Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Local Wineries/ Tasting Rooms

The best way to come back from vacation is to ease into life with a couple relaxing home day trips or weekend getaways. Immediately following my vacation to the Caribbean, I visited my dear friend in Phoenix and she took me to a couple of local tasting rooms. I finally made my way home to find my husband had scheduled a couple visits to local wineries in our part of the country.
There are so many great things about visiting tasting rooms. The opportunity to sample local wines seems obvious. There is also the opportunity to meet people that know the area and can tell you about the wines, and the history of the area as well. These experts are well versed, not only in the vineyards, but in travel and other extensions which flow from the intertwined experiences; Wine Art Music Life.
It is a great way to meet other wine connoisseurs and share experiences with local people that have the same interests.

We drove a scenic 90 minutes out of the Phoenix area to visit tasting rooms in neighboring cities Cottonwood, and Jerome, AZ. I will say the cactus trees which lined parts of the highway were breathtaking and worth the trip itself. If you have not been out of the Phoenix metro area, take the time to treat yourself to breathtaking views and possibly one of the best road trips I have ever experienced. Fairly quickly, we found ourselves at The Pillsbury Wine Company/ Tasting Room in Cottonwood, AZ. It was a short 15-20 minute drive to Jerome where we found a few more local tasting rooms including The Echo Canyon Winery/ Tasting Room.

Both locations greeted us with genuinely nice hosts. Knowledgeable, not only of the wines, but also of the area and of other wineries and activities. It was a joy to speak to both these young men as they shared our day, asked about our wine preferences and helped us choose great wines to sample and to order. The gentleman at the Pillsbury Tasting room actually had a handy atlas which he used with regularity and with ease as we spoke of different wine regions, as well as places we have traveled and are looking forward to tasting wines in the future. The wines we tasted were subtle and light -- a great way to start our Arizona wine tour.

The Echo Canyon Tasting room was a bit more social, with a more, bar-like structure. The young man who guided our tasting knew a lot about the area and shared stories as he poured and engaged all the patrons simultaneously. I am akin to reds, but found myself trying a few new whites simply to enhance my vino vocabulary and to get out of my self-imposed rut. Both tasting rooms offered the opportunity to do this with no regrets. Both places were inviting and provided a lovely afternoon experience along with wonderful wines to sample.

In Virginia, where I have recently moved - the town of Middleburg, VA is littered with wineries and tasting rooms - we visited Stone Tower Estate winery, and Greenhill winery & vineyards. Middleburg Virginia is like stepping back in time to old plantations and white gloved service. The estates are vast and vibrant with history.
Greenhill Winery Tasting Room
 
The area is green and lush, and the vineyards are reminiscent of the vineyards in Napa Valley.
We chose a beautiful day to sit outside and enjoy a couple glasses of wine after our tastings, and I will say, I did not realize how much charm Virginia had until that day. the sun, the horses, the wineries. I'll say, the experience transcended all modern day technologies and will take you right back to the 1900's when you could just picture the horse drawn carriages and the country club boys headed to the golf courses. It was a very upscale feel at every winery we attended.**

Greenhill winery was on beautiful grounds and had very light wines. I enjoyed them all, but could do with or without them in my life. There was nothing that stood out about any of them. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly, ad when we went to visit the members only clubhouse, the climate was inviting and the grounds were lush and spacious. It was nice to see the horses about the grounds which added an air of luxury and familial connection.

Stone Tower Winery had a more open feel - wood and barns, and acres and acres of grapevines and landscape. The wines were rich and full bodied and I could only think how centuries would pass and people will still be drinking these wines. A tradition is being built here and I was happy to be a part of it, and I can't wait to share this experience with everyone who comes to visit this region. I felt something very Napa about this experience and the wine was tremendously impressive, much like the grounds and the conglomerate. The attention to detail which has gone into the design of the grounds and the tasting room itself is well thought out and brilliantly executed.

Both wineries had a solid selection of offerings, yet I was super- pleased to get the opportunity to try the offerings at Stone Tower which, hands down, were some of the best wines I had tasted since I had been to Napa. The bar has been set Virginia.



Cheers!
**Note we did pass a vineyard called Quatros Gumbah's which had busloads of people in the parking lot and looked like a scene of the infamous Animal House Frat party. So, I am certain there is something for everyone.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sint Maarten/ St. Martin



Location and Entry Information: Caribbean island between Anguilla and St. Barths, accessible by plane or boat – a popular cruise ship port comprised of a Caribbean and European population separated by an international border. The north of the island is French and the south side of the island is Dutch, and one may cross back and forth freely, by car, without immigration and customs limitations. There are two airports on the island (one French, one Dutch), the entire island being only 34 sq miles was easy to maneuver solely due to the size. The island has great accessibility due to the dual countries which share the island and the ability to use air, boat or car to get around. We flew into Princess Juliana International airport (SMX) on the Dutch side, and found it easy to take a taxi a quick 15 minutes to our hotel accommodations on the south side of the island. When boating around the island, be very aware of the strict regulations regarding crossing borders and immigration regulations.
Little Bay (Dutch) where we started our tour of the island at a substantial resort called Divi Little Bay Beach Resort.
The resort is a timeshare opportunity and the suite we reserved had an over-sized bathroom suite with Jacuzzi tub and separate shower. A kitchenette with a full sized refrigerator, stove and microwave were included. For the rate this was an exceptional property. The resort housed 3 pools, 3 restaurants, a fitness center, laundry facilities and a café/ market on site. Evening live music kept the entertainment value fair The staff was helpful and cheerful throughout the stay. The property is on an expansive piece of land, and the resort accommodates the distance by scooting clients around in golf carts, especially if you have luggage. We found it easy to walk from one side of the resort to the far side in a 10 minute period.
Divi Little Bay Beach Resort Infinity Pool area
Located a mile and a half from Phillipsburg – this resort is also central to the bustle of the main town of Phillipsburg. The town itself is a port village active with tourists and cruisers. The main boardwalk is lined with restaurants, bars and duty free shops. The main street  also lined with restaurants and hi-end boutiques and duty free shops. This small city is accessible by walking, scooter or taxi cab ride.
Simpson Bay (Dutch) our first point of sailing. Our friends picked us up by sailboat in Little Bay, we sailed around the island to Simpson Bay, where our friends spent their first night, and we subsequently started our voyage around the island via boat. Sailing close to islands such as Anguilla, Tintamarre and St. Barths - all accessible by boat from St Martin, and considered day trips from anywhere around the island. Anguilla, a short hour sail north, and St. Barths, a 3 hour trek south of St. Martin.


Marigot (French) A thriving port and our first stop after setting sail from Simpson Bay. Marigot is a distinct port town vibrant with French custom, food and culture. Brightly colored storefronts and homes lined the streets and high end boutiques were available in the center of town. 

There were historic, beautiful floral lined walkways and side streets, yet amidst hip, nouveau shops and café’s. 


We were lucky enough to arrive at sunset and depart in the daylight, so we got to experience the beauty of the Port, day and night.

 
Pinel Island (French) My favorite stop on our journey.  Pinel is an island preserve and national park. There are fish and vegetation markers all over the island, and while we were there hiking, a small group of school children were there visiting the island as well, clearly on a nature field trip of some sort. We hiked this island in about 30 minutes and then swam on the northeast side of the island, away from the active boat area.

 We learned after our visit that nothing dead or alive is to be taken from this island as it is a national park and preserve. That includes seashells and other beach life one may be inclined to pocket and take home as a souvenir.
Two fun bars and a small souvenir shop decorate the anchorage side of the island where the water taxis pick up and drop the tourists at a small dock which also serves as a dinghy dock. A short walk from this dock leads to the snorkeling dock where (group led, or independent) we were able to swim with the fishies and explore the coral and reef area along the marked side of the island. This island was accessed by boat only. So, whether by sailboat, speedboat or kayak, and of course the water taxi’s, visitors flocked on a regular schedule from the French Cay to enjoy the sun, water sports and wonderful pina colada’s available on Yellow Beach.

Orient Beach (French) the optional nude beach we stumbled upon, interestingly enough with the most active watersport life adjacent the beach. 
Club Orient
Numerous boats were anchored outside the nude beach club, “Club Orient”. Windsurfing, kite-boarding, sailing and jet-skiing were amongst the many activities we noticed at this fun beach resort.
Orient Beach










Oyster Pond (Dutch and French) this part of the island is split between the French and Dutch, seemed heavy with serious boat enthusiasts. It almost seemed like a sleepy fishing town. The crowd was a more mature and more quiet, and it was the only port we stopped in which had a visible sign stating a boating speed limit. There were beautiful resorts visible from the boat along the shore, also colorful and enticing to visitors and sailors. The restaurants were adorned with white tablecloths and gave an air of maturity, similar to the Bay itself.

Great Bay(Dutch) Cruise port and the entrance to Phillipsburg. This is the main tourist marketplace along the Dutch coast and attracts a mass quantity of traffic simply based on the number of tourists who get off the docked cruise ships daily. This was our last official stop by Nomad’s Land, and where we were signed off the boat by our Captain. Since we had previously visited this portion of the island on our morning jogs from Little Bay, we were only surprised by the sheer number of cruisers who piled into the small island shops and bars and changed the serene morning atmosphere into a bustling shop place.

The people of St Martin are a mix of European, Caribbean and Asian cultures who have found a way to make island life work in a non-traditional fashion. St. Martin is a collective of food, music and cultures which make the island not only interesting, but diverse on another level. The French bakeries and the Caribbean flavors only accentuate the diverse complex restaurants which were found all over the island. We met a friendly German mixologist who had been highlighted in a national article on his expertise – he was charming and witty, and delighted us with his stories and knowledge on making the perfect cocktails. These were the kinds of interactions that were found not to be the exception of the people, but the rule.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Puerto Rico!

A small island territory of the U.S., this island is overlooked in the Caribbean destination bank, likely because it is a U.S. territory. But, that is unfortunate, because this small island has some of the best fusion Caribbean music and Spanish food for miles and miles.
After visiting here a number of times, I find the Isla Verde area to be more touristy and standard practice of what vacationers expect when on vacation; high end hotels, beach access, and overpriced restaurants and bars along the main access roads between the airport and the hotel strip.
There are some fantastic restaurants off the beaten path. We enjoyed the Ceviche House, a Peruvian restaurant, on more than one occasion and found that the $12 U.S. cab fare from our hotel seemed fair. Yes, we could have walked, but why? We were done with the best platters of ceviche on the island, we had no intention of walking anywhere.
We also enjoyed many bars which had delicious local cocktails of coconut sangria and such.

We have now stayed at at least four different hotels/ B&B's and each has it's own distnct characteristic of the island. So, deciding what you prefer, will be the first step in deciding where to stay.
Casino's, family pools, peace and quiet, a great beach, live music on site - once you have made the most important choices, you can find pretty much anything you need and want on this industrious, fast paced island.
Make sure you check out the Rain Forest, Old San Juan, the cats of San Juan and many many other historic castles and landmarks this island has to offer. There are plenty of distractions and diversions to keep you busy on a vacation or if you happen to be there for business.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Cruisin' the Bahamas






My latest travel adventure took me aboard the Carnival Ecstasy. I chose a five day cruise to hit a few different islands while keeping in mind I did not know if I wanted to be on a ship for too long. This cruise ship departed for the Bahamas from Orlando, Florida, and stopped at Little Stirrup Cay, Nassau and Freeport, before making its way back to Port Canaveral on day 5.
Five days may have been too long for me. I think a brief three day adventure where island number one was touched on day number one and island number two by the second morning may be a better option, personally. I found the first day to be quite exciting and enjoyable, but by day number three, realized the attack of indigestion I was having may not go away until I found my land legs again. I was right.
Needless to say, there was food a-plenty. From the moment we boarded the ship, the buffets were ready and available on the Lido deck. We had three or four options for buffet style meals – a grill, a sandwich station and a pizza station. There were also a couple of turnstiles with breads, fruits and pastries. There was always some tid-bit available morning, noon or night. If eating is your vice of choice, a cruise is where you want to be. Now, if drinking is your game, there were many options to get your drink on. We chose a drink package which allowed us unlimited drinks (15) per day for the low price of $49.95 plus a pre-paid gratuity of 15%.
Now, cocktails were priced between $7 and $12, with bottle service available, so after about five drinks per day, you would have reached the price point of the package, so we figured, “why not?” A Bloody Mary or mimosa at breakfast, followed by a couple beers at the pool after lunch, then wine at dinner – then there were the nights we hit the nightclub. If we were not on the plan, we would have easily topped out at four drinks per day.
There were advertised morning specials every day – a breakfast Bloody Mary which ran about $8.95 per drink. There were “Specials of the day” which were presented around the pool every day which were theme based; Bahama Mama’s for $8.95, etc. So keeping this in mind, with the auto-gratuity that was added to all purchases $49.95 seemed like a bargain.
We were allowed to bring one bottle of wine onboard which could be opened at dinner for the wee corking fee of $10.
If entertainment is your draw to a cruise ship, there were a few options to choose from, but they repeated themselves throughout the cruise leaving those of us who decided we would hit all three venues on the first night, something to be desired. We saw two comedy shows, a Motown musical and hit THE nightclub, all on night number one. Luckily (some would say), on night number two we were convinced we could make the fifteen drink maximum and went straight to the nightclub after dinner and passed out promptly after signing for drinks number fourteen and fifteen. By night number three, we were bored. Night number four we went back to the nightclub, but departed early after realized the same twelve people that we had been dancing with for three days straight were as bored with us as we were of them. We packed and waited for morning, hardly able to sleep because the acid reflux was attacking both of us with the veracity of the waves against the side of the boat. It was relentless.
The Destinations:
Little Stirrup Cay is the private island owned by Carnival cruise lines. It is nestled in the Bahamas and although a treat to take a ferry from the ship to the island, that was about the extent of the day’s excitement. The only inhabitants of the island are the same passengers you are on the cruise with and the same cruise ship employees, who seem less than thrilled to spend their day off the boat serving you. Oh, and we quickly found out, our drink program did not work on the Carnival cruise ship island – even though, we had to use our room key to purchase the drinks, the drinks were the same, as were the employees. That fancy cocktail cost $14.95, a third of what would have been considered a bargain under my Cheers program.
The island itself is fashioned somewhat like an amusement park with different stations to participate in different activities.




We brought our own snorkel equipment, which we always do – you never know when you will find yourself in a snorkel-friendly bay with nothing but the sun at your back and fish to watch. There were palm trees and shops, and looked very similar to all the ports on every island we have ever visited.
Then at 11:30a lunch was served – buffet style, with the same items from the ship’s daily buffet.

Nassau features Atlantis and ship sponsored activities to participate in, so the ease of traveling from ship to island activities is taken up by the cruise line itself. Or, you can venture out on your own and be inundated with locals trying to make money for themselves. The typical island wares are available for purchase, as well as the common knockoff bags and accessories. The shopping plaza is very aggressive and almost too distracting to want to find a good deal. It is what it is – for those used to fighting crowds to haggle – this is your spot!!
Then there are the hi-end shops which line the main streets of downtown Nassau. No bargains, but the same types of shops one will find in Vegas at Caesars, or Miami on Oceanview Drive.
Atlantis is a wonderful place to take your children to see a fantastic aquarium – keep in mind it is on a resort and very costly.

Nassau itself has some interesting historical highlights – we did venture past Parliament, and some great historical statues. But even better, we found an amazing restaurant, Café Matisse which served Italian fare and was probably one of the best meals I have had in the past year. The food was amazing and fresh, and the service was impeccable - the highlight of our adventure to say the least.

Freeport was deserted, as we found out, from the devastation of the tropical storm which took place in 2011. Why this is still a port stop for a cruise ship is beyond me. We ventured out, were told by locals that the international marketplace no longer existed, but to go downtown instead. The downtown area was desolate and the restaurant we chose to eat at did not have the beer or food which we wanted to eat – feeling sympathetic, we chose other items, but wondered, “why? Why are we here”?


The bottom line is; I am not a cruiser.

I wanted to see more than one island, get a little taste of something from each spot, but the reality is, even if the islands had been fascinating to me, there was not enough time to really delve into each one for my personal taste. A cruise is like a drive by. Hang on to your hat, through money out the window, and remember the phrase your dad used to tell you as a kid, “You get what you get, and don’t pitch a fit”.


If you truly want to get the most of any destination as a traveler and not a tourist, research your destination, take your time, get off the beaten path and really enjoy each moment. If you do not know the difference between a traveler and a tourist – Take a cruise! It’s the most food you’ve ever eaten!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wine Art Music: New Orleans

New Orleans is a fantastic place to start and end any story. The culture, the history, and the people provide enough categorization to engage a nation. Settling on a few topics truly limits the perception of what happens down by the river, but wine/food, art and music also showcase the beauty and uniqueness of a city that just won't lay down.

Wine and food are highlights of this city. The delightful creole sustenance, the endless seafood cooked a thousand ways, and the fresh flavor New Orleans can put on something as simple as rice or a bun and call it gourmet. Louisiana has quite a few noted wineries and with an upcoming annual wine festival which takes place in the Quarter, locals and tourists alike can sample all New Orleans has to offer in true Louisiana form.
I found access to many off the beaten path eateries while visiting New Orleans and bars like Erin Rose(in the Quarter) and the Apple Barrel (on Frenchman St), house behind the scenes (but well known by locals) food joints.
Killer Po Boys, which is in the back room of Erin Rose has been named "Best of..."  by numerous periodicals including, He Said She said, and Playboy magazine.
Adolfo, upstairs and conveniently hiding, has had a waitlist every time I have visited, and you wouldnt even know it was there, as the customers wait patiently in the bar area of the Apple Barrel while live music draws in the street crowds with its intoxicating vibes.

Bring your cash for both these venues because both these local secrets are cash only my friends.
My friends enjoying the Art Market and it's famous local artists


While on Frenchman Street, if you happen to pass by the Frenchman St Art Market, be sure to stop in and talk to the artists. Let them share their city with you, as well as their history. There is nothing better than the wine and food except for the art, architecture and history of New Orleans.

And no one better to tell it than the NewOrleans locals themselves.


 







Artist Welmon Sharlhorn

 
Make sure you look for local artists such as Welmon Sharlhorn is a well known local talent who can be found sharing his famous pieces while lounging and telling his story on any given night. Not only a great story, full of New Orleans history, but a gifted talent, happy to share his musings.

I love a man with a smile and a story.






We are all aware of the live music of Frenchman Street, with fantastic music venues such as DBA and the Spotted Cat, who showcase local as well as national talents, but if you get the chance, check out Jazz in the Park at Armstrong Park. It's free and happening every Thursday during the spring from 5-7. It is family friendly, so if you have the kids in tow in the Crescent City, there are still ways to get your music fix. Enjoy.

Travel Smart, Travel Savvy

Sunday, May 5, 2013

10 Tips for unoriginal (no offense) men looking for a romantic getaway idea

Today I was flipping through the travel section of the Washington post and noticed some "getaway fares" for last minute trip ideas. One struck me as interesting, not because the deal was so great but because of the destination itself. It was a getaway to Amelia Island off the Florida coast.
Amelia Island, sweet name - sounded like an ideal getaway. Kind of romantic, even.
Oh!
Now, I remembered why Amelia Island sounded so familiar to me.
I was living with a man years ago, and our relationship was pretty serious. I remember asking him one day, if we could go anywhere for a little weekend reprieve, where would he choose. He never looked up from his computer, as he answered, "Amelia Island. I went there with my ex-wife once and it was one of the best trips I've ever had. Have you ever been?"
Just as casually as if I had said, "Could you touch me here, my first boyfriend used to do that, and I found it quite pleasurable."
Men, don't do this. Do not ever suggest that your current love interest travel with you to a destination that you have shared romantically with another woman. If you do not understand why, I cannot explain this to you. You really need to revert to, "How to Date 101", but let's say, you will likely be single soon again and not have to worry about it.
This is not only terrifyingly morose, but just plain tacky. It has occurred to me that some men (this one fell into this category) are not trying to be hurtful, but are simply unoriginal. It has never occurred to them to do anything other than what they have done before. It was not their idea then, nor do they have an original idea of their own, so they fall back on old stand-by's. What worked then...
I have seen this in dating scenarios. We all know guys that take women on the same first date over and over again, because it worked once. This is not the same. By the time you are traveling together, you have built a  relationship of some sort. This is not a meet-and-greet, this is a lifetime/relationship, memory building event. Make it original.
Now, the how-to.
For those men (or women) who have no idea how to plan something, or come up with a fresh romantic idea let me give you a few pointers.
1) Pick up the weekend newspaper, open it to the travel section and read. I know, it's crazy.
2) Turn the tele from ESPN to the Travel network and wait for something interesting (to you) to pop up.
3) Surf the web. There are many travel resources. Every travel channel and magazine has a web presence. Use them.
4) Spin a globe and put your finger on a location. I mean if we are reaching, why not give 100%. Be as random as random can be and possibly have the perception of looking "interesting" or "adventurous".
5) Call someone who's been somewhere. This one may be hard, but if you are that guy that has only been one place with one girl, there has to be someone in your network who is that same guy, but hopefully went to a different place, with a different girl.
6) Ask a parent, or an aunt, or a cousin. Someone in your family must have a special place they have been to, or at least heard about in the last decade.
7) Think about the foods you like to eat. Where do they come from? Is this someplace you could visit with a loved one and enjoy?
8) Start with your interests. Are you a skier? Do you need a little sand on your ideal vacation? Always wanted to learn how to dive? These are great places to start thinking about where you want to go.
9) Look at your pet in the eyes for a curiously long time, until something interesting comes to you. It works. Especially if you have fish.
10) Ask a travel professional. The right person will dig long enough and deep enough to get the answers needed to find a good location. And hiring a third party always gives you someone to blame when you hate it. Hopefully, that will not be the case.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Highlighting Kona (Big Island)



Your level of comfort at your price point.

The one thing I found out about the big island was that one you arrived there was a price point for every pocket book.
We chose a mid-range hotel ($150-250usd per night) on the west side. The HiltonWaikoloa offered a comfortable room with all the amenities of every hi-end hotel. It was a bargain in fact, with the level of service that Hilton is known for. Numerous restaurants and bars on site provided an environment which allowed couples and families alike to feel their every need was being met and if they chose to stay on the resort grounds their entire stay, they could do this without feeling like they were missing anything. Water activities, boat rides, lava rock trails, golf - anything you want to do is provided on site. Even swimming with dolphins and turtles, surrounded by waterfalls.

There are cheaper hotels ($99-$149usd per night); active, downtown hotels in the mainstream of all the city buzz. Hotels such as the Kona Seaside Hotel and Uncle Billy's Kona Bay Hotel provide inexpensive options. Great for students, cruise ship one-nighters, and couples on a budget. For more conservative backpackers and/or students on a tight budget there were a few hostels which we found in a ten mile range of downtown Kailua-kona in the price range of $22 usd.. 

There were also hi-end options (over $250usd per night) such as the Four Seasons and the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Golf Resort which offered luxury accommodations and the high price tag that one is accustomed to when staying in residences that provide such offerings.

The one thing all these retreats have in common is the location – on a beautiful island with all the sweet offerings that Hawaii gives to everyone, on any budget.
The restaurants – all fantastic, whether a street-stand, or a surf-side restaurant which offers seafood and sunsets for a small pittance.
All of this is available to everyone who crosses the Pacific and wants it.



Contact me directly at Travel Savvy International or email me sherri.l.smart@gmail.com for info on destination group travel experiences for any price range.