Uncorking Napa Valley’s Lux Legacy

By David Dickstein  |  2019-09-05

While many landmarks that put America’s most iconic industries “on the map” are sadly no longer on the map – Blondeau Tavern, home of Hollywood’s first motion picture studio, and El Rancho Vegas, the original casino-resort on the Las Vegas Strip, among them – the winery universally recognized as bringing Napa Valley into a position of prominence still thrives as both a major producer and tourist attraction.

From the volcanic-soiled vineyards of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars grew the grapes of a 1973 cabernet sauvignon that shocked the wine world by triumphing over some of France’s bottled best in a blind tasting known as the "Judgment of Paris." The astonishing win would cultivate America’s cabernet culture, and the story, adapted into books and films, the most prominent being 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” is revered from Los Carneros to Calistoga. Wherever I brought up Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on a recent visit to Napa Valley, even competitors were magnanimous, hailing the winery as seminal.

By the end of November, which caps off a four-month peak season, an estimated 50,000 visitors will have paid homage and the minimum $45 fee to sample the four cabs that make up Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ coveted Estate Collection. As drinking-aged guests savor pricey pours of Artemis, FAYE, S.L.V. and flagship Cask 23, they take in sweeping views of the very vineyard where in 1961 pioneering grape grower Nathan Fay first planted cabernet sauvignon in what is now the Stags Leap District. Some tours include entering the caves, where the barrels are kept, but perhaps the coolest thing to see can be done for free; on display is a bottle of the history-making 1973 S.L.V. cab, allegedly one of only two left in the world. The other is at the Smithsonian, where it’s showcased alongside Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat as one of the “101 Objects that Made America.” Napa folk prefer to call it “the one that started it all.”

Eat, Stay, Love                                                            

Such regard, from an haute cuisine perspective, proudly belongs to Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. In 1981, 11 years after Warren and Barbara Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars nine miles down the bucolic, two-lane Silverado Trail, French restaurateur Claude Rouas and business partner Bob Harmon opened Napa Valley’s first fine dining establishment.

Tastes of Provence and other Mediterranean inspirations, along with a 15,000-bottle wine cellar, impeccable service and a killer view, have earned Auberge du Soleil 13 consecutive Michelin Star awards. From Executive Chef Robert Curry’s kitchen come such seasonal delicacies as Kurobuta pork chop with caramelized apples, mustard spaetzle, Swiss chard, cider sauce and, for a hint of nuttiness, farro, of course. Topping the dessert selections is a Tahitian vanilla bean mousse torte flanked by roasted pineapple, blood orange sorbet and shortbread streusel. And that’s just brunch ($75 for three courses). If dinner interests you, a three-course meal is $125, four courses are $145, and the six-course chef’s tasting with wine pairing is $171.

Auberge du Soleil’s success spawned Napa Valley’s first hotel to receive a five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide. The 2019 edition makes it six years in a row for the 50-room French-style country inn where a three-night minimum stay in a standard room starts at around $3,600.

At the southern edge of the valley is Los Carneros, a unique viticulture area in that it straddles Napa and Sonoma counties. Carneros Resort and Spa and its fine dining restaurant FARM are fantastically located if visiting both wine regions. Gated lodging is laid out like a mobile home park, but don’t expect to see any trailer trash with rates starting at a grand a night. Charming cottages dot the resort, each with a rustic front porch adorned with weathered rocking chairs and a mailbox, and interiors of shabby chic décor and such luxuries as a heated bathroom floor and espresso machine. French doors open to a private outdoor patio with a gas fire pit and twin chaise lounges with an overhead electric heater. If showering or bathing inside is too ordinary, go al fresco and trust that the ranch-style sheet metal walls are high enough to prevent any peeping Tom neighbors.

Outside the automatic gates is a town square anchored by FARM, quite possibly the best Napa Valley restaurant without a Michelin star. Dinner was off the single-ingredient tasting menu with wine pairing ($185). Executive Chef Aaron Meneghelli changes the left side of his menu every mind-blowing fortnight, and tonight featured citrus. Local halibut with blood orange aguachile led to spiced pork belly soured and sweetened with burnt Meyer lemon glaze. The prime filet mignon perked up with charred kumquats. The ensuing cheese course, washed down with Honig late harvest sauvignon blanc, delighted with the presence of candied mandarinquat, which, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of a mandarin orange and kumquat. Its powerful punch can be as surprising as the fact that the fruit was developed in 1973 at UCLA, an institution not exactly known for its ag accomplishments.

Make dinner plans for another night at Solbar, a culinary gem in Calistoga, Napa Valley’s northernmost viticulture area. Gracing the grounds of Solage, an Auberge resort, Solbar was a Michelin-starred restaurant from 2008 to 2018. It’s still recommended in the 2019 guide, but that’s clearly not good enough for Solbar, and perhaps why Gustavo Rios, who left there in 2014 after seven years, was asked to return as executive chef in February. Rios has over 20 years of experience working at luxury properties, including Peninsula Beverly Hills. Prices are reasonable for Napa. The pan-roasted petrale sole is $38, same as the pleasing Périgord black truffle risotto. A starter of a perfectly balanced charred avocado and citrus salad is $18; desserts include maple-sugared donut holes with chocolate fondue, and a dark chocolate-glazed Baumkuchen; $15 each. Arrive early and enjoy an upscale, yet unpretentious lounge where the top-selling cocktail is the Sex in the Valley, made of Charbay green tea vodka, thyme, mint, cucumber, house-made lemonade and stares from uninitiated patrons when ordered.

Saving the best high-end hotel-restaurant combo for last, Las Alcobas in St. Helena was the Wine Country’s first luxury property built in eight years when opened in 2017. Six of its 68 rooms are within the restored Acacia House, a white Colonial Revival mansion that once St. Helena’s first resort hotel. The majority of Las Alcobas is built from the ground up. Decked in sleek steel, stone and wood, and clad in what must be at least 50 shades of gray, Las Alcobas is worthy of being named “trendiest hotel” in Napa and Sonoma by Fodor’s Travel. Beringer’s St. Helena Home Vineyard is the backyard of your guest room or suite, and even if cabernet sauvignon grapes aren’t in season, there’s still a picturesque view taken in from a romantic private terrace adorned with gas fire pit and soft seating. Inside, modern conveniences abound, including a top-of-the-line Toto Japanese toilet, electric black-out shades and French press complete with fresh ground gourmet coffee, premeasured, of course. The on-site signature restaurant within Acacia House has renowned San Francisco Chef Chris Cosentino (Cockscomb) at the helm. The distinguished presence of TV’s “Top Chef Masters” winner, along with an award-winning spa, complimentary chauffeured limos, adults-only policy and room rates that reach well above $2K a night contributes to this property being part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection.

Class with Class

The most recent study by marketing arm Visit Napa Valley found that wine tasting is the top activity among visitors. With over 500 wineries clustered like grapes in a valley just 30 miles long and five miles wide, that’s no surprise. Neither is what came in second: fine dining. Among Napa Valley’s 150-plus restaurants are more with Michelin stars per capita than any other wine region in the world.

Even with so much wining and dining, let alone the acres of farm and ranch land they require, Napa Valley still has room for shops, spas, art galleries, hiking trails, hot air balloons, golf courses and watersporty Lake Berryessa. Oh, and two campuses of the Culinary Institute of America, recognized as the world’s premier culinary college.

 At historic CIA at Greystone in St. Helena and The CIA at Copia in downtown Napa, budding chefs, food executives, restaurant owners and master sommeliers invest years and tens of thousands of dollars earning degrees and certificates. In just a half-day and for a few C-notes, the rest of us will get a literal taste of what it’s like to be a CIA student by taking a hands-on cooking or baking class in the type of kitchen most of us have only seen on the Food Network.

The newest CIA Skills offering, “DIY Diet,” had this writer and 14 other amateur cooks donning aprons, but not the traditional headgear to match a pair of, what I’m coining, profcheffers. Our mission was to learn by doing under chefs Joy Siemion and Caroline Wetzelberger, both CIA products. Dishes ranged from the simple – mayonnaise, vinaigrette, and fruit sorbet – to the challenging – cauliflower grits with shrimp, kale and sweet potato power bowl with avocado dressing, and dark chocolate coconut bars that had some of us scratching our heads over how dietic this meal really is. Calories schmalories -- we feasted on our classroom assignment, washing lunch down with free-flowing, non-dietic CIA-label wine. A generous gourmet meal with vino, three hours of edible education from epicurean experts, and bragging rights about taking a class at the world-famous Culinary Institute of America, all for just $140. Who says Napa is expensive?

If you go...

  • Visit Napa Valley – visitnapavalley.com
  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – cask23.com
  • Auberge du Soleil – aubergeresorts.com/aubergedusoleil
  • Carneros Resort and Spa/FARM – carnerosresort.com
  • Solbar/Solage – aubergeresorts.com/solage
  • Las Alcobas – lasalcobas.com
  • Culinary Institute of America – ciachef.edu/cia-california

Conquering Machu Picchu in Style

BY DAVID DICKSTEIN  daviddickstein1@gmail.com  |  2019-09-05

Mysterious Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is also a top bucket list destination. Photo by David Dickstein

There’s something both sacrilegious and sacrosanct doing yoga at your hotel in the very spot where an ancient civilization once lived. Coming out of a sleeping swan and downward dog inches away from 15th century ruins isn’t exactly what you had in mind by wanting to be one with the Incas when in Peru, after all. Halfway through your workout, however, any uneasiness evolves into reverence for the sun-worshipping, pre-Columbian people responsible for the real reason you traveled to Cusco, gateway to mysterious and magical Machu Picchu.

That’s one of the weird and wonderful beauties about making the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco home base for your trans-continental journey to the Peruvian Andes. Besides staying in the heart of the former capital of the Inca Empire, your deep dive into ancient history begins not with a visit to bucket list favorite Machu Picchu or the fertile Sacred Valley, but at check-in.

The hotel’s Inca ruins are below street level – there’s actually a second Inca excavation site on the 153-room property – but where the reception area sits was once the main chapel of a 16th century Augustin convent. Between the monks checking out for good in 1836 and Marriott buying and restoring the property in 2006, the building was used as an arcade of shops, a drinking hall, a bakery and a chocolate factory before earthquake damage and marring political coups made an eyesore of this otherwise fine and resilient example of colonial architecture.

Soaking up history in proximity of your Cusco hotel is how both educators and doctors recommend you begin a trip to inner Peru. Cusco, one of the ten highest cities in the world with over 100,000 in population, has an elevation of 11,152 feet above sea level, significantly higher than the point at which acute mountain altitude sickness can occur due to less oxygen being available. Allowing the body to acclimate to the drop in air pressure before engaging in serious sightseeing is highly suggested for at least the first 24 hours; your layover in Lima doesn’t count because Peru’s capital, like most of Southern California, is near sea level.

Some of Cusco’s finer hotels proactively come to your two-mile-high rescue with a jar of dried coca leaves in the lobby to chew or, more likely, make tea. Although illegal to bring home to the States, coca is a mild stimulant that contains only a miniscule amount of cocaine, just enough to clear a throbbing head and help with breathing without the euphoria and psychoactive effects associated with the near-universally taboo alkaloid. Whereas coca has cured altitude sickness for 4,500 years, a much more recent remedy for which the Incas can’t take credit is oxygen-enriched hotels. Every room at the JW Marriott has this system flowing through built-in vents, while the nearby Belmond Hotel Monasterio, despite being about twice the price, only has this amenity in units of certain categories. My setting was at full blast all four nights. Whether it was that, a complimentary bowl of chicken soup and pot of coca tea that room service brought within a minute of settling in, a prescription of Diamox (generically acetazolamide) started two days prior to the trip, not drinking alcohol the first day as recommended, or the combination, this resilient guy would have made the Incas proud the entire trip.



Safe, Swanky Sightseeing


                Travel funds notwithstanding, going five-star in countries where the Centers for Disease Control has advisories for such basic things as tap water isn’t a bad idea. Either is booking with major chains, and for this hygiene-wary globetrotter, my rule of well-traveled thumb is to stay, eat and ride on the highest-rated product budgetarily possible.

As for getting to Machu Picchu, nothing touches the Belmond Hiram Bingham train for luxury, safety and ease. Five-star, Orient Express-type treatment for the approximate 3-hour ride costs about a grand per person, more than double that of other packages with similar inclusions: rail service between the Cusco area and Aguas Calientes, a bus that makes 20-minute runs to and from there and the Machu Picchu entrance, a ticket into the sprawling iconic sanctuary and an English-speaking tour guide.

On the outside, the shiny, blue Hiram Bingham train looks comparable to the more economical PeruRail and its on-par competitor, the lighter-hued Inca Rail. Inside the 1920s-style Pullman carriage, and accounting for the tangibles and intangibles of going first-class, the differences are vast – Ritz-Carlton versus Ramada Inn vast. No company is flawless, but I doubt the horror stories overheard on the nine-hour flight from Lima to L.A. – from going to the wrong station and missing the train to being refused entrance due to a ticket screw-up – would have happened had they not been centimo-wise and sol-foolish.

The crew of the Hiram Bingham, named for the American explorer who rediscovered the Inca citadel in 1911, appreciates that this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the guests. Gourmet lunch and dinner are served at your private, white-clothed-covered table. Live music adds to the ambiance of a bar car and connected observatory car gleaming with polished wood and brass. Afternoon high tea at the stately Belmond Sanctuary Lodge Hotel at the entrance of Machu Picchu is an exquisite time to recharge and reflect. Lovely as that all is, each element justifying the high cost, priceless are the process and personal attention that ensure a memorable experience where the only surprise is how even more taken aback you are upon that first view, which until now had only had seen in books and the Travel Channel.

Whether you go by rail, bus or foot, by way of the now-highly regulated Inca Trail, Machu Picchu is a sight to behold for the maximum 2,500 visitors allowed in per day. The site remains shrouded in mystery as the true purpose of Machu Picchu has never been fully established. Most agree that the “Lost City of the Incas” was built as an estate for Emperor Pachacuti, who ruled from 1438 to 1471, but little else is known mainly because the Incas didn’t have a written language that would have left clues on their disappearance, let alone details of their beliefs and culture. This enigma has added to its attraction.


Side Trips and Side Dishes


                Cusco is much more than the gateway to Machu Picchu. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and part of the reason is just a short walk from the JW Marriott and other quality lodging in the central part of town. Cusco’s main square, the bustling Plaza de Armas, is home to the emblematic Cusco Cathedral in addition to the ornate Church La Compania de Jesus, countless roaming vendors, a KFC for homesick Americans, and some stellar people watching.

An hour’s drive away is the Sacred Valley, which makes for a strong No. 2 attraction from Cusco, much like the role Agra Fort plays to must-see Taj Mahal for New Delhi area tourism. Devoting a day or two to the fertile Sacred Valley can reward visitors with an even greater appreciation of Incan innovation than Machu Picchu. Mesmerizing are the well-preserved large stone terraces that form Ollantaytambo, once a stronghold of Inca resistance to Spanish colonization. Pisac is a colonial town that becomes slightly less charming on Sunday mornings when hordes of tourists join hundreds of decked-out locals to create one of the liveliest markets in Peru. Showcases of early civil, hydro and agricultural engineering are found at the salt mines of Maras, still producing under strict local ownership. Notice the homes with long sticks with balled-up red plastic jutting out from the front. Those are chicherias, and the wooden rods indicate that the owner hasn’t run out of the region’s popular homemade fermented corn brew. Requiring an acquired taste, one sip of chicha should do ya. Fields of waving quinoa, barley and corn line the road on the way to a remarkable archeological site in Moray. Whether you gaze from above or get a closer look on a moderately strenuous hike, stunning are the circular terraced depressions of this Incan agricultural lab. Each level has its own microclimate where different crops were grown at varying conditions. Pure genius.

                Thanks to the Incas and the Chanapata, Qotacalla, Killke and Wari civilizations before them, the richly soiled Sacred Valley remains a major hub for produce and fish farming to the benefit of Cusco’s vibrant culinary scene. Its influence is felt – and tasted -- from the cultivated trout, onion, peppers, corn and sweet potato used for the classic namesake dish at Ceviche Seafood Kitchen to the vegetables personally selected at the San Pedro public market by the JW Marriott’s newly promoted executive chef. Jonathan Campos’ finds are destined for his thrice-weekly cooking class, free to guests, and the hotel’s signature restaurant, Qespi, home of the smoked chocolate old fashioned. Don’t be shocked if roasted guinea pig is on his revamped menu; cuy is a traditional entree in South American Andean culture. Tastes like rabbit.

                Speaking of adorable and appetizing animals, alpaca, the fluffy South American relative to the camel, is as famous for the soft wool produced from its fur as it is a favorite source of protein in their native lands of the high Andes. It becomes clear why after polishing off a plate of lip-smacking chorizo de alpaca in Urubamba. Probably best to talk just about the wool around the festively adorned alpaca that welcomes guests to the JW. Panchita has red meat lower in cholesterol than chicken, and is higher in iron than beef, but she also has feelings.


If You Go ….



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SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - If California Assembly Bill 5, currently making its way through the California Senate, is enacted without amendment, thousands of travel advisors in California and across the country will no longer have the option of rendering their services as independent business owners to the agencies that currently engage them, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA).
Like numerous other industries, travel agencies have come to rely heavily on the services of independent contractors, and this arrangement provides substantial benefits to both independent advisors and the agencies engaging them. Specifically, agencies gain a measure of flexibility where traditional employment relationships are either impractical or uneconomical, while advisors have the freedom to set their own hours and schedules, establish their own rates, select the customers with whom they will work and market their own brands.
Unfortunately, however, recent developments have put this mutually advantageous system at great risk.  Last year, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 4 Cal. 5th 903 (2018), in which the Court adopted the so-called “ABC Test” to determine a worker’s status as either an employee or an independent contractor for purposes of wage order claims.  In doing so, the Court overturned the common law “right of control” test established in the Borello decision upon which travel agencies and businesses in hundreds of other industries in California had relied upon for nearly three decades.
Recently, the American Society of Travel Advisors conducted an industry survey in order to assess the likely impact of this harmful legislation on the independent contractor community.  The preliminary results paint a clear picture.
First, this is an established industry that is about to be thrown into upheaval by Assembly Bill 5. More than half of independent contractors (ICs) have been in their role for more than seven years.
The vast majority of respondents to our survey (85%) are very satisfied with their status as an IC and 93% of independent advisors reported that the freedom to set their own hours and work schedules was an important factor in choosing the IC business model.
If required by law to become agency employees, 41% of independent advisors responded that they would choose to leave the industry or leave the state for one that allows them the flexibility they currently have.
Now Assembly Bill 5, currently pending before the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee, aims to codify the holding in the Dynamex decision, making the ABC Test applicable to nearly everyone in every industry in the state.  Because in most cases traditional travel agencies engaging workers to sell travel will be unable to satisfy the ABC Test, passage the bill would mean that thousands of independent advisors will no longer have the option of rendering their services as independent business owners to the agencies that currently engage them.
As the bill has moved through the legislature, exemptions have already been added for insurance agents, physicians, dentists, direct salespersons, real estate agents, barbers, architects, and others.
While the Senate considers Assembly Bill 5, it is critical that it be amended to clearly state that workers engaged to sell travel in the travel agency industry will be evaluated under the standard in place in California for nearly 30 years prior to the Dynamex decision.
Rebranded in 2018 as the American Society of Travel Advisors, ASTA is the leading global advocate for travel advisors, the travel industry and the traveling public. Its members represent 80 percent of all travel sold in the United States through the travel agency distribution channel. Together with hundreds of internationally-based members, ASTA’s history of industry advocacy traces back to its founding in 1931 when it launched with the mission to facilitate the business of selling travel through effective representation, shared knowledge and the enhancement of professionalism. For more information about the Society, visit ASTA.org. Consumers can connect with an ASTA travel advisor at TravelSense.org.

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Lake Tahoe’s Relaxing Side Points North

By David Dickstein  |  2019-06-12

Kings Beach at the upper-most section of North Shore, has some of that side’s best boutique shopping. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe/Ryan Salm

Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and is 42 trillion gallons full. As California’s second-largest lake and the nation’s second-deepest, the scope of statistics associated with this body of water is as lengthy as its surface area (192 miles). One piece of data you won’t find on a list of Lake Tahoe facts, however, is how vast the difference is between North Shore and South Shore.

Answer: Worlds apart.

Each side has a distinct vibe and contrasting tangibles. Enjoy being part of a crowd? South is best. Sour on urban sprawl? The sparser North is the ticket. Want nightlife? Party down in the South. Feeling lucky? Towering Harrah’s, Harvey’s, Hard Rock and MontBleu are all in South Shore, though “gaming” isn’t completely foreign in the north. Need a lift? The North has the highest concentration of ski resorts, but the South is no slouch with Heavenly and Kirkwood. Looking to relax? Well, if the North was an herbal tea, it would be chamomile.

The casino-dotted South Shore woos the majority of Tahoe’s estimated 24 million annual visitors, the bulk driving in from the Sacramento and San Francisco areas. The rest settle in between Tahoma on the West Shore to Sand Harbor on the East Shore. Few take in both shores on a single vacation. Maybe it’s the two hours of driving roundtrip to and from the extreme points, or a desire to not mix atmospheres.

Having done Tahoe a dozen or so times over the decades, always on the South Shore, this native Californian has recently benefited from some refreshing and enlightening northern exposure. Let’s hit the main vacation categories.

Alpine Accommodations

On the high end, and we don’t mean just being 6,250 feet above sea level, there’s a Ritz-Carlton nestled mid-mountain on the Northstar ski resort, considered by many as California’s best. Those five stars get you nothing ritzier on either shore, but no closer than a 20-minute drive to and from the water. Dropping a star gets you the waterfront Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, North Shore’s premiere hotel-casino in Incline Village.

As you’d expect from a major Alpine destination, lodging of all shapes, sizes and prices are found on both sides of the state line. On the California side, Cedar Crest Cottages is an unassuming gem on low-key West Shore. This quaint, family-owned inn has nine recently renovated units, all named for a bird with hanging pictures to match. Located across the street from a shared beach, Cedar Crest is a great property for those who want rustic, yet contemporary, non-chain, yet strict on standards. Cottages of one, two and three bedrooms, all private with lockable doors, feature a fully equipped kitchen, washing machine and dryer, living area and the most modern blackout drapes this pitch-dark-needing sleeper has ever seen – Hunter Douglas, not cheap. Cedar Crest Cottages feels more like a woodsy timeshare than motor lodge, so you’re trading such amenities as an adjacent restaurant for, say, a romantic firepit. It’s also located a 10-minute drive from a real town, so plan ahead for late-night hungries. Rates for a one-bedroom range from $260 to $320 a night with a two-night minimum.

Lakefront Fare

Ask a local or a seasoned North Shore visitor for restaurant recommendations, and the same names always come up. Here’s a quick take based on personal experiences at the most cited:

Gar Woods Grill & Pier, Carnelian Bay – Prices are about $5-10 more per entrée than the North Shore competition, but it’s so worth it when that gets you the whole package of laid-back fine dining, a most hospitable and competent staff, a fun, rum-favoring bar menu and a stunning bayside view and pier from a heater-ready outside deck. Loved making supper of two starters: pomegranate-glazed pork ribs ($20) and shrimp and lobster bisque ($13). The prime rib French dip with gruyere ($22) also was generous enough for dinner. Gar Woods’ signature drink, the “world-famous” and copyrighted Wet Woody, is an improved rum runner. Open for lunch and dinner.

Jake’s on the Lake, Tahoe City – The grilled Ora King salmon in miso broth ($36) and wild seabass with ginger saffron coconut risotto ($34) called to us on the carnivore-catering dinner menu and didn’t disappoint. Wonderful panoramic views of the marina.

Lone Eagle Grille, Incline Village – The Hyatt Regency’s top restaurant offers lakefront views while dining off a diverse lunch or dinner menu. Winning picks include the ahi poke with avocado and wakame salad, and a day boat scallop salad with toasted pine nuts and a champagne vinaigrette.

Fire Sign Café, Tahoe City – Expansive breakfast and lunch menus with a heaping of inviting specials, including savory crepes in the morning and a breaded chicken sandwich with homemade chipotle aioli in the afternoon. Just don’t ask to substitute a pecan waffle for pancakes with the “Cakes & Eggs Combo” ($13), even if offering to pay the $1.50 difference. That’s greeted with a flat “no.” Why? “Because the computer isn’t set up that way,” said the unapologetic server. So much for the laminated card on everyone’s table telling patrons that the restaurant’s “number one priority is to provide great service” and “dining with us today means that you are part of the Fire Sign family.” Decent food, but they sure waffle on their pledge, pecan or otherwise.

Rosie’s Café, Tahoe City – Great vibe, great grub and great décor. Vintage knickknacks hang from the eatery’s two-story rafters, keeping hungry eyes busy until the food arrives. The breakfast and lunch menus are comparable to Fire Sign’s, but Rosie’s also serves dinner, from real fried chicken to Italian schnitzel (both $17.49). Plus, they’ll happily substitute a waffle for a pancake without charge or attitude.

Explore North Shore

Engaging in outdoor recreation, be the activity dry, wet or icy, is way more serene on North Shore, even in the peak seasons of winter and summer. So is playing tourist when not snow skiing, water skiing, hiking, boating, sunbathing, swimming, paddleboarding, cycling, rafting, parasailing and many other -ings.

Attractions-wise, one of North Shore’s best-kept secrets, except to Lake Tahoe’s elite, local historians and the lucky schoolchildren who come here on field trips, is Thunderbird Lodge. George Whittell Jr. – millionaire, recluse, eccentric, philanderer, speed demon, lover of exotic animals – built this six-acre property on East Shore starting in 1936. He was no Sarah Winchester, but construction was certainly unusual and fairly constant until his death in 1969. Perched above a sandy beach, the main house, built of stone and by mostly local high schoolers, is an oddity like the rest of the place – a cross between Hearst Castle and Michael Jackson’s Neverland. But beyond the mansion, the Lighthouse Room, the opium den and servant’s quarters with the original kitchen, is a 600-foot-long tunnel leading to a boathouse where, when it’s not out for a spin, is arguably Whittell’s priced possession.

Any boat that can overshadow the pet elephant and lion who once trumpeted and roared on the estate, has got to be special. Thunderbird, the legendary wooden speedboat built for him in 1940, was just that. Twin 1,100-horsepower Allison engines — the same used in World War II fighter planes – power this double-planked mahogany beauty that entertained presidents and the Hollywood elite before its present-day role of serving as a floating fund-raiser for the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.

 Tours of this National Register Historic Site are given every day but Mondays through Oct. 19. The 75-minute walking tour costs $45 for adults, $19 for children 6 to 12. If you want to add some specialty wine and cheese to your visit, a better bet for the 21 and older set might be the $100 tours offered at 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays from July 9 through Oct. 18.

Other attractions include a maritime museum, science center, ropes course and walkable cute, little towns with browsable cute, little shops – favorites being Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Incline Village and the proud host of the VIII Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley.

If You Go ….

North Lake Tahoe Visitor Bureau – 888-434-1262; www.gotahoenorth.com

Cedar Crest Cottages – 530-412-9222; www.cedarcrestcottages.com

Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site – 800-468-2463 (for tours); www.thunderbirdtahoe.org

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Enjoy the Authentic and Historic Train Ride Experience

By Traci Rockefeller Cusack   |  2019-03-27

Announcing a new season of weekend excursion train rides along the Old Sacramento Waterfront that start 4/6-7. Courtesy of Kelly B. Huston

Excursion Train Rides Resume on April 6 & 7

SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - Presenting the only train ride experience behind an authentic, historic locomotive in the Sacramento area, California State Parks and the California State Railroad Museum & Foundation are proud to offer history-rich weekend excursion trains on the Sacramento Southern Railroad that begin on April 6 & 7, 2019. Each weekend through September 2019, guests can enjoy relaxing and memorable excursion train rides along the picturesque Sacramento River and Old Sacramento Waterfront pulled by either the vintage steam locomotive Granite Rock No. 10 or a historic diesel locomotive, depending on the weekend.

Diesel or steam, excursion train ride guests delight in the sights, smells and sounds of an authentic, historic locomotive as it rolls along the levees of the Sacramento River for a six-mile, 45-minute roundtrip excursion. Appealing to all ages, the experience offers guests the chance to enjoy train travel from an earlier era. The train features a combination of vintage closed coaches with comfortable seats, open-air “gondolas” with bench style seating or VIP train ride experiences onboard one of three of the California State Railroad Museum’s first class cars (depending on the weekend): the El Dorado lounge observation car, the Audubon dining car or the French Quarter lounge car from the 1950s that served the famed Southern Pacific “Sunset Limited” service.

Weekend excursion train ride tickets are available and encouraged to book online in advance at  www.californiarailroad.museum/visit/excursion-train-rides or can be purchased in-person starting at 10:30 a.m. the day of the train ride (based on availability). Weekend excursion trains depart from the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot (on Front between J & K Streets) on-the-hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. From July 6 through September 2, an adjusted summer schedule takes effect with trains running on-the-hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (if summer temperatures reach 100 degrees or higher, trains may be cancelled for the remainder of that day).

Regular excursion train tickets cost $12 for adults, $6 for youths (ages 6-17), and ages five and under ride free. For passengers desiring a first-class train ride experience, tickets cost $24 for adults, $16 for youths and are free for children five and under. First-class train tickets often sell out early so guests are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance. Groups interested in reserving the entire VIP car for a regularly scheduled ride need to do so in advance by calling 916-322-7112. 

For more information about the weekend excursion train rides or the California State Railroad Museum in general, please call 916-323-9280 or visit www.californiarailroad.museum.

The mission of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation (CSRMF) is to generate revenue and awareness on behalf of its destinations, while supporting the preservation, interpretation and promotion of our railroad heritage. The Foundation provides funding for ongoing support of numerous programs, both at the museum's Old Sacramento location and at the historic park in Jamestown, California.
Source: T-Rock Communications

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New Carnival Panorama to Set Sail from California

By David Dickstein  |  2019-02-13

The 4,000-passenger Carnival Panorama, currently being built in Italy, makes Long Beach its home port in December. Photo courtesy Carnival Cruises

First New Ship in 21 Years Key to #1 Cruise Line’s West Coast Push

Sacramento cruisers, you might want to look into those non-stop flights from SMF to Long Beach because this fall you’re going to want to say “ahoy” to the Carnival Panorama. Come early December, the new 4,000-passenger ship will replace the 3,100-passenger Carnival Splendor, which was built a decade ago at the same Italian shipyard where the unfinished Panorama is now.

Exchanging a 10-year-old European import for the latest model straight off the assembly line is rare for a market used to having older ships homeported here. In fact, 21 years and five class generations have passed since Carnival delivered a new ship to our Pacific shores – the Finnish-built Carnival Elation that is about half the capacity and interior space of the new vessel earmarked for Long Beach.

Sweetening the already good news, Southwest and JetBlue offer non-stop flights to Long Beach from Sacramento International Airport.

As the still-active Elation did when it first arrived, the Panorama will take fun-seeking passengers on 7-day sails to the Mexican Riviera, but not before making a special 3-day maiden voyage to Ensenada on Dec. 11. The Splendor will have bid adios by then. Once the largest ship in the fleet, the Splendor will end her run of weekly jaunts to Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán on Oct. 5, the same day she embarks on a 24-day repositioning voyage to Singapore for a new life based in Australia. So that regional cruisers aren’t left hanging, the Carnival Miracle will make five week-long roundtrips south of the border from Oct. 12 to Nov. 23 before the Panorama makes her grand and historic debut.

Just months away from a sea test at the Fincantieri shipyard near Venice, Italy, the Panorama is the third vessel in Carnival’s Vista Class, following the 2-year-old Carnival Vista and 10-month-old Carnival Horizon. It will not only be Carnival’s largest ship – by a few tons and a few people at capacity – but the largest year-round ship ever based in Southern California. Long Beach Cruise Terminal will be her home, sharing Pier H with Carnival’s short-itinerary Imagination and Inspiration through at least May 2021.

For Carnival, vying for dominance in California with Princess, Norwegian and Holland America, homeporting a new ship in Long Beach is just the – pardon the inappropriate choice of idiom – tip of the iceberg in the company’s latest investment in the West Coast market.

“There’s a level of value seeking and sophistication shared by people who cruise out of Long Beach, so it makes good business sense to offer a brand-new ship for 7-day cruises and two fully refurbished older ships for shorter sails,” said Lee Mason, cruise director of the Splendor. “Carnival is strengthening its position in California with the Panorama and many other ways, including an upgraded port.

Gearing up for the Panorama’s debut, Carnival more than doubled space for embarking and disembarking passengers at its unique geodesic dome-shaped facility next to the permanently docked RMS Queen Mary. The dome, originally built to house Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose seaplane, is now all Carnival’s thanks to the multimillion-dollar expansion opened to much fanfare last February. Southlanders now have another gateway to Hawaii and the Panama Canal with Carnival’s announcement that the 2,124-passenger Miracle, the ship that the Splendor replaced for longer Mexican Riviera cruises out of Long Beach a year ago, will sail to those destinations and Mexico from San Diego – ending a seven-year absence there – starting in December. The Miracle will have a second California home starting next year. From March 2020 through winter 2021, the ship will migrate between San Diego and San Francisco, a new port for the 47-year-old cruise line, offering voyages to Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii out of the busiest cruise terminal in the Bay Area.

The first voyages related to all these West Coast-datelined announcements don’t set sail until late fall, but because bookings are underway, so is the marketing around Carnival’s growth in the Golden State. The company’s first float in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day featured a 55-foot-long replica of the 1,055-foot Panorama, complete with working trampolines for reasons to be explained later. The year-old Carnival AirShip soared over major California metropolises, including Sacramento, throughout January.

These promotions and the strength of a reinforced fleet have Carnival feeling ship-shape to bolster its presence in the Golden State.

“Carnival has been operating from Southern California for decades, and it’s one of our most popular and important markets, accounting for 600,000 guests a year,” said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen. “The fact that we’re deploying a brand-new ship and launching new programs in San Diego and San Francisco speaks volumes about our confidence in the future of California cruising.”

Out with the Old, In with the New

When Capt. Carlo Queirolo and his crew of nearly 1,400 travel the 10,759 nautical miles from Marghera, Italy to the Port of Long Beach, crossing six seas, two oceans, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Panama Canal to get here, they will bring with them 133,500 tons of cruise innovation. Some will be of the likes never before seen on the West Coast and one so completely new to ocean travel, passengers will be jumping up and down with delight.

The first trampoline park at sea will feature a 12-lane court also used for playing bouncy basketball and dodgeball. Partnering with Sky Zone, a Los Angeles-based chain of indoor family centers, Carnival is replacing space occupied by a three-deck IMAX Theater, also a maritime first, on the two existing Vista Class ships. An up-charge, Panorama’s Sky Zone Park also will be fitted with such physical challenges as a rock-climbing wall and oversized, stackable soft blocks for toddlers.

Ways to work off the buffet without paying extra money include the Vista Class-exclusive SkyRide, an outdoor, self-peddled roller-coaster bike ride; the SkyCourse ropes circuit; and a massive water park with two distinctly different waterslides.

Digging into the food a bit more, the Panorama has something the Splendor doesn’t: Guy’s Burger Joint. The 5- to 10-pound weight gain generally accepted as average for a 7-day cruise can easily be attributed to this poolside eatery overseen by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Try the Pig Patty or Chilius Maximus with extra Donkey Sauce and dare prove otherwise. Adding to the guilty pleasure is it’s included in the fare, unlike Johnny Rocket’s on Royal Caribbean ships. Other food bars and restaurants feature Mexican, deli, sushi, teppanyaki, barbecue, beachy comfort seafood and 24-hour pizza. Also onboard are an elegant steakhouse, Italian trattoria and two main dining rooms.

The Panorama will have three more bars and lounges than the Splendor, including the exotic and intimate Havana Bar which, found only on Vista Class ships and Carnival Sunshine, pours Cuban-style cocktails and coffee with Latin dance music to match after sunset. As for the ship’s other 24 watering holes, worth noting for martini aficionados is the Alchemy Bar, and for beer lovers there’s Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse and Brewhouse. Yep, the ship has a brewery.

Where you sleep it off can also be a bit different with Vista Class. Among the 34 grades of cabins is an exclusive Havana section with tropics-inspired staterooms for guests 12 and older. Located near the Havana Bar (of course), this area offers a members-only pool by day and cabanas with hammocks. Also new is the all-ages, nautical-themed Family Harbor area that provides a hangout with large TVs and complimentary breakfast and snacks only for occupants of these 86 staterooms. Cloud 9 Spa cabins have access to private spa facilities. The Panorama will have 1,832 passenger cabins in all.

Unique to Vista Class ships, Panorama’s interior focal point will be a 24-foot-tall, funnel-shaped sculpture called “Dreamscape.” Towering three decks, the artwork’s centerpiece has over 2,000 flexible LED tiles that are customized for the shipboard environment. Each day, technicians program the rotating artwork based on the time of day, cruise port of call or special occasion.

Fares for a 7-day Mexican Riviera cruise on the Panorama this winter start at $529 per person. For further information, visit carnival.com or call 800-764-7419.

David Dickstein is a Gold River resident and accredited by the Society of American Travel Writers. He can be reached at daviddickstein1@gmail.com

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Four Perfect Days in Puerto Vallarta

By David Dickstein  |  2018-11-20

The luxurious Grand Miramar offers stunning views of Banderas Bay. Photo by David Dickstein

Puerto Vallarta’s 3 million international visitors who arrive by air annually aren’t teased like the 300,000 who come by ship and don’t get to stay the night or longer. Cruises are great, but when passengers are given a measly 6 or 7 hours to explore a port as easy to love as this friendly, safe and beachy jewel south of the border, sail away is like pulling the Mexican rug out from under them.

If only cruise passengers had more time. Well, that’s what a next vacation is for. So, for them and others who have never truly explored this Conde Nast Traveler “Best Cities in the World” winner, do we have four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta for you.

Day 1

            Your airport shuttle has taken you to the Grand Miramar, where you happily trade the hustle and bustle of downtown for tranquil luxury in the exclusive Conchas Chinas neighborhood. The hilltop location of your accommodations requires using the shuttle service to and from the beach and town, but any inconvenience is forgotten with every stunning view of Banderas Bay from your suite and the property’s understatedly elegant restaurants and bars.

            The six or seven hours in the air from Sacramento have you hungry, and wanting to start your Mexican getaway right, only eating among the locals will do. The street food from all those taco stands downtown smells great, but there’s apprehension over American health laws not being enforced because, well, you’re in Mexico. Good thing you booked “The Street – An Evening Taco Adventure Tour” with Vallarta Food Tours. A street-wise English-speaking guide takes you and a small group by foot and public bus to a handful of stands you can trust. All vendors must have a permit at least six years old to participate, and they need to demonstrate a unique flair for curbside cooking. At the first stop, a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Joe Jack’s Fish Shack in the Romantic Zone, you’re enticed with a red snapper taco that goes well with avocado and habanero salsa. It’s amazing, and just before the heat travels to the back of your throat, you wash it down with a shot of mezcalini, a refreshing cocktail best described as a cross between a margarita and a mojito. Other than a stop at Vallarta Chocolate Factory for a quick sample, the rest of your 3 1/2-hour tour is strictly street food. By the end of your eighth tasting of another full-sized taco, this one birria, or goat, you find yourself stuffed like a pinata for Las Posadas. $50; nightly except Wednesdays.

            Before calling it a noche, you head up to the Grand Miramar’s ultra-chic rooftop lounge, The Gin Joint, the highest point on beautiful Banderas Bay. The epic view from your comfy couch, lit by candle and moon, is the perfect outdoor setting to enjoy a signature tamarind margarita or passion fruit gin martini.

Day 2

            Still full from the downtown delicacies of the night before, not to mention the midnight tapas you somehow made room for at the rooftop bar, you’re fine skipping breakfast for morning snacks aboard your catamaran en route to Las Caletas, a private beach paradise on the south shore of Banderas Bay. Besides, you’ll be chowing down plenty once there as a seafood paella cooking demonstration, guacamole and pico de gallo cooking lesson and incredible buffet await, along with full-service hosted bars. A wide variety of activities also are included in your 6 1/2-hour “Las Caletas Beach Hideaway” with Vallarta Adventures. Stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, snorkel gear, hiking trails, animal encounters, clay modeling and an adventure cove lure you away from a perfectly positioned lounge chair. Up-charge options range from marine life encounters to flyboarding. The blowing of a conch shell beckons you to the dock, but the 12-mile sail back home is fun, too, thanks an open bar and hilarious show by the crew. $139; daily.

            After a refresh and some down time at the hotel, you take a cab to Playa Los Muertos for appetizers and dinner at two great finds minutes and worlds apart. Seated under a namesake shelter at La Palapa, you’re delighted by the bar menu and starters of coconut shrimp, lobster and shrimp taquitos and seared scallops influenced by Mexican, French and Asian elements. Calling La Palapa the Mama’s Fish House of Puerto Vallarta would not be insulting to the restaurant considered by many as the best on Maui. Very similar décor and vibe shared by both, although La Palapa is easily half the price and, established in 1959, is 14 years older. Not even a year old is where you’ve made dinner reservations. Your walk of a single block has you at Medregal. The positive buzz around this hip eatery is justified in large part to chef Fernando Sanchez’s innovative menu that puts a twist on traditional Jalisco cuisine. The mahi mahi served in a banana leaf and topped with yellow mole sauce is a winner, as is the cochinita pabil, a traditional Mexican recipe headlined by shredded pork marinated in orange juice.

            Not quite ready to pack it in, you head to the Malecon, a mile-long shoreline promenade that hugs downtown. By night it’s one big party. You check out the clubs that befit your style, working off Medregal’s killer guanabana pie you had for dessert with some hot moves on the bar’s lively terrace. A taxi takes you back to your hotel, where you mentally dance yourself to sleep doing the cha cha, cumbia, merengue, salsa and samba – all to perfection, of course.      

Day 3

            This is your day to relax at the hotel and beach, so enjoy! Just remember to be ready in time for your big night. Yeah, another one. But tonight you’re wearing the finest threads you brought.

            A twilight stroll along the Malecon is a lovely way to ease into your special dinner. And what a meal it’s going to be. Café des Artistes, 27 years young, is one of Mexico’s most revered and gorgeous restaurants. Storm-free evenings beg for a table in the lush, romantically lit garden, but with showers in the forecast, you’re seated in a cozy room inside. Glass raindrops hang from the ceiling – sophisticated, yet whimsical and anything but pretentious. You’re living large, about to experience chef-founder Thierry Blouet’s six-course tasting menu with wine. Fresh mahi mahi and watermelon tartar leads to roasted eggplant au miso. Salmon scallops in green mole transition to suckling lamb. Then come the cheese tasting and piece de la resistance, the OMG-worthy chocolate spiral with coffee panna cotta, cardamom ice cream and fresh cream. The numbing effect of the perfectly paired wines helps at check time, and how nice that Monsieur Blouet stops by to personally thank you.

            You return to your hotel fat, happy and exhausted.

Day 4

Other than breakfast at the hotel, this morning’s feast is for the eyes, not the stomach. Today you’re taking a self-guided art walk of the city’s famous al fresco bronze sculptures that line the Malecon. You hardly recognize the paved boardwalk from last night. Fun seekers and loud techno music have been replaced by tip-seeking street musicians, talented artists and annoying vendors all hoping to score some of your American dollars. Perusing the ornate sculptures, you eavesdrop on an English-speaking tour group that’s learning about each work, the most popular also the first ever installed: Rafael Zamarripa’s “Caballero del Mar,” or “The Seahorse.” After some nasty stares from the paying guests, you walk up Calle Allende for three blocks when a gallery specializing in ancestral contemporary art catches your eye. Within Colectika are works from regional artists, many hailing from remote villages in the Sierra Madre Mountains who express old traditions in a whole new light. Canadian ex-pat Kevin Simpson, who also owns the nearby Peyote People Gallery, is full of great stories. You want to hear the one about his friendship with the mountain woman who inspired the grandma character in the animated feature “Coco,” but cocoa is next on your packed itinerary.

            At the Choco Museum Puerto Vallarta, anyone can be a confectioner. Five different workshops are offered at an awesome-smelling downtown location that opened in June 2017. You chose the most popular, a two-hour experience called “Bean to Bar.” After a horticulture and history lesson, you and your fellow bakers roast and grind cocoa beans to prepare three chocolate drinks, none of which delight your American sweet tooth. Also unremarkable are the dark chocolates you got to take with you – too bitter is that batch. At least you had fun pouring the pre-blended mixture into molds and adding your own toppings before the cooling stage. $34; three times daily.

For your last night in PV, dinner is at the best-reviewed new restaurant in the Marina Zone. Refreshed from some down time at the hotel, you take a half-hour taxi ride to Tintoque, a year-old gem from chef Joel Ornelas. You and your waiter chose right, going with the heirloom tomatoes appetizer with pesto ice cream; shared main entrees of strained tamale with shrimp caritas in adobo sauce, Baja California-caught escolar drizzled with smoked pineapple puree, and pasilla-crusted beef steak; and for dessert, it’s cheesecake and chocolate cake. Pure heaven.

You head back to your hotel to pack for the next morning’s flight home, looking on your calendar to find time for another four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta.

If You Go ….

Puerto Vallarta Official Tourist Guide – visitpuertovallarta.com

Grand Miramar Hotel & Spa – grandmiramar.com

Vallarta Food Tours – vallartafoodtours.com

Vallarta Adventures – vallarta-adventures.com

Café des Artistes – cafedesartistes.com

Tintoque – tintoque.mx

La Palapa – lapalapapv.com

Cacao Museum – chocomuseo.com

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