Friday, November 25, 2011

Story of a Lifetime Takes You to New Zealand

I'm interrupting my regularly scheduled postings (couldn't resist saying that!) to bring you something very special. I have been working with Tourism New Zealand on planning a trip there this winter. SInce they are in the middle of some very unusual promotions, they asked me to pass them along to my readers. New Zealand is a place that I can't wait to get to and I'm more than happy to help some readers have the same opportunity.

For the next 12 months, the tourism board in New Zealand is running a competition to give away trips. There's a catch, though. I go to places and write about them, but if you want this opportunity you need to do the writing first. It's called Stories Beat Stuff and the best stories win, but your stories need to be on a specific topic. They need to convince Tourism New Zealand that you really, really want this trip.

How far are you willing to go for an all expensive paid trip to New Zealand? The good part is that you don't actually have to do it, but you do have to explain what you would give up to go. Whether it's your favorite food, your dream car or even your significant other, if you want to win, you need to put it on the line in a video or a photo.

Six trips of a lifetime will be given away, one every few months. Each trip will include unique experiences, starting with the winners in December and January, when the Summer Rhythm (it's summer in New Zealand) trip is given away and the lucky winner gets a two-week roadtrip that goes along the East Coast of New Zealand and ends with the three day Rhythm and Vines festival (check it out at

Viral video by ebuzzing The competition has begun and the opportunity for the Summer Rhythm prize ends on November 30th, with the additional contests to follow.  It is open to everyone throughout the world who is 18 years of age or older. Check out the example video above and then enter at Stories Beat Stuff. Then, like New Zealand on Facebook and ready all about the country you may soon get to visit -- for free!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Exploring through Carmel and Pebble Beach

My friend Tracy picked me up at L’Auberge Carmel after I finished the delicious breakfast delivered to my room (included for all guests). We had a final full day of fun ahead in Monterey County. We were actually remaining in Carmel by the Sea, but moving to an adorable inn a few blocks down.

The Lamp Lighter Inn is actually a group of adorable cottages and guest rooms just a few blocks walk from both town and the beach. While it is called a bed & breakfast, it’s a lot more than both, with cute gardens, flowing wine and a deluxe continental breakfast in the morning.

We stayed in the Bluebird Cottage which looked like it belonged in a fairy tale (there is also a Hansel & Gretel cottage, so I think I have the right theme). It has a king bed and bathroom downstairs with an electric fireplace, and twin beds upstairs (witha teddy bear on each). The upstairs became Tracy’s domain.

There wasn’t long to spend admiring the room as we were soon off for our full day. After watching some of the Carmel by the Sea Halloween Pet Parade, we headed over to Wrath Wines, which has a tasting room located right downtown. The title of this winery came from a Led Zeppelin song and it seems to fit right in with the wines, which are a bit different from the norm. 

I loved their 2009 Wrath Syrah Doctor’s Vineyard and Syrah is far from my favorite wine. It was much more fruity and complex than most and I felt as if I was still tasting it five minutes after the sip.  Their 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest was like no other dessert wine I had tasted from this grape. It was a combination of sweet and spicy and actually smelled like asparagus!

We took a drive down to the water for lunch at the Stillwater Grill at The Lodge at Pebble Beach, It is the location of one of the most famous -- and most beautiful -- golf courses in the world. It runs along the Pacific and we got to see both the ocean and the course as we enjoyed a great lunch. The fries and burgers (about the only things I could find on a menu full of seafood) were great and the Peanut Butter Chocolate dessert Tracy and I split was just incredible!

From The Lodge, we took the famous 17 Mile Drive along the Pacific Ocean. It was as beautiful as I had remembered. As much as I’ve gotten used to living in the Midwest, there is just nothing like a drive along the beach to relax me and put me in a great mood.

We changed quickly for dinner at a place where the owner is known for her good mood. Though Doris Day doesn’t get out much these days, she is still the owner of the Cypress Inn in Carmel by the Sea. As much as the wall shows tributes to Day, so do the policies. She is a dog lover and they are welcome here, with a “Yappy Hour” every day and a spot in the cocktail lounge when the lounge singer plays.

The evening started from cocktails from a menu of classic drinks with the motto “The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” Each page was dedicated to a spirit and an actor, with drinks named (and explained) after others, such as the Mary Pickford:

Leblon, Bacardi Superior Rum, pineapple juice, Maraschino Liqueur and Grenadine-Created for Pickford in the 1920s by Fred Kauffman at Hotel Nacional de Cuba

After sipping a French 75, I sat down with Tracy for dinner. We started with the Roasted Vegetable Soup, which was just perfect on a night that was starting to get chilly. I then enjoyed the Penne Salsiccia, pasta with Italian sausage and onions in plum tomato sauce. Tracy really liked the Pan-Seared Scallops, with baby spinach and red truffled potatoes.

We retired early after a very long day and spent our final day slowly making our way through Monterey County toward San Francisco Airport.  We started with a walk down at the Carmel by the Sea beach and continued with a drive along the ocean until I was at the same airport I would return to a week later for my Sonoma trip.

A word of caution…. Dogs rule Carmel by the Sea this town and they are welcome in nearly every hotel, restaurant and store. I happen to love dogs, but I was a bit overwhelmed by day three. I started to have dreams that I was the only human left on earth (especially after the Halloween Pet Parade)!

You will not find a better place in the world for pet lovers who can’t stand to leave their pooch home. However, if you are coming without a pet, stay in Carmel Valley and take a drive to Carmel by the Sea for a day trip -- it's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Carmel From Valley to Sea

There’s nothing like waking up to a fresh breakfast delivered in a comfy cottage on an estate full of horses. That’s exactly what I had to greet me at Stonepine Estate. It was another hard place to leave, but I had lots to do on my journey through Monterey, California, and it was going to continue in Carmel by the Sea.

Our first stop of the day was at Tor House. This property is right on the Pacific Ocean and once belonged to poet Robinson Jeffers. Koleen Hamlin, the public relations representative for Monterey County , and I toured the house, learning all about the rich history of both the literary time period he lived in and the Carmel by the Sea house itself.

From Tor House we headed to downtown for lunch at Dametra Café. I learned about Carmel by the Sea, it’s celebrities (Clint Eastwood and Doris Day both live here), quirks (no mailboxes or addresses on buildings are allowed) and rules (no high heels or chain stores, but dogs were more than welcome). I also enjoyed a delicious Mediterranean meal that included: Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with yogurt, garlic and olive oil served on warm pitas; Spanakopita, a spinach pie with feta cheese in phyllo dough; and Baklava, a sweet pastry made with honey and nuts.

After the lunch, we went over to Caraccioli Cellars, where they have some terrific sparkling wines. My favorite was the 2006 Brut Cuvee, made with 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir. It was very buttery and lightly oaked. From there we did some tasting at Galante Vineyards, where the Sauvignon Blanc was smoky and not my style, but I really enjoyed the 2006 Blackjack Pasture Cabernet Sauvignon, with lots of fruit in the front and a bit of white pepper, cinnamon and allspice on the back.

Our next stop was an unusual one as it combined a beautiful art gallery and some interesting wines. The Winfield Art Gallery belongs to Chris Winfield and it’s filled with contemporary paintings, photographs and sculptures that I would love to acquire if they would fit in my budget. The wine by Figge Cellars was a perfect accompaniment to the art, with the 2009 Pelo Pinot Noir my favorite.

We checked into L’AubergeCarmel, a Relaix & Chateau accommodation, for the evening and I thought I had landed in France a few weeks early. I especially loved the courtyard between the rooms, where you would find guests enjoying a glass of wine as if they were in a Paris café. My room was more than comfortable and I enjoyed a short rest while Koleen went shopping in downtown Carmel.

Dinner was at L'Auberge Carmel's restaurant, Aubergine, and Chef Justin Cogley and Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza prepared quite a Tasting Dinner, which was paired by Wine Director Thomas Perez.

The Foie Gras with huckleberry and a puree of upland cress was a decadent as it should be and served with a 2009 Charles Hours from France.  It was followed by a tender Wagyu Ribeye with porcini mushrooms and marrow served with a 2008 Les Jumelles Pinot Noir from the Central Coast.  

After the main course we had a typical French Cheese Platter, served with a great 2009 Leojami Grenache from Monterey, before finishing the meal with a Caramelized Brioche, with apples and celeriac ice cream.  That came with a 1996 Grand Guilehm from Rivesaltes, France, which gave me a lot to look forward to when I head to that area in Roussillon in a few weeks.

It was a large meal and we decided to forego what sounded like it would be a great party at Caraccioli Cellars. I had two more days to go in Monterey and was looking forward to my friend Tracy joining me for them.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exploring and Tasting Carmel Valley

Carmel Valley is one of the warmest places in Monterey with accommodations of all kinds. Koleen, the Monterey County public relations representative, and I were staying at some of the top properties in the valley (no argument here), starting with Bernardus Lodge.  I had such a great time there -- especially in the spa -- it was hard to leave, but I knew there was another great place at the end of an exciting day.

We were prepared to spend the day downtown after stopping to look at some great little hotels, like Tasa Hara Hot Springs Resort and Los LoralesLodge & Saloon. We then made a quick stop at the gallery of Jean De Luz, who collects everything from sculptures to Italian fountains from Europe to sell to homes around here. Then it was off to the wineries.

Our first stop was Parsonage, a family owned winery that only does 2,000 cases a year. I liked their 2009 Sonsrap Chardonnay. Which was done half in stainless and half in oak, giving it lots of butter, but not too much oak. I was surprised to see how much art there was in downtown Carmel Valley, even in the wineries.  The pictures at Parsonage were especially interesting, as was their wine.

We went next door to Boekenoosen Vineyard and Winery, which has a big collection of wines, including a Dijon/Pommard Blend. The wines were a bit dry for my taste, but Koleen was a huge fan of the 2009
Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir.

I was really impressed with a number of the wines at Chock Rock, including the 2010 Chardonnay, which certainly didn’t taste like it was 100% barreled, and the 2009 Monterey County Pinot Noir, full of fruit with less pepper than most.

After all the rich meals, I was craving something simple and vegetable filled and I found it at Café Rustica. The pizzas, with a thin and flaky crust, were a perfect break from the wining tasting and quite large. It looked like we hadn’t even made a dent, but we were both quite full.

Our last winery stop was at Carmel Hills Winery, which had an interesting Unfiltered Chardonnay. Then it was off to the place we were staying for the night – Stonepine Estate.

We toured the estate and I could easily understand why this was such a popular place for weddings. The landscape was so immaculate and the grounds and chateau looked like they belonged in France. As lovely as it was, I was most drawn to the horse stables. This is the home to many retired thoroughbreds and I could have pet them all day, dreaming about my riding days.

The chateau at Stonepine Estate has some beautiful rooms, but we had our own little (ok, not so little) cottage. It is called Hermes and as if the perfectly appointed rooms weren’t enough on their own, I had a masseuse waiting in my bedroom! Sage gave me a relaxing massage and I got to relax a little while after.
Dinner was a quiet, but elegant, table for two as Koleen and I headed up to the main chateau on the estate. We started with champagne and hors d' oeuvres in the library (of course) and enjoyed some of the chef’s specialties.  He had me at the start with an Eggplant and Fresh Mozzarella appetizer.

We got back to our little cottage at a reasonable hour and watched a little television in the very comfortable living room before I retired for the night. We had a much busier day ahead, as we were heading into Carmel by the Sea.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Re-Discovering Monterey in Carmel

As a child, my family frequently traveled to California. I have fond memories of Monterey, especially the stop we always made at the Dennis the Menace Playground.

I had actually only been to the area twice as an adult, once with my friend Jaimee, when I discovered the first wine I would ever remember by name (Jekel Johannisberg Riesling) and a second time take my daughter to the Monterey Aquarium when it first opened. I knew this trip would be different than any other to Monterey County and I was excited to discover the first class hotels, fine dining, wineries and, of course, scenic coastline.

The trip didn’t quite start out the way I would have liked, with an hour and a half on the runway, followed by a bumpy four and a half hour flight and a bus ride, but things immediately started to feel better when I saw the Pacific Ocean.

Koleen, the public relations rep for the county, was waiting for me on the other side and ready to show me around Carmel. It was going to be a quiet day, which was fine with me since I had been going since 1:00 am Pacific Time. We quickly checked into Bernardus Lodge and I was handed one of the best Sauvignon Blancs I’ve ever had, made right at the Bernardus Winery.

My room was beautiful and had a big deck that showed not only the property, but the mountains in the background. I also had a the Bernardus welcome of three bottles of wine, popcorn and Purple Haze Goat Cheese and other goodies, which all guests receive upon check-in. 

I continued my relaxing state by checking out the property and landing in the spa. All guests (whether or not they take advantage of purchasing from the array of treatments) have use of the spa at Bernardus. I alleviated all my travel stress in the Hot Plunge Pool, followed by sometime in the Eucalyptus Steam Room and a finish in the Sauna. (Bernardus also has an outdoor pool that is heated to 80 degrees and open all year round.)

I think I could have easily drifted off into eight hours of wonderful sleep after the spa, but we had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant scheduled and I didn’t want to miss Marinus, a restaurant known far and wide in these parts. We were joined by Sue Dryer, Director of Sales for the hotel, who helped guide us through some of the courses.

While I can’t have seafood, my tablemates could, and they loved the Lobster. I had the delicious Portobello Mushroom Soup with goat cheese, chive, white truffle oil. We then shared a serving of the Truffle Risotto, which was just absolutely incredible.

For a main course, I enjoyed the Colorado Lamb with Morel Mushroom, Summer Squash and Baby Carrot in roasted garlic jus. I hardly had any room for dessert, but sampled a tiny bit of everything that came to the table in our dessert extravaganza.

Soon it was time to head to bed. I was more than ready to get some rest before I headed out for a day of wine tasting in Carmel.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Re-Visiting Champaign with North Shore Distillery

I’m so busy traveling around that I often don’t get to go to some of my favorite places in my hometown. When my friend Sonja Kassenbaum of North Shore Distillery told me she was coming to town to visit some of the bars and restaurants that house her products, I decided it was a perfect time to catch up with both Sonja and downtown Champaign.

We started the evening at Radio Maria, which I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to in a while.  Sonja was pouring cocktails made with some North Shore Sol Vodka (which has a citrus infusion) for the guests while I enjoyed one of my all-time favorite drinks – North Shore No. 11 Gin and Tonic. I was surprised at how many people had never had her spirits before, but not surprised that they kept ordering them the rest of the night.

Radio Maria is in the heart of downtown Champaign and is known for not only a large selection of spirits, but their beer list. They had 27 beers on tap during my visit. The other thing Radio Maria is popular for is their tapas. Sonja and I sampled some wonderful ones which I had remembered from my last visit: Arancini, risotto balls with mozzarella, topped with tomato sauce; Queso de Cabra, fried goat cheese topped with honey; and Lamb Meatballs, stuffed with cheese and pine nuts, cooked in a tomato broth.

While we nibbled on the tapas, Sonja told me all about the expansion of North Shore with a new tour (that includes a visit with Ethel, their famous still) and tasting room. The only thing I couldn’t get her to tell me was what her special spirit would be this year.  There have been some exciting ones, including the  Mole Poblano, Medjool Date Infusion and last year’s Corpse Reviver, but she is very good at keeping a secret so we will have to wait until Ethel is ready to divulge it on her Facebook page.

Sonja had lots more places to visit in Champaign-Urbana that carry her products, such as Carmon’s Bistro (I haven’t tried it under the new ownership, but it was a favorite and I’m hoping it hasn’t changed much) and Black Dog (some of the best barbecue you will find this far north). Before she went back to Chicagoland, I also took her to check out Destihl, a brewery I love that she had not yet visited.

Executive Chef Manny Martinez joined us at Destihl for a fun sampling of his food (mainly the out of this world Beer Battered Asparagus and Stuffed Poblano) and her spirits. We managed to get through most of the North Shore Collection of vodkas and gins before making our way to their Sirène Absinthe Verte. North Shore was the first to bring this delicious spirit into the U.S. and I for one am certainly glad they did. If you haven’t tasted this high proof, less sweet Sambuca tasting liqueur, I urge you to head over to Lake Bluff (just outside of Chicago) and do it soon.

While I’m on the subject of Destihl, I’d like to pass along some information on their beer dinner this week (11/9) in their Normal location. It’s not only a great opportunity to check out some of their beers, but you can also sample some of Chef Martinez’s fabulous food. For more information on the dinner, contact the brewery,  309-862-2337. Unfortunately, I will be out of town (what else is new), but I’m sure I will find another excuse to go back for asparagus and poblanos!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Introduction to Broadway in Chicago through Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking

I did an interview with Desperate Housewives actor James Denton, current owner of Harry Caray’s on Navy Pier and former waiter at one of the chain’s other restaurants. He told me that he first ended up in Chicago because there was so much theater to do. I had heard that too, but I figured it was time for me to check it out myself.

My mother was in town visiting me and it just happened to be at the same time that Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking was playing at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago. I don’t usually make roundtrips there in one day, but the timing just didn’t work out for an overnight stay and we were both anxious to see this show for various reasons.

When my mom was a teen, singer Eddie Fisher was her idol. She had pictures of him everywhere, owned his records and even had obtained a few autographs. She was also a fan of Debbie Reynolds and had seen Carrie Fisher on television a few times.

For me, the attraction to Wishful Drinking was very different. I had lost the attention of many a male when faced with a poster of Princess Lea and though I’m not a Star Wars fan (I hear many a gasp out there, but it’s true, not everyone loves the series), I had enjoyed watching Fisher in other movies. The big one for me, though, was my favorite movie. Carrie Fisher had played best friend to Meg Ryan’s Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally

Regardless of our reasons for going, my first experience with a Broadway show in Chicago went above my expectations, as they did my mom’s.  The Bank of America Theatre rivals any one on New York’s Broadway and the parking was a lot easier (you can stay or valet with the Hampton’s Majestic right next door). The theater was also extremely helpful and accommodating to my mom’s need for accessibility.

The show itself was just fantastic. Carrie Fisher is open and honest about the wild ride she has taken with her life. The things that would make most people fall apart, she manages to relive with the audience while carrying on a sense of humor. She sits down to talk, takes walks around the stage, brings audience members up to join her, uses props to make her points, and even sings in a voice that could only come from the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

Wishful Drinking manages to turn the tragedies of Carrie Fisher’s life – a public split of her parents after her father left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor; alcoholism; drug addiction; two divorces, including one from singer Paul Simon; a bi-polar diagnosis;  and electroconvulsive therapy, formerly called electric shock therapy – into comedy.

While Wishful Drinking is no longer in Chicago, Carrie Fisher is still touring with the show. You can also catch the details with the Wishful Drinking bookor a DvD of the show. (She also has a  new book out, Shockaholic, which I have not read.)

As for Broadway in Chicago, I will definitely be back and I urge you to schedule it in on all trips you make to the Windy City.