Category: Let’s Go!


I used to have a sign hanging in my kitchen – Bloom Where You’re Planted.   It always reminded me that quality of life was in direct proportion to perspective.  Being at peace with where I was made it that much easier to find the beauty around me.  It’s always there  if we look so I made it a practice to not wish my life away, wanting to be somewhere else.  But it’s also nice to have a little getaway now and then – to experience something different and learn about new things.  It was with that in mind that we recently headed up the Pacific Coast Highway (320 miles and 5 hrs) to the sweeping, pastoral grandeur of Paseo Robles and its impressive wine region. 

Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the area known as the Central Coast Region, Paso Robles has become a wine and food lovers delight and destination.  The Santa Lucia Mountain Range causes the climate to provide nearly perfect growing conditions for the grapes and I can attest to its delicious hot dry days and cool crisp nights –  perfect for exploring, dining and sleeping.  Is there anything better?

Once best known for  cattle and grain, the land surrounding Paso Robles is now almost exclusively dedicated to grapes and orchards filled with precision plantings of walnut, olive and almond trees.  There is an overwhelming feeling of orderliness that is at once calming and satisfying.  The smaller vineyards also give one the sense that somehow we’ve stumbled into a privileged and well-kept secret.  Lucky us.  Intimate restaurants with an eye towards culinary excellence have cropped up all around the charming area and are poised to compliment these wonderful vineyards that are no doubt giving Napa a run for the money. Lovely to have an intelligent conversation with the Vineyard representatives and not have people jammed up eight-deep at the tasting bar.

The number of wineries in the area is staggering – over 200, and they are all tucked into the country roads that wind through the pristine rolling hills.  All offer tastings and tours of their facilities, a fee for which is waived if a purchase is made. I readily admit to being a “common sewer of wine,”  and I fully expected that most of the “tastings” would be lost on me.  But with a little coaching from our most knowledgable guide and new BFF, Michael Garcia, even I began to appreciate the subtle differences between a Sauvignon or a Grenache.

Winemaking is a fascinating blend of art and science and isn’t for the faint of heart or the investor looking to make a fast buck.  It’s a labor of love that is anything but a poor man’s game when the vintner must wait for years for the vines to mature before knowing whether or not they can expect a drinkable harvest.  Even then fickle mother nature can play havoc, with entire crops being lost to too much rain, not enough rain; too much heat, not enough heat; blights, molds, fungus and on and on. 

An interesting example of the quality small vineyards found in the area is Halter Ranch – where in 2000 Swiss entrepreneur Hansjorg Wyss restored a 1,000 acre 19th century ranch.  They now have 240 acres dedicated to twenty varieties of vines which are currently producing about 35,000 bottles a year.   Their wine making process, with gleaming stainless steel vats and hoppers, is certified sustainable and is a green, state-of-the-art operation in every way.  From energy to gravity to water and resource conservation to sourcing their oak barrels, every aspect of the estate is approached with scientific precision.  Theirs is a very impressive 150 year plan. 

Think the best olive oil has to come from Italy?  Think again.  Award winning Pasolivo Olive Oil farm boasts 6,000 organically farmed trees, olives from which are handpicked and pressed right on the property, usually in late November.  We sampled exquisite oils made from the last harvest and silky and delicate flavors such as rosemary or citrus had our mouths watering for more. I was chomping at the bit to try some on pasta, which I certainly did upon our return home.  Outstanding.

Although we found fine dining experiences a surprising norm, I must single out  McPhee’s Grill in the nearby village of Templeton.  The restaurant, in an old farm-house on the Main Street was an Outstanding Culinary Highlight.  A simple salad of butter lettuce with ruby grapefruit, spicy carmalized nuts and port vinaigrette was followed by a macadamia nut encrusted halibut with a ginger sesame vinaigrette, cocoanut rice and asian slaw.  Nothing exotic, just delicately and expertly executed by extraordinary chef Ian McPhee.  Our dinners were paired with a 2005 Linne Calodo Zinfandel that had everyone at the table nodding with satisfaction – even me!  I don’t have the vocabulary to describe our desert of apricot bread pudding with a warm anglaise.  The menu touted it as one time won’t matter Well, that’s not entirely true because honestly, it did matter.  It was unforgettably, simply heaven.

After a week, we were happy to head back home where I’m now scouring my recipe books for all the new tastes we experienced, like the orange curd on our breakfast scones, and those delicate vinaigrettes I mentioned. In the next few weeks my kitchen will be blooming with the new tastes and flavors that I’m planting in my own kitchen – for today and for many years to come.

Movie Review:

A quartet is a composition for four instruments or voices; a group of things that are considered a unit, or that belong together.

thequartet

And so it is that this Quartet is the most endearing of films and it’s that belonging thing that tugs at your heart throughout this thoughtful, touching, charming story about living in the moment, no matter how fleeting those moments are as we face the final chapters of our lives.

A home for aging musicians on the magnificent grounds of “Beecham House*” is the setting for three of the most delightful aging stars in the opera firmament: Tom Courtenay as Regie, Billy Connolly as Wilf and Pauline Collins as Cissy.  Enter the diva of all divas, Maggie Smith as Jean, who cannot face the realities of her reduced circumstances –  financially, professionally, physically, emotionally – but then, who of us can do it with much aplomb?

Dustin Hoffman directs this story of love, humor and reconciliation with a concert master’s touch.  Tom Courtenay’s kind and aging gigolo is completely charming without lurching into lechery; Cissy’s addled memory-lapses are the perfect foil for tension breaking; and Reggie is perhaps more devastatingly handsome with age.   The apex of their collective operatic careers was their performance in Verdi’s Rigoletto and its famous act III quartet “one of the finest examples of ensemble writing in all of opera.”

The annual fund-raising Gala is looming.  Diva Jean’s arrival introduces the irresistible possibility bigger donors if the quartet will only reunite.  Will they do it?  Can they do it – will their voices hold up?  And what of the smoldering love once felt for two of our stars?  Can they be reunited as well?

BeechamHouseGive yourself a treat and see for yourself.   Tears, laughter, lovely sentimentality, compassion, glorious music, human emotion, happy ending.  This quartet definitely belongs together.  What more could you want?

* Hedsor House was once the home of the Dowager Princess of Wales, mother of George III, (aka Beecham House in the film) in Buckinghamshire, England.  It has only been open to the public since 2008.

Benbulben Mountain, County Sligo

Ireland personifies the words magical, brooding and windswept.  Every vista was breathtaking, made all the more so by a lashing rain that vanished as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind a shocking panorama of blues and greens that defied my camera’s lens.  It’s impossible to capture the aching loneliness of the moors or the  mystical, misty clouds that shrouded the barren hills and bogs, hinting of faeries and such. 

This is not a country that embraces the whole of the 21st or even the 20th century – the best of the old is preserved while only some of the new is embraced.   Dublin’s modern architecture is right at home amongst the Palladian splendor or stately Georgian houses of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The modern DART rapid rail system, complete with WiFi, speeds past Dickensian row-house neighborhoods reminiscent of Billy Elliot.   It’s a country that is comfortable with contradictions and contrasts. 

There is something important to be said for the national pride that is so apparent in the Irish culture.  For me it’s a plausible explanation for why so many of Irish descent celebrate their traditions long after they have assimilated elsewhere.  Whether or not it’s appreciated is a separate  issue, but credit must be given to a people who have lived for centuries under the harshest conditions and who do not abandon their heritage.  As an example, the British tried in vein to banish the lyrical Gaelic language (which dates back to the 4th century) even going to the extreme of punishment during the 17th and 18th centuries if children spoke Irish at school.  Today efforts encourage its usage which is evident in signage throughout the country. 

Strokestown, County Roscommon

Two museums were standouts.  Yes, museums can be deadly dull, and these two – the National Museum of Country Life in County Mayo and the Famine Museum in County Roscommon, might have been so, had it not been for what I was willing to see with fresh eyes. 

 The Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s is a vague memory from our history books.  This museum in Strokestown, on the grounds of a typical example of feudalism, brings to life  heart-wrenching examples of how during the mid 1800s, crop failure and starvation impacted 2-4 million tenant-farm families.  Most died while the landlords did very little to help.  This devastating famine marked the beginning of the collapse of the landlord/tenant farmer system, which had existed from the 11th century.    

In America we assume home ownership.  In Ireland and indeed much of the world, it is still very much a privilege of the few.  We forget how very fortunate we are in America, to have the freedom to achieve, based on our efforts, not on an accident of birth. 

Example of Thatched Roofing

The Museum of Country Life is a four level example that proves that ingenuity is indeed the mother of invention.  Imagine living in a world where whatever you need you must create yourself.  No retail stores, no corner markets, few  tradesmen other than the blacksmith and the coppersmith,  no resources except the land, your hands and your creativity.   Imagine the harshest land left barren by glaciers;  clearing a field of its buried rocks with your bare hands; only the most basic tools to dig or cut; no wheelbarrow to haul the rocks away.  Need a basket?  Grow the reeds first and then weave the basket into a shape that will hold the rocks, or the potatoes, or the fish.  Need clothing?  Raise the sheep, gather the wool, spin it on your spinning wheel, then figure out some sort of loom on which to weave the wool into blankets and sweaters.  Need a roof for your stone cottage which you built by hand using the rocks cleared from the field.  Grow the thatch and then figure out how to “weave” the thatch into a waterproof roof that will last five to ten years. 

Home of Lord Mountbatten

It’s simply AMAZING what  humans can do with basic survival instincts.  I’m sure such examples are  found throughout the world, but my visit to Ireland gave me a new appreciation of the indomitable spirit of the Irish people. 

The country is beautiful, the roads are good,  the people are warm and generous, the music is charming, accommodations were luxurious and the food – mouth-wateringly delicious.  What more could you want?  The only negative was finding a wall plug for the electrical adapter — 220 electric you know. 

If you go:  Take the time to know the area you are going to visit, and use a good guide book such as Fodors, as well as engaging local guides such as Slainte Ireland Tours so that your time is well spent.  Our guide James Henry, part of the official Tour Guide Association of Ireland, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his country, which he enthusiastically shared with us on a private day tour of County Mayo. 

Guide James Henry of Slainte Ireland Tours

During my previous life, (while a resident of Scotland, UK) I spent more than a few harrowing weekends in Belfast, Ireland.  It wasn’t uncommon to return to a previously visited shop or nightclub, only to find the place reduced to a pile of rubble.  And so it was with that thought, that returning to Ireland and the land of  “The Troubles” was never high on my list.  In a heartbeat I could rattle off five other countries that I’d rather visit. 

However, when the opportunity arose for my husband to participate in a two-week golf outing, which included being part of the American team in a tournament,  I did the good-wife-thing and hoped for the best.   First rule of travel:  Don’t hope for the best.  Insure your successful travels with good research.  Become familiar with the area you are visiting.  Leaving things to chance assures you that at least half of your precious time will be wasted backtracking, or discovering that museums are not open on Mondays, or that the distance between locations is not relative to American distances traversed on reliable, straight roads.    

Every country is interesting if you open your mind  and work at not being the typical American who judges all things by American Standards.  That is an exercise in frustration.  In my travels I’ve heard more than a few Americans shouting loudly at the shop clerk “How much is that in real money?”   So I steeled my usually prickly self to work at being tolerant of another country’s cultural complexities. 

Ireland is steeped in history and much of the country remains relatively untouched –  rural and wild.   What the Irish consider the highlights of a particular area, might not be your cup of tea but there are gems and surprises to be found in the nooks and crannies of a country as old as this one is.  However, the pristinely neat and clean country was more than refreshing.  Ecologically mindful, plastic bags and bill boards are almost non-existent,  smoking is banned almost everywhere, and the food was mouth-watering in presentation and delivery.

Our first week was spent on the east coast north of Dublin at the Portmarnock Golf Resort with our room facing the the Irish Sea.   The city of Dublin is full of the most unusual architectural elements, many of which are quite modern such as the Aviva sports arena, which had us gasping with surprise.  Click the link and see what I mean!

More about our trip and our visit to the West Country and the hunting estate called Mt. Falcon.

Sorry that we don’t have enough bandwidth to upload interesting photos…that will have to wait.   But honestly now, who expected any bandwidth at all???

The Coachella Valley has always been known to inspire artistic expression – it’s a magnet for galleries and the home of artisans of all types who find the weather and desert setting conducive to creativity.   As a writer I see the valley’s subtle beauty at every turn and it makes me want to find new and different ways to express myself. 

The Southwestern Art Festival, which concluded several weeks ago was just one of a series that we get to enjoy during the high season.  

Above, making music with a didgeridoo and calf slapping sea shells.  If you don’t know about this aboriginal instrument,  click here and have a listen.  

The Indian madonna on the right needs no explanation.  It’s simply beauty.

Perhaps garden art is more your thing.  The cactus on the left is made entirely of golf clubs.  A better use for them?  The palm tree on the right will never ever need water, just a little polish if you want to keep it shining. 

Perhaps you will find these extreme examples of what was offered – of course there were the myriad traditionalists painting their desert landscapes and flower arrangements, but these examples remind us that art of all kinds, is in the eye of the beholder. The point is, the viewer is bound to find something pleasing, no matter what your taste. 

If you missed the Southwestern offering, you can still enjoy LaQuinta Arts Festival  March 8-11 and Indian Wells Arts Festival April 6-8.  Or do the art galleries on El Paseo in Palm Desert anytime – or head over to Palm Springs and do the same on South Palm Canyon.   On a recent visit to several of the galleries on El Paseo we were delighted with everything from whimsical animal statuary to exquisite oils that unexpectedly transported us to the Italian countryside. 

You just have to get out and see the world with fresh eyes.

 Fresh.  Healthy.  Seriously.  Support local growers.  Fun.  Entertainment.  Breakfast.  What could be bad?

Farmers Market  Sundays   8 to 12  Old Towne LaQuinta.

Cruising the Western Caribbean

In these pictures the Solstice and her identical twin sister the Equinox docked side-by-side in Grand Caymen.  It was an awesome sight.

Today’s cruise ships are bloated floating cities that carry more than two thousand five hundred passengers and a crew of more than twelve hundred.  They come complete with movie theaters, libraries, internet cafes, cable television  and boutique shops.  If you’re in need of an intimate experience, this probably isn’t it. 

We cruise because we like to STOP and be entertained, eat, read or sleep — Our itinerary is set; we don’t have to pack, reserve a car, or think about where we’re going to eat.   Well, that last part isn’t exactly true.  These days cruise companies  have created new up charge features – specialty dining experiences that do require reservations, but they’re worth it because they put the rest of the ship’s culinary efforts to shame. 

But that being said, our week aboard the Celebrity Solstice was our tenth cruise and it was heaven to be waited on whenever we wanted.  The bed was made and the towels were always fresh.  Champagne arrived with the canapes  promptly at four.  Long ago we figured out that if you get organized you can eat twelve times a day, but then, who wants to be organized on a cruise? 

The Solstice was the largest one in our experience, at one thousand forty-one feet long and one hundred twenty-one wide.  There is something to be said for the sheer marvel of engineering that modern ships employ.  

The Solstice and her four ecologically designed sister ships (all built in Germany)  are powered by Azipods – marine propulsion units with electrically driven propellers, which are  mounted on steerable pods – very little vibration, very little rock and roll, very little wake.   The elevators are powered by movable solar panels that cover the indoor swimming pool.  Most refuse goes into a high temperature burn facility and other food refuse is ground and fed to marine life.  Recycled materials are crushed and bundled for deposit at the end of the cruise. 

For me the one non sequitur was the real grass growing on the putting green on deck 16…I couldn’t quite envision one of the crew up there with a lawnmower…

Our ports of call were Cozumel Mexico, Roatan Honduras and Grand Cayman Island.  But if you’ve cruised the Caribbean before and aren’t there for the snorkeling & diving, or Mayan archeological wonders – or the ship’s casino – you’ve probably seen more than enough of the interchangeable jewelry shops and desperately sad  trinket hawkers trying to get the attention of the tourists who  like scurrying ants leaving a disturbed nest, are disgorged from the ship in every port.   So in the end, it for us it’s more about the on-board experiences. 

Clebrity Cruises, founded by the Greek Chandris Group is known by the signature X that appears on the side of the ship signifying the Greek letter Chi.  Most of the crew is Indonesian:  attentative, beyond pleasant and delightfully efficient.  Senior officers are mostly Greek and Dutch.  

The only fly in our ointment was the front-of-the-house culinary personnel  who were from the Eastern Bloc nations and were beyond overly officious and off-putting.

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