Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warm wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving

California, 2008

Wildfires, bank defaults, home foreclosures. It may not be easy this year for Californians to call to mind things for which to be thankful. And yet there are so many:

*The beauty of a wave curling into Zuma Beach.
*The majesty of Half Dome, dusted with snow.
*San Francisco, the shining city on seven hills.
*The vibrant colors of cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento, among the most diverse cities in the world.
*Native wildlife like tule elk, still thriving in select California wildlands.
*The flavors of California's many 'wine countries', from Santa Barbara to Napa and everywhere in between.

We could go on, but there's turkey to be carved, family members to tease, and football games to watch. So here's where you come in. What's on YOUR list this year?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Santa Barbara fire news and landmarks update

Those who love Santa Barbara as I do are saddened by the news of the recent wildfire that destroyed some 210 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito. If you have ever visited this special town that so evokes California's Spanish Colonial era, you may be wondering about the fate of it's beloved red-tile-roofed landmarks.

The good news is that all is well along State Street (the town's main shopping and dining thoroughfare); the graceful, twin-towered Mission Santa Barbara still stands unscarred on the hillside; and the stately, historic Biltmore (aka Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara) remains untouched. The hotel (shown above)—and really the town itself—is an architectural treasure, so it's good to know these gems still shine. 
For more information, click here for the Santa Barbara CVB

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yosemite Chef's Holidays: food and snow fun

Here's our plan: a three-day winter trip to Yosemite National Park when it's hushed under a mantle of snow. Hikes to wispy, wintery waterfalls, ice skating in Curry Village, and hanging out with trendy chefs. Wait-us hangin' with chefs in Yosemite?

Honestly, my sister, Mary Kay, and I aren't really that into spending time in the kitchen. But we do love good food, wine and cheese, and mingling with foodies—you know, those people who know all the hottest food trends and wine discoveries. So when we had the chance to attend Yosemite's Chefs' Holidays at the Ahwahnee, last winter, we leapt. Frankly, we figured we'd be out playing in the snow most of the time, with the occasional foray into a cooking demo. But that's not how it worked out.

The foodie stuff turns out to be a knockout. The demos are fun, casual, even funny sometimes and have a load of info that even laid-back home cooks like us can use (kosher salt is best in cooking; fennel makes a good substitute for celery in stocks and soups; don't saute with straight olive oil-use a blend of oils for better flavor and less scorching). "What I like," says Mary Kay, "is that it's a mini-cooking course without being too technical." 

It's a blast meeting the young chefs, cheesemakers and vintners at nightly wine-and-cheese gatherings. And the Gala Dinner is a meal to remember, supervised by such cutting edge chefs as John Stewart and Duskie Estes (seen above, photo credit Yosemite DNC) of Bovolo and Zazu; each session features different chefs.

Even the behind-the-scenes tour of the Ahwahnee's kitchen, with its own pastry shop and  bakery (making 400 loaves of bread daily), turns out to be kind of fascinating. The kitchen dates to the hotel's beginnings in 1927 and has its own great stories, for example, in the early days, 500 lb. blocks of ice cut from Mirror Lake were used to keep the kitchen's  'icebox' cool.

But after all that wonderful food (and time indoors), we need to stretch our legs. A hike to Yosemite Falls sounds like just the thing. We step out of the hotel into a white world. A soft snow is falling, the park is quiet, and we're the only ones on the trail. Its an easy, level trek of less than an hour to the base of Yosemite Falls, which even now has more than a trickle of falling water. We watch as the icy water drops in rhythmic plops onto rocks, some freezes, forming a pile of ice. "It looks like a snow cone," I tell Mary Kay. "Wow- I guess you can't you get your mind off food for a minute!" she laughs.

Details: book now for 2 or 3-day Chef's Holidays, with start dates in January (11, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28) and February (1, 4) in 2009. Call 801/ 559-4870 or click here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wine country steal: Silverado off-season

I love a wine country deal! And now is the best time for bargains at one of the Napa Valley's swankiest lodges. At The Silverado Resort, it's the "Suite Season", when rates for one- and two-bedroom suites are cut by as much as 40 percent. Sweet, indeed!

The details. Nov. 23, 2008-Feb. 28, 2009: nightly rates for a junior suite are $185 ($195 Fri-Sat); a one-bedroom suite is $210 ($265 Fri-Sat), a two-bedroom suite is $270 ($315 Fri-Sat). How great a deal is that? Well, in summer, you could pay from $335 to $525!

The big picture. The venerable resort boasts 280 condo units and cottage suites edging the fairways of two championship golf courses. The one and two-bedroom suites include a kitchen, dining area, and balcony or patio, plus a load of other amenities, making them perfect for girlfriend getaways or family group get-togethers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Calistoga warm-up

I just had a mud bath. And I never felt better.
At Calistoga's Indian Springs Resort and Spa, you get the real dirt: mud from volcanic ash dug on site, mixed with hot geyser water. I'm with a group including my friend Amy and her boyfriend Matt, and honestly, we're iffy about the whole mud thing. But we psyche ourselves into trying it. Later on, we compare notes.

I liken the ritual to plopping down into a vat of hot chocolate pudding (ahhh!). It's followed by a shower, warm mineral bath, and a steam room session. Talk about relaxed—I'm a total noodle!

"Wow- the mud is like really soft, black, and warm," says Amy. "Not what I expected at all!" And as for Matt? Well, let's just say we've never seen him so mellow.

I take a dip in the naturally-heated, gi-normous spa pool. Wreaths of mist dance around my head in the crisp, autumn air. Then I wrap myself in a fluffy robe and sit by the Buddha Pond. Created from steamy geyser water, the pond is a tiny, palm-fringed oasis. Indian Springs Resort may date to 1917, but the Buddha Pond is very now. I stare at the stone Buddha figure and zone out. I am at one with my noodle-ness.

Check out Indian Springs Resort and Spa cottages and the connected Lodge; ask about Winter Specials (which include complimentary mud baths) now through March 31, 2009. And for more lodging and dining info, visit the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sunset Magazine's fall wine country trips, tips

Have you seen the latest issue of Sunset Magazine? For me, it's a main resource for good seasonal travel ideas, especially for and about California. But the November issue really hits a home run with it's Wild About Wine story. Look for 10 "mini escapes" in wine regions from British Columbia to Washington. 

My fave escape in the bunch is Christine Richard's "Take a vineyard walk" in Sonoma. But the best part about all of these escape ideas: each comes with a recommended wine to try from the region with your Thanksgiving dinner. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Weekend in Paso Robles

I remember when Paso Robles was a sleepy ranching town. Years ago, the market price of cattle was Topic A at just about any bar, shopping and dining were pretty basic, and wine was nil. Now, Paso is at the heart of a thriving wine country, with some 170 wineries hereabouts. 
And while I still see more pickup trucks than Lexuses when I visit, the town is growing more upscale every day, with chic shops, cafes, and an attractive and walkable downtown core. 

One sign of Paso Roble's newly-polished sophistication is the glam boutique Hotel Cheval (shown at left). I stayed there recently and was knocked out. Each of the 16 rooms (named for different racehorses), boasts elegant decor, flat screen TV, and a comfy king bed with luxe linens. At day's end, I had a choice: loll by the fireplaces in the open courtyard, tuck into a book in the cozy library, or head for the hotel's wine bar, called the Pony Club
 (continuing the hotel's 'horse' theme).

Yep, I made for the Pony Club, a hangout for local winemakers, who love the horseshoe-shaped zinc bar and the ambience (see below). Plus, each month the Pony Club hosts Behind the Vines, your opportunity to meet a local vintner, taste featured flights of wine, and nibble hors d' oeurves.
Next up: Nov. 6, Doug Kruse of Jack Creek Cellars; Nov. 13, Tim Newkirk of Steinbeck Vineyards. And the price of cattle never seems to come up in the talk around the bar anymore.

Halfway between San Francisco and L.A., Paso Robles is an easy getaway full of small town charm. Come for a weekend to shop, dine, check out a winery, or just hang with the locals at the Pony Club and get Behind the Vines the easy way. For more travel info, check San Luis Obispo County; for more wine info, check San Luis Obispo Wine Country.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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