Established in 1565, St. Augustine is a paradise for history buffs and arguably the root the nation’s oldest city’s appeal as a popular destination. When my husband, Tim, and I mapped out (pun intended) our plan to visit all 50 states as a family by the time our son (now aged 9) graduates from high school, we decided to select cities to visit that would yield opportunities for what Tim calls “retention questions.” These are questions we would craft from interesting facts about each destination designed to help our kids remember key points about the places we explore. And as the oldest European settlement in America, St. Augustine proved to be a veritable treasure trove.
Residing along the banks of the Matanzas River on the northeast coast of Florida, the charm of St. Augustine is found along its narrow cobblestone streets, the fabled Fountain of Youth, the stretch of white sand beaches of Anastasia Island (a protected wildlife sanctuary) and the coquina (unique locally quarried material comprised of small seashells) bastions of the Castillo De San Marcos fort. A relic of Spain’s early exploration of the Americas, this historic landmark bears the distinction of being the best-preserved Spanish colonial fort in the United States and the country’s only existing 17th century masonry military structure.
Completed in 1695, the formidable Castillo De San Marcos was besieged by English colonial forces in 1702. When they weren’t able to destroy the structure, British forces burned the then-surrounding city to the ground upon retreat, which is why no other building in St. Augustine today dates back to prior to that time. The site occupies about 20 acres and at night, the Castillo’s watchtowers are uplit from the moat below, giving the fortress a truly foreboding appearance from afar. Take a self-guided tour or schedule a tour with park rangers - expect to stay about 90 minutes to thoroughly explore the two floors, which include a chapel and single cell used as the city’s first jail, exhibits and grounds.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here … let’s start back at the beginning when in 1513 Ponce De Leon (a former shipmate of Christopher Columbus) became the first European man to set foot in what is now the mainland of the United States of America. It is said he came in search of an island with mysterious healing water. Whether he found it at the 15-acre plot of coastal property that is now home to the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park is up for debate, but the grounds today is a must-see attraction complete with a museum packed with authentic artifacts (including one of only two existing Jolly Rancher flags), a real working cannon (which they set off to our son’s delight at scheduled intervals) and of course the signature “fountain” from which you can sip a free sample of natural spring water that has been flowing here continuously since the native Timucuan Indians called this place home - thousands of years before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Starting at the Old City Gates and stretching for several picturesque blocks, St. George Street is the heart of St. Augustine’s Old Town (pedestrian-only except for some street crossings) lined with a series of old or re-created buildings in Spanish Colonial architectural style currently occupied by restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, specialty shops, souvenir stores and attractions including the evocative Colonial Spanish Quarter whe-re visitors can take an immersive journey through centuries of St. Augustine’s rich history, including its era as a 17th-Century Spanish fortified town. Our kids loved climbing the 35-foot watchtower and watching a military gunsmith repair all of the garrison’s weapons.
St. Augustine is also home to the Oldest Wooden School House, which dates back to sometime around 1716, was built from bald cypress and red cedar using wooden pins and iron spikes. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of classroom on the first floor (the second floor where the schoolmaster and his family would have lived is inaccessible to the public) or learn more about daily life at the schoolhouse via a robotic teacher and student.
The city’s original sightseeing tour, Ripley’s Red Train Tour (an 80 - 90, fully narrated tour that runs continuously from as early as 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.) allowed us to step off and re-board the open-air sightseeing train at our leisure - the train continually loops 7 miles and stops at dozens of historic sites. And a fun bonus is that Red Train riders can play Florida’s oldest mini-golf course (located at the City Marina) for only $1. The St. Augustine Municipal Marina is home to various sightseeing boat tours, including a narrated tour on the Scenic Cruise on the “Victory III” for a different perspective of this coastal city taken from its tranquil waters.
Relive the Golden Age of Piracy at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum where visitors are transported to the time of plundering pirates and swashbuckling adventures. This museum is home to the world’s largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts; fun, interactive exhibits like the spine-tingling Disney Imagineer-designed Below Deck sound experience of Blackbeard’s last battle; and one of only two existing 17th century Jolly Rogers.
An artsy and inspired farm-to-table establishment, The Floridian (39 Cordova St.) features innovative Southern fare for “omnivores, herbivores and locavores” crafted from regionally-inspired and locally-sourced cuisine. Dishes here are a “synthesis of down-home Southern Comfort Foods and lighter, healthier, vibrant and creative dishes.” The Cornbread Stack is worth a special mention and arrives as a cheddar and veggie stuffed cornbread topped with a choice of blackened fish or tofu and served with sweet pickled veggies and chili-cumin aioli. Another popular pick was the Dixie Burger with all the fixings (options include pepper jack cheese, sautéed onions and roasted peppers).
Our family also thoroughly enjoyed the eclectic European and Asian fusion fare at the Gypsy Cab Company (828 Anastasia Blvd.) on nearby Anastasia Island just over the landmark Bridge of Lions. According to owner Pat Morrissey, the daily menu (or “cab fare”) is prepared by a creative culinary team who “borrow” from Italian, German, Cajun, Mediterranean, classical European, Asian, Southern and other “Floribbean” cuisines. Popular with the locals, this longstanding eatery serves up something for every palate - on the evening we visited, menu items included a flavorful “Gypsy Chicken,” braised lamb shank, a delicious blackened Mahi Mahi with Crab Florentine, Texas beef brisket and Eggplant Parmagiana.
Ideally situated on Matanzas Bay within easy walking distance to bayfront restaurants, attractions and historic downtown, the Bayfront Marin House (bayfrontmarinhouse.com) is a luxury bed and breakfast inn offering its guests spectacular views of the water, full Southern breakfasts each morning (with entrees such as blueberry waffles, banana pancakes and bacon stratas) daily happy hour with homemade appetizers, sangria, wine and beer in the early evening, complimentary use of beach chairs and umbrellas and loaner bikes available for day trips. Originally built in the 1790s, the stately two-story home features wraparound porches, outdoor seating, a small gazebo and 15 individually styled rooms with private entrances - each named after a historical figure or location in town. Charming antique furnishings mix with modern amenities (free WiFi, smartphone docking station and flatscreen TVs).
But I have to say that the best part of our stay was the unparalleled level of personal service we enjoyed - owner Sandy couldn’t have been more accommodating in coordinating our reservation and her staff warm, friendly and highly attentive. Although every room was occupied, we felt as though we were the only guests on property.
In the 1960’s, a man named Roger W. Sperry developed a theory: that the human brain goes about thinking in two very different ways. Having worked in the field of psychobiology for years, he’d noticed that one side of the brain saw the big picture - processing information in an intuitive and simultaneous fashion. The other, putting sequential pieces together like a puzzle, parts making a whole. We all use both sides of the brain - complementing logic with creativity. But ask any dancer, writer, sculptor, or painter and they’ll tell you they’re “right brained.”
Controlling three-dimensional spatial reasoning, creativity, and artistic ability, right brain dominance certainly has given us some of the world’s greatest art forms. And South Coast Conservatory is finding more and more ways to celebrate it.
Founded in 1992, the Conservatory is heading into its 25th year of operation. Specializing in individual and group dance in classical, contemporary and commercial, they provide programs for kids from age 2-18. Programs to help children grow, programs that train “the heart and soul of every dancer,” says Director + CEO Jena Minnick-Bull.
Formerly known as Mission Viejo Dance, South Coast Conservatory now has locations in San Clemente and Laguna Niguel. Offering eight separate programs, from Pre-Academy to Competitive Dance Teams, South Coast continues to expand into new communities.
“We start kids in our ‘Pre-Academy’ program to introduce them to a range of dance styles, such as ballet, tap, jazz, tumbling, hip hop, and song and dance,” says Jena. “Once they grow into the ‘Academy’ program, they receive a more in depth training, also beginning to learn contemporary, break dancing, pilates, lyrical, acting, and pointe.” With one-fifth of South Coast’s kids joining the competitive level of dance, their program structure is set perfectly to grow with them: accelerated training with elite coaches in either its “Ballet Conservatory” division, or the “Elite Academy” - prepping kids for the commercial world of dance. It isn’t just for kids either: Christina Portillo has been attending the Conservancy for over ten years as an adult, “engaging in various dance styles, performing with the Ballet Conservatory, and even competing with the adult hip hop team: Moms Crew.”
Linking up the left and right brains is an automatic function of the body - synthesizing even to the smallest degree what we are seeing out of our left and right eyes, and putting the picture together as a whole. Because each student learns differently, South Coast has set up a compassionate and individualized teaching philosophy. “We take the time to understand and aid the goals of our students.”
And dance, really, isn’t just about processing information intuitively, as most might think. The analysis of sequential movements, for example: choreography. A projected kinetic trajectory on an angled plane: leaping. Symmetry, patterning, geometry - group theory and permutations. Left brain and right brain working together to create beauty, community, and create a passion for learning that will persist for years beyond any single dance class.
Parents learn about passion alongside their children too. Adriana Escobar notes that she loves South Coast Conservatory because it introduced her daughter to such a passion: musical theater. “[The Conservatory] provided her with the place and people she needed to take a chance to dance, sing, and then to act.
Today, it’s her passion and she is comfortable on any stage.”
Roger Sperry went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work in psychobiology - and certainly, while South Coast is preparing kids for a lifetime of creative, right-brained pursuits, Jena notes that “all of our graduates go on to pursue many diverse degrees and careers using the lifelong skills our school provided them.”
The South Coast Conservatory studio is located at 27652 Camino Capistrano in Laguna Niguel (949) 367-0099 and its San Clemente studio is located at 400-C Camino De Estrella (949) 682-7977. For more information, visit scconservatory.com
You wouldn’t expect to find an urban chic lifestyle hotel amidst the towering office complexes in the heart of Orange County’s business district. Even when the Hotel Irvine (hotelirvine.com) was recently recommended as an ideal weekend “stay-cation” option, I envisioned a property geared more toward the needs of business travelers. While it certainly does a brisk business with travelers looking for a hotel experience that is the antithesis of cookie-cutter corporate, the Hotel Irvine attracts a surprisingly diverse demographic: business travelers to be sure, but also area professionals who frequent the hotel’s hip bar and expansive lounge, local residents who enjoy the “twists on classic cuisine” offered on the menu at its signature restaurant EATS Kitchen & Bar and families with children of all ages.
The sprawling lobby lounge is characterized by vibrant colors, sleek furnishings and a nine-panel TV used to view multiple sporting events, combined to make presentations or view a movie (as expansive as the space is, a testament to its popularity was the standing-room only crowd both nights the weekend we stayed with all available seating in the lounge and common areas occupied by an eclectic cross-section of SoCal culture from casually dressed dot.com millennials and hip young fashionistas to the more conservatively attired corporate professionals) and hotel guests.
Although we can appreciate the appeal of the Hotel Irvine’s hip, high-energy scene, my husband, Tim, and I fall firmly in the latter two categories.
With two kids under 10, “nightlife” takes on an entirely different meaning these days. We had heard about the hotel’s summer “Movie Night in the Backyard” series and booked a stay with the intention of taking the kids to watch a family-friendly film on the large outdoor movie screen. What we discovered was that in addition to this fun event, the Hotel Irvine’s “backyard” boasts a 6,000-square-foot pavilion dedicated to hosting live music, movie nights and food and wine festivals that will be open to the public throughout the year.
While the kids camped out on a blanket to watch the movie, their parents enjoyed a glass of wine and appetizers at a table nearby. After the film, the kids played table tennis and Tim challenged our son to a game of chess on a “board” spread out on the lawn with game pieces that were easily two feet tall.
The hotel’s literature claims a goal to lure guests who are interested in a “unique, customized experience” and the Hotel Irvine more than delivers. The lobby, restaurants, bar embraces a hipster vibe and although there are 536 guest rooms, each accommodation boasts a “boutique” look and feel. Our room was a super comfortable space defined by a plush, pillow top bed, down duvets and soft linens, a 42” flat screen, Bluetooth speakers and a sweeping OC view.
At this lifestyle hotel, they mean business with a splash of pleasure. “You know those meeting-filled days that turn in to lounging at the pool, toes dipped in the water and sunshine lifting your spirit? That’s our every day at Hotel Irvine. We’re redefining the way you travel with complimentary Wi-Fi, family friendly activities and fresh ways to indulge,” including a 24-hour marketplace with a Starbucks stand and ready-made food (including sushi and salads) that can be delivered to your room. The Club 12 Lounge is an exclusive 12th floor lounge where can relax with residential-style seating and flat-screen TVs, unwind on the terrace as you take in dramatic OC views and enjoy a bevy of personalized amenities including breakfast (served from 6 am - 10 am), evening wine, beer and bites (from 5 pm - 8 pm), premium WiFi for quicker downloads and an Apple computer station with printer to work in style.
Featuring expansive indoor and outdoor spaces, cozy booths and an alfresco patio with fire pit, EATS Kitchen & Bar draws inspiration from all over the world. Chef Jason combines international flavors with local, farm-fresh ingredients to create a menu that is decidedly original and delicious. The signature EATS burger was worth writing home about - and that’s really saying something since my husband is quite the connoisseur (his burger arrived on a brioche bun with bacon, aged-white cheddar, herb aioli and pear jam - wonderful flavors you might not think to pair (pun intended). My steak salad was a equally flavorful, inventive blend of organic greens, chimichurri steak, roasted cherry tomatoes, shaved radish, ciabatta croutons and feta cheese with a sun-dried tomato and basil vinaigrette.
Kids (12 and under) eat free every night during dinner time and our kiddos loved digging into some of Chef Jason’s favorite childhood dishes including chicken strips and fries and penne pasta with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese.
Hotel Irvine is located at 17900 Jamboree Road in Irvine. For reservations or more information, call (888) 230-4452 or visit hotelirvine.com
Since my husband and I started our family’s admittedly ambitious endeavor to visit all 50 states as a family by the time our son (now aged 9) graduates from high school, we have captured vacation photos posing by major attractions across cities in 15 states. This summer, we crossed Georgia off the list by spending 36 hours in Atlanta, which bears the distinction of being as some call it - a small town trapped in a big city or perhaps more accurately, a collection of small towns.
An attractive Southern belle lined with blooming dogwoods and fragrant azaleas, Atlanta was surprisingly far more lush with greenery than we envisioned. What was not unexpected were the abundance of historic sites, commercial enterprises, burgeoning art scene and of course, Southern hospitality.
It’s a city that has been known by many names over the years (it was once called Terminus and Marthasville), but resurgence and renewal are no stranger to this thriving metropolis that was burned to the ground during the Civil War only to rise from the ashes like a “phoenix” (the mythological bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn) that now serves as the city’s motto.
In more recent memory, Atlanta is the birth city of Martin Luther King, Jr. and holds its place of importance during the Civil Rights Movement and its Centennial Olympic Park was the site of the 1996 Summer Games. And of course, the city is home to countless corporations including Coca Cola and Turner Broadcasting.
Since we were only here for 36 hours, we wanted to make the most of our stay by visiting the “must-see” sites on every tourist’s list and stopping by some of the perhaps lesser-known areas of this historic city. So we crafted our checklist to include Centennial Olympic Park, the World of Coca Cola and Skyview Atlanta (the ferris wheel that towers nearly 20 stories above Centennial Park). We took two tours - first on a fun trolley ride full of other tourists on Day One to gain a great overview and lay of the land and then a private excursion via an open-air electric vehicle that provided a more in-depth narrative and personal insights from a 30+ year resident’s perspective.
The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, located in the upscale Atlanta suburb of the same name, showcases 517 rooms and suites and proved to be a wonderful “home base” for our two night, three-day stay. Our accommodation was an exceedingly comfortable, bright, elegant space with bay windows, a huge bathroom with rainforest shower heads, 37-inch flat-screen TVs, iPod docks and super plush linens - and an added benefit is its location near the MARTA transit stop if you want to leave your vehicle behind and bypass parking issues in town.
Upscale amenities include 24-hour room service, beautifully soothing spa, big indoor four-lane lap pool, a opulent lobby and dining room with oak finishes, contemporary lobby bar, high-end cafe and regal dining room. The Café is a five-star restaurant featuring American cuisine splashed with the flavors and colors of coastal Italy, France and Spain. a wine cellar brims with unparalleled premium selections and a menu with dishes sourced from the freshest local Georgia ingredients. The appetizer of sliced meats (including bresoala, prosciutto, mortadella and country sausage) and cheeses (thomasville tome and drunken goat) was a delicious start for mom and dad while the kids enjoyed the chicken quesadilla made with grilled chicken, peppers, onions, cheese, avocado cream and fire-roasted salsa. The classic turkey sub on multigrain bread was a hit as was the organic Scottish salmon accompanied by crispy quinoa, cauliflower, spinah and golden raisins.
The Lobby Lounge features live entertainment Thursday through Saturday evenings - artists include singer and trumpet player Joe Gransden; innovative jazz and pop player Nick Longo and his cutting-edge quartet; singer, songwriter, pianist and harmonica player James Patrick Morgan and jazz/pop ensembles.
We started our excursion into the capital city in Atlanta’s Midtown, the second largest business district in the city known as the “heart of the arts,” with an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, shopping, art galleries and award-winning musical and theatrical performances. Atlanta’s fabulous Fox Theatre is a restored movie palace turned cultural jewel that is the venue for a variety of wonderful live entertainment ranging from dance and Opera to Broadway shows and rock concerts. The Moorish lobby and ballrooms harken back to a bygone era of the opulent 1920s and a highlight of this Atlanta icon is the “Mighty Mo,” a 4,000-pipe organ built at a cost of $42,000 in 1929 that audiences can still hear today before every Broadway performance and the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performance each year. Even if you don’t catch a performance, the Fox Theatre is open for tours.
Another site rich in history is the recently opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights which offers a sweeping, in-depth and moving view of the movement’s darkest moments and greatest achievements. The museum also presents an evolving look at modern human rights issues here at home and around the globe.
A few miles away on Auburn Avenue, visitors can tour the stately yellow structure that is the boyhood home of the movement’s greatest leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Daily entry is free, but get there early as it’s first-come, first-served and tickets are often snapped up early in the day. Run by the National Park Service, entrance is also complimentary into the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site which offers a uniquely personal account of a very public life and includes the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and where he and his father both served as pastors) and the King Center - the final resting place of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
The Peachtree Trolley Tour (peachtreetrolley.com) - a 90-minute fully narrated tour provided our family with a wonderful overview of the must-see stops in the city. We boarded the Phoenix (a fully-enclosed, climate controlled trolley car) and settled in for a comfortable and informative ride, rolling by the aforementioned attractions and many others, including the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, CNN, Turner Field, the golden domed Georgia State Capital, Oakland Cemetery (Atlanta’s oldest) and Underground Atlanta. Originating near Centennial Olympic Park, our guide shared a bit of history, stories and legends surrounding these iconic landmarks.
After hearing our tour guide’s account of the The World of Coca-Cola (worldofcoca-cola.com) experience, we walked over (a mere block away from where you board and disembark) to spend the better part of the afternoon exploring the 92,000-square-foot dynamic, multi-media museum that resides on a 22-acre plot in downtown Atlanta (Coca-Cola donated nine acres for the construction of the Georgia Aquarium and another 2.5 acres to the city for the civil-and-human rights museum and where you can experience “the real stories behind the world’s most famous beverage brand.”
The lobby showcases a Coca-Cola folk art bottle display and several of the bottle sculptures that were created for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games (the company invited artists from around the world to express their country’s unique culture and artistic traditional by decorating their own bottle sculpture). The Loft is home to a mix of nearly 200 historical and international artifacts that represent more than 125 years of Coca-Cola memories, including a Coca-Cola Syrup urn circa 1886 and Coca-Cola beach pants popularized in the 1970s.
We watched a six-minute film celebrating life’s “Moments of Happiness” in the Coca-Cola Theater and speaking for the moms in the room at least, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as we witnessed several milestone moments - big and small, including a mother’s response to her son’s video message from where he was stationed in Afghanistan and his homecoming surprise for his parents. The kids had a ball at all the interactive exhibits, posing with the Coca-Cola polar bear mascot and visiting The Vault, where the secret formula is stored and the 4-D sensory movie experience complete with moving seats and other special effects. But the highlight of the tour of the Coca-Cola Tasting Room with features six “freestyle machines” with over 100 different beverage choices - both domestic and international - to sample to your heart’s content (our son’s favorite was a mint flavor offered in Africa, while our daughter preferred a fruity variety popular in Asia).
Day Two we decided to start the morning with the ATL-Cruzers Electric Car and Segway Tours (atlcruzers.com) for what proved to be a highly entertaining and informative private guided experience from a longtime local’s perspective. Our guide, Mira (rhymes with “mirror,” is worth being mentioned - and requested - by name. She gave our family a truly animated, enthusiastic, knowledgable experience of her home city seen through the eyes of a local. She toured us past many of the now-familiar landmarks and iconic Atlanta tourist stops, sharing an in-depth history and little-known facts about each locale. But we have to say the highlight of this experience was that the route showcased many other “off-the-beaten” path places and residential neighborhoods that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered on our own - including the lovely Inman Park (where many of the homes are reminiscent of the antebellum era and very “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) which hosts an annual festival the last weekend in April that is widely regarded among the the city’s most spirited and eclectic events.
Full disclosure: I am a mom. It’s a fact that may belie my bias when I tell you that sometimes a girl simply needs a break. Children, husbands, work, the unending demands of every single day… it catches up with you. Even the oft-offered advice, “You must make time for yourself!” can feel like just another pressure.
The anecdote to the mayhem? A few relaxing days away in wine country, visiting family and friends. With our two young children in tow, my husband and I headed to Napa and neighboring Yountville, where we whiled away the days wining, dining, playing tourist and spending quality family time.
Visitors travel here from all over the globe to experience picturesque scenery and wine, paired with fine dining, entertainment and adventuring. For Orange County families, it’s a little getaway with a lot to offer: Far away enough to be really away and close enough to keep your separation-from-responsibilities anxiety in check.
For the ideal family vacation that leaves you refreshed and enriched, pack a little bit of everything into your visit.
Napa is known for its panoramic vistas, fine dining and history. So what better way to experience the views and vintages, enjoy a gourmet meal and step back in time to the days when rails ruled as the preferred mode of travel than to step aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train (www.winetrain.com)?
The Napa Valley railway dates back to the late 19th century and eventually became part of the Southern Pacific Railroad (the original passenger service was discontinued in 1929). Sixty years later, when Southern Pacific petitioned to abandon the line, a group of local investors formed the Napa Valley Railroad (NVRR) and purchased the right of way. Since that time, the NVRR has evolved into one of the most popular excursion trains in the country. The Wine Train’s gourmet lunch and dinner trains began service in 1989 and the line, which now includes 36 miles of track, rolls by 26 different wineries at about 10 miles an hour (the trip, which lasted just shy of three, started and ended at the downtown Napa station).
Three onboard kitchens allow Napa Valley Wine Train chefs to create culinary works of art from scratch using “fresh seasonal ingredients as well as humanely raised, hormone-free meats and line-caught fish” in creating gourmet meals for lunch and dinner.
Meals are served at tables laid out in the opulent dining cars with white linen, beautiful china and silverware. The meal starts with a selection of artisan cheeses and finely cut meats, followed by a choice of grilled and roasted beef tenderloin or the Chef’s fresh selection of seafood.
And now with the addition of a 36-seat Pullman railcar, for the first time in its 27-year history, the iconic Napa Valley Wine Train will make several stops along the route, allowing guests to spend time tasting and touring four wineries. If you’re contemplating this new indulgent "Quattro Vino tour,” plan to carve off six leisurely hours with stops at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, and the V. Sattui, Merryvale and Charles Krug wineries in St. Helena (the Quattro Vino tour runs daily on separate tracks from the regular three-hour tour train tour).
We really lucked out in discovering a wonderful accommodation within easy driving distance to downtown Napa, tasting rooms and wineries. Because we have family friends who live in the area, we’ve been blessed to be able to visit the region fairly frequently, generally staying with our friends or in one of the nearby hotel properties.
The charming two-bedroom cottage at the Napa Vineyard House (www.napavineyardhouse.com) proved to be a tranquil retreat convenient to everything and yet just far enough away from the bustle of downtown to make you feel like you were really “getting away from it all.” On their web site, owners Kevin Hall and his wife claim that from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave “we’ll do our best to make you feel at home” and our family can attest that they certainly deliver on this promise.
Conveniently located to great wineries, restaurants and shopping and with wonderful vineyard views to the north and south ensures that you know that you are in the Napa Valley wine country. The cottage features two separate bedrooms, each with its own bathroom on either side of a common area complete with a kitchenette, dining table and chairs and lounge area. As lovely as the accommodation is, it’s the thoughtful touches that really made our stay memorable - from the fragrant L’Occitane bath products and bottle of wine and beverages chilling in the fridge to the daily morning delivery of breakfast on our doorstep (delicious pastries, fresh seasonal fruit and juice from the renowned Bouchon Bakery - where you’ll find a line out the door of locals and tourists alike no matter what time you stop by).
If you don’t need the extra space, the property also offers a number of smaller, signature suites - all outfitted with the same luxurious Restoration Hardware furniture and linens, automated shade system, heated tile bathroom floors, complimentary wireless Internet, Bouchon Bakery breakfast and private vineyard views.
It’s easy to imagine a wedding taking place on the perfectly manicured lush green lawn. For our part, we chose to take full advantage of an adjacent space and unwind with a glass of wine in front of a crackling outdoor fireplace and step into the farmhouse-style lounge for a family board game.
Nearby Yountville ranks among the country’s most scenic communities. The postcard-perfect landscape surrounding this wine country town is reminiscent of the rolling French countryside while its downtown (on either side of its two-lane main drag - Washington Street) is defined by a collection of quaint structures built of brick, stone and wood adorned with ivy. These buildings are home to a concentration of one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, informal eateries and gourmet restaurants.
Arguably the epicenter of Yountville shopping, V Marketplace features a number of specialty shops - highlighted stops include Scents of Napa (skin and beauty products inspired by the Napa Valley scents of lavender, French oak barrels, grape skins and rain water), Tay & Grace (‘wine country casual’ fashions) and Knickers & Pearls (a pink and frilly store stocked with beautiful lingerie and bridal accessories).
For our Yountville portion of our Napa Valley getaway, we chose the Mediterranean-inspired North Block Hotel (northblockhotel.com) Situated around a social courtyard, this boutique property features 20 sophisticated, comfortably chic guest rooms - all with either a patio or balcony, oversized bathroom with heated floors, a large soaking tub and separate rain shower, espresso machine, flat-screen TVs, music system and a mini fridge.
We loved the Superior King guest room, located on the hotel’s second floor, for its abundant natural light, plantation shutters, warming gas fireplace, balcony above the social courtyard and its proximity to the gorgeous pool area where the kids spent the better part of an afternoon while their parents enjoyed - you guessed it, a glass of fine wine - from the shaded vantage point of the cushioned lounge chairs.
The hotel is home to Redd Wood, a superbly stylish Italian-inspired eatery by renowned Chef Richard Reddington which “brings a new sensibility to this laid-back wine country destination” with a voguish vibe, osteria-styled restaurant menu and locally-favored wine list.
Speaking of wine … one of the most frequently visited landmarks in the valley is located within easy walking distance from downtown Yountville: on a knoll shaded by ancient oak trees on one of Yountville’s premier pieces of real estate. Visitors to Domaine Chandon (chandon.com) can stroll the stunningly beautiful grounds across a bridge over ponds to a patio fronting the tasting room of the first winery to be established in the United States by a French wine and spirits producer, Moët Hennessy. Today, as America’s leading sparkling wine producer, Domaine Chandon applies meìthode traditionnelle techniques to showcase the ripe fruit and vibrant character of California. Over the course of its 43+ year history in Napa Valley, the winery expanded its portfolio to include still wines, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Our tour provided a casual, informative education on the winery’s history, its winemaking process and grape-growing regions followed by a tasting that offered further insight into the world of sparkling wines and the grapes used to make them (tastings are offered daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Tasting Room or on the terrace).
Following our tour, we strolled back through town to dine at Bistro Jeanty (bistrojeanty.com) - the genteel iconic Michelin-star restaurant - and only French owned and operated dining establishment in Napa Valley - serving traditional French countryside dishes including Mussels au vin rouge, Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon), the famed rich and tasty tomato soup in golden brown puff pastry and coq au vin (chicken, mushrooms, apple smoked bacon and red wine stew). Between the four of us, every category was covered: seafood aficionado and meat lovers alike. The sole meuniere was perfectly prepared - Petrale sole fillet well cooked, moist throughout with lemon caper butter sauce atop a bed of mashed potatoes. My husband thoroughly enjoyed his Fliet au Poivre (Black Angus tournedos with a black pepper crust, haricots verts and a creamy mushroom sauce). The atmosphere was quaint and charming, the dishes delicious, the service attentive - all in all, an ideal ending to our culinary sojourn that day.
The next night, we opted an entirely different and equally enjoyable dining experience: this time at Lucy Bar and Restaurant at Bardessono (bardesonno.com) where the menu, derived from the seasonal offerings in and around Napa Valley, is characterized by fresh, innovative, garden-inspired cuisine, artisanal cocktails and of course, fine wine. Every dish is truly “field-to-fork” fare - all the cuisine starts in Lucy’s Garden, located onsite at Bardessono (an atmospheric hotel and spa with a sustainable, modern-theme that translates through to its signature eatery) only steps from the restaurant kitchen and proteins are sourced from local farmers and purveyors, as well as a majority of seasonal seafood from the bay area.
By focusing the menu on what is in the garden or grown at local farms and picked at peak ripeness allows the culinary team to create the most flavorful of dishes. We started with “shared plates” of baby beet salad (flavored with fried goat cheese, wild arugula mousse and gargen sprouts) and the rich, melt-in-your-mouth hand-rolled gnocchi with kale pesto and tartufata.
Two standout dishes among a menu of standout cuisine was the Diver Sea Scallops paired with English pea puree, pancetta, crispy beets and tarragon butter and the Dry Aged Striploin which was cooked to perfection and flavorfully enhanced by foraged mushrooms, truffled “rosti,” duck liver and smoked beef belly bordelaise.
According to its web site, Bardesonno is “built upon the possibility of a meaningful exchange between the traveler and host.” Every diner in our party would wholeheartedly agree that it was a spot on assessment of our evening at Lucy Bar and Restaurant, due in large part to our server, Frankie, who deserves to be mentioned by name. Clearly a seasoned professional, she more than delivered with exemplary service that was amiable, attentive, knowledgable and unobtrusive.
Just across the St. Helena Highway and again, an easy stroll from downtown Yountville is the Napa Valley Museum (napavalleymuseum.org), housed on the grounds of the California Veteran’s Home. A great way to gain an understanding of the region’s storied past is to view its permanent art and artifacts - from the
1950s Napa City Limits sign (population then: 13,155. Now: 77,000+) and photos of the pioneers of wine, the museum chronicles the history of Napa Valley, its people and geology, along with the wine industry that put the region on the map.
The Museum’s Main Gallery showcases a changing array of exhibitions featuring regional, national and local artists as well as treasures from local private collections. The newly opened current exhibit, scheduled to remain at the museum for the next six months, is entitled “Down the Rabbit Hole: Innovated Video
Games” where visitors can explore the world of independent video games with an interactive experience of 10 fully playable gaming stations featuring both well known and fringe creators.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can always hop aboard the free Yountville Trolley that runs from downtown to the museum and back every half an hour.
Paying homage to an icon, this reinvented Newport Beach restaurant offers a new generation of connoisseurs a world-class culinary experience
In the months since the new Ritz Prime Seafood opened its doors to a new generation of culinary enthusiasts, much has been written about how this reinvented restaurant stacks up against the iconic Newport Beach establishment from which it draws inspiration (founded by Hans Prager in 1977, The Ritz enjoyed a 30+ year run as the go-to special event venue before closing its doors in early 2014).
Where the throwback dining institution was characterized by Old World charm and three-martini power lunches, the new-and-improved version is a contemporary iteration of a classic.
While the décor of the beloved brand was all dark wood, dark tufted leather booths and antique chandeliers, The Ritz Prime Seafood showcases a new address (a 6,800-square-foot space with seating for upwards of 200 in the old Chart House location along Mariner’s Mile), sleek, chic décor, cream and tan leather interiors, upholstered booths, loads of natural light thanks to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and the piéce de résistance: a spectacular, sparkling waterfront view and scores of multi-million dollar yachts dotting Newport Harbor.
My husband and I have foodie friends who have introduced us to a number of truly diverse, unique and memorable dining destinations – each month, we alternate with this couple to select and host our respective “picks” for an evening out. I will concede that a few of our choices over the years have been a bit lackluster by comparison, so when we secured a recent reservation (it would be our first experience there as well), it was a highly anticipated event. I am happy to report that The Ritz Prime Seafood more than delivered with exemplary service (our server deserves to be mentioned by name – Matthew Tinnes was amiable, attentive, knowledgeable and unobtrusive), an elegant ambiance and a seafood-centric menu defined by the classics and eclectic dishes with a twist (think extravagant menu items like grilled lobster with burgundy truffles, herbed butter, blistered lemon, truffle foam and levain toast, a succulent chilled seafood sampler dubbed the Ritz Tower, a bone-in fillet smothered in foie gras butter and Ossetra White Sturgeon caviar served with crème fraiche, egg, chives, red onions and brioche toast points).
For landlubbers, The Ritz Prime Seafood serves up tender filet medallions paired with grilled broccolini and a wild mushroom demi-glace, a flavorful jidori chicken and the aforementioned grilled to perfection bone-in filet.
As great as these entrees are, the seafood dishes are where this restaurant really shines - from sushi, sashimi and raw bar to the signature cioppino chock full of lobster, scallops, mussels and shrimp, almond-crusted Mahi Mahi and Chilean sea bass enhanced with pepita pesto, sweet garlic puree and braised leeks.
Our friends were so impressed by our “over the top” selection that they have added The Ritz Prime Seafood to their list of “favorites.” For our part, my husband and I would like to thank to the culinary team and wait staff for providing a dining experience that will be a true challenge for our friends to top next month.
The Ritz Prime Seafood is located at 2801 West Coast Highway in Newport Beach. For more information or to make a reservation, call (949) 720-1800 or visit www.ritzprimeseafood.com
Go outside. Look to the east - towards Boston, and Manhattan, and the Atlantic Ocean. Look further. Squint a little until you can see Italy’s western shore. 25 miles from Pompeii, and roughly 6,446 miles from Orange County, CA lies Naples; a city renowned for its distinctive exports: thin crust pizza, opera, and Rino Caturano. “My parents sacrificed everything and came to the United States with nothing in order to provide a better quality of life, and give their children opportunity.”
From far across the Atlantic Ocean and the Tyrrhenian Sea, they traveled with six year old Rino and his four siblings to make a life in Orange County. At 18, Rino took the Oath of Allegiance, became an American citizen, and realized a longtime dream of his parents. Living for years in a 650 square foot apartment with his family, Rino looked toward a dream of his own. For over a decade, he has been diligently building that dream with Keller Williams. Now the largest, fastest growing real estate franchise in North America, Keller Williams is transforming the housing market one customer at a time.
Working from the ground up, Rino took over the Mission Viejo office 7 years ago, and since has transformed it into the largest real estate franchise of its kind, with over 300 agents working out of the office. Team leader and franchise CEO, Rino believes what sets his Keller Williams office apart from the competition is that the office is “a place where I can cultivate a business that is in alignment with my personal values. Real estate allows me to have a family, have abundance, and then to help other people do the same.” The culture of Keller Williams reinforces that from the top down; looking for individuals who adhere to a code of ethics, are excellent communicators, respond to both clients and other agents with grace and confidence, and do the right thing even when it isn’t convenient. Sound a little bit different from the typical money hungry agency down the street?
We’ve all heard the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. But how many businesses in a capitalist republic like ours actually adhere to it - how many CEO’s and CFO’s and Presidents and even mid-level managers lead their employees down the path of true hospitality?
Derived from the Latin “hospes,” meaning host, or guest, and formed from “hostis,” which means stranger or enemy, hospitality literally takes its roots from hosting strangers. Not necessarily an ideal one would hold up when thinking about letting someone into their house, especially not allowing a stranger to host other strangers in their house. And yet Keller Williams truly believes that they are in the business of people: and would like their agents to be responsible, caring, direct, honest, transparent, and forthright. “It’s not about the commission first, it’s about the client first. I’m looking for agents whose mindset is to do the right thing, even when it isn’t convenient.” Rino goes so far as to request past customer testimonials from his prospective team members.
The culture of Keller Williams reinforces that from the top down; looking for individuals who adhere to a code of ethics, are excellent communicators, respond to both clients and other agents with grace and confidence, and do the right thing even when it isn’t convenient.
In Orange County, where the market is growing into a more balanced inventory of properties, low interest rates are creating a demand, and Rino’s team is there to satisfy it. “In a world where the only constant is change, it is all important as realtors to continue education, stay abreast of market trends, and utilize the latest technologies,” says Rino.
Sometimes change happens so slowly or incrementally that people don’t notice, but Keller Williams is looking to stay ahead of the curve, developing programs for training and mentoring new agents, including a coaching program out of Rino’s office, and an app that sellers and buyers alike can use to access real time information about the housing market from the comfort of their own homes. He pairs up rookie agents with a seasoned professional to mentor them through their initial questions and reservations, and for the top 20% of the seasoned professionals who join his team, Rino personally mentors them to help build their own models and develop their systems and teams: giving them “the tools for success so each agent will truly be the CEO of his or her own business.”
Buyers today are able to lock in a payment with permanent financing for 30 years. If you rent, you have no idea what the market will look like 3, 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Which leaves the monthly cost of housing totally up in the air. With a fixed rate loan, your housing cost is the same today as it will be in 30 years. A lot can happen in that span of time: and Rino is excited for that possibility.
“That’s the reason I got into this industry, because I love to help people grow,” he says. “I love what I do for a living. It has been an amazing experience, not being from this country, to have this opportunity and lead hundreds of people. My success has been based upon helping agents believe in themselves and providing them with tools to help them succeed.”
If you’re looking to hire a realtor, you probably have a ton of questions. How many people is your realtor currently working with? How much attention will my property receive? How will it be marketed? What are those channels of exposure? Your realtor has questions for you too. What is your timeline? How urgent is this sale to you? Today, the world is the local market, and buyers aren’t just coming from around the corner any more. Rino and Keller Williams are nailing those questions to the door and pinning the answers down one by one.
“We want people to know they have support here,” he says. “The office is a family for them to sustain inspiration - and I believe what makes us the number one office is the community we have built.”
Rino is helping the individuals who work with him become better people, because it translates. They better they are, the more help you get. Part of that involves giving back. Rino’s team participates in the Keller Williams Cares program, which puts on RED days: Renew, Energize, Donate. The team has collected food for the homeless, cleaned beaches, and remodeled homes for battered women. “We have pride in what we do. We talk about our vision for the future.”
Go outside. Look in the direction of your dreams: east to Naples, or down the street, across town, or over the next state line. Sit down Rino. See what happens when you work with a professional who lives by his words: “This is what I believe: 1. Your first loyalty is to your family. Always. 2. Whatever you do, do it well and have pride in yourself. 3. Take the word commitment seriously. When you commit to something, commit. That’s where true success is, in the ownership of family, work, and community.”
My husband and I made the mistake of telling our kids we were planning an overnight stay and two days of fun at Legoland in California two weeks prior to the planned visit earlier this summer. As you can imagine, we were on the countdown for the the next 13 days, peppered with questions about which attraction in the park we would experience first, if we could plan to be at the entrance “right when they open” so as to be among the first in line, whether two days was really enough time to enjoy the main park, the water park AND the aquarium?
The hotel was a dream come true for our kids and their parents - they loved everything about their stay - from collecting clues in a scavenger hunt that results in a code that unlocks a treasure chest in the room (which reveals a Lego set they could work on while mom and dad get the bags unpacked) to the “friends-themed” room (divided into an adult section with a king bed and a smaller nook with bunk beds). The rooms are themed according to four popular lines of Lego toys: pirates, adventure, friends and kingdom).
Bricks restaurant features a buffet of foods that will appeal to everyone — soups, salads, easy-access entrees, and a bar at kids’ level so that they can serve themselves.
Breakfast, which is included with the room, has everything you can think of: eggs, an omelet station, pancakes, yogurt parfaits, pastries, fresh fruit and an array of hot and cold beverages.
But the best benefit of staying in the hotel situated at the entrance to the park? Hotel guests enjoy early access - a full hour before the general public. And if you want to take a break to relax or refuel, get your hand stamped and you can come and go as you please (with free return entry into the park without waiting in line).
Two years in the making, NINJAGO World® features a 4D interactive ride that uses cutting-edge Maestro hand gesture technology that enables guests to throw fireballs, shockwaves, ice and lightning to defeat villains. Riders collect points for their "training” and battle efforts and scores are displayed when their quest is complete. Effects such as heat, smoke and wind are incorporated throughout the adventure, giving guests the ultimate interactive 4D experience.
The ride is the center of NINJAGO World® where interactive experiences test guest’s creativity, speed, balance and agility. Twenty-two Lego models flank the new land, in addition to a new retail outlet, Wu’s Warehouse and a dining option, Ninja Kitchen, where Legoland chefs put a special twist on Asian street food with Bahn Mi sandwiches on fresh baked baguettes or steam Bao Buns with crispy pork belly, lemongrass chicken or baked sweet chili tofu.
NINJAGO World® is included in admission to Legoland California Resort. For more info, visit www.LEGOLAND.com or call (760) 918-5377.
Here in South Orange County, we’re pretty lucky to live so close to the coast and have an abundance of wonderful dining destinations to choose from. But for inventive cuisine coupled with awe-inspiring ocean views, there are few establishments that rival RAYA and 180blu.
Both reside in The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel - RAYA boasts a bright, open space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pacific while the aptly named 180blu is an outdoor lounge/deck situated 150 feet above Salt Creek Beach, defined by the same breathtaking 180 degrees of blue sky and clear blue ocean water.
RAYA and 180blu’s culinary offerings (dishes on the 180blu menu come from the RAYA kitchen) showcases Pan-Latin Coastal Cuisine prepared with sustainable seafood, local produce, natural and organic meat. Acclaimed Chef Richard Sandoval’s signature Latin flavors define the seasonal menu which draws inspiration from California and Asian cuisines.
RAYA has long been a favorite special occasion “date night” dinner destination - the service here is what you’d expect of the Ritz-Carlton and consistently so: Attentive yet unobtrusive, professional, yet casually friendly. The same could be said of the service at 180blu, the perfect locale to find yourself at happy hour - for the food, the handcrafted cocktails and the spectacular sunsets.
RAYA’s menu encompasses an array of small (appetizer) and large (entree) plates. If you’re having trouble deciding, a great option to start is the restaurant’s signature Seafood Sampler, which arrives with a trio of popular picks from the small plates options, including oysters on the half shell, rock shrimp aquachile, tuna tataki and salmon tiradito.
There is an abundance of gluten-free options (noted by a special label) ranging from a seafood risotto chock full of Maine lobster, prawn, Santa Barbara mussel, calamari, Spanish chorizo, saffron rice and Dungeness crab to the all-natural Prime New York steak accompanied by a Dungeness crab potato puree, grilled pickled onion, chipotle hollandaise and truffle chimichurri.
The Miso Alaskan Black Cod is my favorite dish on the menu - this flavorful fish dish literally melts in your mouth and is perfectly paired with charred asparagus, daikon (Japanese turnip), kabayaki sauce (think a sweet soy sauce) and togarashi aioli.
The menu at 180blu is a more casual affair characterized by refreshing hand-crafted beverages (watch Mixologist Erin Snider demonstrate how to make Tequila Sangria, one of the specialty drinks served here), small plates and desserts from RAYA (our favorite here is the Wild Mushroom Huarache - a variation on flatbread piled with wild mushroom, caramelized onion, black bean, goat cheese and truffle oil. Bonus! Weather permitting, live music Thursday through Sunday from 6 pm - 9 pm.
Situated on the California-Nevada state line, South Shore is one of those fantastic year-round destinations
Asnowy wonderland in winter and a water enthusiast’s dream in summer, there’s never a bad time to visit the spectacularly scenic South Shore of Lake Tahoe. Split by the massive, magnificent alpine lake in the middle, both the north and south shores are easy to navigate and offer an abundance of outdoor (and indoor) attractions and activities year round.
Our family has always been partial to the south side of the lake and some of the best memories we’ve made over the years have been on those vacations we have taken here with friends.
So I was really looking forward to our family/friend trip to South Shore last month. Our kids – at ages 8 and 9 – were old enough to enjoy much of what Tahoe has to offer and because a family of friends (ranging in age from 8 to 78) who reside in nearby Reno and Carson City were driving in to spend the entire day from mid-morning to early evening during our stay, we went with a much more comfortable, cozy and convenient accommodation option. Rather than book a traditional hotel room, we decided to rent a privately owned vacation home rich in amenity for all ages. The Tahoe Keys Resort and Lake Tahoe Reservation Bureau (www.tahoevacationguide.com or 800.698.2463) offers an extensive selection of rental homes, condos and cabins to suit your specific needs and budget – whether you’re a couple looking for a romantic retreat, a family of five or a large group of friends.
As anticipated, this trip more than delivered. Driving into the region, the views of deep gorges, craggy mountains and the tall green trees are singularly beautiful. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay - the home we selected, located at 950 Balbijou Road, is a super spacious newly renovated, professionally decorated four-bedroom house centrally located to everything - grocery stores, shops, the casinos at stateline. The views are incredible - a large deck on the second floor overlooks a private residential beach below, the master bedroom windows face the lake (imagine waking up to the beauty of the lake each morning) and the back door opens out onto a beautiful downstairs deck steps from the water’s edge.
The home’s luxury accommodations are characterized by beautiful furnishings, high-end finishes and a feature few rental properties can boast - a lakefront location with its own private beach, waterfront access and steps from a wooden pier perfect for strolling. Bonus! Two houses down the beach was a place to rent kayaks ($25 an hour for a single and $35 an hour for a tandem), which made it completely unnecessary (but for a few hours aboard a paddewheeler - more on that in a moment) to ever leave the property since we had literally everything we needed on site.
Between the private beach, the large, open concept living space and multiple dining areas, renting this particular house for our four-day stay proved to be the perfect choice – we had plenty of space to stretch out and everyone had their own rooms to retreat to (the master features a king bed and private bathroom; queen beds in the second and third bedrooms and two sets of twin bunk beds with a shared bathroom was ideal for the younger set). The home sleeps 12 with an queen size sleeper sofa in the den. We saved time and money by being able to cook our meals and dining in rather than eating out three times a day. Several cozy fireplaces provided the perfect ambiance for cool nights and a pool table in the bonus room for apres summer fun.
Other than kayaking, if you’d like to spend time out on the lake, another unique option is to book a daytime scenic cruise or an evening dinner cruise aboard one of two spacious paddlewheelers - the M.S. Dixie II or the Tahoe Queen (800-23-TAHOE). Our group opted for the family-friendly Tahoe Queen boat tour of Emerald Bay – an absolutely must for amazing photo opportunities. Take in some of the most incredible scenery in the world, enjoy lunch, hot cocoa and a good dose of South Lake Tahoe history with the Captain’s live narration. The kids had a ball exploring the boat’s three decks while the adults sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the view.
Unlike vacations where we schedule a series of specific activities designed to keep everyone occupied and entertained away from the hotel room, this trip was all about taking full advantage in all the rental home had to offer - the kids were in and out of the house all day long, spending hours at the water’s edge building a sand castle “village,” hunting for seashells, kayaking with the grown ups and strolling the pier. Evenings were filled with board games, billiards and “movie nights” with kid-friendly programming on Netflix and big buckets of popcorn. Lunches and dinners were either easy outdoor affairs - steaks, burgers, hot dogs and grilled corn cooked on the barbecue or on the last evening, a multi-course meal prepared in the chef’s gourmet kitchen - and for the adults, “happy hour” on the upstairs deck was a nightly highlight sipping a glass of fine wine while watching the sun slip over the horizon - a perfect end to each fun-filled day in one of the prettiest places on the planet.