California Dreamin’

I had started writing about Napa and Sonoma while visiting there in August.  I got distracted (which is not uncommon for me) and completely forgot about this post, leaving it to languish  in my drafts folder until now.

Since then, fire has destroyed parts of some of the areas we had visited.  Sadly, right now, southern California is also burning.

According to this Forbes article, the percentage of wineries damaged fortunately was low.  So, time to publish this lost post to remind everyone of the glories of California wine country.  Please visit, and bring your tourist dollars to an area that needs our support.  You’ll  have fun doing so–as we did last August.

My “lost post” follows:

It has become abundantly clear that our one and only offspring has become a Californian.  As with everything in life, there is an upside to having our son three time zones away.  We now have yet another reason to visit the greater San Francisco area.

So here’s the sad truth.  My memory is definitely NOT what It used to be.  I realized that I have been using my WordPress Posts as my memory bank, helping me to figure out where I was and when.  Unfortunately, I neglected to post about our past California winery trips–and was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t remember which ones we visited, and which ones were favorites, worthy of a return trip.  SO, this post is designed to correct that shortcoming.   If it is helpful to others that plan to visit wine country and the greater San Francisco area, so much the better.  It’s my way of giving back to all the generous bloggers and posters who offer travel tips, answer my questions on forums, share information on Trip Advisor.   Thank you!

Let’s start with the airport.  Whether you are renting a car, or taking mass transit, you will take the terminal’s elevator to the third floor, follow the signs for the skybridge and hop on the blue Sky Train.  That same train will take you to the BART and Caltrain, if you opt for that mode of transportation.  Last time, we took the BART.  As I vaguely recall, it was relatively easy to use the machines to buy tickets.  (Next time, I’ll pay attention and post about it.)  THIS time, we were heading to Santa Rosa, so we rented a car.  All of the rental car desks are at the same BART stop.

Note to self: Next time we rent a car, be sure to pre-register for the express option (or whatever the car company calls it).  We cooled our heels for about an hour waiting in line for our Budget rental.  Ah, the things you forget when you haven’t had an assistant arranging your business travel in almost six years!

For lodging, we did a mix of hotel and vacation rental.  In the past, I only used VRBO, and was very pleased with our selections.  This time, inspired by Janis over at Retirementally Challenged we decided to try AirBNB.  I had had the mistaken impression that with AirBNB you rented rooms in people’s houses.  In the past, the rentals I viewed had fewer photos than the rentals on VRBO.  As with most things in life, it is good to update your perceptions every now and then.  We were delighted with this beautiful little house in Santa Rosa.

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For about $300 a night, we had a “serene, centrally located 1500 square foot”  2 bedroom, 2 bath house in a nice neighborhood in Santa Rosa, within walking distance of a few restaurants, a good wine store (that sold killer chocolate truffles) and close enough to the county fair grounds that you could sit outside and listen to the evening concerts, if you were so inclined.  We LOVED it!

Santa Rosa has more than its fair share of great restaurants. Our first night, before our son joined us, we dined at John Ash & Co.IMG_4910

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Parkside Cafe

The setting was lovely, with lots of windows, overlooking gorgeous gardens.  The food and wine were good, but was it worth $250 for 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, one desert and one bottle of not expensive wine?  The answer is a resounding “NO”!  Good thing our son wasn’t with us.  We would have blown our entire travel budget on that meal alone.  Fortunately, much better values were awaiting us.

Both the Parkside Cafe and Two Spinsters offered wonderful breakfasts.  We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at LoCoco’s Cucina Rustica in downtown Santa Rosa.  But MY very favorite meal was at Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant, Rustica, in Geyersville. (The Californians sure do like the name “Rustica”, don’t they?)

I opted for the Menu Di Stagione, which was 4 courses with paired wines for $69 (plus tax and tip). What a feast!  I started with gazpacho, followed by caesar salad, then this delicious  rack of lamb, ending with chocolate mouse.

as you can see from the glasses, I was having a hard time keeping up with the wine pairings

According to the menu, each course was accompanied by 3 oz. wine pairings, but my perception was those were very generous 3 ounces.  The only mistake we made was doing a wine tasting BEFORE lunch.  To say I was happy by the time the chocolate mousse rolled around, would have been an understatement.

We had never spent $90 for a bottle of wine, and after tasting this expensive stuff, I’ve concluded we aren’t missing much.

It was fun seeing the movie memorabilia.  In addition to photos, posters and other props, you can get up close and personal with the godfather’s desk.  Well, not too close.  You aren’t allowed to sit in his chair and put your feet on the desk.  Don’t ask how I know that.

The winery grounds are absolutely beautiful.  If you want, you can make a day of it, by renting a cabana and hanging out by the pool.  If you plan on swimming, it might be an excellent idea to wait till later for the wine tasting.

This is definitely a winery I’d visit again.  I’d just skip the tasting and go directly to lunch or dinner.  Speaking of dinner, after our huge lunch, we were all satisfied with a snack that night.

Our other favorite winery was actually one we had visited before.  I recognized it as soon as we arrived there.  Beringers has a fantastic tour of its winery.

We took it years ago and greatly enjoyed the experience.  THIS time, we just went for the tasting.  What we learned:  If you are a member of their wine club, (our son is)  the “basic” wine tasting is free for up to four people. 

Sadly, this tasting proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am indeed a peasant.  Can I tell the difference between $70 and $170 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon?  I cannot.  I can’t even tell the difference between their $48 bottle of wine and the $10 bottles we normally consume.

For our final evening, we switched from our airBNB to a hotel.  The River Terrace Inn, as the name suggests, is right on the river that runs through Napa.  It is ideally located–you can stroll along the path that hugs the river to the nearby CIA, where we feasted on a wonderful, and inexpensive dinner.  (That’s Culinary Institute of America, not the spy organization–although their food is probably delicious too.)

Yes, that big fork is made up of thousands of little forks!

Also nearby is Oxbow Public Market, site of the Kitchen Door Restaurant, which makes the most amazing mushroom soup on this planet.  That soup alone would justify a trip to Napa.

We didn’t make it to Mike’s favorite restaurant, the Rutherford Grill (in Rutherford, of course), but there’s always next time.  I hope there’s a next time (or a first time) in wine country for you too.

 

 

 

 

Disney’s Magic

Every now and then you have to experience a very different kind of travel, and for me, that time is tomorrow.   I’ve never been on a big cruise ship, never chose a cruise that featured only one port and never cruised with children.  If those things had been on my bucket list, I’d be getting ready to cross them off.

Disney’s Magic sets sail tomorrow from Manhattan’s cruise terminal for a 4 night trip to St. John, New Brunswick, then back.  Just getting ready for the cruise has been a learning experience.  For example, Cruise Critic is NOT the “go to” place to get information about THIS cruise.  Nope. My niece discovered that the happening site is Facebook, where she located a private group just for our particular cruise.

Let me tell you, there is quite a Disney culture out there.  People have been getting ready for this event for some time, creating their “FE’s” and special gifts to put in the FEs.  Until yesterday, I had no idea what an “FE” is, and I bet you don’t either.  It stands for “Fish Extender” and it is some sort of container that you hang from your door.  Does that help?   I promise a future post will include at least one photo of a Fish Extender, so if a Disney Cruise is in your future, you can decide whether or not you want one.

The people on the page are all very helpful and friendly, so I’m looking forward to a great time.  The theme for this cruise is Halloween on the High Seas.  Not only is there an opportunity to wear a Halloween costume, but there is also “pirate night”.  There IS a costume, of sorts, in my luggage.  I’m going to be a princess.  I know,  not very imaginative, but SOMEONE has to lower the bar, right?

Speaking of princesses… right now these two are en route from Massachusetts, with mom and dad.  Arriving shortly.  The excitement level is sky high!

 

 

Ten Random Reasons to visit Malta

If you plan on vacationing in Italy, why not extend your visit a smidgen and hop over to Malta?  This amazing little country has an abundance of things to see and do, especially if you are interested in history and archaeology. We spent five days there in late May, and felt that our timing was perfect…perfect weather, not too crowded, reasonably priced.  Yep, there was a whole lot to like about Malta.

It is very easy to get to Malta from Italy.  Although we could have taken a ferry from Catania, we opted for the less expensive, faster way, via Air Malta.

The title of this post is “RANDOM Reasons” to visit Malta and that’s exactly what you are getting.  Not order of importance, or magnificence–just the order in which they popped into this lazy blogger’s head.

1. The Grand Excelsior Hotel

P1180753It’s beautiful, it’s just outside Valetta’s wall, it’s close to buses that can take you wherever you want to go, the service is great, the pool is fantastic, the views from the restaurant and bars are incredible, and it is relatively inexpensive (at least it was in May, with several months advance booking. )

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The Excelsior’s pool at sunset

Be forewarned, though. The hotel is located below street level.  88 steps below, to be exact. The steps aren’t steep, but you WILL get your exercise.  Which can be a good thing, if you eat as much as WE did.

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The hike up those stairs is so worth it, because where else can you find…

2. Flower Shaped Gelato

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Although there is an abundance of gelaterias in Malta, Amorino was our favorite.  You can’t miss it–it is on Republic Street (the main street), on the right, if you are coming through the city gates. Your flower can have as many flavors as you want.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

And since we are on the subject of food, we discovered this wonderful restaurant close to the Blue Grotto.

3. La Cucina de Bettina

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The owner of the restaurant was also our waiter. That’s him, in the black tee, explaining the menu to customers.

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I’m ordinarily not a HUGE seafood fan, but this was incredible–the best tuna I have ever tasted!  Fresh?  Well, the owner told us our lunch had been swimming in the ocean just a few hours before.  Take a look.

No, that was not the serving size, but close.

We also had a wonderful antipasto platter, and a bottle of wine recommended by the owner/waiter.  I should have made a note of what we spent for this feast.  All I can remember was that it cost MUCH less than we ever expected!

I could go on and on about the Malta food, but I’m sure you get the idea.  It was delicious, varied and affordable.

4. Valetta

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Let’s just start with the festive Republic Street.

Yes, it does look a bit crowded, but if you want a more peaceful experience, all you need to do is duck down a side street.  Cruise ships dock in Valetta, so when multiple ships are in town, you do get throngs, but after 5, the city is yours.

The Grand Master’s Palace is on Republic Street, and there IS a guard changing ceremony every day.

Other activities in Valetta definitely deserve their OWN number, like…

5. The Malta Experience

P1180772Perhaps you arrived in Malta without doing any research at all.  You know NOTHING about its history or the history of its many invaders.  Not to worry.  All you need to do is buy a ticket to The Malta Experience, then sit back and enjoy.  You will be quickly brought up to speed!  There are other options on the island, including one that promised you a 5D experience (moving seats, water spray, air blasts and leg ticklers) but this was the one we chose and we were not disappointed.  Now if we had been traveling with children, we probably would have opted for the multi-sensory extravaganza.

6. St John’s Co Cathedral

It is impossible to capture the majesty and magnificence of this building.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside.  In fact, we walked past it a couple of times without even noticing it.  But walk inside and WOW!

 

We’ve hit a lot of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, and the Americas, but this has to be the most jaw-dropping one I have ever encountered.

“The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the Co-Cathedral, but just off to the side.  I needed to ask directions to find it.

The painting is HUGE–it fills a wall.  You can’t get close to it, so I was unable to verify whether Caravaggio’s signature was formed by the blood flowing from the Baptist’s neck.  TIP: If you go, bring binoculars or opera glasses to get a better view.

You are not allowed to photograph the painting.  If caught, supposedly they confiscate your photo card.

No, I did not break the rules.  This is a photo of a postcard, purchased from the gift shop.  A poor substitute, but better than nothing.

7. Transportation Alternatives 

Here’s another tip: forget about the Hop On Hop Off buses here.  You are better served riding the regular city buses.  They are far less expensive, and more frequent.  Normally we are huge fans of HOHO, but this one had a host of negatives.  Its headsets were not reliable.  Some worked–some didn’t, and the information they provided was not that great.  There were long periods of silence, causing me to wonder whether the headset had stopped working.  I was frequently consulting the brochure to try to figure out where we were.

We soon discovered the HOHO doesn’t necessarily stop in front of attractions listed in their brochure.  But it DID stop at listed attractions that were closed.

We made the mistake of buying the two day, (red and blue) pass, so never tried out the city buses, but we sure saw a lot of them.  Next time, city bus will be our preferred mode of transportation.

If you DO decide to go the way of the HOHO, you can get aboard near the bus station close to the Grand Excelsior.

8. Tarxien Temples

If you are into archaeology, you’ll love the Tarxien Temples.  Full disclosure.  We had wanted to see the Hypogeum, but that was completely booked.  And the Tarxien Temples were supposedly on the HOHO route, (not exactly,  as noted above, but we found our way), so why not?

These four temples date back to the Neolithic age (3600-2500 BC).  The Romans, 2000 years later, used the site for agriculture. The original structures were discovered In 1913, when  local farmers complained about the large blocks of stone they were striking while plowing.

There are other ruins for those that are really, REALLY into prehistory, but this was enough for us.

9. Gozo

We wanted to spend a day touring Gozo, and after our experience with HOHO, decided to book a private tour through the hotel.  We were not disappointed with our choice.  Marco picked us up at 8:30, drove us to and from the ferry and around Gozo, making sure we spent our time the way WE wanted.

View of Gozo harbor from the Ferry

We drove by Popeye’s village, now a tourist trap, formerly the set for Robin William’s 1980 movie, stopping just long enough to take a couple of photos.  

I remember suffering through the Iliad and the Odyssey during my Freshman year in college.  Maybe if I had known I’d be visiting the cave of the nymph who bewitched Odysseus, I would have enjoyed the books more.  (But probably not). The cave was closed because of “geological movement”, so we could only look at a hole in the ground, partially hidden by bushes, but the view of the nearby beach with its red sand was quite lovely.

Gozo had lots of beautiful ocean vistas, a lovely cathedral, a great multimedia show in Rabat, (the old center also known as Victoria), fantastic food—AND this rather graphic painting of St. Agatha.  Seems the Roman suitor she rejected got a bit miffed and decided to cut her breasts off in retaliation.  

She looks remarkably unconcerned, maybe because the little angel hovering over her head (holding a crown) told her that in years to come, the Maltese and Sicilians would create a pastry in her honor.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  They are called “Minni di Sant Aita”. Honest.

The Azure Window would definitely have made the list had we traveled to Gozo in 2016. Unfortunately for us, in March of 2017, the arch tumbled into the sea, so we had to content ourselves with this post card image, and a view of the site where it once stood.  Still a scenic  and lovely area, though.

10. Mdina

The oldest city on the island of Malta, Mdina was built and inhabited by Arabs until they were expelled by the Christians in 1250.   Another fortified city, it has the mandatory moat and gates.

It also has the requisite cathedral, old buildings repurposed as cafes and gift shops, but MY favorite thing was the Palazzo Falzone, a 13th century building loaded with an incredible collection of antiques and the very coolest sound system ever.  

You just put on the headset, point the wand at a plaque on the wall and voila, you have a narrative about the article/ room you are viewing!

Olof Gollcher, a Swedish philanthropist and heir to a shipping fortune, purchased the building in 1927, and used it as a repository for his collections of art, silver, furniture, weapons and books.

There you have it.  This lazy, random blogger got you started.  These ten highlights barely scratch the surface of all that is wonderful and glorious about Malta. The rest is up to you!