I don’t know that I’ve ever uttered the phrase “it all started with a guinea pig.” Certainly, this is the first time I have ever personally written the phrase. But I’m more than tickled by the notion that a whirlwind of events which has started the former owner of ZOOMARS iconic San Juan Capistrano petting zoo down the path of adventure was with, you guessed it: a guinea pig. Not just any guinea pig. Gillie Guinea Pig. Carolyn Franks, couldn’t stop smiling before. Now, I’m betting it would take an incredible feat to curb her enthusiasm.
Former owner, you ask? The success of Carolyn’s first book has opened the door to an unimaginable adventure - one that has been 15 years in the making since she first envisioned an innocent, affordable family entertainment opportunity. A petting zoo named ZOOMARS in the historic Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano resulted, and is the stuff of history now. A “backyard barnyard” from the start, the zoo buildings date back to the 1800’s, and its property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Home to a vast number of creatures and critters alike, the llamas, ponies, goats, sheep, bunnies and of course, guinea pigs will soon be in the caring hands of local developer Dan Almquist whose own children and wife Lindsey are longtime friends and fans of the beloved zoo. And, most importantly, who wish to keep it, enrich it, and bolster its already sterling reputation for years to come.
Almquist will be one of only a handful of owners of the property in two centuries. The land was once part of the Mission, then a Mexican ranch owned by the Rios family, then the Nieblas family (both relatives of the native inhabitants, the Acjachemen), then granted to Delfina Olivares, the town matriarch. In 1980, Gil and Millie Jones bought the parcel and opened the Jones Family Mini Farm. Gil served as a two-term mayor. They sold the property to Carolyn when they retired in 2005.
“Like me,” Carolyn notes, “the original Jones Family would only sell the petting zoo to someone who would promise to keep it a zoo. I believe that after 15 years, I have taken ZOOMARS as far as I can on my own. I see how much Dan Almquist and his company Frontier Development, truly care about historic restoration and preservation in San Juan and they have the investors and the construction know-how to revitalize old buildings. It’s great to showcase these 1800s structures for all to enjoy, but no one realizes the enormous amount of money it takes to preserve and continuously repair them. Dan’s projects in town inspire growth and yet are in keeping with our old town charm. There is no one I trust more than Dan to pass the torch to.”
As a former San Juan Mayor, Gil Jones also supports Dan’s vision for growth in town and his approval was also important to Carolyn. “I wanted to make sure I had Gil and Millie’s blessing before selling and called to ask them for it before I approached Dan. I told them I knew he would keep their ‘farm’ alive and that it would be in good hands. The property was never listed for sale as I only approached Dan privately.”
The property holds four listings on the National Register of Historic Places - the Olivares House, the Owner’s Cottage, the San Juan Springs Bathhouse and River Street, which Dan purchased 50% of when he bought the Ito Nursery next door a few years ago.
“Dan has a proposed project on the nursery site (pending City Council approval on July 2nd), which was another reason I felt he was the ideal person to approach,” says Carolyn. “Should the River Street Marketplace be voted in, the petting zoo would be incorporated into their plan, constructed in a California craftsman design.” The project can be viewed at riverstreetsjc.com.
Carolyn, in the meantime, will be taking Gillie straight to Hollywood. For as it turns out, her literary agent loved Gillie and his friends so much, she suggested an animated series for television, which Carolyn is in the process of writing now. With preliminary interest from a few studios already, due to its uniqueness, the show would be based on many of Carolyn’s real-life stories at ZOOMARS intertwined with an imaginary place called GUINEAPIGVILLE. It would also incorporate two original soundtracks Carolyn produced, “We Are Not Hamsters,” and “Ponies Don’t Surf.”
“I lost everything I owned to keep the zoo afloat after the economic crash in 2008, and a divorce in 2009. Thankfully, a local San Juanian and close friend lent me an inordinate amount of money to keep things going and I struggled for every dollar to pay her back. My bookkeeper would run to the bank at 4:45 to ensure every check would clear. Through years of tough times, using creative ideas to promote business, countless Groupon deals, free pop-up petting zoos, a summer camp, and even a disastrous dino extinction; the stars aligned.” A mom who’d taken her daughter to ZOOMARS had illustrated a kid’s book, and wanted Carolyn to see it. “I couldn’t type fast enough: ‘Can you draw a guinea pig?’” The rest is a 32-page masterpiece. All 5,000 books sold within a few months, Gillie won a prestigious award, and after 15 years, Carolyn feels like passing the ZOOMARS torch is the best possible gift to her community.
Gillie, meanwhile, is getting ready to load into a vintage Airstream Motorhome, which Carolyn always dreamed of owning and recently just purchased, and start doing shows locally. The series, called “Go Gillie Go!” is set to follow Gillie and his friends (the ones he met in the book at Mr. Parker’s Pet Shop) as they do pop-up shows around the country benefiting animals in need. “I can’t tell you all the juicy details about Gillie’s Roadshow, or Sheriff Gillie will arrest me, but I can tell you that his Airstream holds a ‘secret’ that takes him and his friends on some wild rides,” Carolyn says with a smile. “And maybe … we’ll even meet Juan the Dinosaur again.”
“My heart will always be here with my animals. I’m staying on before, during and after the sale to serve as a consultant, cheerleader and guinea-pig petter. It’s in the contract! Dan and I both want the transition to be seamless for our ZOOMARS community. Those familiar staff faces, like Nina, Gerald and Angel the emu, who have been with me from the beginning, will still be here.” And all the allure of ZOOMARS will continue to come with parties, pony rides, bunnies, goats, sheep, bunnies and chickens. And of course, their signature 100 guinea pigs! And to think, it began with one. As Carolyn likes to say “Anything’s possible with love and a carrot stick.”
There are extroverts and introverts. There are loud personalities and reserved ones. Those who love dinner in with a few friends, or a real lollapalooza with everyone they know. The common ground between both types?
oth like a good party, no matter the size or shape. “At the center of all good gatherings is the sense of celebration,” notes Candy Hirte, owner of Costa Mesa’s Where’s The Party? store.
Candy knows her way around a celebration. In business since 1990, she and a cadre of incredible ladies have been making every occasion special for their customers with everything from invites to home decor. “Customer service comes first, but that’s pretty simple when we all love the idea of celebrating every holiday.”
Nowadays the competition is building online, but even with expedited shipping, nothing really helps set the tone of a party like talking through a theme or decor details with an expert. “Each one of the wonderful women (there are 17 of them!) who work here can walk you through the process and share our etiquette gleaned from 29 years in business.”
Paper goods, balloons, and home decor weren’t Candy’s original business plan. “I kind of stumbled into the party,” she notes with a chuckle. “I met a darling girl at a class I was taking and she said she was interested in opening up a party store in Orange County! I jumped in with both feet, not knowing a darn thing about this business. Well, except that I do lo-ve parties.” Quickly growing to love chatting with each and every customer who walked in the doors, Candy soon realized that on a very personal level, the business was about the personal friendships she was developing, and the small and large moments that made up each individual’s lives.
“Maybe getting involved in the industry was a fluke, but knowing how much I love people, it just made sense to celebrate every occasion with them!”
Candy and her husband love their community, and often take the time to go out with their friends and family. “Obviously we love movies or relaxing with a good book, but giving back to those who surround us is so important to us. Through the store, through loving what I do every day, contributing to our local schools and philanthropies in the area. They’re our big supporters, and I must say, I come to work every day loving who I work with and excited to help a customer with their party.” Bridal, baby, and kids. Greeting cards, business, or personal stationery. Wedding invitations and essentials: no category is off limits or out of reach.
Some might question why I would make the drive to Costa Mesa from my home in San Juan Capistrano to peruse Candy’s wares. My answer is quite simply that I’m not aware of a store in South County quite like hers - Where’s the Party? would be worth the drive if it were twice the distance. I could honestly spend hours wandering around the store looking at all the amazing hostess gifts, home decor and unique presents for weddings, baby showers, holidays and all of life’s other occasions. I’m already envisioning retro party ideas (think 80s, western, disco, Roaring 20s or other era-themed events where only a paper invitation will do).
Mention this article for $25 OFF your purchase of $50 or more
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For a more curated experience, all you have to do is see what’s coming up on the events list. From taking a modern calligraphy workshop to spotting the team at a wedding show, there’s something for everyone, even those of us with little or no decision making skill to speak of. You’ll feel directed and taken care of: ready to take on your next party, be it baby’s first birthday or your boss’ retirement bash. Even personalization on your favorite Crane or Rifle Paper Co. stationery.
If it’s time to celebrate someone, or maybe it’s just been too long since you threw a good dinner party, Where’s the Party can help you find that common ground and let your passion take over. Introvert or extrovert. “Where’s the party? You tell us!”
Where’s the Party? is located at 270 E. 17th Street in Costa Mesa.
Candy and her team can be reached directly by calling (949) 722-1803 or visit www.wheresthepartyoc.com
There are a million fitness choices you could make. Maybe more. Food, drink, fasting. Juice cleanse, cold tolerance. Pilates, yoga, sauna, HIIT. But almost nowhere can one find a studio focusing on total health and wellness. Enter Sweat Sanctuary. Offering pilates, yoga, infrared saunas, and nutritional coaching, Sweat Sanctuary works on the whole person. Owner Shellie Thomas has been involved in fitness, personal training, and holistic health for her entire life. Fifteen years ago she found pilates and became certified to teach.
Sweat Sanctuary has been in business over ten years - the fruit of Shellie’s laboring through the minefield of personal fitness. “We not only offer fitness classes, but offer an infrared sauna experience with chromotherapy light to detox the body, drop cortisol levels and increase oxygen flow to your tissues and joints,” says Shellie. “We also have different supplements to help balance the internal systems in the body that can help with sleep issues, pain, anxiety, and different hormonal imbalances.”
Shellie believes that a great many health issues can be solved by “integrating a holistic solution, alleviating pain, solving sleep problems, and most importantly, keeping the body moving.” Toward that end, heated yoga can help increase flexibility to circulate oxygen and energy throughout the body and protect against injuries, build muscle strength and vitality. Pilates concentrates on developing core strength to build stamina and improve posture - and bonus! create well-toned muscles without bulking up.
Wholeness is healing, and we love having a creative, dynamic space to offer options in fitness, nutrition and preventative health care.”
“The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga, infrared heat that acts as the sun from the saunas and the strengthening and lengthening of pilates can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome, lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia,” says Shellie. “Aside rom the physical benefits, one of the best benefits of sweating is how it helps a person manage stress, which is known to have devastating effects on the body and mind.”
Offering a donation-based Pilates class and a free Teen Yoga class, Sweat is dedicated to the practices and commitments necessary to learn life-coping skills and improve every aspect of your daily routines.
“I love seeing clients come in to work on their health,” says Shellie. “We have a wonderful community, and every day someone tells me how much they love coming in, or just how much the work they have done has lifted their spirits. Wholeness is healing, and we love having a creative, dynamic space to offer options in fitness, nutrition, and preventative health care.” With the best instructors around and a living education, all you need is a dose of sweat … Sanctuary.
Connect with Shellie directly by stopping by her studio at 657 Camino de los Mares, Suite 137 in San Clemente, calling (949) 218-4834 or visit sweatsanctuary.com. Mention this article to receive One Week of Unlimited Sauna, Yoga and Pilates for only $49 (new clients only)!
2019 is a big year for Southern California’s southern gem: San Diego. Marking the 250th anniversary of the eighth largest city in the nation, the oceanside pearl known for gorgeous beaches, distinct communities and a rich cultural history dating back tens of thousands of years. An exciting time for an exciting place: first found by the Kumeyaay Nation, and then the sailors of 1542 who renamed the land Alta California. Now, overlaid against the backdrop or native trails, the city celebrates its past, present, and future.
It doesn’t take a history buff to appreciate the legendary quality of Don Juan Bandini’s Cosmopolitan Hotel (oldtowncosmopolitan.com). Returned to the glory of its 1870’s glory, the once adobe home-restaurant-stagecoach office-olive cannery is now an updated San Diego staple. Antique furnishings and what feels like service from a truly bygone era are the benchmarks of the hotel’s Victorian-style bedrooms and baths. Our stay here proved to the perfect place from which to explore the area. Easy walking distance to entertainment, art galleries, family-friendly restaurants, and a locale literally adjacent to the historic Old Town Presidio: where California began (more on that in a minute).
For breakfast, enjoy a bed and breakfast style coffee, tea, or homemade pastry (the scones with yummy blackberry jam are worth writing home about) in the salon. Take in the Old West decor and enjoy an afternoon tea on Saturday or Sunday until 5pm. Grab a bite in the restaurant from the Cosmo’s seasonal menu. Fresh vegetables, local ingredients, and exceptional cuts of meat to whet any appetite. Choose from a private dining room, the Orchard Terrace, Grand Sala, or Bandini Room. And if you’re looking for something to do after dinner, try out the Cygnet Theater: Historic Park at its finest.
Presenting the best of California culture, San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park gives visitors the opportunity to experience the history of its early connections to our storied present. Restored buildings from the interpretive period are complemented with early twentieth-century buildings designed in the same mode. Original adobe buildings are part of the park, which remains a favorite place for social gatherings and family-friendly historic activities, like the park’s working blacksmith shop.
At elementary schools all over California, fourth graders have been making missions from craft supplies for years. My son constructed Mission San Diego Alcala (the first of 21 established in the state) a couple of years ago, which made our visit all the more exciting and impactful. The city’s first downtown area and the true birthplace of California, San Diego is now famous for its pristine stretches of sandy shore and hip shopping and bar crawls through Pacific Beach. But once upon a time, San Diego was known for the historic sites, cultural lore, and the nearby Mission San Diego de Alcala.
Of the 21 missions in California, San Diego de Alcala marks the birthplace of Christianity on the West Coast. Providing an important cultural and significant look at the start of Catholicism, the mission, which was founded in 1769 serves as an active community hub, parish church, and grandiose placeholder for the migration of faith from Spain to the United States. The California olive was first cultivated at the Mission in San Diego, and many thousands of children’s appreciation for California history.
Designated as a historic house museum over sixty years ago, the Whaley House Museum (whaleyhouse.org) has been open to the public ever since. Ranked right up there with some of California’s national parks, the home receives over 125,000 visits a year, managed and operated by SOHO- the Save Our Heritage Organization. A perfect example of Greek Revival architecture from the mid-nineteenth century, the house pays tribute to Thomas Whaley and his historic presence in San Diego’s old town. But what makes this tour even more intriguing is the folklore surrounding this former family home and its bygone residents.
According to the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted, the house is the number one most haunted house in the country. The alleged hauntings began with ghostly sightings of “Yankee Jim,” a convict who was hanged in 1852 on a gallows of the back of a wagon on the site where the house now stands. The local newspaper reported that he “kept his feet in the wagon as long as possible, but was finally pulled off. He swung back and forth like a pendulum until he strangled to death.” Although Thomas Whaley had been a spectator at the execution, he did not let it dissuade him from buying the property a few years later and building a home for his family there. According to the San Diego Union, “soon after the couple and their children moved in, heavy footsteps were heard moving about the house. Whaley described them as sounding as though they were made by the boots of a large man. Finally he came to the conclusion that these unexplained footfalls were made by Yankee Jim Robinson.”
Trek through town on the Ghosts and Gravestones Tour (ghostsandgravestones.com/san-diego) and hear stories about how the city’s most beautiful daytime spots have a darker side when the sun goes down. This trolley/walking guided tour takes visitors into Pioneer Park (now a park in the middle of Mission Hills, the site was once the final resting place for thousands of people and is still home to a small cemetery at the back edge of the trees and pathways - said to be peaceful by day, but an altogether different experience after the sun goes down), the adobe walled El Campo Santo Cemetery circa 1849 (where “Yankee Jim” is interred) and culminates at the aforementioned Whaley House - chock full to the brim with spooky sounds, sights, and encounters. Well known ghosts with reputations for leaving disembodied footprints and a small child that cries out in the night are the norm at San Diego’s most haunted attraction.
Authentic and Innovative Eats (& Drink)
A full menu at Casa Guadalajara (casaguadalajara.com) leads to a full belly, and there isn’t anything better before a night out in historic San Diego - providing a vibrant and colorful entrance to Old Town, Casa Guadalajara is defined by its festive decor, trumpeting mariachis, lush patios, “Birdbath Margaritas” and authentic Mexican cuisine. Using only the freshest ingredients, the food is prepared daily to ensure each customer who walks through the doors (since 1995!) leaves satisfied. Serving up the best traditional and regional dishes, you can choose from seasonal specials (such as the Sopes Surtidos - which fills three traditional cornmeal cakes with refried beans and your choice of carnitas, shredded chicken or beef) and popular favorites (like the Camerones ala Diabla which arrives as tasty large shrimp in a rich and spicy chipotle salsa or the Enchiladas Suizas, prepared with seasoned shredded chicken and green chilies).
New on the block in Old Town is Tahona, on a mission to “educate and give reverence to the complexity and beauty of the Mexican culture through its most iconic beverage: Mezcal. Tahona Bar (tahonabar.com) achieves this by serving up a most delicious menu Oaxacan-inspired bites at its warm, beautifully appointed tasting room that makes guests feel as though they’ve been transported to a modern Mexican hacienda: from the hand painted tiles and the handmade rope seats to the traditionally crafted fabric brought from Oaxaca in its banquettes to the unique furnishings - each piece crafted by a local artisan or an artisan across the border.
Sharing bites populate the menu (think gourmet Carne Asada, Chicken Tinga and Pork Belly Quemado tacos), a modern take on a Tres Moles tasting flight and favorites that range from the Camaron Aguachile (shrimp, chipotle and citrus sauce further enhanced by cucumber, red onions and cilantro) and the Pulpo and Pipian (grilled octopus, kale, broccoli, pork belly, pepitas and pipian sauce. It was all my husband and I could do to manage a taste of the churro s’mores before the kids dove in to the sweet treat - crunchy churros with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff.
But make no mistake: at its heart is over 120 different varieties of the agave-based spirit - both for simply sipping and those incorporated into flavorfully creative cocktails (the Whaley House Punch pairs Domingo Espadin Mezcal with lime, pineapple, salted watermelon, Campari and Absinthe while the Campo Salto, named for the iconic historical landmark next door is made with Espolon Blanco, passionfruit, coconut water, fresno chili, Contreau, agave and lime).
Very few working professionals can say that they care for someone specific their entire life. Very few can say that those they care for bring their families along, or that they end up spending time responding to their client’s needs with engineering, artistry, and clear communication.
And I’ll bet that if I asked you right now what field you thought I was referring to, you wouldn’t think dentistry first. Dr. Lincoln Parker, DMD has made it his life’s work to change what people see in their mind’s eye when they think of the dentist. Turns out, it’s a wonderful field to be in.
Back in 2013, Dr. Parker ran with a new idea: to create a sense of community in an industry that brought positive change for those that worked in it, sought care in it, and created their lives in the surrounding space. Parker Dentistry began with a vision for more: and more is exactly what they’ve received. “We’ve been able to care for so many wonderful people since the practice initially opened,” says Dr. Parker. “Individuals who have become more than just customers, clients. Friends and family come here, and have responded so wholeheartedly to the work we’re doing that we had to search out another dentist to join the office.” Taking care of people for work is a huge blessing to Dr. Parker and his new partner, Dr. Tyler Hales, DDS. Creating a legacy of real restorative work is no small challenge, but with their combined talents and passions (cosmetics, development, airway, sleep apnea!) life-improving treatment goes far beyond any other typical commitment.
Their combined expertise and scope of services covers virtually all aspects of the dental field from cosmetic dentistry (porcelain veneers, dental implants, Invisalign clear braces, same day porcelain crowns, teeth whitening), sedation dentistry, general and family dentistry and orthodontics to restorative dentistry, TMJ treatment, sleep apnea treatment, gum disease treatment and emergency dentistry.
“Our competition is not other dental offices, but the perception of what a dental office is, or can be,” says Dr. Parker. “My team is what helps change that perception.” With a consistent drive to improve, the folks at Hales Parker Dentistry train to streamline their communication and clinical skills, leading to an exceptional experience both in and out of the chair. “I can truly say it is a joy to work every day alongside our group of professionals. People are what give me joy, so having a team full of people who come to work intending on changing lives makes an enormous impact on everyone we come into contact with.”
Scores of happy clients have been so pleased with their experience here that they’ve taken the time to share their positive comments: “Best dentist I’ve ever been to, hands down,” Michael L. posted on Yelp and Heather G.’s review reveals that “Dr. Parker and his team have been exceptional! I was a very fearful patient and from the first interaction, everyone has been compassionate, friendly, professional and understanding of my previous experiences that caused my fears. I never imagined that dentistry could be easy or virtually painless …”
It all started with Dr. Parker’s own family dentist, Dr. Kris Robinson. “He was friendly, humble, nice, and full of hilarious Dad-jokes.” Not your typical mad-scientist-like-crazy in a lab coat, as the media often depict dentists. “I got the sense he really cared about me. I remember the feeling of walking into that office, a setting which can be terribly awkward and intimidating, and he made it personable.” Hales Parker has taken a page out of that book, and run with it. Asking about your parents, kids, siblings, school, work: car trouble to community activism. You name it, they’re invested. “Some of our clients stay with us for decades! What kind of people would we be if we didn’t connect with them?”
Any relationship founded on trust takes time, and no less so when it’s an issue as sensitive as your smile. “I learned to serve as a kid, and to look at the community with open eyes as an undergrad, when I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter. It really impacted me talking and hanging out with the kids of these women who were in this situation. You had to move slowly, take your time and really let them come to you.” Dr. Parker still has a heart for the community, donating all of the office proceeds from professional whitening for four months of the year to charity. Over the years, they’ve raised more than $30,000. “What we do is humbling, it is special, and it is what dentistry should be.” I couldn’t agree more.
Hales Parker Dentistry is located at 777 Corporate Drive, Suite 100 in Ladera Ranch. For information, call (949) 429-0049 or visit theladeraranchdentist.com
One of my favorite things about Salt Lake City is its abundance of trees. In fact, the University of Utah campus, on the bench of the city’s foothills, is a designated State Arboretum, with over 8,000 trees. Boasting 300 plus varieties, including almost 40 different types of conifer, the city, and the campus in particular are an incredible sight in the early days of spring as the beech, elm, oak, and Japanese flowering cherry trees begin to bloom.
It is said that you can experience all four seasons in a day, and that is certainly true if you’re planning on venturing up any of the myriad canyons that flank Salt Lake’s downtown sprawl. Sun in the morning and snow in the afternoon (winter into late spring) makes for beautiful days exploring all that the city has to offer: bookstores like The King’s English with its incredible storytime workshops; classic diners like Ruth’s with plates for the kids and biscuits as big as your head; or the gorgeous City Creek Center, with over 100 stores and eateries in a walkable open air floor plan. The Hogle Zoo’s Wildlife Connections give parents and kids alike one-of-a-kind animal experiences with interactive feedings. An events calendar that is positively bursting at the seams has activities for everyone: from Tot Tuesdays and Wild Wednesdays to Behind the Scenes Tours.
Historic Temple Square tops the list of “must see” sights when in Salt Lake City. Home to the global headquarters of The Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as Mormons), the 35-acre property contains more than 15 attractions, including the impressive Salt Lake City Temple (which took 40 years to build from1853 - 1893) and is one of the oldest attractions in the area, the Tabernacle - home to the world-renowned Tabernacle Choir, beautiful gardens, art exhibits in the Church History Museum and the Salt Lake City Temple.
Completed in 1867, the Tabernacle is one of the most “acoustically sound and architecturally awe-inspiring buildings on earth.” Brigham Young directed the building should be designed so people could see and hear the speaker without impediment. To do this successfully, bridge-building techniques used to construct the roof so that support pillars were not necessary. Every Thursday evening from 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm, the Tabernacle Choir rehearsals are open to the public to view at no cost. Monday through Friday at 12 pm, visitors can enjoy a 30-minute organ recital by Tabernacle organists and guest organists.
Built in 1854, the Beehive House was home to Brigham Young (Utah’s first governor) and later other Church leaders. The large representation of a beehive on top of the structure symbolizes the strong sense of community and diligent work ethic of the Latter-day Saints who settled in Salt Lake City.
“I’m bored” is a phrase you’ll never hear if you purchase a Salt Lake Connect Pass (visitsaltlake.com), which allows access to 16 of the region’s best family-friendly attractions at significant savings. From the Clark Planetarium and Natural History Museum of Utah to Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, the aforementioned Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary, there’s no shortage of kid-friendly sight-seeing opportunities. A two-day pass runs $46 - $54 which saves you 50% - 80% off regular admission prices to the included attractions - from elephants to apes and sweeping mountain scenery to historic Temple Square, you can do it all at your own fun-filled pace.
From American classics to multicultural eateries, award-winning chefs and inventive restaurants, Salt Lake City scores on all counts. Located in downtown SLC at 418 E. 200 South, HSL (hslrestaurant.com) evolved from the restaurant group’s first establishment in Park City and features a carefully curated menu driven by the seasons - Chefs Briar Handly and Matt Nelson strive to source local and regional ingredients the height of freshness. The charcuterie arrived with a flavorful selection of artisanal meats, farmstead cheeses, pickles, signature sourdough, lavender honey and roasted hazelnuts. Popular dishes include a Hamachi Crudo with spaghetti squash, almonds and lemongrass ponzu; General Tso-style cauliflower accented by fresno pepper and sriracha vinaigrette; a delicious wild rice and quinoa tostada. Heartier entrees range from the Niman beef short rib (with molasses and maple jus, sunchoke and celery root, pickled romanesco and purple cauliflower) and New York steak (cipollini demi-glace, duck fat yukon gold potatoes and charred broccolini). For a great go-to for the kids, try the woodfired pizza (my plain cheese pizza-eating daughter discovered she absolutely adores pesto and burrata thanks to HSL) and you simply can’t go wrong with the eatery's signature fried chicken accompanied by salt and vinegar fries.
In nearby Cottonwood Heights, we opted to expand our kids’ palates sampling Vietnamese "street food” at the newly opened Saola (saola-slc.com) (owners are putting the finishing touches on the space, which will showcase a beautiful sushi display and full bar, several semi-private dining areas and an expansive dining room). A fan of Pho? You’ll have your work cut out for you in choosing which of the three Hanoi-style rice noodle soups (house made versions here are simmered for 12 hours with their family’s special spice blend): Pho Beef (beef bone broth, choice of grass-fed brisket, rare round-eye beef or beef meatballs); Pho Chicken (poached chicken in chicken broth with fresh rice noodles, spices, ginger, onion, cilantro and scallions); Pho Vegan in vegetable broth with bean curd. Prefer a heartier meal? Try the Banh Mi (a stuffed baguette sandwich made in the French-Vietnamese style): the French Dip was filled with tender roast beef, melted cheese, grilled onions and a flavorful pho dipping sauce. Our son, who generally isn’t our adventurous eater, had two helpings of everything - Xien Nuong (traditional Vietnamese marinated and grilled chicken skewers), chicken fried rice and crispy pork spring rolls (rice paper, pork, bean thread noodle, carrot, mushroom and jicama) that are worth writing home about.
Accommodation of Distinction
If you’re looking for the perfect home base to anchor your stay in the Beehive State capital, The Grand America (grandamerica.com) has something for everyone. 775 decidedly generous with space, elegantly styled and well-appointed guestrooms await the entire family, with floor-to-ceiling windows for the best views in town. The Executive Suites offer an indulgent 880 square feet of warm, cultured decor (from plush down bedding to the rich tones of the thick English wool carpet to handcrafted cherry wood Richelieu furniture and Italian marble soaking tub and glass-enclosed shower). Elegant French doors separate the living area from the bedroom and did I mention two flat-screen televisions? So the kids can watch cartoons while their parents view their own favorite shows.
Indoor (open year-round, this world-class pool provides a tranquil setting for lap swimming or relaxation in the whirlpool) and outdoor pool (open seasonally), an expansive fitness center with state-of-the-art cardio machines and a full array of workout equipment (accessible 24/7 with room key), grand lobby lounge for live entertainment and afternoon tea and luxury spa complete even the best of hotel amenities lists, but waiting behind the doors of the tallest hotel in the city lie some of the finest dining and kid-friendly activities you’ll find anywhere in the state.
Ten minutes or less in any direction puts you at the Children’s Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Leonardo, or Clark Planetarium. Five will send you to one of Utah’s many award-winning theatres for an off-Broadway experience you’re not likely to forget. Extraordinary spring skiing, both cross-country and downhill, await at one of Utah’s seven world-class ski resorts: less than 45 minutes from the hotel. Indulging in an apres afternoon treat has never been so simple with La Bonne Vie. Pastel macarons, golden croissants, and creamy gelato all in one place. Order up to your room or have dessert before dinner while browsing beautiful gifts and unique trinkets including holiday decor, cookbooks and tea sets. Speaking of tea, tie up your stay with afternoon high tea, or brunch on Sunday with fare from the hotel’s exemplary food and beverage team. For the former, enjoy the a traditional English afternoon tea (seatings at 1 pm and 3:30 pm) replete with strawberries and creme chantilly, English scones with clotted cream, finger sandwiches and an assortment of tea pastries paired with English tea - a centuries-old ritual set in perfect European glamour.
To take advantage of a truly “Grand” experience for the whole family, all you have to do is contact the reservations department. There may not be as many varieties of fun as there are trees blossoming in the city, but a stay at the Grand America will certainly get you close.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever associated the word ethical with a law office before. Maybe with an animal shelter, or a non-profit dedicated to planting trees.
While ethical business tends to be fruitful, feelings of fairness, honesty, and equality don’t necessarily go hand in hand with child custody cases or marriage dissolutions.
Six years ago, that changed for Elisabeth Donovan. As a young attorney, she worked for a large firm, taking on case after case, learning all the things not to do when helping someone through a family law matter. “Immediately, I saw the need for a new generation of attorneys who took a more comprehensive approach to working with their clients.” Now, Elisabeth focuses on providing personalized and cost-effective representation to her clients in all areas of family law.
Visitation, guardianships, conservatorships, high net worth property division, prenuptial agreements. Going through a divorce or custody battle can be highly adversarial, “in a polarized system, and it is imperative to have counsel who will approach your case with long-term goals in mind.” Goals which include financial collateral - like college savings or retirement funds that can be quickly depleted in court.
“Coming from a high-conflict family, I understand the dynamics of a family in crisis. Highly contested dissolution cases often manage to damage everyone in the vicinity.” Licensed as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst gives her a unique insight into the financial effects of different settlement proposals. “Only through civil, ethical cases can children emerge emotionally healthy. When I became a lawyer, I wanted to make a difference in this world through my work. I sometimes wish someone had stepped in and helped my family while we were in crisis. Family law is the perfect fit as the culmination of my personal experiences.”
Practice means more than just law to Elisabeth. Yoga and meditation are regular staples in her routine, as well as traveling in the pursuit of mindfulness: Morocco and Iceland just two of the more recent additions to the list. Of the seven continents, she’s been to six, incorporating her natural curiosity and intentionality into each step she has taken around the world. Helping clients make it through a difficult time comes naturally, when one has found their way through their own story of anger, disappointment, and healing and come out the other side. “I’ve learned to cultivate a real sense of mindfulness, which allows me to be present and available: in each moment open to my clients.”
Her time in the courtroom has helped her achieve great results for her clients, but it is her passion that sets Elisabeth apart. Personally connecting with each person that walks in the door is the key to give them the best representation possible. “I work with each client personally to develop a cost-effective case strategy that won’t incur unnecessary fees, while obtaining the best possible outcome.” That’s where the word ethical comes in. Millions of families are faced with legal issues. “When I sit down with a client for the first time, I could see billable hours. But what lies in front of me is a problem to solve.” One that involves the past, present, and future simultaneously. Honesty and fairness must be the cornerstone.
Review Elisabeth’s client testimonials and it’s immediately evident that these qualities are the bedrock of her practice.
“Divorce is never easy. It is scary. All I can say is thank goodness I was referred to Elisabeth Donovan by a friend,” says client Ben. “I have heard so many horror stories about divorce. The three things that I see in most divorces are: Lawyers push to litigate everything and jack up legal fees, can’t be trusted, and they drag the process out for years. My experience was the exact opposite. During my free consultation Elisabeth Donovan told me told me about what it would cost (given that my ex’s attorney didn’t push back on everything) and about how long the process would take. And it ended up costing exactly what she said it would (drastically less than friends had paid their divorce attorneys in the past) and she wrapped everything up in about a month less than she estimated. She really knows what she is doing and was very ethical (she talked me off the ledge a few times) and fair to both me and my ex. I trusted her and listened to her advice, and I can say with absolute certainty that she is the biggest reason why, at the end of it all, I have a good relationship with my ex-wife.
Areas of Expertise
If you are looking to “take your spouse to the cleaners,” find someone else. If you are looking for a lawyer you can trust to settle your divorce in a timely and fair manner, HIRE ELISABETH DONOVAN!!!!”
Another client, Kristine agrees with Ben’s assessment and adds “Elisabeth Donovan works hard and respectfully for each unique situation, and the affordability of her services was a plus. I am thankful for her and her ability to make you a priority … It’s very reassuring to know you have knowledgeable and qualified person by your side, one who is working in your best interest while going through one of the most stressful times in your life.”
“Whether a divorce is on the horizon, domestic violence has taken place, or your wife wants to move out of California with your children, your legal advocate’s primary objective is to put the well-being of you and your family first.” First, before money. Before power, or accolades or inter-office bragging rights. Civility. Equality. True advocacy at its finest.
Connect with Elisabeth directly by calling or visit OCFamilyLawAttorney.com
My entire experience with North Carolina up until a few months ago consisted of a vague knowledge of the sports teams the state boasts: Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, Charlotte Checkers, the Hounds, the NASCAR Cup races, and its Hall of Fame. That all changed when our family fell head over heels for Charlotte on a recent trip to cross the North Carolina off our “50 States List.” Headquarters to Wells Fargo, the city is the third-largest financial center in the United States. And to be sure, the city is chock full of bankable moments.
Nicknamed the Queen City, the city of Charlotte was honored with the moniker of the German princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was head consort of Great Britain (and therefore Ireland); those among the first to establish a township in the region after the Catawba Native Americans population diminished. Nationally recognized for their interactive youth-centric activities, the Children’s Theatre and the Great Wolf Lodge are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the long list of “to-do’s” for long family-friendly weekend vacay. The Concord Aquarium, Sky Zone, ImaginOn, and Discovery Place (Science and Nature!) follow with a set of their own kid-friendly adventures.
The field guide to fast casual started in Charlotte, with a long and delicious list of southern barbeque options for everyone. From pimento cheese to biscuits and backyard smoked soul food, to staples like jalapeno-cheddar cornbread and fried chicken just like Mama used to make it. Kids down for the night? Hit up any number of eateries serving up craft beers and southern starters. Within a day’s drive are gorgeous wineries serving up the region’s most delectable vintages, but if you’re not keen on leaving the Queen City’s limits, the oldest rum distillery in the state lies within the city boundaries, serving up history along the banks of the Catawba River.
Relaxing with a craft cocktail 19 floors above greater Charlotte might sound too good to be true, but the buzz of the city melds with the sleek elegance of its history within the four walls of the Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel (tryonparkhotel.com). An uptown Charlotte institution brimming with hospitality, and featuring a soothing blue and gray palette, the hotel takes seriously its place in a city fit for a queen. Each of its 217 guest rooms and suites are elegantly furnished, appointed with Italian marble, mahogany, crystal, and feature views of Romare Bearden Park and BB+T Ballpark or the sprawl of Uptown Charlotte.
Craft extends beyond cocktails at its rooftop Merchant & Trade bar - from music, punch, and tableside bar snacks to mixology and bottle service. Rent the space for your own event or just enjoy the indoor-outdoor flow, complete with lawn, terrace, fire pits, modern furniture, and lush foliage. Head downstairs to Angeline’s for straightforward Italian-American cuisine that greets each ready tastebud.
Seasonal southern ingredients are prepared with traditional Italian techniques, and every meal is the chance to reconnect with friends, family, and colleagues. Our family broke bread over a multi-course feast, full of antipasti, wood-fired pizza, and a post-dinner limoncello digestiva (for the grownups). The kids and I rose early for flaky European style pastries, and I brought an espresso to my deliriously comfortable husband in bed, before we ventured out for another day in the city.
Situated in the heart of what was once the mill town of North Charlotte (known today as NoDa), Haberdish (haberdish.com) is a pre-Prohibition era-focused eatery with a distinctive apothecary feel. This restaurant - popular with tourists and locals alike - elegantly melds history with nostalgia in everything from its ambiance to its menu of chef-driven family-style Southern comfort food (meats, vegetables and sides here are served on a jumble of plates). Think of it as a family potluck, but one where the spread is comprised of only your favorite foods. Inspired by the dishes served in the region during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the eats here revolve around what might very likely be “the best fried chicken in town” (brined, battered and fried), sides and snacks (think house pickles, pimento cheese ball rolled in spiced pecans, mac & cheese and my personal fave - kale grits) and seriously impressive, innovative craft cocktail creations (like a smoked mint julep that I can’t say I’ve ever seen on a menu anywhere else).
The hometown spirit is alive and well in North Carolina, beginning with the renegade nature of NASCAR, brought to life at the Hall of Fame (nascarhall.com). Celebrating the spirit of America’s favorite race, the Hall features exhibits ranging from the suits our favorite drivers have worn to the exact tilt and sprawl of each fabled track: from 0 to nearly 33 degrees banked. Realistic racing simulators and Race Week simulators help recreate the sport from all angles: pit to to driver’s seat. Watch a movie that traces NASCAR’s historic roots from the sandy beaches of Daytona to present day on a 64-foot wide projection screen in the 278-seat High Octane Theater.
Feeling the need for speed after exploring the Hall of Fame? Explore the 1,300 acres of the world’s largest man-made whitewater river at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (usnwc.org). Our littlest adventurer’s eyes lit up when she saw the zip lines, ropes courses, and of course, outdoor climbing walls. Home of Olympic hopefuls and whitewater enthusiasts alike, the 30 miles of walking trails, stand-up paddleboarding, single or tandem kayaking, and guided rafting ensures a day full of outdoor excitement.
Opting for a more active weekend away over a more sedate experience, the all-access Activity passes at the Whitewater Center gave our family plenty of opportunity to play and experience the great outdoors. You can choose from 30+ activities to try something new, perfect a hobby or hop between activities to try your hand at several adventures for all ages and skill levels. Play on land with ropes courses, mountain biking and rock climbing, in the water rafting down rapids, flatwater kayaking or standup paddle boarding or in the air with ziplines.
For those looking to kick back, live music and outdoor festivals create a unique atmosphere of relaxation and community. The River Jam concert series takes place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening throughout the summer months, in addition to nine distinct festivals throughout the year. The River’s Edge, Pump House Biergarten, Adventure Dining opportunities ensures no shortage of food and fuel throughout the day. Based on our kids’ excitement in regaling the tale of our day of adventure at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, we wouldn’t be surprised if this world-class outdoor recreation destination rises to the top of all of our friends and family’s “must experience” list when in Queen City.
As winter break was winding down, our family of four decided to coordinate a few fun days away. With two kids (ages 10 and 11) in tow, my husband and I were looking for a locale no longer than about an hour away by plane, with plenty of outdoor activities and indoor recreation, a temperate climate and family-friendly eateries. And it needed to be someplace ideally easy to get around in - on foot and via public transportation (so the grown-ups could spend less time behind the wheel and more time enjoying the environment). San Francisco proved to be perfect for a mini-vacay weekend away.
The City by the Bay
San Francisco is a manageable size - about six square miles - and although parking can be highly problematic, the ease of access and ability to navigate the city's public transportation system made it totally possible to pack in plenty of sightseeing and "playing tourist."
Locals are used to San Francisco's somewhat wacky weather, which is influenced by microclimates (temperatures can vary by 15 degrees from one neighborhood to another) and by the "intermittent fog" that rolls in most days to provide postcard-perfect atmospheric photo ops of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Summer here tends to be downright unsummery. September and October are the warmest months. January can be a bit on the blustery side, so we packed plenty of layers and were prepared to don and shed them several times a day.
Water surrounds San Francisco on three sides, so there's no need to worry about getting lost. Just remember: Downtown is east. The Golden Gate Bridge is north.
If you're going to be doing a lot of sightseeing, consider purchasing the San Francisco CityPass, which includes entry into seven major attractions (including a 7-day Muni & Cable Car passport, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, Exploratorium, Aquarium of the Bay and the California Academy of Sciences) for a flat fee ($89/adult, $69/child 5-17). Another benefit: You can go to the head of the lines (think of the time savings during high tourist season). If you're planning on getting around on streetcars and cable cars and visiting at least three of the seven sites that are included, there’s no better bargain.
Cable cars aren't the fastest way to get from A to B, but riding these open, historic trolleys is a quintessential San Francisco experience and a pretty big bang for your entertainment buck from a kids’ perspective. There are 17 cars currently in service on three lines – we hopped on the Powell-Hyde line which starts at the corner of Powell and Market streets, rolls through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and winds its way down to a turntable at Victorian Square in front of Aquatic Park, near Ghirardelli Square. If you’re looking for a quicker way to get around, there are six streetcar lines, designated J through N, running underground downtown and above ground on the streets in the outer neighborhoods.
Because the following were located in the same general area (Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 39/The Embarcadero), we were able to experience several attractions in a single day (other than looking at the sea lions, which was free - admission to each of the other stops are included in the San Francisco CityPass:
Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 39 (Beach Street & the Embarcadero): If you've never been here, you might not believe it: Hundreds, literally hundreds, of fat, lazy - extremely noisy - sea lions lounging on the docks ... in other words, a really fun (and free) place to bring the kids.
Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise (Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf): Extremely popular 350-passenger sightseeing boats depart for a one-hour narrated cruise several times each day. The itinerary is a wide loop of the bay, motoring right under the Golden Gate Bridge, then past Sausalito and Angel Island, and finally around Alcatraz. Morning cruises are typically less crowded than those in the afternoon.
Aquarium of the Bay (Pier 39): Perfect for younger kids, this small aquarium is the ideal way to while away an hour or two - ride the moving sidewalk or walk through a clear plastic tunnel right underneath San Francisco Bay for a close-up view of the marine creatures who live there-sharks, eels, rays, and lots of fish. Back at the surface, kids can visit three touch pools and get up-close and personal with small sharks, bat rays and sea stars. Very knowledgeable guides are available to answer all their questions.
The Exploratorium (Pier 15, 698 The Embarcadero): This hands-on museum is like one enormous, extremely interesting science fair. There are hundreds of exhibits here -from super-bubble blowing to a tornado machine to a computer that lets you fingerpaint and immensely popular Tactile Dome, where you navigate in total darkness using every sense except sight. Stop by the gift store for all sorts of great brainy games and toys.
Since our first day was filled with indoor activities, we opted for outdoor endeavors on Day Two:
Gray Line San Francisco: The Gray Line San Francisco Grand City Tour (www.graylineofsanfrancisco.com) was a great way to tour San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean with plenty of opportunity for photo ops and to get off the bus and see the sights. This fully narrated tour took our family from Twin Peaks (for an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the city from 1,000 feet above sea level), through Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Land’s End, North Beach (Little Italy) and the city’s iconic Victorian homes in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to the once infamous Barbary Coast.
Coit Tower (Telegraph Hill Boulevard): Perched atop historic Telegraph Hill in North Beach, this round, stone tower sits atop Telegraph Hill and offers great views of the city (it's free to get into the city-owned monument, but if you want to check out the scenery from the very top, it's $9 for adults and $2 for kids 5 - 11 and $6 for ages 12-17). Into art? Commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration, the murals that adorn the inside of the tower - painted by more than 25 artists in the late 1920s and early 30s - were completed in 1933 and are great fun to look at.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Ferry Building, 1 Ferry Plaza, base of Market Street on the Embarcadero): If you're in town on a Tuesday (10 am - 2 pm) or Saturday (8 am - 2 pm), this is a fun stop for local color and awesome fresh food. Hundreds of stalls are manned by local farmers and gourmet purveyors of all things yummy, which makes it a great place to pick up exotic non-perishables that you can't find back home.
Where to Stay
If you're searching for an unforgettable family-friendly accommodation - rich in amenity, thoughtful touches and a super convenient location perched at the edge of the Bay at Fisherman’s Wharf, Argonaut Hotel (495 Jefferson Street) comes highly recommended for good reason. Equal parts posh and posse-friendly, the hotel is housed in the historic Haslett Warehouse (a renovated early 20th-century fruit cannery warehouse that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places), a grand building built in 1907 of exposed brick, rough-hewn wooden plank floors, Douglas Fir beams and so much seaside character (think vintage steamer trunks and antique telescopes) that you feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the colorful Barbary Coast past.
Situated in the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park (a mecca for the city’s maritime history which both educates and entertains with a library, museum, and fleets of historic seafaring vessels), this sunny boat-inspired boutique property is further defined by Four-Diamond service and postcard-perfect view from most of its generously sized contemporary hotel rooms and suites- each characterized by white wooden blinds, textured walls, sea blue and grey furnishings, whimsical nautical styling and accents.
Amenities include a 24-hour fitness center, business center and free bike rentals on a first-come, first-served basis. Right outside the hotel are walking/jogging paths along the waterfront leading into the lush green Presidio parklands.
Located right next door to the Argonaut Hotel is the Blue Mermaid Restaurant - a dining experience defined by an authentic, richly textured oceanfront ambiance accented with sea-faring touches like renderings of mermaids, rough-hewn timbers and thick braids of rope. Popular starters include three types of homemade chowders (crab and corn, New England clam and Manhattan clam), steamed mussels jumbo shrimp cocktail and a cheese and charcuterie board with toasted bread, dried fruit, nuts and honey (my personal favorite paired with a glass of fine wine).
Aside from its cosmetic beauty and picturesque waterfront location, this historic gem is convenient to everything you'd want to experience in San Francisco. And for our family, it boasted the added bonus of being in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf and within easy access to cable cars, streetcars and ferries and/or walking distance to a number of other nearby popular tourist destinations including North Beach (only a 20-minute stroll) and Chinatown.
All Day Dining Options @ Pier 39
Wipeout Bar & Grill
Something for everyone from specialty omelets (all-meat with ham, bacon, sausage and jack cheese; veggie or Western with ham, red and green peppers and jack cheese) and classic favorites (fluffy pancakes, eggs, French toast) to chilaquiles (fresh tortilla chips coated in red chili sauce served over black beans, two over easy eggs, queso fresco, cream, red onions and cilantro) and a chorizo & egg burrito (two eggs scrambled with chorizo sausage, jack cheese and potatoes, rolled in a tortilla topped with red chile sauce, melted cheese and sour cream).
This 3rd-generation family owned and operated establishment was voted "Best Seafood in San Francisco" by KRON 4 TV's Best of the Bay with good reason. In addition to its award-winning New England clam chowder and authentic sourdough bread (another quintessential San Francisco tradition, Pier Market’s is “voted Best on Fisherman’s Wharf"), Pier Market serves up an amazing array of seafood cocktails, shellfish, salads, fresh fish (delivered daily and hand cut by the restaurant's chefs) dishes, mesquite grilled meat and seafood and Pier Market Specialties, including the Jambalaya, which combines smoked pork, clams, mussels, shrimp and chicken simmered in a Creole sauce and served over Cajun rice.
Fog Harbor Fish House
Fare: 100% Sustainable Seafood
Atmosphere: The quintessential San Francisco waterfront dining experience
Owned by the Simmons family who developed Pier 39 (they also own Wipeout and Pier Market), Fog Harbor Fish House bears the distinction of being the first restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf to serve 100% sustainable seafood based on recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and Aquarium of the Bay.
Popular fresh fish and seafood entrees include a pan-seared Pacific Sole, pan-seared Pacific Cod or Anchor Steam beer battered fish with french friend and cole slaw (a favorite with the kids). More of a meat eater? Try the grilled-to-perfection Filet Mignon with Pt. Reyes blue cheese demi sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, pearl onions and sauteed spinach. House specialties include a local favorite - an aromatic and flavorful Cioppino - tomato-based seafood stew brimming with fresh fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab.
My entree was decided the minute I saw the "Garlic Roasted Whole Dungeness Crab" on the menu. Two of my favorite flavors - garlic and crab - in one dish? Done. It was a little messy eating, but wonderfully delicious and totally worth the work.
During winter breaks, our family has historically tended toward ski and snow activities, traveling with our kids (now ages 10 and 11) to meet up with our close family friends and their children of similar ages to our offspring. So time off typically meant a multi-family trip to the mountains. But after our amazing experience at the all-inclusive, family-friendly Grand Velas Los Cabos Resort last summer - which we raved about incessantly in the ensuing months - it didn’t take much coaxing for my husband and I to convince our friends to book a warm-weather winter vacation this year instead. This time around, we were excited to escape to one of the resort’s four sister properties - the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit.
Location, Location, Location
Nestled at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountain range, the Riviera Nayarit offers nearly 200 miles of sun soaked beaches, bucolic fishing villages, nature preserves and colorful culture. Adored by both locals and visitors alike, the region offers much in the way of world-class cuisine, golfing, ocean activities and luxury resorts - the crown jewel of which we believe to be the incomparable Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit.
Tucked into the northern edge of Banderas Bay in Nuevo Vallarta with spectacular views of the Pacific, this premier luxury all-suite beach resort is ensconced in peaceful waterways, white sand beaches and infinity pools a short 25 mile drive from the popular travel destination of Puerto Vallarta. Each of the property’s 267 well-appointed accommodations (think goose down comforters and Balinese furnishings) are amenity rich, extremely spacious and characterized by the colorful Mexican art of the Huichol people. Many of its suites connect - ideal for families with kids or even multi-generational family members vacationing together.
In fact, as all-inclusive resorts go, the Grand Velas is hands-down among the best for families traveling with children 12 and under. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather not vacation where the only menu item is chicken nuggets and fries: but we knew from firsthand experience that the Grand Velas is a resort where there is something for family members of all ages - from its dining options, leisure activities and water sports to recreation and relaxation at its world-class spa. It’s worth a special mention here that Grand Velas’ culinary artists and renowned chefs work their magic on authentic gourmet dishes and casual fare at seven distinct and equally remarkable (including three AAA Four Diamond rated) restaurants (more on this later).
Grand Velas offers kiddos almost as many activities as are on the parent’s menu: sand castles to kite flying, kayaking, surfing, sailing, jet skiing, snorkeling, and their very own eco-shows. Open from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Kids Club and Teens Club truly offers playtime in paradise. Reserved especially for its young guests, the resort serves up an impressive, all-inclusive platter of activities for the kids to choose from in their very own 1,000-square-foot retreat (for kids ages 4 to 12) replete with storytelling, board games, arts and crafts, bingo, movies and more. Teens (ages 13+) enjoy their own space in a state-of-the-art 2,700-square-foot facility to partake in everything from healthy cooking classes, movies and foosball to Xbox and Wii. Each day’s worth of activities are tailored to the child’s age and interests, so there isn’t any chance of that dreaded phrase: “I’m bored.” Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., the Club is complimentary with the resort’s standard package, including dinner every evening and group activities that stretch well into the night hours.
We plunged into the sparkling waters of the Nuevo Vallarta beaches while the kids played soccer and went on treasure hunts. What freedom; the feeling of everything and everyone all being taken care of at once! We couldn’t have imagined the smiles when we all met up for lunch and poolside snacks at the Grand Velas’ Selva Del Mar, bursting with stories after a morning full of activity. Later, when they’d gone back for more (cooking classes! Live interactive shows with local wildlife!) and we had a round of kayaking in the Bay, we ate dinner at one of the resorts many world class restaurants. Be it French, Mediterranean, or the perfect taste of local artisan cuisine inspired by the deep roots of Mexican heritage at Frida, everyone can eat their fill of chef-inspired, innovative flavors at every meal.
The second-to-last day of our trip, we and our friends finally felt guilt-free enough to leave the littles behind for the afternoon to venture out to the Islas Marietas, an island chain most know by the fame of Jacques Cousteau. The sapphire waters met us with more calm than we’d had in years; snorkeling, freediving, and breathing in all the beauty we could possibly handle in one day. Knowing the kids were safely looked after and in the midst of creating kites and pinatas in the native tradition made our time that much more gorgeous.
With all that the Grand Velas has to offer in activities, amenities, services and dining, the delight of being there is ultimately of the atmosphere, and that comes down to two things: beauty and people.
While hospitality professionals are by definition friendly folk, the staff at the Grand Velas are authentically warm and welcoming. So much so that either the resort has found hundreds of matchless thespians dedicated to guest satisfaction (from the seamless check-in process upon arrival to 24-hour in-suite room service) - or the Grand Velas’ team truly enjoy being there. I believe it is the latter. At the risk of overusing the adjective in this article, guest service here is incomparable and the Grand Velas’ personal concierge service sets a new standard in hospitality excellence.
As to beauty, the Grand Velas Riviera Narayit is defined by a simply exquisite design with lovely spaces; starting with its majestic, tiered architecture opening out to panoramic views of the Pacific where the golden sand embraces turquoise waters, from the grand, fifth-floor open-air lobby to the well-appointed suites, you cannot escape a floor-to-ceiling sense of unrivaled beauty. And so at every turn you are inspired to tranquility and delight. Ultimately, that is how our family spent a few days away and what we’ll remember most – enjoying time together against what is arguably among the most resplendent of vacation destinations worldwide.
As the trip came to a close, and each of us sighed with regret, knowing we had to go home, we and our friends were already comparing calendars for a return trip to this inimitable resort on the sparkling emerald Bay. Or perhaps it’s time to think about coordinating our next vacation to one of the other (I’m sure equally incredible) Grand Velas properties.