Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Avia Hotel Napa

The Avia Hotel Napa is a trendy hip boutique hotel located in downtown Napa, in the heart of California's wine country. The hotel's oversized wrought iron doors open to a modern and spacious lobby with a wine bar providing a convenient place to relax after a long day of wine tasting. The hotel website advertises "complimentary wine tasting every night in the lobby wine bar" however, it's actually a representative from a local winery offering a limited number of tastings. The night we stayed, he ran out of wine within 30 minutes.

The 5-story hotel offers 141 stylish guestrooms and suites with hardwood floors and 9-ft. high ceilings.  The rooms and suites vary in size and luxury. We booked the Master Tub Suite via the hotel's website. Initially we were given the wrong room, the Lux Suite, upon check-in and had to go back to the lobby with our confirmation email pulled up on our iPad to get the correct room. I recommend booking the upgraded Master Tub Suite. The Lux Suite is really just a large room with a too small haphazardly placed wall dividing the living space from the bedroom, whereas the Master Tub Suite had an actual wall dividing the two rooms. The Master Tub Suite included a comfortable king size bed, 42" flat screen television, iPod docking station, coffee maker and organic gourmet coffee, fluffy bath robes, a waterfall shower and an oversized tub located in the bedroom to soak in. The mini-bar is stocked with Dean & Deluca snacks and an assortment of beverages. When you check-in ask the front desk to "unlock" your mini-bar, it took us about ten minutes of fighting with the thing to figure out we had to call the front desk to open it up!

Overall the Avia Hotel Napa is a great hotel for couples staying in Napa. Its conveniently located downtown so you don't have to drive to get a meal or glass of wine. The hotel is contemporary and stylish and quiet which is nice after a hard day of wine tasting.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sun, Surf and All-Night Dance Parties

Nha Trang Beach
Nha Trang, a seaside resort town located on the south central coast, is Vietnam’s beach capital. Nha Trang attracts many types of visitors, from sun worshipers, to scuba diving enthusiasts, to the hard core party goers. If you are looking to explore another side of Vietnam and still catch a few historical sites between mojitos and all-night dance parties, then Nha Trang is your ultimate destination. This idyllic seaside community with its backdrop of jutting mountain tops, palm tree lined white sand beaches, and turquoise colored water dotted with islands offers a plethora of activities to keep you busy.

Nha Trang Beach and Surrounding Islands
The number one attraction in Nha Trang is the beach. For beach bums, the best time to visit is June to October in the dry season but the beach is usually busy with tourists and locals year round. Nha Trang’s 6 kilometer stretch of white sand beach is lined with palm trees, water front promenades, and oceanfront resorts from budget to 5-stars. During the day, the beach is full of activity with vendors selling everything from cigarettes to sunglasses to lunch. Local vendors steam up lobsters, prawns and other delicious seafood in large cast iron pots, and slice up exotic fruits for tourists right next to where they are laying in the sand.  In addition to catching rays on the beach, you can rent a pool side deck chair and enjoy the western style beach resort atmosphere at either one of Nha Trang’s popular pools: Nha Trang Sailing Club or the Louisiana Brewhouse.
Fishing village
Nha Trang offers an assortment of water sports and activities. For the adrenaline junkies, the best time to visit is October through February in the wet season when the sea is rougher.  Numerous shops along the beach offer equipment rental and lessons for kayaking, wake boarding, wind surfing, sailing, jet skiing, paragliding, body boarding and snorkeling. Nha Trang is also the number one scuba diving destination in Vietnam offering the best visibility and cheap PADI certification. If you aren’t into adventure you can enjoy more relaxing water based fun at Phu Dong Water Park located near the beach or the island resort of Vinpearl Land accessible by a scenic cable car with amusement park style rides, arcade games and a water park. A great way to also enjoy the water is on a boat tour of the outlying islands of Nha Trang. For dirt cheap you can take a boat tour visiting four of the nine islands: Mieu Island, Ebony Island, Swallow Island and Bamboo Island. For a break from the sun and surf visit one of the many spas offering cheap massage. The Thap Ba Hot Springs, located a few kilometers outside of Nha Trang, provides the ultimate in relaxation with hot springs, mud baths and a hot artificial mineral waterfall. You can organize a private spa trip with a group of friends for a discount or be a big spender and enjoy the VIP spa.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
 The best way to see the city’s cultural sites is by bike. Po Nagar (Thap Ba) Cham Towers are located north two kilometers outside the city across the Cai River. The towers were built by the Cham civilization between the 7th and 12th century and sit on top of a hill providing beautiful views of the harbor below. Only four of the eight original towers still stand with the tallest being 23 meters high. On your way back to town take some time to visit the fishing village located between the old and new bridges and the “real” Nha Trang, a bustling Vietnamese city vastly different than the seaside resort town along the coast. To the west of town is Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist temple founded in the late 19th century, still home to resident monks. At the top of the hill, behind the pagoda, is a 79-foot tall giant white seated Buddha visible from town. Climb to the top of the hill for stunning panoramic views of the city and bay.

Giant White Seated Buddha

Take a ride south and visit the Oceanographic Institute and Bao Dai’s Villas, a beautiful example of French colonial architecture and the former residence of the last king Bao Dai. The grounds are lush and well manicured and it’s a great place to enjoy a leisurely lunch overlooking the sea on a hot day.
At night, a different side of Nha Trang comes alive. Known as the Cancun, Mexico of Vietnam, you can party all night in Nha Trang. Most nights the beach district is teeming with locals and tourists drinking at bars, dancing at clubs and partying in the streets. The best place in town to dance is the Nha Trang Sailing Club, which hosts its very own version of Koh Phangan’s famous all night Full Moon Party called Insomnia. Another way to join in on the debauchery of Nha Trang is to take a booze cruise, an all-you-can-drink party boat on a scenic trip around the bay. If you aren’t ready to shake it, head to one of Vietnam’s tradition local bars called a “bai hoi” for cheap keg beer curbside. The city also offers a more relaxing evening at one of the many waterfront restaurants along the beach. There’s a wide range of choices, from Western to Vietnamese cuisine to local seafood specialties. For cheaper food try the restaurants in town or the waterfront restaurants away from the main tourist district. A popular option is Lac Canh, one of the busiest local restaurants in Nha Trang located near the Cai River area. 
Nha Trang Bay is widely considered among the world’s most beautiful bays and is fast becoming a popular destination with international travelers of all ages. Whether you spend your days kayaking the bay or relaxing on the beach, Nha Trang has an assortment of activities to please just about everyone.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Baker and Banker: Foodie with an attitude

For our third anniversary, John and I went to Baker and Banker in Pacific Heights. We live one block from the restaurant and I pass it everyday on my way home from the bus so I was super excited to try it. The restaurant is small and seats about 50 people. Its classic old school Pacific Heights, with dark wood and snooty patrons. We might have been the youngest people in the restaurant, so its not the hip and happening spot I had hoped for. Its more of a place you take your wealthy aunt and uncle from out of town.

Happily, we were seated right away. The only problem is that the two tops are all in a row on the left side of the restaurant and closely spaced together. I could have easily joined in on the conversations around us. In classic Pacific Heights fashion the table of two ladies to our right were complaining about their son's boarding schools. Oh heavens! And the table to our left were giving each other the judging eye at our lack of foodie knowledge. Our server promptly greeted us and took our drink order. She proceeded to explain the appetizer special of an Italian white truffle dish which 'the chef had procured' for a banging $40. At this point she pretty much lost John with her floral explanations of the food and I was soon to follow.

I ordered the Panko Crusted Hama Hama Oysters for an appetizer and John ordered the Braised Monterey Bay Calamari. Both were OK, even though the oysters were beautifully plated, I wasn't impressed with the flavors nor was I impressed with the calamari which reminded me more of a tomato soup with calamari than a proper appetizer. We both ordered the Housemade Pappardelle with Braised Short Ribs for our entree. The entrees were delicious but I would have rather the short ribs not be shredded but more larger solid pieces.

One aspect of the restaurant that I was disappointed in was the service. I would have liked to see the team work together rather than everyone have distinct roles in the restaurant. At one point, our appetizer plates had yet to be cleared after we had been finished for over 5 minutes. Our server came by and asked how it was, but never took our plates, the maitre d' came by and said hello but still no plates cleared. I watched as the bus boy systematically went around the restaurant as the servers and other staff did nothing to assist. I worked in the restaurant industry for many years and understand how you have your duties in the restaurant but to stick to your server role and not clear a dish is completely unacceptable to me and makes me feel like there is social stratification at work here. The staff of the restaurant should work together not in parallel or against each other. In all I give the restaurant 3 stars for being beautifully decorated and for the food. I would have given the restaurant 4 stars had the service been better.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dreams Puerto Aventuras

The Dreams resort in Puerto Aventuras is an excellent value set in a beautiful location. Puerto Aventuras is a private gated residential community located in the Riviera Maya on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. I would recommend the private community setting to people traveling with small children or to people who want an American feel to their Mexican vacation, not to backpackers or people looking for the 'real' Mexico. Once you pass the gatehouse, it's beautiful but it really doesn't feel like your in Mexico.

Overall Dreams is a wonderful vacation spot. The all-inclusive resort is situated on a private beach and backs to the Puerto Aventuras Marina. The resort is small in size compared to the mega resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. With only 305 rooms, the resort is manageable and every room has either a Marina or Ocean view.

Rooms: We stayed in a marina view room on the 3rd floor. We had exceptional views of Puerto Aventuras and the marina and enjoyed sunset and happy hour on our balcony almost nightly. Once we even saw a stingray in the water directly in front of us. Upon arrival, we were surprised to find the room had a second floor lounge. We really didn't see the point in the second floor unless you had small children who could sleep on the futon, but it's really not the best place for kids because the exposed spiral staircase is much too dangerous for kids. Overall, the room was nicely decorated and very clean. Our mini bar was stocked each day with bottled soda, water, Coronitas and an orange juice. We had a coffee maker but never actually given any coffee to make by housekeeping. The bathrooms were modern and the water always hot. Funny thing about the bathroom was the "convenient" phone by the toilet that only called out to the US, Canada and UK.

Pools/Beach: The resort has two pool areas each with a swim up bar, the activity/all ages pool and the adults only pool. The activities pool starts to get loud early, so if you had an ocean view room, we heard it was hard to sleep in. The activities pool is large in size and is attached to a 30 person whirlpool. The sun sets first over the activities pool, so most adults either move to the adult pool on the other side of the resort which gets a half hour more sun or move to the whirlpool for sunset and happy hour. Although, the adults pool is quiet all day, it does get a little louder at happy hour though. My favorite pool was the quieter adult pool as the activities pool was a bit too Cancun party-party for me.

The beach was absolutely beautiful with white sand and crystal clear water. The beach is small but comparable for the size of the resort. Chairs were plentiful and you could always find a quiet spot to read and relax. The beach service was fast and offered sandwiches, salads and drinks so you could be extremely lazy and never leave your chair. The water is active with small fish in the beach's shallow area so beware if you aren't a fish person. To the right of the beach was a natural rock saltwater pool for swimming and snorkeling; however, one day a small nurse shark found its way into the water and caused a bit of excitement on the beach.

Activities: The resort offers a plethora of activities. Each morning we picked up a copy of the Sundial resort newsletter which detailed restaurant availability and the activities for the day, rain or shine. The resort offered an Explorer's Club for kids which was nice because then most of the kids were cooped up in their own private area. The daily activities ran by the Dreams Entertainment Team centered around the pool and beach including: volleyball, yoga, water aerobics, ping pong, bungee trampoline, etc. The beach also offered free water sport equipment such as kayaks, Hobie cats, and snorkel and windsurf equipment. The nightly activities consisted of a show in the cruise ship like theater. We hit the Mexican dancing show, the Elvis impersonator show and the Halloween show. All slightly cheesy but entertaining as you know the dancers and singers put a lot of work into it. Nightly on the beach was either a movie or American sporting event projected on a big screen or a performance show such as "Dreams Idol" or the Fire and Rain show. The activities kept people busy and the staff always tried to get everyone involved but quickly left you alone if you didn't want to participate.

Food/Beverage: The resort offers your choice of 7 restaurants and 4 bars. All  food and beverages are included in the all-inclusive price unless you "upgrade" your dinner for the lobster or your drink for a specialty bottle of wine. Every day at least 3 different restaurants are open for dinner with the World Cafe and Seaside Grill open for lunch. We never ran into more than a five minute wait for a table for two even during the busier hours. My favorite restaurants were: Gohan for sushi, Seaside Grill for steak and other traditional grilled items and Portofino for Italian. The traditional Mexican restaurant, El Patio wasn't anything to write home about, I could get the fajitas I ate at any basic Mexican restaurant in America. The adults-only Oceana was my least favorite as it didn't have a wide selection of fresh seafood choices. The World Cafe, the family orientated buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, was your standard buffet with food for the masses. The World Cafe was very nice option for a quick afternoon snack if you weren't interested in having a hot dog or hamburger at the beach side Barefoot Grill. Also, you could order room service 24 hours a day free of charge. The food was good for an all-inclusive restaurant, better than I have had before, but the flavors were bland as it had to appeal to the masses.

The resort had 4 bars to choose from. During the day, the best spots were the swim up bars, Sugar Reef and Manatee. I really enjoyed hitting the beach side Barracuda bar at sunset and after dinner for a peaceful drink with a view and ocean breeze. The nightclub Desires, was entertaining for late night people watching and to catch a game in the afternoon. If you aren't interested in partying with crowd, you could always grab a drink and enjoy the view off your room's balcony.

Service: Overall, the service at the resort was great. The concierge, Gina, was very helpful when we checked in. She was pleasantly surprised to find out we had rented a car and would manage our own tours, unlike other concierges who would recommend the "safe" tours and provide us with vague directions to the local sites. We were extremely disappointed that the resort did not have a map of the surrounding area or offer to print one for us.

The rest resort staff and restaurant staff were always helpful and went above and beyond to make our stay enjoyable. We always tipped in the restaurants, bars and for room service. I loved to call room service (which is included) as whichever gal answered, she called me "Mrs. Hunt" and when I tried to correct her as that's not my name, she would say every time "OK, Mrs. Hunt." The resort provides you with "Resort Credit" which are really just $200 worth of coupons to use at their resort, such as $10 off a bottle of wine or $20 off a spa service. We never used our coupons and four days into our stay, the front desk called to see if we were OK and if we had lost them. Sadly for Dreams, we didn't spend a penny at the resort but we did have an excellent time!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hank Med, MD- Mexican Version

On our recent trip to Mexico, I had the pleasure of getting sick and using the hotel's concierge doctor. I had only ever seen concierge doctors on TV shows and movies, the most famous being the USA show Hank Med, MD set in The Hamptons in New York.

After 5 hours of being sick and nothing stopping the sickness, even the bucket of ice, 5 bottles of water and crackers we ordered from the front desk to soothe my tummy, we pressed the little 'red cross' hospital button on our room's phone. We were immediately directed to the front desk. With panic in their voices and assurance that the doctor will be here in 30 minutes we hung up and waited. Of course I started to feel better, but I knew I needed something to stop making me nauseous and kill the infection so we waited and waited. It took a good hour and a half for the doctor to show up, even though the front desk was repeatedly calling him and then calling us to give an update every 20 minutes.

Once the doctor arrived, I knew everything would be fine. Dr. Yuri Ayax Real Ramirez was a short man who epitomized the look of a doctor on TV and lived up to his ridiculously long name. He had two fashionable hospital bags with all sorts of medicine and tools which were exactly like what you see on TV. He was very professional and kind and gave me a thorough exam while I waited for the magical shot to stop my nausea. As he filled the massive syringe with meds, he point by point told me what he was doing and what I will need to do in the coming day in regard to antibiotics. The shot worked like magic but the injection spot hurt for the rest of the trip. Ouch. I had a good time saying to John, "My a** hurts" and seeing the hilarious reaction on the faces of other guests.

To our surprise, at the end of the exam Dr. Yuri asked, "cash or credit?" I just about laughed out loud when he pulled out his mobile credit card machine with a big smile. Of course we wanted credit! With pride he swiped our card and told us how they had just gotten the credit card machines and how great they are and how fun it is it use. I was glad we could entertain him at 4am. Although the concierge doctor was expensive, it was well worth not ruining our trip over a Mexican bacterial infection. The total was $355, including the doctor visit, shots and medication. I would recommend using the concierge doctor to whomever needs convenient and reliable service and can afford the extra cost. Its much cheaper to go to the local clinic but at 3am, it was the last thing I wanted to do. The next day, the hotel manager called to check on me and ask what had happened, what I had eaten and if there was anything the hotel could do. It was nice they took the time to call, even though I knew they called just to cover their butts and to see if a full on outbreak was occurring (luckily it didn't).

After two days of antibiotics I was back to normal and ready to enjoy our wonderful trip. Two thumbs up for concierge doctors!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cavallo Point

The Cavallo Point Lodge is located in beautiful Golden Gate National Park, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito. The lodge is literally located at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The location may feel remote as you are tucked away on a small cove but you are just minutes from Sausalito and 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco. It's the perfect spot for a romantic getaway, a family vacation or a relaxing retreat.

To the naked eye, Cavallo Point looks like the most amazing camp for adults, but its really an upscale hotel and spa. The hotel grounds are not only lush and breathtaking but historic. Cavallo Point is a former military base from the early part of the 19th century called Fort Baker. The officer's quarters have been restored and the picturesque white houses with their wrap around porches are used as the hotel rooms. Also available is a new contemporary building with modern hotel rooms. All the rooms are perfectly appointed, but I recommend the historic officer's quarters for a unique experience.

Cavallo Point has a plethora of activities for those who want to be adventurous or just relax. The most popular activities are a walk to Golden Gate Bridge and along the trails of Golden Gate National Park, one of the most popular parks in the U.S. The spa offers free morning yoga, an outdoor hot pool and every kind of spa treatment imaginable. Be sure to take advantage of the Michelin rated restaurant, Murray Circle, where you can also take cooking classes. If your idea of a vacation is to do "nothing" then this is the perfect spot for you as well. Popular non-activities include: gazing at the bridge from your rocking chair on one of the many porches, taking a nap in the sun on the lush grounds, or enjoying a glass of wine and a book in the toasty warm bar. The hotel is very animal friendly, which can be both positive and negative. Although the grounds aren't overwhelmed with animals, there are quite a few furry friends running around and lounging on the main porch.

I recommend Cavallo Point as a wonderful getaway from the city. It feels like you are so much further away when really you are just minutes from home. You'll return home relaxed, well fed and happy. I also love taking out of town guests to brunch here as the food and view are amazing and it makes them jealous of the amazing city I live in and me proud.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wasting Time in Chilled Out Luang Prabang

Check out the article below that I wrote for, an online expat magazine out of China. It will be published in their December issue.

Wasting Time in Chilled Out Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, located in north central Laos, is the country’s most popular tourist destination. Known for its beautifully preserved temples, monks in saffron robes, and pastel colored French colonial architecture, Luang Prabang sits on a narrow peninsula of land formed by the union of the mighty Mekong and Khan Rivers. The old city, where most of the cultural sites, hotels and restaurants reside, is just 300 meters wide by one kilometer long and resembles a thumb in shape. The manageability of the city’s small size, friendliness of the locals, and old-world feel makes Luang Prabang seem more like a small town rather than a major hub of commerce and tourism.

Since Laos opened to tourism in 1989 little has changed in Luang Prabang due to its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. All buses and trucks are banned within the city limits, keeping noise and traffic at a minimum. The city also preserves its traditional feel by continuing to enact a 11:30pm curfew for both residents and travelers. 
Luang Prabang has an assortment of natural and cultural sites which are easily accessible on foot or by bike. Most of the city’s sites are off the two main streets, Th Khen Khong and Th Sisavangvong, which run along the eastern Mekong coast and down the middle of the peninsula. The best panoramic views of the city can be found at the top of Phou Si Hill, a 100-meter high hill at the base of the peninsula. Dotted with small temples and shrines, the trek up Phou Si Hill is well worth the climb, especially at sunset.

Not to be missed is the Royal Palace Museum or Haw Kham. Built in 1904, during the French colonial era, for King Sisavangvong and his family, the last occupant of the palace was his son, crown prince Savang Vatthana, who took the throne after his father’s death in 1959. In 1975 the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the crown prince and his family were sent to re-education camps, never to be heard of again.  The palace was later turned into a national museum. The palace contains various royal and religious objects including the Crown Jewels of Laos and the Pha Bang, a gold, silver and bronze standing Buddha.
As a religious centre, Luang Prabang has thirty-two temples. Shoes, and often photography, are prohibited inside the temples and it’s recommended that foreigners wear pants and women dress modestly, although it’s not strictly enforced at all locations. The most popular temples are Wat Mai Suwannapumaram, Wat Visoun, and Wat Xieng Thong.

Wat Mai Suwannapumram,a nineteenth century temple, is conveniently located next door to the Royal Palace Museum making it one of the most visited. The temple is known for its gold relief panels covering its front façade.

Near the northern tip of the peninsula is Wat Xieng Thong, the city’s most brilliant temple. This colorful temple is covered in ornate paintings and mosaics of every color of the rainbow. On the temple grounds is the royal funeral chapel which holds an impressive 12-meter high funeral chariot and urns for members of the royal family.

To the east of town center is the Wat Visoun, the oldest continually operating temple in Luang Prabang. The temple contains a collection of 15th and 16th century wooden Calling for Rain Buddhas and ordination stones. If you haven’t gotten your temple fill after visiting the big three, I suggest taking a “temple tour” by renting a bike and hitting the lesser visited temples located outside of Luang Prabang city limits and across the Mekong River.

Luang Prabang is also a great jumping off point for trekking, rafting, and elephant riding excursions. Tours to the popular Pak Ou Caves and Koung Si waterfall are inexpensive and offered by a plethora of tour companies in old town.

The Pak Ou Caves, located on a cliff face, are full of thousands of Buddha statues. The old and disfigured Buddhas are a memorable site as they cover almost every nook of the cave.

Koung Si waterfall, 32-kilometers away, is considered one of the most picturesque in the country and is set in a breathtaking public park. The 200-foot high waterfall cascades down into a sparkling turquoise pool which provides welcome relief after the arduous walk up hill.
If you aren’t looking to see the sites, Luang Prabang offers an assortment of activities such as taking Lao cooking classes, shopping at the famous Hmong night market, or enjoying an inexpensive Lao or Thai massage. Some of my favorite days were spent sitting in open air cafes on Th Sisavangvong and getting lost wandering the streets admiring the beautiful architecture and people.

This picturesque riverside city is the perfect place to kick back and relax and enjoy the famous chilled out Laotian lifestyle. I recommend staying in one of its many quaint guest houses in old town for at least 4 days, anything less and you won’t have the proper time to decompress. I stayed for a total of 6 nights but could have easily stayed longer because time flies when you are doing really nothing at all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Muzzi's Ranch Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze

On Saturday, John and our friends Nick and Melissa made our second annual trip to the Muzzi's Ranch Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze in San Gregoria, California. We stumbled upon this little treasure last year while camping at Costanoa in Pescadero. What sets this privately owned farm apart from the other cookie cutter pumpkin patches is the pure ridiculousness of it (and the lack of annoying crowds). politely calls it "Local Flavor", I call it classic Nor Cal weird.

Muzzi's Ranch is located off highway 84 near Pescadero on La Honda Road. There are a few dilapidated signs leading the way but mostly you'll just stumble upon it by the bright patch of orange off to the side of the road. To call it a ranch is a bit of stretch. At one time, maybe 20 years ago, it was an operating ranch but today its a set of dilapidated buildings, empty fields and pumpkins.

The larger pumpkins are arranged in an open field with cardboard boxes of little pumpkins and gourds off to the sides. You can choose from the basic orange pumpkin or some "designer" pumpkins of bright orange or green. The boxes of little pumpkins are sold 3 for a $1 and so are the gourds which come in an array of colors and sizes (some oddly resembling fruits in color and shape). 

Conveniently at the entrance are 10 red wheel barrows for use by customers to fill up with their pumpkin treasures. We filled up two wheel barrows each. I chose: 2 large pumpkins for decorating and three mini pumpkins for fun. Our grand total was a whopping $6. In the city, this would have cost me at least $20! Our friends made the real killing: 3 large pumpkins, an assortment of gourds, 6 mini pumpkins and 5 smaller pumpkins for only $23.

Old man and his pickup (and farm hand)
How you may ask can pumpkins be so cheap??? I have no idea. It could be all the pumpkins fell off the back of a truck thus they are all profit or the ornery man who works the farm (but never steps out of his pickup or extinguishes the cigarette loosely hanging from his lip) has difficulty counting or merely doesn't care.

Sadly, the corn maze was just not tall enough. The prior year, we had torrential rains around Halloween and a lot of the farm land in the area got flooded and crops washed away. This farm was hit pretty hard as the entire corn maze was one big pool of water last year. This year he built it in a new location, but possibly it didn't have time to mature, thus only a 3 year old would have been short enough to call it a proper maze. Plus the old man, his not so trusty companion leering by his side and the $5 surcharge cannot be appealing to parents of little ones! Thus no one dared enter the maze in the time we were there.

Old farm house with "Unsafe" sign

That being said, Muzzi's Ranch is a wonderful option from the busy Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival but if you are looking for modern amenities and trendy pumpkin ice cream this isn't your place. Its an beautiful drive from the city, cheap, highly entertaining and quiet. I'd much rather go to a pumpkin patch that resembles a scene from The Children of the Corn than Half Moon Bay's yuppie heaven. Its all so very halloween!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fleet Week Fair

Fleet Week descended upon San Francisco last week with a bang. An estimated 1 million people visited the city over the three day weekend with the highlight for most being the Blue Angels Air Show on Saturday and Sunday. The Blue Angels heart stopping aerial performance seems to defy gravity and amazes me every time I see it. But for me the highlight this year was the fair on the lawn at Marina Green. John and I wandered along the shore taking in the family friendly festivities prior going to a friend's house for a roof top Blue Angels party.

The fair was nothing like the fair I knew as a kid. It was spectacular!

One game that caught my eye was the what I like to call "the hamster balls." Parents, actually pay for their kids to climb into a big hamster ball and roll around in a big above ground pool and try and beat the crap out of each other. It was absolutely hilarious to watch. Most kids were too small to maneuver in the ball thus it was a camera friendly show of kids flopping around in big hamster balls, but the potential was there.

The giant blow up monkey and so many other cool blow up bounce type things for kids to go crazy on.

Another great game was the massive two sided blow up slide shaped like a ship.

While some played at the fair, ten thousand or so people relaxed on the lawn at Marina Green waiting for the big Blue Angel show start to at 3pm. We bought some snacks at one of the three booths selling fair like food; hot dogs, chicken tenders, fries, and other fine unhealthy items and perused at the few souvenir booths selling military t-shirts, hats. I happily gawked at the sailors and made sailor jokes such as "Dirty sailors going from port to port."

Before we left the fair for the roof party we caught the annual United Airlines 747 fly by. It a sight to be seen as a massive 747 flies low along bay at the Marina Green circling over Alcatraz and back two times before returning to Oakland Airport. Its a shout out for the airlines as a sponsor but its spectacular none the less. The plane is so low and seems incredibly big and it brings a smile to most every one's face (and a bit of fear). As the plane flies by the announcer tells of the history and great service of the fine people of United Airlines in a classic baseball announcer of the 50's voice. Its hilarious.

I love Fleet Week. Planes, boats, food, beer, games, sun and sailors! Next year I recommend checking out the fair and the Marina Green before enjoying the big Blue Angel air show on a friend's roof.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Streets of Lijiang

An article I wrote for, an online expat magazine in China.

The Streets of Lijiang

Lijiang, located in northwest Yunnan Province is rich with cultural heritage and has one of the best preserved “old towns” in all of China. The highlight of Lijiang, and the main reason most visitors travel to the area, is the Ancient Old Town of Lijiang. It is one of the last places a foreign or domestic visitor can experience the historic culture and city life of old world China just like in the movies.
Marble Bridge in Old Market Square
The Old Town was constructed in the late Song Dynasty, more than 800 years ago, while “new town” was built around 50 years ago. Old Town consists of 3.8 square kilometers of beautiful cobblestone streets and intersecting waterways, and is home to numerous cultural minorities including the Naxi, Bai, Lisu, Pumi, Yi, Tibetan, and Miao. The Naxi people, descendents of ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes, are historically the majority population and have called Lijiang home for over 1400 years. Naxi had the largest influence over Lijiang’s architecture, unique layout, and cultural heritage and comprise 58% of the city’s current inhabitants. Due to its preservation and long cultural history, Lijiang’s Old Town was listed as a World Cultural Heritage City by UNESCO in December 1997, becoming China’s first cultural heritage city and possibly its finest.
Canals of Lijiang
The entire Old Town is a museum in its own right. Dubbed the “Venice of the Orient”, Lijiang is a complex web of canals and waterways transversed by cobblestone streets and over 350 marble bridges. The main water source is Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) which extends its fingers to every corner of Old Town. The cobblestone streets branch out from Sifang Jie (Old Market Square) in four directions, providing visitors with a nice jumping off point to explore and possibly get lost among the narrow and countless networks of streets in Old Town. If you do find yourself lost in Lijiang, merely follow the water upstream and you’ll find your way back to Sifang Jie. Along the way you’ll be able to gaze at the traditional Naxi wooden houses with sloping tile roofs; ornately carved wooden doors and archways; the hidden squares and gardens; and engage with the wonderful people of Lijiang. The main streets are lined with open air cafes and countless stone benches where you can sit and enjoy a book or simply people watch. Although the streets are busy with tourists almost every day of the year, if you start exploring early or late in the day, you’ll be able to find some peaceful spots. The farther you get from Sifang Jie, the less likely you will be bombarded with tour groups and their infamous flags.
Black Dragon Pool Park
If wandering along the streets of Old Town isn’t your cup of tea, there are numerous places to see and explore in and around Old Town Lijiang. Among the highlights are Lion Hill Park’s Wanggu Tower, the Mu Family Mansion, and Black Dragon Pool Park.  Wanggu Tower, a recently built five story wooded pavilion located at the peak of Lion Hill park, provides the best panoramic views of the peaked homes of Old Town and the natural surrounding scenery.  

To the north of Old Town is Black Dragon Pool Park. You can easily spend an afternoon there exploring the many pavilions and temples, wandering amongst the willow trees and beautiful gardens, or relaxing by the jade green pond. The view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan) from the park is one of the most photographed spots in southwestern China. Among the most famous pavilions in the park are Deyue and Five-Phoenix (Wufeng). Not to be missed within the park are two museums; The Dongba Research Institute and the Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture both of which house Naxi cultural artifacts.
Within Old Town, one of the most famous spots is the Mu Family Mansion, the former home of the local chiefdom for 22 generations. The Mansion is fashioned after a mini Forbidden City and is a maze of courtyards and residences set among some of the most exquisite gardens in the region. The Mu Family Mansion is a great place to relax and get away from the crowded streets of Old Town.
Naxi Musicians
Finding a place to stay in Lijiang is relatively easy as there are over 700 Naxi guest houses in Old Town alone. The best places to stay for nighttime action are directly off Sifang Jie. At night Lijiang’s bars and restaurants come alive with boisterous travelers from around the world. If you aren’t interested in spending your night getting drunk at the local bar, you can enjoy a traditional Naxi concert by the Naxi Orchestra at the Naxi Music Academy or at the government run Dongba Palace. Old Town boasts an exhaustive list of cafés and bars serving up Chinese, Western and Westernized Naxi cuisine. However, if you are looking for traditional Naxi food, it’s  best to wander out of Old Town and find street vendors selling Baba, Lijian’s local specialty of wheat flatbread, served plain or stuffed with meats, vegetables, and anything you can imagine.
Lijiang’s Old Town is a destination not to be missed. The minute you set eyes on Lijiang you’ll feel magically transported back in time with its whimsical old world beauty. Look past the crowds and you’ll feel and see the old world come alive all around you.   

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sinbad's Restaurant

On Tuesday, the most unseasonably warm day of the year, John and I took a lovely stroll along the sunny Embarcadero. We wanted to have a nice drink or meal on the waterfront and actually sit outside! We perused the restaurants at the Embarcadero's Ferry building but were disappointed that most had an hour wait so we trudged on. We eventually found ourselves in front of Sinbad's. I was on the fence whether this was a good idea, but they had outdoor seating and plenty of it. The moment we walked in I felt I was either magically transported to Cooper's restaurant in Scranton, PA or an old school mob restaurant in San Fran circa 1980. The decor is old and dark, reminiscent of Alioto's on Fisherman's Wharf. Clearly this is a tourist trap restaurant with the dingy interior, great view and exorbitant prices but we didn't care, we were there for the view. The view! What a spectacular view of the bay bridge and the lights of Oakland dancing at sunset but I found the people watching to be even better. Sinbad's is located directly to the right of the ferry landing so we were able to watch the ferries arrive and depart for Oakland. I got to make up stories about the passengers waiting in line and those running for almost missed ferries, a very entertaining time. The crowd at the restaurant was might I say interesting. It seemed as if there was a mid-west end of conference party going on. At one point we watched a good portion of the dining room get up and come outside for a smoke, very non-SF of them. Clue # 1 we were dealing with outsiders. The second clue was the MC who got up and talked about how great the group was and how they were like his family, etc, etc. I still wonder what industry this group was from because it clearly breeds smokers by the dozen.

The food and service at Sinbad's wasn't that great compared to the view. The server acted a bit as if we were putting him out by being there. He forgot our drinks, then delivered John's appetizer about 20 minutes prior to mine. Timing is not something that Sinbad's has down. I had the crab cake appetizer which was delicious. Lump crab meat, not a lot of onion or other fillers but it did have a hollandaise sauce which took away from the flavor of the crab meat. John's clam chowder was delicious and packed full of fresh clams. The food and drinks were overpriced as the bill was $40 for crab cakes, soup, a glass of wine and a beer. But the view and the entertaining clientele made up for it. I don't think I'll come back to Sinbad's as it was a one time tourist trap experience (with a view). Next time I'll make a reservation at one of the nicer and more 'modern' restaurants in the Ferry Building.

CGrooves magazine

Wonderful news. I am officially the new travel writer for CGrooves magazine, an expat magazine based out of Xian, China. My fabulous brother hooked me up with his friend Maggie, the editor, who has commissioned me to write a travel story a month for the magazine. I'll be covering trips I've taken in China and SE Asia. First story is about Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province. I'll be sure to post each story on my blog and a link to the online magazine. If you want to check out the magazine prior to my first piece in the November issue visit Looking forward to sharing my amusing travel experiences with everyone.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset was my first published travel story. Published in the Arizona Republic over three years ago on February 18, 2007. I had recently come back from a trip in southeast Asia where I spent a month in Laos. I had been living in Dalian, China and traveled south to Laos on a little adventure through Southeast Asia before heading back to America. Laos was a refreshing change from the fast paced frantic life of big city China. The people were so gosh darn nice and helpful, everyone was chill and relaxed, I never felt unwelcome, felt completely safe as a solo female traveler, and a dollar could buy you a hotel room (and a pretty nice one). Over the course of a month I traveled south from the northern boarder with China to Si Phan Don in the southern Champasak region. Si Phan Don a.k.a. "the 4000 islands" is a cluster of tiny islands, inlets, sandbars along a 50-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River. I spent the most relaxing week of my life on Don Det, one of the larger islands. I met a group of 5 single travelers on the boat ride to Don Det and we all got huts together along the coast of the Mekong. We literally did nothing for a week  but eat, drink, relax in our hammocks, wade in the Mekong, ride bikes and gaze at the stars.

I wanted to share my amazing experience with others so I wrote up a story and sent it to the editors of the Arizona Republic and within a month it was published. I have a feeling the 4000 islands aren't as secluded as they were in 2005, most likely there is electricity and Internet now, but I bet you can still find a hammock to relax in and a room for $10 instead of a buck. A few days ago my mom found an original print of the article and scanned it. Its difficult to read so I've typed it up.

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset

Si Phan Don, along a 50-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River in Champasak province in southern Laos, is the ultimate relaxation destination.
Si Phan Don means “4000 islands.” In the dry season, the Mekong recedes to reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny inlets, islands and sandbars. Don Dhet and Don Khon, the larger of the islands and linked by a bridge, offer tourists a year-round glimpse at island life and a chance to enjoy the traditional Laotian lifestyle.
The small, wooded islands lack modern necessities, such as electricity and telephones. Accommodations are thatched-roof huts balanced on stilts along the coast. The toughest decision is whether to choose a hut on Don Dhet’s Sunset Strip or on the Sunrise Boulevard, aptly\named by the locals. The basic huts provide only a bed, but what can you expect for a dollar a night? Each hut comes with a hammock strung outside your door, above the flowing Mekong waters.
The most charming aspect of Don Dhet is the locals’ trust of their guests. During your stay, you write your meals and drinks in a notebook, and the total is added up at departure. My total was $24 for a week.
The island offers a wide range of activities; two of the most popular are napping and reading in your hammock. All the local sights are best reached on foot or by bicycle.
Tat Somphamit, a set of raging rapids on Don Khon, is a beautiful place to see local fisherman wading for their next big catch. The islands have many hiking trails. Kayaking and tubing are great ways to explore neighboring islands. A short boat ride off the coast of Don Khon provides a chance to see the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.
Peaceful sunsets are enjoyed on communal balconies along the Sunset Strip coast. Nights are spent traveling with flashlights to neighboring guesthouses in search of food, drink and company. Or you can lie in your hammock and enjoy the bright stars in the clear skies.
It’s a common saying in Laos that the farther south you go, the more relaxed it gets. You can’t get any more southern than the 4,000 islands.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Puerto Aventurtas, Mexico

Vamos a Mexico! We finally booked our Mexican adventure last night. After scouring the internet for over a month we came to a decision based on cost and location. The Dreams Resort in Puerto Aventurtas. Puerto Aventurtas is located south of Playa del Carmen and north of Tulum on the Riviera Maya. It's a great location, looks beautiful (in pictures) and fit both our requirements. I had wanted to stay in Tulum but the 2 star hotels there were the same cost as a 4 star in Puerto Aventurtas, and the food is included in the cost in Puerto Aventurtas. I also wanted to be near the various archaeological sites, Chichen Itza and the cenotes (freshwater sink holes sacred to the Mayans) so we could take quick day trips with our rental car. John got his resort on the beach and a free round of golf at a Trent Jones course, which makes him very happy (and me). It's not down and dirty Mexico but it's a nice balance for the both of us. Plus we only have a week and don't want to spend all our time on a bus. Can't wait to relax on the balcony sipping a margarita, and then have a little adventure and climb the stairs at Chichen Itza. Its going to be amazing!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Korean BBQ: I love you

I absolutely love love love Korean BBQ. When Friday night rolls around and John asks what I want to do, "Korean BBQ." When there's nothing to eat in the fridge, "Korean BBQ." When I'm looking to tie one on and cook my own food, "Korean BBQ." You get the picture. Korean BBQ is not only delicious but a highly entertaining way to turn your dinner into an experience. I am utterly sick of going to dinner and being in and out of the restaurant in an hour and a half. Dinner should be an experience, it should take most of the night. I'm not talking about eating gluttonously for hours on end, but a relaxing experience where you chat with your friends, drink, eat, chill. We Americans should revel in our meals like the Italians and be passionate like the French and not rush rush through it like we do everything else.

Back to Korean BBQ, its great way to spend a night with friends. Its fun and engaging. You get to cook your own food, pour beer from a 40-ounce of some unknown 'special' Korean beer, sip soju, snack on side dishes and spend time talking as you would at an traditional outdoor BBQ, but with no clean up. I'm always full, buzzed to slightly buzzed and happy as a clam when I leave Korean BBQ. There is nothing like grilling some meat on a tiny grill in the center of your table!

Korean BBQ can be cheap but it can also add up. Look for all-you-can-eat restaurants or for specials as most individual grill items such as chicken or steak run $20-25 a plate. You can find delicious all-you-can-eat restaurants for $19.99. Most Korean BBQs restaurants automatically serve you side dishes and loads of em, kimchi, bean sprouts, seaweed, cabbage, potatoes, green salad and many more yummy sides I can't identify.

Most common meats are: marinated beef ribs, brisket, short ribs, rib eye, marinated chicken, prawns, pork belly, intestines and organs of all sorts, tongue, etc. The best kind of grilling meat is thinly sliced in strips like fajita meat. You don't want to be waiting 10 minutes for a thick steak to cook. I usually order one to two plates of meat per person to grill and a few side dishes like rice, noodles or vegetables to break up what can be an all meat meal. Grilling chicken can be questionable, so always cook it thoroughly and ask for a grill grate change after you're finished. Never mix chicken with any other meat. And leave your vegetarian friends at home!

San Francisco has some of the best Korean BBQ restaurants and lucky for me five good spots are just around the corner in Japantown, ironically.

My top three favorites are: # 1 Yakini Q, # 2 New Korea House # 3 Seoul Garden.

Yakini Q is party party, fun fun and my number one choice on a Friday night. I was a bit tipsy the first night I went there. At around 10pm, John and I finished happy hour and walked down to this place. We easily got a table. I remember there was a flat screen TV on with Korean pop dance videos, a strobe light and endless free beers. It was great. I felt I was magically transported back to Asia minus the old men with their shirts off rubbing their bellies. The place is hip, the meat is good to OK. If you are looking for fun go to Yakini Q but if you are introducing someone to Korean BBQ and want quality over booze and quantity go somewhere else. All-you-can-eat costs $19.99 for the 'basic' and $24.99 for the 'deluxe', personally the foods available on the deluxe plan aren't worth the $5. FYI: Yakini Q was formerly the Korea House, another fine establishment. (1640 Post Street, San Francisco, no website)

New Korea House is conveniently located below Yakini Q. It serves all the traditional dishes a la carte without the party fuss. Its clean and a step up in class than Yakini Q. Its no frills and often uncrowded. It exudes traditional BBQ as seen in the groups of older men who come in their house clothes at 11pm. If my mom was in town I'd take her here, she'd think it was a hoot. It can be a bit pricey, plan on spending $50 a person at least. (1620 Post Street, San Francisco,

Seoul BBQ is the nicest and most expensive of the three. The tables are set up around a room with little red curtains. Its a bit more of a show for the tourists as its located on the Peace Plaza but the menu still has a wide variety of delicious traditional items. If you want to impress a lady or take out a picky friend, this is your place. Plan on spending at least $70 a person. (22 Peace Plaze, San Francisco,

Korean BBQ is by far my favorite food. Try it if you haven't yet!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinatown's checkered past

Duncombe & Ross Alley
Chinatown, San Francisco

After 3 years in San Francisco, I realized I have never actually spent any real time in Chinatown. Sure I used to live in North Beach, literally streets away from the divide into Chinatown and I rode the Dirty 30 and 45 Muni buses everyday to work for almost a year through it. I had never really spent anytime just being in Chinatown. Feeding into my China and anything criminal obsessions, John and I took a little night tour of Chinatown with host yours truly. For people I've traveled with, my tours can be informative and at times utterly ridiculous. The typical tour inclues a location appropriate Lonely Planet in hand and a makeshift microphone or better yet some sort of official tour guide 'flag' waving high, I've provided guided tours (sometimes unsolicited) to my traveling companions in South and Central America, Asia and Europe.

With a sense of adventure, John and I slowly walked through Chinatown from the Imperial Palace restaurant to our first stop, Ross Alley. I had googled on my iPhone the location of the alley, but was really unsure that I was actually going to be able to find the street sign in the almost utter darkness. The lack of street lights and random neon sign gave the walk and search an eerie feeling. After looking at random sides of buildings for signs and squinting to read, we finally found Ross alley. Ross Alley is located between Stockton and Grant running the entire block length between Jackson and Washington Street.
Ross Alley was home to gambling houses and brothels back in the famous Barbary Coast days. The alley contained over 20 hidden gambling dens. The gambling dens were often secret back room with classic cover-up store fronts and the doors were known to be booby trapped in case of police raids. They were violent places were people could win and lose fortunes or even their lives. Gambling was run by the Tongs and the more popular games were Fan Tan and the Chinese lottery.

Although the secret gambling dens and brothels have moved out (or so they say), looking down the dark alley its easy to imagine the glory days when Ross Alley was full of drunk gamblers and the whores were a plenty.

Next stop: Duncombe Alley

Opium Den, 1889
Duncombe Alley amazingly was located almost directly across from Ross Alley off Jackson causing me to believe this little city block was once one hot bed of illegal activity. Duncombe Alley was once the center of the great opium trade and where the poor and middle class went to get high in Chinatown. Opium dens started to pop up in the 1850s and spread to the non-Chinese San Francisco population within 20 years. In 1878 San Francisco passed its 1st anti-opium ordinance and in 1913 opium became illegal. Most opium dens had cover up store fronts with a tightly sealed basement or backroom for smoking.

I was pleased to find the alley was just as shady as ever. The sign was hidden in the shadows and was faintly highlighted by a depressing neon green sign. The lighting and fact that the alley could only be accessed by a metal fence with a deadbolt lined with barbed wire led me to believe a little opium was still being smoked. I took a few pictures from behind the fence and quickly got that childhood feeling that I was doing something I wasn't supposed to doing so we continued on. We strolled for about another half hour listening to the sounds of the sirens, the young teenagers talking boisterously trying to impress the girls, the old men in dramatic heated conversations and the random sounds of Chinatown.