napa, seriously… there’s just SO MUCH more)  

This segment is dedicated to the Central Valley (where I presently live), and the Central Coast.  In other words, the middle of California.  If you want to put it into perspective, that means we’re south/southeast of the Bay Area, and north/northeast of Los Angeles. 

Central Valley

Despite being virtually invisible as far as wine connoisseurs are concerned, the Central Valley is massive, producing nearly three-quarters of the state’s grapes and 90% of the wine sold in the US.  This area includes Sacramento, Yolo, San Joaquin, Madera, Stanislaus, and Fresno counties.  This is where most table wine sold in the United States is grown, fermented, bottled, and shipped.  E&J Gallo is headquartered in Modesto, California.  Gallo owns most of the brands you pick up at the grocery store, drug store, or drive thru liquor store.  Yep.  Barefoot Wine.  Apothic. Boons Farm.  Carnivor. Columbia.  Copper Ridge.  You can check out the Gallo site for a full list of their portfolio of wineries. It’s seriously impressive. 

Just north of Modesto, in Manteca, California you will find Delicato Family Vineyard’s tasting room.  Odds are good if the wine you just bought for the holiday table wasn’t produced by Gallo, it was produced by Delicato.  You can find their list of brands here.    Gnarly Head.  Bota Box.  Noble Vines.  Twisted… and more.  

In addition to the wine power houses of Gallo and Delicato, the Central Valley includes Lodi , which according to a recent count, is home to a whopping 85 wineries.  A lot of grapes are grown up there, but they take special pride in their Zins.  Easy driving distance from Sacramento and the Bay Area, Lodi is an area coming into its own in the last few decades.  If you dream of owning a vineyard and making great wine, Lodi still has some good deals on land.   

Sadly underestimated are some Central Valley wineries that should be on any wine lover’s map.  Mark Lucchesi, from a multi-generational family of peach growers, took on wine making as a later in life career and has been making some absolutely phenomenal wines at Lucca Winery in Ripon, California. 

He sources his grapes from many areas, including Napa where his brother has been growing fruit in the family tradition, and it shows in the complexity and variety of his product.  The tasting room is homey and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. If you love fancy marble counters and lots of gift shop stuff… go elsewhere.  If you are looking for some terrific wine, a relaxed atmosphere, great values, and a labor of love, stop on by. 

Then head a few minutes down the road to downtown Modesto for a terrific meal.  My wife and I love the Divine Swine in the College area (about 3 minutes from downtown)… but Ralston’s Goat, Fuzio Universal Bistro, Concetta’s, Monsoon, and Harvest Moon have all made us very happy.  

Central Coast

Aaaaand THIS is where it all comes together.

The NORTH CENTRAL COAST includes the Livermore Valley (south-east of the Bay Area), the Santa Cruz Mountains (just north of the Bay Area), Monterey (south of the bay area) and Carmel Valley… with a dotting of other AVAs in that general vicinity.

The Santa Cruz area is eclectic in many ways, and the wineries there are no exception. If you enjoy a side of soul searching and spirituality with whatever else you might want to do on a trip (biking, hiking, ecstatic dance, dining, yoga, and of course wine tasting), this might be a destination for you.

The Livermore Valley has a historic tradition starting from the early 1880’s. This region hosts a number of varietals but Chardonnay grapes have the oldest lineage, and in fact most of California Chardonnays can be traced genetically to this area. This area is also close to the Winchester Mansion, which is well worth the visit, and a great deal of shopping including a sizeable outlet mall.

Monterey, right on the coastline, wasn’t taken seriously in the wine industry until the 1950’s when Bay Area housing demand began chewing up the winery real estate in the Livermore and Santa Clara Valleys. Because of the cooler coastal terroir, this area is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. If you love wine, seafood, and deep sea fishing, this might be an area to explore.

The SOUTH CENTRAL COAST contains the area of San Luis Obispo County, the Paso Robles area, and Santa Barbara County.

I won’t lie. I have favorites. I’ve found the wines from the Edna Valley (north of Los Angeles) to be unpredictable because this is chock full of micro-climates. This makes it hard to predict how a particular bottle of wine is going to taste based on the location. However the ocean breezes in Edna Valley and the cool foggy hills of Arroyo Grande pretty much guarantee some decent Rhone blends, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noirs.

Santa Barbara County (also up the coast from Los Angeles) is a fabulous place to come eat, shop at boutiques, and enjoy a stroll along the coastline. Made famous by the 2004 movie, ‘Sideways’, it reminds me of the San Louis Obispo county wines with its many micro climates and unpredictable products.

If you’re looking for some serious wine making with quality grapes and interesting wines, my pick is the Paso Robles area. This is one of California’s oldest wine growing areas with plenty of hills and valleys for gorgeous vistas, photogenic ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, and tons of impressive wine tasting facilities. This is where you go for the wine tchotchkes and fancy tasting rooms. Check out EOS for the best views around. Because of these hills, the area is protected from the coastal winds and marine fog, making the grape harvest more consistent. Another factor is ‘dry farming’. Paso Robles, in the middle of a state that frequently suffers from drought, hosts a great many vineyards with established vines acclimated to very little water, in the French tradition. This creates denser flavor in the grapes, producing what is sometimes know as the “fruit forward” taste. Between the agricultural demands and the climate, Paso Robles wines are distinctive.

The wine tasting fees are often waived with the purchase of a bottle, and the bottles are reliably well-worth the price. The area remains a bit casual – which means friendly, not terribly expensive, and seriously focused on what they want to be known for… which is wine. Their annual Zin Fest on the square is an event not to be missed. There is a fabulous art cooperative and a number of terrific restaurants around the downtown (old town) square, and a store (We Olive) that specializes in flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars that is well worth the stop. While you can get a room at a Marriott Courtyard, my bet is on one of the local AirBnBs (etc) which tend to be more personal and interesting.

If you’re in this area to taste wine, I highly recommend J&J Wineries, J. Lohr (you will find them in the grocery store, but the tasting room offers a much broader and intriguing range), Chronic (developed and run by the sons of the owner of Peachy Canyon), Opolo, Cypher, Hug Cellars, and Starr Ranch. I can’t begin to cover all the amazing wineries there, so be prepared to discover a broad range of wine makers from Peachy Canyon on one end of the price range, to Turley and Justin on the other. The tasting rooms vary significantly, but the quality of the wines and passion of the wine makers is consistent.

California wines, so full of surprises that it would be impossible to cover them all. So pick an area, think of other activities that would make your trip memorable, and stay for a while.

What about you? Where have you been that you can’t forget? What wine club is your favorite, and why? Teach me something!

Destination – California Wine Country Part I (beyond Napa)

Leoness Cellars, Temecula, CA

California is home to some of the most creative winemakers, productive vineyards, wildly varying terroir,  and demanding wine club members in the world.  

If you love wine and you want an excuse to travel to the United States, California is your destination. 

Let’s break it down a bit.  There are five general regions, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).

An AVA is a geographical area recognized for growing grapes that has terroir (climate, soil, elevation) distinguishable from other areas.   Overall, the state of California contains over 100.  Yeah

So… Napa.  Just the tip of iceberg.  Nothing against that region.  Some fine wines coming out of there, but it’s not where the great deals in wine are going to be found, and certainly not where I’d point you first for a terrific wine tasting (and buying) experience. 

You will need a car.  A driver would also be excellent, or you might bring one of those special friends who likes to travel but doesn’t like wine.  I pity them, but I treasure their value to the friendship circle.  There are some wine country tours that allow you to ride a train, but if you really want to explore, you’ll need to bear in mind that California is big.  Really. Really. Big.  You might have to come more than once. It’s a sacrifice, I know.  But California… just saying.

Not to sound like the California Tourist Bureau, but there’s a lot going on in this state.    I could write a book about California, so I need to stay focused.

This blog is about the various wine regions in California.  What I consider the five important wine regions in California can be broken down as follows (running from the top of the state to the south)

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes broken into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and (spoiler alert) including some of my favorite wineries. This includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

I could (and still might) write a blog about various California wine trips I’ve taken in the more than eighteen years I’ve lived here.  For now though, I’m working on an overview, including my impressions of the wine, the wine tasting experience, and the local food.  I’ll throw in a little trivia just to spice things up and get your travel juices flowing.  

The North Coast

Mendocino County is the northernmost area.  You’ll get a lot of great Pinot Noir there and some average Chardonnay (my opinion, YMMV).  It’s damp, foggy, and cool – a climate that is excellent for growing a number of grape varietals, less so for vacationing.   There are 10 distinct AVAs there, including Anderson Valley which produces some lovely sparkling wines  – if that’s your thing. 

Slightly east of Mendocino is Lake County, one of the first California grape growing areas to acquire wine fame. It’s hilly, temperate, and full of lush forests, sweeping vistas, tranquil drives, and lots of nature.  The actress Lillie Langtry actually purchased a large swath of land there and imported grapes from France to start the Langtry winery – which I highly recommend.  Guenoc is the grocery store brand, but the Langtry label wines are far superior, and should definitely be tasted if you’re in that neck of the woods.  My all time favorite Viognier came from Langtry.  Also in that area is Harbin Hot Springs, which I hope will soon recover enough from the brutal 2015 Valley Fire to take in guests.  

I have spent time in Napa Valley.  It’s beautiful, well-groomed, and the delightful tourist destination everyone dreams of visiting.  The town of Callistoga has natural hot springs on offer, and some sweet little restaurants that I’d return to in a heart beat. If you’re in the mood for pizza or italian, you can’t go wrong with Bosko’s Trattoria.  The wine in Napa is varied, and well developed… but it should be.  It’s Napa.   With fame come responsibilities, and customers… and customers bring financial success. There are restaurants in Napa where you can drop a house payment on a meal for two.  If that’s your thing, go for it.  For some great food that doesn’t break the bank, try just about anything in the towns of Saint Helena and Napa.   The wine tasting experience varies widely, from the studied elegance of Chateau Montelena (of “Bottle Shock” fame) to the educational tour of Sterling (which is fun just for the tram ride to get up to the winery).  

A little AVA that rides the boundary between Napa and Sonoma, is Los Carneros which is similar in climate to Mendocino County.  I’m not familiar (yet) so if you can tell me more about the wines, the wine tasting experience, etc… drop me a comment. 

Sierra Foothills (Amador County)

Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, is a new favorite of ours.  With a history of local wine making (for locals), it’s been a pretty well kept secret for generations.  With that history come some spectacular vineyards and a tendancy toward a rather piquant (they call it “spicy”) Old Vine Zinfandel.  Italian varietals like Sangiovese and Barbera, and Rhone vines like Syrah and Viognier, also flourish and find their way into various bottles of note.  Amador is generally a quiet, unassuming area, although now that it’s on the ‘wine map’ things are starting to change and the tasting rooms are getting dressed up to reflect that.  In Amador, people take their food seriously, so you can expect to eat very well. This is also home to the Amador Flower Farm where you can see hundreds of Daylily varietals in bloom if you’re there in May and early June.  Amador County is also home to a deliciously dilapidated little town called Fiddletown, (because of its annual-ish Fiddler’s Jam),  chock full of historical buildings that I personally covet.  If I won the Lottery, I could see pouring a lot of money into the main street. 

Southern California

I’m going to drop in a bit about Southern California because this is long enough, and the Central Coast and the Central Valley merit their own blog (Part II). 

Despite the fact that I adored Milan Vineyards near Malibu,  I used to think that the bulk of great California wine was produced in Paso Robles and northward.  Then I moved out to the Coachella Valley (think Palm Springs, CA) for a bit, and discovered the Temecula Valley.  Wineries like Doffo, Leoness, and even the delicious wines of Disney-esque Monte de Oro, soon changed my mind.  If you are in the southern half of the state, don’t despair.  There is a great deal of sophisticated wine to be enjoyed in that area. 

I’ve been told that San Diego also hosts a few credible wineries but haven’t encountered them yet.  Any favorites there?  Drop me a comment. 

More to come.  Hope this has gotten your oenophile sensibilities all a-buzz.  Any favorite wineries you want to vote for?  Where else do you travel just to taste wine?  Share!