Friday, December 18, 2009

Sonoma & Napa Valleys

Ashley and Lee at Bouchaine Vineyard

Ashley and I and went to Wine Country in Sonoma & Napa Valleys in early November.  We went there for the first time in October of 2008, and we had such a great time that we decided to go again.  When we went in 2008, we had only 2 days in Sonoma & Napa as we also wanted to go to San Francisco.  This time we devoted our full energy to Wine Country.  We had an awesome time on this trip.

Before going, we got lots of advice on where to go and what to do from friends who have been recently.  This was really helpful in setting up a great trip.  There's a decent amount of driving involved getting around Wine Country, and we were able to come up with a plan in advance that made the best use of our time.  One great suggestion that we got was to stop for lunch in Sausalito on the way up to Sonoma/Napa.  Sausalito is a really neat little town on San Francisco Bay just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.  There are great views of the Bay and downtown San Francisco from the waterfront.  We got sandwiches at the Venice Gourmet and ate them in a little park area by the water.  This was a nice break in the 2 hour drive up to Sonoma from the airport.

We stayed in Sonoma at the The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa.  This was a very nice and clean hotel.  It is about a mile from the main downtown area of Sonoma and there's not much within walking distance, but since we had a rental car, this wasn't a big deal.  The weather was really nice the first couple of days and a little cloudy the last day or so with comfortable temperatures during the day when the sun was out and chilly temperatures at night.  Overall, I would say November is a great time to visit.

Below is a list of wineries and restaurants we went to.  We've noted some of our favorites and some places we didn't like as much.  I've also posted some pictures at the bottom, so be sure to keep reading through.

Wineries we went to
Cellar Door Tasting Room (Sonoma)
Iron Horse (Russian River Valley) - Top 3 Red Wines we haven't had before
Adler Fels (Sonoma Valley, tasting room only)
Chateau St. Jean (Sonoma Valley) - Best Winery Atmosphere, awesome lawn to enjoy a picnic on
Matanzas Creek (Sonoma Valley)
Benziger (Sonoma Valley) - One of our personal favorites, did the full tour last year, love the wines
Trefethen (Napa Valley - Oak Knoll) - Top 3 Tasting Experience, Best White Wine we haven't had before (Harmony Chardonnay)
Robert Sinskey (Napa Valley)
Saddleback (Napa Valley) - Very small winery, tastings done on a picnic table outside
Silverado (Napa Valley) - Nice views from the patio off the tasting room
Cliff Lede (Napa Valley) - Top 3 Tasting Experience, Top 3 Red Wines we haven't had before
Goosecross (Napa Valley) - Small winery with a very personal tasting experience, great wines
Sterling (Napa Valley - Calistoga) - Views of the Valley on the gondola ride are worth the admission
Castelo di Amorosa (Napa Valley - Calistoga) - Worth admission just to see the castle, lots of tourists
Rombauer (Napa Valley) - Weren't thrilled with the wine and tasting experience here
Etude (Carneros) - Nice tasting room, OK wine
Bouchaine (Carneros) - Top 3 Tasting Experience, self-guided walk through the vineyard is fun
Nicholson Ranch (Carneros) - Top 3 Red Wines we haven't had before

Venice Gourmet (Sausalito)
Girl & the Fig (Sonoma) - Best Dinner (Braised Wild Board Shoulder)
El Dorado Kitchen (Sonoma) - Best Side Dish (Truffle Fries)
Bouchon (Yountville) - Best Lunch (Beef Tenderloin Open Face Sandwich)
Maya (Sonoma)
Black Bear Diner (Sonoma)
Basque Bakery (Sonoma)
Alexis Baking Company (Napa) - Best Breakfast (Mexican Breakfast Sandwich)
Palisades Deli Cafe (Calistoga)
Cafe La Haye (Sonoma)


Driving into San Francisco

San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge from the car

View of Downtown San Francisco from Sausalito

Iron Horse Vineyards

Ashley and Lee in the Lavender garden at Matanzas Creek Winery

Napa Valley Vineyard

View from Sterling Vineyards gondola

Lee and Ashley riding the Sterling Vineyards gondola

Napa Valley viewed from Sterling Vineyards

Napa Valley sign near Calistoga

Castelo di Amarosa (built out of stones imported from Italy)

Lee enjoying the vineyard walk at Bouchaine

Friday, November 6, 2009

Las Vegas & Grand Canyon

We recently spent a week in Las Vegas in October.  A lot of people thought we were crazy for spending a whole week out there.  We actually had a great time, even though we ended up working a couple of days while we were there.

Ashley and Lee at the Bellagio Conservatory Fall Exhibit

We did take part in some gambling while we were there.  Ashley did quite well focusing mostly on the craps tables.  I didn't do very well playing blackjack, especially at Planet Hollywood.  In fact, I would have lost money for the trip were it not for Ashley's rolling skills on the craps table.  Our last night in Vegas we went to see Ka at MGM Grand (great show!).  After the show, we decided to play some craps.  The tables were pretty crowded, but we were able to find a couple of spots.  We played for about 30 minutes and we were down to the last bit of money we were playing with that night.  We decided to each roll one more time before leaving.  My roll didn't go very well, so Ashley was our last hope.  She ended up rolling for over 30 minutes (at least it seemed like that long).  Everyone at the table was high-fiving and going nuts.  This funny guy at the other end of the table kept yelling "Sista!" after she rolled.  Needless to say, it ended up being a profitable night.  After we left the table, we overhead the guy say "Where did Sista go?"  Good times.

Our friends Aaron and Natalie joined us for the first 3 nights of our trip, and we had a blast with them.

Aaron and Natalie at Venetian Canal Shops

Highlights from Las Vegas
Simon at Palms Place (We ate here with Aaron and Natalie the first night.  Excellent food.  It's off the strip, but worth the drive.)
BLT Burger (Great burger place at the Mirage.  We hit this up with Aaron and Natalie after seeing the Beatles Cirque show.)
Battista's Hole in the Wall (Sentimental favorite of Aaron and me.  It's not gourmet dining, but it's a fun experience.  The singer that roams the restaurant does not disappoint.)
Mesa Grill (I'm a huge fan of Bobby Flay.  Ashley and I went here the last time we were in Vegas, and we went to the one in the Bahamas in July.  We ate here twice this trip.  Great flavors overall.  Tasty Margaritas.)
Marinelli's at M Resort Casino (We went here with Ashley's friend Gwynne and her husband Brian.  Excellent Italian.)
RM Seafood (We wanted to go here after seeing Rick Moonen on Top Chef Masters.  We splurged a bit, but it was worth it.  The seafood is really fresh.  We got the shellfish sampler and could have ended it there.)
Wolfgang Puck (We didn't have any plans for dinner after seeing Ka.  Wolfgang Puck was by the theater so we decided to give it a try.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Great food, service and atmosphere.)
Pinks (Decent hot dog.  I've always wanted to go to the original in Hollywood.)
Earl of Sandwich (We hit this up several times.  The sandwiches here are really good and very reasonably priced.)

Ghostbar at the Palms (We went here after dinner at Simon the first night.  The cover is a bit steep at $25, but it's worth it for the views from the top of the Palms.  The view of the city at night is amazing.)
View from Ghostbar

Red Square (One of the coolest bars I've ever been to.  We had martinis here before dinner at RM Seafood.  The theme is Russian vodka bar.  They have tons of vodkas to choose from all over the world.  The bartender was awesome.  The bar has a strip of ice on it.)
Martinis at Red Square

Hard Rock (This is off strip, but it has a young vibe.  We went here the first night, and we had a great time.  The blackjack dealers are really friendly.)
Planet Hollywood (Since this was next door to the Marriott Grand Chateau, we went here the most.  I really like gambling here because it's open and they play good music.  However, I had no luck here at all.)
Bellagio (I didn't play here much, but it has surprisingly reasonable table limits for craps and blackjack.)
Mirage (Didn't have a great time playing blackjack here.  Maybe I need to give it another shot.)
M Casino (Didn't gamble here, but it's a really nice, new casino.  It's a hike from the main part of the strip, though.)
MGM (Hit it big playing craps here.  This place had a much younger vibe than most places on the strip.)

Grand Canyon
Since neither of us have been to the Grand Canyon, we figured this trip was the time to check it out.  We made the 5 or so hour drive from Vegas going over the Hoover Dam and stopping at In 'n Out on the way.
The Grand Canyon definitely lives up to its billing.  We got to spend a few hours here, and we saw the sunset.  It was definitely worth the trip.


 There were elk everywhere.

We spent the night in Flagstaff after visiting the Grand Canyon since we had a flight home out of Phoenix the next afternoon.  I mention this because we had dinner at a really awesome Mexican restaurant called Salsa Brava.  If you're ever in Flagstaff, this place is worth checking out.

Tacos and Dos Equis at Salsa Brava

Monday, September 14, 2009

Trip to Turkey

My wife Ashley and I recently went on a trip to Turkey to attend the wedding of her friend Shirley from high school. The wedding was in Bodrum, and we spent most of our time there. It was a fairly quick trip, and I wish we had been able to spend more time in Turkey.

We were in Bodrum from Thursday to Monday morning and we spent Monday night in Istanbul on our way back to the US.

Thursday (Bodrum)
We arrive at our hotel in Bodrum (Divan Palmira) after an overnight flight from the US and a loooooonnnngggg layover in Istanbul. We were really excited to get to the hotel.

Pool at Divan
Waterfront outside Divan

Turkish mezze and Effes beer on the waterfront

Friday (Bodrum) - Day before the wedding

Dock that we hung out on during the day, very relaxing

View down waterfront near our hotel
(you can see how each hotel has a dock with lounge chairs)

Shirley and Kemal had a party at their summer house
in Yalikavak the evening before the wedding

Picture of us...amazing view of the Aegean Sea in the background,
it was hard to believe we were in Turkey

Nice view from the pool

Late night dance party by the beach
Saturday (Bodrum) - Wedding Day

Setup for wedding reception by pool of Marmara Hotel
(city of Bodrum is below, Greek island of Kos in the distance)

The view from the Marmara Hotel was amazing

All dressed up for the wedding

Mezze before start of the ceremony

Waiting for the bride's entrance
(they timed this perfectly with the sunset in the background)

Here comes the bride

It's official!

This is the view that we had during the reception

Wedding cupcakes

Ashley's high school friends

Fireworks! (look for the heart near the end)


After the wedding, we hopped on the bus to go the the Halikarnas
(promoted as "probably" the best night club in the world)

Partying in the VIP section at the Halikarnas

Craziness on the stage!

Congrats to Shirley and Kemal courtesy of Halikarnas

Picture of the newlyweds on the day after the wedding
(Thanks for such a great time in Bodrum Shirley and Kemal!)

Monday (Istanbul)

We hung out in Bodrum for one more day on Sunday before heading to Istanbul on Monday. It would have been nice to have had more time in Istanbul, but we got to see a lot in one day.

Blue Mosque
Me outside of the Blue Mosque
Inside of the Blue Mosque
Hagia Sophia

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar
(this place was huge!)
We purchase a couple of things from this guy,
then he wanted us to visit his "cousin shop" that sold rugs... thing you know, we're picking out a new rug
Stall at the Spice Bazaar
Bosphorus Bridge between Europe and Asia in the distance

Last night dinner on the roof of our hotel,
right before lightning knocked out power to our section of the city

View of Hagia Sophia at night from the hotel restaurant

You can see the full album of pictures here