Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Santa Ynez Valley, USA

An Excellent Day Out (From the LA area)

This trip will cover a few unique vineyards, a Danish settlement, and hidden tavern in the woods. Start your journey early, before 9am and drive North from LA up the 101 to Solvang and the Foxen Trail. Hang a right (East) on Alisos Canyon Road, which is at the giant “Los Alamos” billboard. At Foxen Trail, go right and stop at the first vineyard, Zaca Mesa.

Zaca Mesa Vineyard has a lovely picnic spot complete with an over sized chess set, just in case you need to settle an argument by “Checkmating” your companion who disagrees with your favorite varietal. This winery is unique for two reasons; First, they are entirely estate grown, meaning all 35,000 cases of wine produced annually are from their 220 acres of land directly outside their door, Second, they have harnessed the power of normally blended grapes into some outstanding varietals you won’t find anywhere else. They produce unblended wines of Viognier, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Grenache and Cinsaut, as the grapes own varietal. And they’re good! My favorite is the apricot filled Roussanne, a white wine rich on the back end palate, but dry and fruity on the nose.

Continue south along the Foxen Trail and turn left at Curtis Vineyards for the road to Los Olivos, a small Victorian styled town overwhelmed with tasting rooms. Step into Saarloos & Sons, and purchase a flight of six small cupcakes to pair with your wines. (Yes, I said cupcakes!) The wines change yearly, their titles are based upon family stories, and are only sold at the tasting room. I particularly loved the before and after tasting effect of the Peaches and Cream Chardonnay cupcake with the Daughter’s Chardonnay wine. But nothing can beat the flavor enhancement of the Blackberry Syrah cupcake with the Solo Syrah wine. Ask Tyler to roll the glass for you – now that’s a wine bouquet!

Have lunch in Los Olivos at the Wine Merchant Café (Fabulous Portobello burger and steaks) or at Panino, a local sandwich chain. Or, if the cupcakes have filled your tummy, then head south on the 154 to Gainey Vineyard, then west of the 246 and you’ll see a sign for Gainey. Gainey is the proud owner of the best picnic spot in the Santa Ynez Valley. The tasting room has a cold cabinet with the basics for an outdoor spread of meats, cheese and crackers. Buy a bottle of the most adored wine from the tasting and share it with your group while you absorb the views of the endless vineyards surrounding you.

To work up an appetite for dinner, continue west on the 246 a few minutes into the strange, lost in time, Danish settlement of Solvang. Park anywhere and walk around this small town. You’ll find a book store with a section for “Viking” literature, a museum dedicated to Hans Christian Anderson, a shop with probably the largest collection of cuckoo clocks in North America, and several people festively drinking beer at an impromptu Oktoberfest celebration – in March. As horses pull a streetcar pass me and I realize the town is far beyond the word “quaint” and has entered the “Epcot” zone of decor, but with real Danish settlers descended from the original century old founders of the town. And yes, they have a Spanish mission, just to add to the confused cultural surroundings. And did I mention that Ostrich Land USA borders the town? But the town has great theater, both on stage and off.

At sunset, or when you’re hungry for dinner, drive back East on the 246, pass Gainey Vineyards again, and turn right onto South 154. Soon you’ll see Lake Cachuma on your left. If you’re in the mood for a hike, pull into one of the many campgrounds and follow a trailhead for a mile or two. Hop back into the car and prepare yourself for the liveliest crowd in the forest! After Lake Cachuma has ended, you’ll drive over a long, concrete bridge, Cold Spring Arch Bridge, which spans a vast ravine. Just after the bridge is a road on your right. Turn right and right again and you’ll immediately see a sign for Cold Spring Tavern. Follow the road until you see a bunch of cars parked on the side of the forest. You found the Tavern.

Cold Spring Tavern was an old Stage Coach Stop a century ago. Now it’s a local’s hang out, a biker’s bar, and the most dog friendly establishment I’ve ever witnessed! There’s a live blues-style rock band every Friday and Saturday evening and the restaurant serves up game specials like buffalo steak and venison sausage stuffed mushrooms. Multiple beers and several local wines are available.

Your Budget:

Most vineyard tastings are $10 and a flight of cupcakes at Saarloos is an additional $10. The tastings are generous. I recommend splitting a tasting between two people.

Wine purchases range from $15 - $50, with most hovering at $28 for an excellent bottle of vino.

Lunch at a sandwich place will be $18 for two people and lunch at a sit down café will be $40 for two people, including beer.

Dinner at Cold Spring Tavern is $17 - $28 per person for soup and an entrée.

Hotels in Solvang are reasonably priced from $80 - $200, with most doubles at about $130 per night. Most take AAA discount. The Royal Copenhagen Inn and the Wine Valley Inn are both dog friendly.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

United States - New Orleans

Last weekend I spent five days in New Orleans for a conference. I wasn't looking forward to the trip until I read both the Frommer's and DK travel guides for the city. The history of the people, the culture and food is intense. There's exiled Frenchies, Pirates, Voodoo Goddesses and Napoleon. The architecture is a hidden jewel of American and French heritage and the food is a culinary adventure akin to one's taste buds hiking Kilimanjaro.

My quick recommendations for a hotel: The St. Louis Hotel in the French Quarter, and ask for a room without a balcony. (It's quieter.) Average $150 when not fully booked. If there for business, the best located hotel near the convention center, but only a ten minute walk to the French Quarter is the Renaissance Arts Hotel (Marriott) at 700 Tchoupitoulas between Poydras and Julia. Average $250. The downstairs bar and restaurant are fabulous and Tommy's is on the corner. Tommy's has the best oysters, duck and sezarac cocktail in New Orleans.

I admit these hotels are not exactly budget. There are less expensive hotels in New Orleans, just be cautious of your location. Don't stay North of Bourbon street, and anything East of the convention center can be risky after dark. However, the food can be budget if you eat at places like Napoleon's House (excellent) or Johnny's Po-boys (huge!). Avoid Cafe Maspero, it was very disappointing.

Great activities -
1. Wandering the Garden District while waiting for your reservation time at Commander's Palace Jazz Brunch. (Sat & Sun brunch range from $27 - $35 for appetizer, entree and dessert.)
2. Taking a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. (10am - 12:30pm everyday, $27, and you get free lunch.) I learned to make crawfish etouffe, shrimp & artichoke soup, bread pudding with a whiskey sauce and pralines. I also learned how horribly fattening ALL the food is in New Orleans.
3. Cemetery tour or a swamp tour.
4. Beignet's at Cafe du Monde is a must! ($1.85)
5. Listening to live music at Preservation Hall. ($9)
6. Riding the free ferry across the Mississippi River. (free)
7. The Esplanade and John's Bayou. (free)

Overall - New Orleans is an amazing city to visit. But admittedly, it's not for those on a tight budget. Two people for five days will cost about $1300 for hotel, food, some drinks, a tour and some music. And then prepare to diet for at least two weeks after your return.


Hello - I'm Sara, a married scientist who likes to travel, but on a budget. I enjoy reading travel guides from cover to cover, multiple travel magazines, and newspaper travel articles. I take two-three trips per year, some for 5-days, some for 25-days, and I've learned the value (mentally & financially) of planning ahead.

Many friends have asked me to start a travel blog that they can reference for their own trip planning, so here it is. All post titles will be by country and city.

I'll be recommending everything from routes through Scotland to crazy Papal adventures in Rome.

Enjoy! - Your friendly neighborhood travel advisor - Sara