Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Wining in Carmel by the Sea and Santa Barbara February 2022


Well, this is about the time that my GoFamily and I would be taking the opportunity provided by the February break to take a little ski vacation, most commonly out of the state.  This year, however, with the two oldest having returned to in person college (no Feb break) and my second semester senior playing a full season of varsity baseball (thank God), no traveling was going to take place as a family.  I took the whole week off anyway and planned two short bookend getaways, a Sunday to Tuesday trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea with my husband and a Friday to Sunday visit to Santa Barbara with two girlfriends.  On the agenda in both destinations?  Wine!


CARMEL:

There are plenty of wineries in the Carmel Valley and Monterey areas.  The issue here is the driving.  It is also hard to choose which wineries to visit. Well, "Visit Carmel by the Sea" makes it easy on the Carmel wine taster by offering the Carmel by the Sea Wine Walk.  The Wine walk is a stroll to 13 different tasting rooms that have been set up remotely in downtown Carmel all within a few blocks of each other.  Kind of a pub crawl if you will, but with wine.  Basically you download the app which lists the names, locations, and hours of the participating wineries and off you go!  Wine walkers pay the usual tasting room fee, but each winery has a special offer for tasters on the wine walk, ranging from an olive and salami plate to additional reserve tastings to two for one tasting.  On arriving at a winery, you check in using a special wine walk code to redeem your offer. I think this is only for the simple reason to avoid people coming back over and over and repeating their perks by saying they are on the wine walk.

Fees were typically 20 to 25 dollars for 4-7 pours.  As you might expect, there is quite a variety of generosity when it comes to pouring ranging from the 1.5 oz test tubes presented at De Tierra to the chincey pours at Blair Estate, in which I could barely see the wine in the glass.  It took us only one winery to figure out that we were going to have to pace ourselves by splitting tastings.  In this manner we were able to visit three wineries on day one and four on day two.  Tasting wine this way also cuts your tasting fees in half.  It is possible in most of the tasting rooms to waive the tasting fee with a purchase of wine, some quite a bit more than others.

Not all the info in the app was accurate.  For instance, Talbott was not open at 11 as advertised and neither was Scheid.  Scheid did open about noon and we did take advantage of that but we never circled back to Talbott. Vino Napoli was also closed.  This was all fine because there was no way anyone could visit all the wineries anyway, seriously, you would die.

The wine is good but not excellent in my opinion.  Though we visited 7 wineries, we bought only one bottle of wine.  The guilt here is easily dispersed by the fact that now you pay a tasting fee.  Remember when it used to be free??  However, it is the experience really you are paying for.  We had excellent service at all wineries and did tip all our servers accordingly.

Of all these tasting rooms, only De Tierra had a bathroom.

So lets get a little synopsis of where we walked on our wine walk!

De Tierra (Mission between 5th and 6th):  Bar and table seating.  Great presentation of wines in a test tube rack allowed for proceeding at your own pace. Charcuterie board available.  Incredible live music from Meredith McHenry.  She managed keyboard and a guitar and had some rig that allowed her to harmonize with herself.  Dang I was impressed.


Cute presentation of tasting
 in Test tubes at De Tierra

Hahn Family Wines (Ocean and Mission in Carmel Plaza):  No food but outside food allowed.  We had to sit outside as the indoor seating was full and it got pretty wicked cold out there.



Blair Estate (also Ocean and Mission in Carmel Plaza):  Limited seating and tasting at the bar.  No food available. Good wine but really small pours, the worst pours of all the rooms we visited.

Manzoni Cellars (7th between San Carlos and Dolores in the Hampton Ct.):  Very limited seating and some bar space.  15$ charcuterie box available (which we did buy).  Pleasant unhurried service.

Scheid Vineyards (San Carlos and 7th):  Good wine and pleasant service at tabletops.  No food.  Minimal docking for not being open when the website said it would be open.

Dawn's Dream Winery (San Carlos and 7th, Plaza San Carlos) Cheerful setting with bar, tabletop, and outdoor seating.  Excellent service.  The staff at Dawn's also referred us to ...


Galante Vineyards (Dolores between Ocean and 7th, in the Der Ling Passageway).  A very cute tasting area with minimal bar and outdoor (firepit) seating tucked in the back area of the aforementioned passageway.  The young lady here was just adorable and generous with the pours and the extras.  This is the only winery where we actually purchased a bottle, a lovely dessert wine.

Thank you Galante for the display of the American flag!


SANTA BARBARA:

Now our experience in Santa Barbara was quite a bit different.  The area around State Street and the general downtown in Santa Barbara also has a lengthy list of tasting rooms and even tasting patios that can be enjoyed simply by walking from one to the other.

Well, we didn't explore the easy route this time, but hopped in the car and drove to the wine region of the Santa Ynez Valley to visit some actual wineries. The Santa Ynez Valley can be accessed by exiting 101 onto Highway 154, also known as San Marcos Pass Road, and travelling about 35 miles north and west, which actually aims you toward the cities of Solvang and Buellton.  The area is quite undeveloped, widespread and beautiful.

As there are quite a few wineries to choose from, it was difficult to choose exactly which two wineries to visit.  Only two wineries of the 10 or so I checked out (which turned out to be the ones we visited, though I did make reservations at both) did not require reservations. Most cost about the going rate of $20 for 5-6 tastes, though one cost up to $50 I guess depending on what you tried. Most limit your tasting time to 60-90 minutes. Many wineries did not allow outside food, though some did have snacks available for purchase.

Despite the limitations and additional hassles, I would be interested in spending more time tasting wine in this region.  The wine in general was better than what we tasted in Carmel, but that's just my own expert opinion.

So lets review the wineries we chose and how it went!

Sunstone Winery (125 N Refugio Rd, Santa Ynez)  Sunstone Winery is a huge venue!  There is a huge hilltop tasting area with what looks to be about 40-50 picnic tables.  Groups of wine tasters are escorted to picnic tables appropriate to the party size.  Thereafter a server comes by and takes care of your table. Outside food is allowed, but on site there is a food truck if you forget your cheese and crackers.  The tasting fee is waived if you buy three bottles of wine (which added up minimally to about $90, so we did not take advantage of this).  The tasting time is supposed to be about one hour, but we did not feel rushed.  6 tastes for 20$.  Lovely, and worth the stop.  The only thing I would recommend to the winery is the installation of a few more bathrooms.  5 stalls was too few for so many people and there was frequently a line.

Friends enjoying the Sunstone Winery

Gainey Vineyards (3950 East Highway 246, Santa Ynez)  Gainey Vineyards does tasting on a smaller enclosed patio.  One thing I liked about Gainey was that the wine came out all at once in small flasks, allowing us to take our time.  The disadvantage to this was that both my and my friend's taste were brought in one flask, requiring us to divvy up between two glasses. Most of the time it was pretty fair, but well, you know, lots of pressure!  I believe that Gainey allows outside food in a separate picnic area but we were already pretty full and did not need to eat more, actually I think our food was gone!  Gainey also has a little gift shop and a quite nice bathroom.  Delicious pinot noir was the highlight.

Lovely presentation at Gainey Vineyards

After returning to the downtown area, we wanted to visit one of the downtown venues.  I know better than to mix, but one of my friends doesn't drink wine so we decided to go to Cutler's Artisan Spirits, just a nine minute walk from our hotel, to address some of her drinking needs.  This was a mistake.  The "London Mule" I ordered, which was a guess gin and ginger beer, was really strong, ok so like pure alcohol.  Very sadly, there is no kitchen, so the only thing you can do is order a pizza from a venue in the complex (all outside drinking patios).  Things started to go south pretty quickly and that pizza could not come fast enough and was downed in about three minutes.  Some people never learn, like me.  The place was fine, but I shoulda stuck to one thing.  I was fine, but it kind of put a damper on the rest of the night!

Lovely, but too much for me tonight!

Thank you for reading this post!  No traveling for a while!  Maybe I will find something to write about!

Monday, February 7, 2022

Las Vegas--Off Strip Discoveries January 30 thru Feb 1, 2022


Well, can you believe that only about one week after publishing my last blog post I am here back at it again. May not be as long as my last post but I am determined to keep writing!  In fact, I will be taking two more short trips in the not so distant future and my goal is to share at least something about all these adventures.

Ok, so how did we wind up in Vegas?  In about November of 2021, my dear girlfriend threw an invitation out to all her friends to come and join them in Vegas to help them celebrate their 25th anniversary for four nights in Sin City.  They had their whole itinerary planned, including where to stay, what to do during the day and where to eat lunch and dinner.  We were discouraged about the midweek plan, but with a little arranging, we were able to join them for three days and two nights.

As per the unusual..I had nothing to plan.  Every time we have been to Vegas we have stayed right in the central strip, spent the day on the Strip, went to shows on the Strip and ate dinner on the Strip.  This time we weren't spending anytime on the Strip.  We were headed to off Strip dining, off Strip drinking and off Strip play, and it did not disappoint.  So let me tell you a bit about it!

DINING-the GOLDEN STEER

The Golden Steer is located at 308 W Sahara Avenue about a 10 minute Lyft ride from the

Park MGM (formerly the Monte Carlo).  The Golden Steer is your typical OLD Las Vegas Steakhouse.  The front is illuminated with a yellow marquis sign bragging its 1958 establishment and there are no windows on the front wall.  Indoor the theme continues, with wood paneled walls, booths upholstered in red leather, the bar front and center, and plenty of pictures of Frank Sinatra.  The restaurant has been host to the "famous and the infamous" as the website says, like Elvis Presley, Mario Andretti, Joe DiMaggio and Natalie Wood, hmm, strangely all Italian, except that Russian young lady, who probably came with an Italian.

The cocktail list is the kind that lists five different gins and ten different vodkas, as if I'm supposed to know the difference between them.  I'll have a gin and tonic with a splash of grapefruit, please. There is also an extensive wine list (I did not see a red under $100).  The order of the day is steaks and they are pricey, with the cheapest item being a $58 10 oz prime rib.  We were lucky enough to be offered a special which including a tomahawk chop with two salads (we both chose Caesar, tossed at the tableside) and two sides (we chose a loaded potato and steamed asparagus) for $210.  All three couples at the table ordered it. There are also multiple market priced surf and turf options and a few Italian specialties.  

Dinner was good, and the company fabulous.  We were there for nearly three hours. The food was not the best I have had.  My steak was fatty and the asparagus was a bit tough. Our bill was over $1100 for the 6 of us, making it close to the most I ever spent for two of us.  Worth it? Borderline for the food but the ambiance cant be beat.




DINING-HERBS AND RYE

Now we are talking!  Herbs and Rye is also on West Sahara Blvd at 3713.  From the outside the place looks like a block with no windows, a flat roof, a cheesy marquee, and a big red door.  But inside, gosh, it's happening.  We were there on a Monday night and at 8:30pm the place was packed.  The decor of the dimly lit dining room borders on similar to what we saw at the Golden Steer, from the leather booths to the red velvet wallpaper, but the place has a less dressy feel.  There is no dress code.

The Herbs and Rye website says that it makes "pretty good steaks and REALLY good cocktails"  They aren't kidding.  The cocktail menu is two full pages of original libations listed categorically under what "period of alcohol history" they fall into i.e The Rat Pack Era, Prohibition.  The drinks are all about $15.  I ordered a gin and lemon drink called "The Bees Knees" which was delicious.  There was a happy hour special running (at 8:30?) which offered all well drinks for $5.  Very very tempting to go for the cheap stuff but none of us could pass up the chance at one of the fun original cocktails.  The wine list is also extensive and our friend ordered two bottles whether we needed them or not. The mark up on the wine was also not nearly as severe, and we did finish it off !

The menu has a similar selection to the night before but is a far better value, with many options that were half off.  I had the Herb's and Rye favorite, the Pork and Figs, a lovely (and better tasting) pork chop on a bed of mashed potatoes served with sweet figs.  With this I ordered a side of Sprouts and Swine, which was roasted brussels sprouts with huge chunks of bacon sprinkled with parmesan cheese.  Heaven-seriously.  Around the table was a surf and turf, a pasta carbonara, two pasta agnolotti, and even a stab at another steak.

This restaurant hands down was my favorite of the two. Our share of the bill was literally $200 less than the night before!  Almost 50% less for what I thought was a better meal with better drinks.  Well, I guess you don't know until you try!


A cute message about ordering your steaks!!
Wish I could pass this to a few people I know!

My beautiful Pork and Figs and Sprouts and Swine
at Herbs and Rye.  So yummy!

DRINKING-THE GOLDEN TIKI

Craig and I had some time around lunch and decided to head to Frankie's Tiki Room.  Well, the downside of this renowned establishment is the fact that there is no food served there and we were getting hungry!  So our next choice was The Golden Tiki, located at 3939 Spring Mountain Road.  

The bar is open 24 hours and serves light snacks during the day with some more substantial offerings at dinner. The outside continues with our current theme of just being a store front with a marquee sign and no windows facing the parking lot. You can make a reservation but when we arrived, which was about 12:30 pm, we could pretty much has our run of the place so we got a nice cozy booth in the corner.  

What a place!  It's part Disneyland, part Hawaii, part Vegas.  This place is decorated to the hilt with tiki paraphernalia including torches, tikis, shells, flotsam, nets, shrunken heads and the three dolls you'd find doing the hula in 'It's a Small World.'  There is a lot of borderline artwork and a fair amount of decor that is just downright naughty--thank goodness more nudity than pornography.  The bar is 21 and over, and for good reason. Welcome to Vegas.

The drink menu is two full pages-with offerings such as the Painkiller, Piranha Punch, Trial by Fire and Hemingway's Ruin.  I got the Navy Grog with a shot of 151 shot of fire included.  Craig got the Mai Tai.  All drinks can be fortified with an extra shot of rum for 3$.  And back to Disneyland, the Golden Tiki offers boozed up classic dole whip, omg.  The drinks are tasty and fun, but do have a fair amount of ice.  If you want to get lit, go for the shots.  My second drink was The Kraken and Craig had the Huka Pele.  Yep, we were feelin' it after that.

We did eat while we were there, just one appetizer, the Sticky Fingers.  It was just a bite for 15$ but was tasty and took the edge off the hunger (and the buzz)

The snacks menu 

Rocking that Dole Whip!!

The drink menu

Our yummy drinks!!!



and our second drinks!!

and the three young ladies that lost their way
from Disneyland

PLAY-AREA15

Now this is an interesting place!  We walked from the Golden Tiki about one mile to Area 15, which is located at 3215 S Rancho Drive.  Area 15 is the newest retail and entertainment center in Las Vegas.  I guess it is best described as an immersive adult playground, though you do not need to be 21 to get in.  There is no cover charge until ten pm on Fridays and Saturdays, at which times you will need to pay $15 to get in.  After 10pm the place also becomes 21+.  At all other times, you pay by the experience.  

Maybe the hardest part of coming to Area 15 is deciding how you want to spend your time.  The experiences are not cheap and a few hours spent here could certainly set you back several hundred dollars.  Our friends got there while we were still gawking at imbibing at the Golden Tiki, so they had already enjoyed a sub par zipline experience and had moved on to throwing axes.  We were going to have to pay full price to join them midway into their game so we decided to sit it out and just sit and watch and drink which they (meaning the establishment) did not seem to mind.  We were going to move on to a distillery tour (yes also in Area 15) but we had all had a few by then and $55 seemed like a lot to put ourselves over the edge. (So we went black light mini golfing at Bally's instead--but that is not part of this blogpost)

Anyway, back to describing some of the experiences... I got an email that they had just added "Liftoff" which is somewhat of a Hot Air Balloon ride that takes you 130 feet (that doesn't seem very high) into the air.  That's 18$ with no alcohol.  There is Meow Wolf's Omega Mart, which I can't even describe which is $49.  There is an immersive Van Gogh exhibit, general admission $35, more for the immersive experience.  The website localadventurer.com includes these last two, our passed up distillery tour, 'Museum Fiasco' and 'Wink World' as "5 Things you can't miss at Area 15."

Listen, I'm game.  I'm going back.  At least to get my chance to throw axes.


This is supposed to be video, but you get the general idea!

Thank you for reading this post!  I am off to Carmel in a week or too.  Hopefully I am jumping back on the posting bandwagon!

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Is the Magic Back? Disneyland January 14-17 2022


On March 14, 2020 Disneyland Park did the unprecedented by closing its doors to the public in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic.  They did not open again until over a year later, on April 30, 2021, with a laundry list of restrictions, limitations, and changes which have continued to evolve since.  We missed our January 2021 yearly weekend in Disneyland, so we were eager to get on the band wagon for January of 2022.  While visiting the parks, it was evident that we were not the only Disney fans eager to return to the promised land.  Though not the worst I had ever seen on a weekend, the parks were full and the lines were a challenge.  It almost was the old Disneyland as we knew it, or was it???

GENIE PLUS

When Disneyland reopened in the spring, it eliminated its over 20 year old Fast Pass system and for many months had no other option for riders but to queue in the stand by lines.  Slowly Disney advertising stared to reveal its plans for its new improved and rebranded "Lightning Lane" system under the new name Genie Plus, and on December 8, 2021 or thereabouts, the long awaited plan was launched. Now, to spell out the intricacies of this whole new system would probably require its own blog post, but if I had to describe it in as few words as possible...

Genie Plus is the old free Fast Pass system but now you pay for it.

Genie Plus is available for purchase the minute you walk in the park and is available to all ticket holders at any time of the day you should decide to add it.  It costs 20 dollars per person per day and purchase is an easy transaction from your phone.  Once purchased, you can choose your first "lightning lane" (that's the new name of the FP line) reservation from your phone which shows you all the times that are available for the rides within the system.  There are 12 rides at Disneyland Park and 7 that are on the system, so by no means is it every ride. You may only reserve each ride once per day. Many reservations are in the next minutes but others you have to wait a bit longer for.  If you can't make your reservation time, you can cancel it and book a different one.  For the most part, you can only hold one reservation at a time, so you do have to work the system a bit, to catch your favorites before they run out for the day (which they can, just like Fast Pass could) but not have to wait 5 hours for your next reservation.  When it is time for your reservation, you just scan your paper ticket or your phone at the lightning lane kiosk and off you go to your shortened wait time.

Here's the catch though, and it's a biggee. The highest demand rides, namely Rise of the Resistance in Disneyland and both Webslingers and Radiator Springs Racers in DCA are not included on the Genie plus upcharge.  In order to ride these rides with a Lightning Lane you have to pay another additional fee which apparently fluctuates by demand.  When we were there the upcharge for the DCA rides was 15$, for Rise, 20$.  It is possible to pay to ride these rides with a lightning lane WITHOUT purchasing Genie Plus for all the other rides.

Who's confused?

Is Genie Plus worth it??

Well, there is no doubt that Genie Plus is a financial commitment.  Disneyland is already over $150 per adult per day with a Park Hopper ticket so you can see 20 additional dollars as just too much or not that big a deal.  On Saturday in the Disneyland park, we decided to watch how things were going. We rode three rides before at about 9:30 am as we stood in a long line for Dumbo, we caved and bought the Genie Plus add on as the lines throughout the park were inching to 45 minutes and beyond.  On Sunday, when we were hopping, we had always intended to purchase Genie plus and did as soon as we entered the park.

Yep, despite the $200 kick in the pants, for us this weekend it was worth it.  At no time did I feel like we wasted our money.

We did not purchase the extra lightning lanes for the excluded rides.  To compensate for this though we literally were at the Disneyland gates at 7:30am (8 am park opening) and all the way to the Adventureland rope by 7:40am Saturday morning and at the same spots respectively the following morning at DCA.  We waited about 18 minutes for Rise and maybe 25 for Webslingers.  Unfortunately, after Webslingers on Sunday we had to wait 60 minutes for Radiator Springs Racers, the longest line the entire weekend.  At no time later in the days did the standby cues become less than 90 minutes for these rides throughout the weekend.  If you were not purchasing the Lightning Lane for these rides, it was the rope drop run or nothing.  We did not get on any of these rides a second time.

COVID Restrictions

Did I get this far in this post without mentioning our old friend, COVID 19?  Well, here it is, high time to mention it.

OK-really the limitations are few, but it is worth it to be aware of them.

Once you buy your ticket you have to make a park reservation, in others words, you must declare which park you will visit (or start in, if you have a Park Hopper) on each day.  If you are park hopping, you cannot change parks until 1pm.  Though I wanted to buy tickets closer to the date, I did not feel comfortable doing this less than 30 days in advance. 

There are no character meet and greets.  No hugging Cinderella.  They just wave from about 10 feet away.  I just read that this is what is happening similarly at character dining venues, such as Goofy's Kitchen.

See Mickey from afar...

Masks are required indoors, period.  And they are pretty strict about it. It wasn't warm, but if it had been, I don't think I would have liked it.  The mask requirement also messes up most of your ride photo opportunities, like on Space Mountain.

You see what I mean about the 
messed up photo opportunities?

No night shows like Fantasmic and World of Color, but somehow the quirky Mickey's Mix Magic (which my kids say is like Disney Rave) is still shown nightly, with fireworks on select nights. Parades if you can call them that are really abbreviated.

Not sure if they are limiting capacity in restaurants, but some places are impossible to get.  After they cancelled my 2pm reservation at the coveted Oga's Cantina which I got up at 4 am to make, I was able to get 10pm, which actually was a fun way to end the day.

There is no plexiglass, no social distancing, no empty seats on rides, no wiping and rewiping, no vaccine requirements.  Thank God for all of this.

WHAT'S NEW?

Well, thank goodness there is more that is new than just an expensive FastPass system! There are four rides that are either new or have been renovated.

Snow White's Scary Adventures (est.1955 on opening day) has undergone a renovation and has a new name, "Snow White's Enchanted Wish." And guess what?  As the name suggests, the ride isn't scary anymore!  The new ride has a lot of technological advance, not to mention a nice colorful facelift.  The witch is still there, I mean, she is kinda vital to the story, but the lightning and the terrifying forest are replaced by bright gems and lively music.  The story makes more sense now, it doesn't just go from the witch to and they lived happily ever after.  All in all, nice changes.

The same cannot be said for the Jungle Cruise which quite frankly now is just annoying.  Disney just needs to leave well enough alone.  The changes to the Jungle Cruise echo the lame attempts of Disney to make Pirates of the Caribbean a politically sensitive ride.  In this case, they took the headhunters/indigenous people out and replaced them with a bunch of chimps.  I swear the ride is all monkeys now.  Apparently there is some new back story-but under that mask the guide wore I couldn't hear a gosh darned thing.  All in all, lame changes.

The Rise of the Resistance opened about a week after we were in Disneyland in 2020.  This ride is a completely immersive Star Wars experience which has your rebel transport sucked by a tractor beam onto an Imperial cruiser.  All the characters are there-Rey, Poe, Finn.  It's a good time.  The only problems with this ride are its distance from the main hub and the wait times.  I would have loved to ride it again, but it was not to be.

Me and the stormtroopers on
Rise of the Resistance

Webslingers at DCA which opened in July 2021 however is pretty lame and not worth it. Read all the Google reviews on this one and it will just about sum things up.  Radiator Springs Racers is so creative and fun.  This ride just left me frustrated.  It's like a bad arcade game that leaves you with sore arms.  I was against the wall and it was nerve wracking how much worse I did than my family in the center chairs. 

If you have to run to one, maybe this is one you run to because the Cars ride is so much better, you don't mind waiting longer.

IS THE MAGIC BACK?

Disneyland is always magic.  The magic can be annoying, but it's there.

And now for some pictures!!

Finally a mask free picture

Oga's Cantina is a hot reservation

I didn't write about PYM's Test Lab,
but it is a MUST stop!
Trying to recreate "Honey Fusion" at home.




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