Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jerez Day Trip

It's an easy drive from Seville to Jerez, just over an hour on the highway. We picked up a rental car not far from our hotel and arrived in the city just around lunch time. Our main activity was to tour the Lustau winery, as Jerez is famous for sherry there are many producer tours to choose from, Lustau was recommended and also had English tours at convenient times.

The town was extremely quiet when we arrived, most people were taking siesta. It was also crazy hot. We parked by the distillery and sat down at the first place we saw that was open and serving food.

You know those times when you stumble upon something so delicious at someplace so unexpected? Our bocadillos from this random bar were some of the tastiest we had in all of Spain! It was like finding gourmet food at a gas station (like in Hawaii!).

We headed over for our reserved tour time and joined a very small group of English speakers. Our tour guide led us through the open-air barrel rooms with dirt floors and explained the solera and criaderas systems. She even showed us a barrel that had a clear plexiglass window where we could see the dead yeast, or flor as it is called, resting on the bottom.

The winery is quite beautiful and the tour was very interesting, much different than the regular wineries I have been to. At the end of the tour we tasted through the Lustau lineup and learned a bit more of the different styles of sherry.
After our tour we headed to the center of town and had some not very good gazpacho from one of the restaurants in the main square. With temperatures near 100F we needed some shade and a beverage! Then we walked over to the Alcazar and caught the last camera obscura entrance of the day.

I had never seen a camera obscura before and it was really, really impressive. We climbed up into the tower and into a small room. The door was shut and we were in complete darkness. Then the guide opened a small hole in the ceiling and a mirror reflected the outside activity onto a large disc in the center of the room. As the guide rotated the mirror we got to view the entire town without taking a step! We could see birds flying, people walking, cars driving, it was all really interesting!

We spent some time walking around the Alcazar after, it is minuscule compared to the one in Seville. The building and the grounds are gorgeous though and you can see the ruins, ancient baths, and old olive grinding stones. If you are in Seville I highly recommend a day trip to Jerez, and if you are in Jerez I'd say the camera obscura is a do-not-miss.

Jerez photos here.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Seville, More Than Oranges

I had been wanting to go to Seville since my first trip to Europe, but didn't have time for it. I was really looking forward to spending a few days in what I heard was one of the prettiest cities in Spain. I'd now argue that it is one of the prettiest in Europe.

The train to Seville from Madrid is just 2 1/2 hours and we practically had the car in Preferenté class to ourselves.

A quick cab from the train station took us to the 5* Hotel Alfonso XIII. This hotel was absolutely stunning. As it was August, when most people don't travel in southern Spain, I had gotten some great deals using for our hotels. Our room, on the 3rd floor, was huge! Marble bathroom, king size bed, chandelier, and a large balcony with a view of the Cathedral next door. And of course a wonderful pool area for a daily dip. Easily one of my favorite places I have ever stayed.

Did I mention the hotel's bar, Bar Americano? Awesome cocktails, and the perfect place for an evening nightcap.

Seville is a stunning city, especially at night when the buildings are lit up. It is very easy to walk around -- we never took a cab, but you can take a horse and carriage if you like -- and places were easy to find. Plaza Espanol is especially pretty!

A morning spent at the Real Alcazar is a must. From the moment you enter you are completely surrounded by the most beautiful gardens and architecture. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. Pictures just don't do it justice.

You'll want to be done by lunch as the heat is shocking. There is a lovely shaded square behind the Alcazar called Plaza de Dona Elvira that we enjoyed some refreshing gazpacho in.

I also loved walking across the bridge to the Triana area. This side of the Guadalquivir River has an interesting past and its residents feel they are separate from Seville. Unique. It reminded me of how residents of the 18th in Paris feel. We visited the Mercato and stocked up on jamon iberico, witnessed people queuing up and being interviewed for a restaurant job while having lunch at Las Golondrinas II (the Spanish unemployment rate in Aug of 2013 was over 25%), and shopped in the tile and ceramic district, one of the main things Triana is known for.
Crossing back over the Puente de Triana we walked past Seville's bullring which dates back to 1749.

Seville Cathedral is another eye candy stop. Chambers, alters, and chapels prove the city's past wealth. There are rooms completely filled with silver, gold, and bronze display items. Climbing the ramps and steps to the top of the Giralda (tower) gives you stunning views of the city.

A lot of the normally recommended restaurants were closed for the August holidays, but we still found deliciousness. As always, the only bad food we had was when we sat down at a restaurant that had the menu in every language and included pictures. Our own fault. La Autigua Bodeguita was very fun and served delicious trendy tapas like mini hamburguesas. It's just a tiny stand up place where people spilled out into the Plaza del Salvador with their wine and beer.

Las Teresas is another very old school style tapas bar. Its got a great atmosphere for a sit down dinner. Highlights here were the whole grilled mushrooms (champion plancha), fantastically tender octopus (pulpo), and meaty tuna collar(morrillo de atún).

Vineria San Telmo was perfect for a little nicer and modern style tapas dinner. It is very popular so we strolled around the neighborhood, which is incredibly lively, during our 45 minute wait. An amazing oxtail in phyllo, queso fundito, and banoffe pie were standouts.

We also had dinner at the highly recommended Meson de la Infanta which was good but not excellent. The space however is very cool.

I loved everything about this city and will look forward to visiting it again some day!

All photos of Seville are here.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Weekend in Madrid

The first time I visited Madrid was also my first time in Europe- 1999, wow that was a long time ago!

August 2013 we headed to southern Spain to do some vacationing and to meet up with friends who graciously invited us to spend a week with them in the Alicante region.

We flew into Madrid and checked into the Hotel Urban, originally we had booked into the Hotel Real but their A/C was TU and Madrid in summer is crazy hot, so they made alternate arrangements for us at their sister property just a few blocks away.

The Hotel Urban is a very nice, modern, 5* hotel fantastically located just steps from the Plaza Santa Ana. There is a wonderful rooftop bar and plunge pool, and the basement houses the Egypt Museum. Both the common areas and the rooms display an assortment of Egyptian and New Guinean artifacts. The lobby offers complimentary juices and Cava and the hotel's bar Glass has over 30 different choices of gin and tonic pairings. Obviously I approve and highly recommend this hotel when in Madrid.

We were only in town for a weekend so we didn't do too much, I had really liked the big city, masculinity of Madrid from my first visit so I was content just to wander. We would also be hitting Madrid on our way out of Spain 2 1/2 weeks later.

Multiple lunches/beer breaks were had in Plaza Santa Ana, there are numerous casual tapas places with outdoor seating, perfect for people watching and just chilling. It was an easy walk from here to the Plaza del Sol––a hubbub of political demonstrations, knock-off purse vendors, and pan-handling backpackers––and then on to the Plaza Mayor––a gorgeous enclosed square of beautiful building facades and street performers.

One afternoon was spent window shopping on the spendy Calle de Jose Ortega in Barrio Salamanca while strolling to the Prado. On our way we stopped for a wonderful lunch at Meson Cinco Jatas. Modern tapas, a nice outdoor patio, and good service. There are a few around Madrid (including one in Plaza Santa Ana).

What can one say about the Prado? It is such a different collection of art than most of the museums in Europe have. And it's a very interesting building close to the park Retiro; and again, just near our hotel.

As previously mentioned, August in Madrid is hot, so a dip in the rooftop pool followed by some drinks and a siesta were the perfect accompaniments to our afternoon.

Dinner at Botin that night might sound cliché but I really wanted Dayne to experience the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Madrid, not to mention the exceptionally crispy suckling pig. Is it touristy? Yes. Is it over-rated? Probably. Is it a really fun experience? Without a doubt.

The evening started with sherry at La Venencia which is an incredibly old bar next to our hotel. If you are interested in sherry and looking for a true local experience don't miss this gem. We ended it with churros and chocolate at the famed Chocolateria San Gines and then huge, Madrid style gintonics (not a typo, that is how they are referred to in Spain) at a random bar on the way home. As it is in Paris, Madrid closes down a bit in August for annual vacations so many places that we would normally check out were closed, but there are still so many good and inexpensively priced places in the city that you can get along just fine without a bunch of pre-planning.

The next morning we had breakfast at the Museo de Jamon, a local chain with all things ham, and relaxed a bit back with a few beers in our neighboring Plaza Santa Ana before grabbing out luggage and heading to the train station to take the 2.5 hour train to Seville.

All Madrid photos here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Warmer New Year's Eve in Phuket, Thailand

The opposite of spending New Year's Eve in Lapland was spending this last one in tropical Thailand. Specifically we were on the very south tip of Phuket Island, in the town of Rawai. That morning after breakfast at our villa, we met our hired longtail boat driver (who we reserved the day before), and had a quick ride out to Bon Island.
Our driver let us off after we agreed on a pick up time for later in the afternoon. Bon Island is tiny and uninhabited except for an outdoor restaurant that sets up daily for lunch. Every day the owner Dawn, a British transplant to Phuket, comes over by longtail with her crew. They bring everything they'll need to open and run the restaurant for lunch; fresh fish, beverages, ice, etc. The island has no electricity- they have a generator for some kitchen equipment- and the open-air restaurant is the only building so nothing is left after hours.

There were a few people when we arrived but they left shortly after, and a small group on a tour came a bit later. But all in all it was incredibly peaceful. We just had to share space with the Hermit crabs.

The island has two beaches, one quite rocky but also protected from the wind and waves. The nicer beach had a larger surf that day but was less rocky and easier to swim in. We sunbathed a bit, swam a bit, dozed under the coconut trees, and then grabbed a table in the restaurant when Dawn and her team were set up.
Our lunch was made up of piña coladas, beers, fresh fish with garlic, chilis, and herbs, green papaya salad, and prawns. Everything was simple but quite good. It's really just a little beach shack and a nice place to get away to for a few hours.

After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our short ride back over the bay. If you're looking for a spot for a casual, toes-in-the-sand kind of quick get away, I'd recommend a ride to Ko Bon. (Ko means island in Thai)
photo courtesy of Forest Collins
Back on the main island we had planned to check out Karon Beach for the afternoon, but after circling the town multiple times in search of parking we decided it was too busy and we headed to the smaller beach Kata, just south of Karon. This was absolutely perfect! We easily found street parking and on our way to the beach passed a banana pancake vendor- it was our first taste of the completely addictive snack on the trip!

The beach was beautiful, busy but not over run. We swam in the warm water and soaked up some sun. Forest and I decided to go have an hour foot massage at one of the places just across from the beach (which cost us 300 Baht or $9). We met the guys back on the beach and bobbed around in the surf as the sun started to sink.
photo courtesy of Forest Collins
We drove back at our villa and had aperos with champagne in the pool. Well I was in the pool! Fireworks were going off all around in our neighborhood. Then we got cleaned up and headed to Rawai beach for more champagne, grilled skewers from a street vendor, and fireworks at a sea side restaurant called Nikka.  It was warm, the breeze smelled of the tropics, and there was sand everywhere. We headed home to drink more champagne, so that part is not totally the opposite of Lapland!

All Phuket photos here

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

New Year's Eve; A Chilly Story

We try to vary our New Year's Eve trips between cold and warm weather locations. Some wonder aloud to us why we would want to hang out in the dark and freezing cold, why we wouldn't always want to be on a warm tropical beach. But honestly, it is fun to get all bundled up! And the snow and the cold add a certain light, a certain serenity to places. Now a beach ain't a bad situation either!

For New Year's Eve 2013 six of us were in a log cabin in the tiny town of Äkäslompolo, Finland. This is an area in Lapland 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The town boarders a lake by the same name. Here it is, the red dot on the map, you can see that it is about as north as you can get before you fall into the Barents Sea. So yeah, it was cold. And beautiful.

The morning of New Year's Eve we were all picked up by bus and taken about an hour north to a reindeer farm. I don't think too many people have typed that sentence before! The family who owns the farm has had it and their herd for many years, and makes their living off of all things reindeer. This was no tourist show, although they host many, even the traditional Sami dress is something they still wear. We booked our tour through Destination Lapland

We started the day with a sled ride, ours pulled by Rocky, and each couple got their own sled. The reindeer were harnessed together with one being the lead so there was no need to drive or do anything except for enjoy the ride. As they got to running, Matt & Vio's reindeer who was behind us, tried to pass! We were all laughing and having a great time!

When we finished our ride we were invited into the owners' home for lunch. There was homemade reindeer soup (don't be the slow sled puller!), fresh baked bread, and blueberry juice. The owner told me she also grows her own vegetables for the soup. It was all absolutely delicious. 

After our lunch it was our turn to feed the reindeer. The eat dried moss and the farm owners buy it in bulk. They get pretty excited when those bags of moss come out!

With both people and reindeer being satisfied, we gathered around a toasty fire, the logs covered with pelts, and were offered coffee and cookies. They passed around some horns so everyone could feel how heavy there are and then taught everyone how to throw a lasso, practicing around some mounted horns. There was a traditional teepee to check out and also a little museum they had put together of their family history and artifacts of the Sami culture. It was all so interesting, cool, and fun!

Once we got home Forest and I walked (with sleds) to the grocery store and returned to make a nice dinner for everyone. We stared with some lovely foie gras that Forest & Thibault had brought from France, as well as some patė, and elk sausage we had bought in Estonia. And cocktails of course! Then we cooked a nice baked salmon dinner with roasted potatoes, cucumbers in yogurt, and green salad.

After dinner we all walked down to the frozen lake, armed with champagne bottles and flasks. The streetlights were turned off and luminaries were lit and lining the snowy sidewalks. We gathered with the rest of the town and lined up to purchase paper lanterns. At midnight everyone lit and released their lanterns, and we all took our turn setting ours upward. 

We watched as the lanterns floated peacefully up into the sky, little lights twinkling (mine crashed and burned in a tree!), drank our champagne, and then walked home through the snowy night.

Photos here

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Napa Weekends, Part 2

Earlier this month, Dave and Rachel invited Dayne and I to join them and their two girls for the weekend at their house in St. Helena. I'd been last summer but this was Dayne's first time at their new place. The six of us grabbed a late afternoon flight down on a chilly Seattle February Friday and landed to a balmy evening at the Santa Rosa airport.

Being that the weather called for mid 70's all weekend Dayne had reserved a convertible for us but when he went to the Avis counter they said they were all out of them! We slid over to the Enterprise counter and not only did they have one but they matched the price. I'm going to remember that in the future.

Once we got to their house, Dave opened some champagne and built a fire in the outdoor fire pit, we grilled some pork loin for dinner, I opened a nice bottle of Leonetti that I had brought down with me (like coal to Newcastle as a friend of mine says), and we spent a little time in the relaxing hot tub.
The next morning Rachel and I took the convertible and drove to Round Pond where I'd made us a tasting appointment. The winery also makes their own olive oil and you can book a tour to see that, as well as actual cellar tours. We didn't have a lot of time so we just did the wine tasting in their Zinc Bar. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and it would have been fabulous to spend time on their patio but that was reserved for another type of tasting event.
The wines were quite nice, so we finished up our tasting with some purchasing, and then headed off to meet Dave, Dayne and the girls for a tasting at Wicker. Ron Wicker produces wine from his Howell Mountain vineyard, where his house is also conveniently located. We arrived at his home where his wife Laurie and he poured their Burgundy style Chardonnay (fantastic!) and also a selection of his Cab Sauvs. They are incredibly nice people who are very generous with their time, Ron walked us out to the vineyards for a bit; so small and on such a hill. Ron also demonstrated the Coravin for us while opening an older vintage bottle for us, that cool gadget is going on my wish list! Anyone else have one? Thoughts?

Our appointment at Wicker ran quite a bit longer than we expected and we were all starving as it was about 3:30 in the afternoon by this time. Dayne and I took the girls in the convertible and we all headed to downtown St Helena for a late lunch/early dinner at Cook Tavern.
I had a nice cocktail, and Dayne and I shared some tasty fried pickles. Dinners were all good and the staff was great at helping us find things for the girls to eat. Headed home after dinner for some pool and hot tub time, wine, fire pit, and a movie. Perfect Valentine's day!

The next day all of us drove up to Spring Mountain to Newton Winery for a reserved tour and tasting. The vineyards, views, and winery are all gorgeous. The tour was very interesting and the wine tasting was held afterwards in a private room with views of the valley. Very nice! Dave and I had gone in on a case of their unfiltered Cab years back so it was great to see where it had come from and also to pick up some more.

At lunchtime Rachel and I left the guys and the girls at Gott's Roadside as we had spa appointments across the street and the line to order was taking too long. But after our massages the two of us headed back over and had a late lunch of tacos, burgers, and wine outside on the picnic tables. There is something just so RIGHT about being able to order wine with your roadside burger! The line was still crazy long when we left at about 3:30pm. *I've got a special secret hint for my friends when going here to bypass the crazy line. You know how to reach me ;)

We had a nice walk back to the house and joined our gang in the pool. Later that night, after some hot tub time, the boys went out and brought back pizzas for dinner. We had a great time relaxing, making s'mores on the fire pit, and then chilling with wine and movies.

The next morning we woke up to another 75F degree day so Dayne and I spent an hour sunning ourselves by the pool before packing and leaving our friends to a day on their own. We stopped in Calistoga for a casual lunch of fish tacos at Palisade's Deli enjoyed al fresco on the way to the airport.

The drive to Santa Rosa was lovely and warm, we were so happy to have the convertible (in February!!). We boarded the little prop plane and headed home  to some sun of our own (but no where near 75F!) Big thanks to our friends for a wonderful weekend!

Recent Napa photos here

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Napa Weekends, Part 1

Friends of mine, who recently bought and remodeled a house in St. Helena, have been generous in inviting me down for relaxing, and hot, weekends in wine country. The first time was in August of last summer, we had a girls trip when Rachel's husband was away.

Gail and I flew on a tiny (by my standards) prop plane into the tiny (by anyones standards) one-airline Santa Rosa airport, right in the heart of Sonoma. From here it was a quick and gorgeous drive to St. Helena.

One day we loaded into the car and drove to the town of Napa, not for wine tasting but to visit my friend Steve and his awesome retail store Rancho Gordo. Steve started this business years ago at the Napa farmers market when he sold tomatoes, lucrative in the summer but not so much in the winter. He decided to try selling heirloom beans in the off-season and this local chef, Thomas Keller, you may have heard of him, pronounced the beans not only incredibly delicious but also gorgeous! When they startied using them at The French Laundry things really took off.

I "met" Steve online via way back in the day, and had the pleasure of seeing him in person while he worked the farmers market in San Francisco outside the Ferry Plaza. Now he has a retail shop inside the Ferry Plaza and another fantastic shop in Napa. The shop is overflowing with an amazing selection of his heirloom beans, gorgeous clay cooking vessels, cookbooks, hot sauces, spices, etc. Steve was a fantastic host, taking us into the processing and packaging areas, as well as helping Rachel's young girls pick out some special beans that they could plant on their own.

Our next stop was Monticello Vineyards, where Gail knew the owners, always a good thing! The grounds here are gorgeous and as the name might hint, there is a recreation of Jefferson's Monticello home. Gail and I tasted through some very good wine while Rachel and the girls played in the gardens. One or more of the Rancho Gordo beans may or may not have been planted somewhere on the grounds. Let me know if anyone spies a bean stalk.

Lunch time! We drove up the Silverado Trail to the very beautiful Solage Resort and had a delicious lunch on the patio. This place is popular with locals and tourists so I'd suggest booking a reservation as Rachel had. They have a great selection of wines (natch) including a "neighbors list". Our wine, a Burgundy blanc style, came from the vineyards directly across the street. Two little girls may or may not have also planted a bean or two here...

We swung next door to Lava Cellars for another quick tasting and it was quite a party as both the guys behind the counter were taking a break to give a little live music concert on their guitars.

Temperatures were soaring so we decided it was time to head home, hit the pool, and cool off. The only problem with our plan turned out to be that the night before, as we relaxed in the hot tub, which is built into the pool, we inadvertently increased the temp of the pool to the same 102F of the hot tub. Off to the store Rachel and I went to purchase 100+ pounds of ice cubes and blocks which melted almost immediately upon dumping them in. On the plus side, the hot tub was a perfect temperature that evening.

The next morning Gail and I had an incredibly enjoyable walk into downtown St Helena for massage appointments at the Health Spa Napa. We didn't take advantage of all the amenities -- yoga class, lap pool, sauna -- but we both had fabulous massages. On the way home we stopped at St Helena Olive Oil Company and picked up some interesting sparkling white wine vinegar and olive oil.

Right down the street from Rachel's house is the amazing Spottswoode Winery and that weekend they were having their summer wine club garden party. The grounds are absolutely stunning with the family mansion looking out onto the vineyards, lush lawns and gardens, and a pond style pool. Live music, fresh shucked oysters, a pizza oven, and a huge cheese stand accompanied the wine pours. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

This time when the temps soared the pool was a better temperature to help us all cool off. And chilled bottles of champers didn't hurt either.

The five of us had a good dinner in the town that night at La Condesa, an upscale Mexican inspired eatery, although I will say that service was almost painfully slow.

Gail and I wrapped up our Napa trip by missing our flight home. TSA lines at the tiny airport were crowded with passengers because of delayed and on-time flights all queuing at the same time. The ground crewman literally closed the gate as we ran up, even after the Alaska Air desk called to let them know we were stuck behind a wheelchair passenger. Oh travel, how I love you.

A quick car rental, a scenic drive through Sonoma and Napa, past an accordion festival, up to Sacramento for the next flight to Seattle. You can't script those kinds of experiences.

And on your next trip to Napa, keep an eye open for some random bean stalks...

All photos here