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Napa: Oxbow, Segways, Auberge, Hot Air, & Wine!

February 16-18, 2013:  Napa, California

It seems that this winter, Mother Nature has forgotten about the rain, and the gray clouds, and the cold…  (That or maybe there might be the smallest bit of truth to this whole global warming messing with the weather patterns?)  After a wonderful first 3 day weekend of 2013 in Portland, Oregon, we were excited to explore a little closer to home as we spent President’s Day weekend in the Napa Valley.

See all 125 pictures from the Napa 3 Day Weekend in the Photo Galleries

The skies were blue, the sun was out, there was just the slightest breeze, and it was almost 70 degrees…  in February.  I don’t know how we got as lucky as we have been, but we are forever grateful as we made our drive from home just a little more than an hour away to the city of Napa, where we started our 3-day weekend at the Oxbow Public Market.

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A neat indoor center with a wide variety of restaurants, locally sourced produce, and culinary-centric open air storefronts, the market is home to not one, but three gluten-friendly spots where we can chow down on amazing eats for not much money…

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Our first stop (lunch) was to the Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, with a 100% gluten-free menu and kitchen, the place specializes in Guatemalan cuisine and their specialty, the arepa.  Think of it as a sweet corn pattie, cut open half way (like a pita), and stuffed with all sorts of savory fillings.  We enjoyed sharing two of the arepas (spicy chicken and pulled pork carnitas) along with some shredded beef empanadas and yuca fries…

P1020450Following that feast, we headed into town to Fuller Park where we picked up some Segways and glided around town on a two hour Historical Tour of Napa.  Our guide, Chelsea introduced us to the fun, historical, and quirky background of the town.  Riding along on the little get up and go machines full of gyroscopes is a great way to cover a lot of ground, see a ton, and have a blast while doing it!

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After our tour was complete, we headed to our hotel for the weekend, Auberge du Soleil, a 5-star property along the Silverado Trail in the tiny town of Rutherford.  Under the standard rules of TNJ Travel, we would have found a great stay location that would have hit our standard target of $100/day or less, but this weekend was a little bit of an unexpected bonus.  Our amazing stay was the result of winning a raffle at work, allowing us 2 wonderful nights at this epic property.  We enjoyed exceptional service, beautiful 180 degree views of the valley, and had a wonderful dinner on our terrace patio as the sunset.  It was way way over the top and we were exceptionally grateful to have had the opportunity.

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Early on Sunday morning (5:15am to be exact), we placed a call to the weather hotline for Napa Valley Aloft, and the report was good for takeoff, so we hopped into the car, made the 20 minute drive over to nearby Yountville, and arrived at the V Marketplace, where just after 7:00am in the morning, huge hot air balloons and their baskets filled the parking lot with color.

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A few minutes later, we were airborne, and making our way to 1500 feet as we quietly and effortlessly soared over the valley as the sun began to rise…  It was peaceful and surprisingly calm.  We had a great and experienced pilot who let us have time to enjoy the view while he offered to answer questions along the way.  Our basket had 12 people in it and everyone got their own spot along the perimeter to enjoy unobstructed views, take pictures, and just admire the world as it passed below.

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We sailed through the skies for a little over an hour, making a safe touchdown in an open field within Napa’s Alston Park.

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It was a little hard to believe, but it wasn’t even 9:30am when we arrived back at our hotel, and this gave us a chance to head up to the Auberge Restaurant and enjoy breakfast on the outdoor patio.  As Natalie and I enjoyed an amazing meal and huge cups of peppermint tea, we enjoyed this quiet and peaceful view…  No matter where you are, this is a great way to start your day!

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After enjoying a nice breakfast, we hopped into the car, headed 45 minutes to the northwest and spent the day touring the Sonoma Wine County.  We visited several great places enjoyed participating in the Sonoma Passport program, where for the cost of the single passport (which is valid for an entire year!) you can receive free tastings for 2 at more than 25 wineries!  (For the interested… no we did not go to 25 wineries in a single day…)  We went to a handful of great new places and figured that we can always make a return visit later in the year.

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Since we were nearby, we contacted Natalie’s aunt to see if she was available for an early dinner and we had a great evening at one of our favorite Mexican food places in Santa Rosa, Tres Chiles!

We enjoyed a beautiful, if slightly chilly evening under the stars (it is February!) driving back to our hotel and the next morning enjoyed a nice, leisurely breakfast before heading back to home.

It was a weekend to remember and another great addition to the mini-journey list in 2013…  Where should be go next?

See all 125 pictures from the Napa 3 Day Weekend in the Photo Galleries

South Falls at Silver Falls State Park - Portland, OR

Portland: Wine, Waterfalls, & Winter Wonders

January 19-22, 2013:  Portland, Oregon

It was just a few days after New Years that the big winter air travel sales kicked into high gear, presenting us with $69 fares to the city of Portland, Oregon, a destination that has been on our US travel list for quite some time…  We booked immediately and along the way, snagged a $16/day all-inclusive rental car rate, and rounded out the long weekend deal with 3 free nights ($400 value) at a highly rated Aloft hotel  using our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points, making the long weekend a steal at $54/per person, per night for air, hotel, and transportation…

Arriving at Oakland airport on Saturday morning, we were fortunate to find clear blue skies and a bright yellow and green University of Oregon Ducks Bombardier Q400 waiting at the gate to take us to Portland for the weekend…

Our Ride to Portland, A Bombardier Q400 - Oakland, CA

This was not only the first turboprop we had been on in a long, long, time (I wasn’t sure if they were still used out of Bay Area Airports!), but the pilots and crew provided us with a pleasant, enjoyable, and comfortable ride up to the largest city in Oregon.

Two hours later, we were on the ground, picked up our rental car and made our way to our hotel, the Aloft at Cascades Station.  This trendy W Hotels property was conveniently located near shopping, freeway access and the MAX light rail line, but was quiet, with great customer service, comfy rooms, and made a great home base for our weekend.  We got checked in, and was back downstairs and headed to the MAX Red Line to make our way into Downtown Portland.

Running every 15 minutes, the Red Line is a convenient and inexpensive way to make your way into downtown.  A $5 day pass gives you unlimited access to all transport in the Portland area, and put us right in the heart of downtown in less than 30 minutes.  Jumping off at the 10th Street/Galleria station, we enjoyed the weekend rush of locals and tourists alike as they shuffled between local stores, eateries, and the parks…

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We wanted to grab a quick snack to hold us over ’til dinner and an entire square block of food trucks did not disappoint — every possible style of cuisine on the planet could be found here, from African, Bagels, BBQ, Cajun, Caribbean, Ice Cream, Italian, Middle Eastern, Pasta, Paleo, Sushi, Tacos, and Waffles…  (Drool!)  We found a Taco truck that served old-school Shredded Beef and Chicken Tacos, just like I used to get growing up, and we enjoyed these along with a good sized bag of Chips and Salsa for $3.

From here, we got a little intellectual and took a tour (read: got lost) inside of Powell’s Books — a place that can only be described as what the inside of the Amazon book warehouse must be like, but instead of conveyor belts, there are tons of people (both looking for books as well as helpful staff members helping you find them!)

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Each of the “rooms” identified in the store listing was a labyrinth of towering shelves with every possible book I have ever seen in every topic under the sun.  As we walked through, there were even some people “challenging” the staff with obscure and oblong titles that seemingly appeared within moments of making the request…  As the sun began to set in the city, we ambled through the Travel area, moving to Cooking and Food, Health and Exercise, and even found a self-publishing Espresso machine (if you ever wanted to publish your own book — you can upload your files and have it printed and bound here in minutes!)

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From Powell’s, it was time for dinner and we ended up at Deschutes Brewery just a couple blocks away.  Great food, great brews, a fun atmosphere, and a fantastic Gluten-Free menu to enjoy!  Natalie and I both munched on burgers, sweet potato & paprika fries, and a wicked bowl of French Onion soup while enjoying a Sampler of some of their best…

The Sample Tray at Deschutes Brewery - Portland, OR

After dinner, the newly discovered (new to us!) weather phenomenon known as “Frozen Fog” settled into the downtown area, and with the temperature dropping into the mid-20s, we made the pilgrimage just six short blocks away to a place recommended to me by friends and family alike, Voodoo Donut…  It’s a donut shop, open 24/7, with more than 50 varieties to choose from and picks up a 27 Zagat rating?!?  Believe it…  When we got there, a line more than 50 deep ran along the sidewalk, with locals and tourists both vying to inch their way into the tiny ordering lobby to pick up a box (or two, or ten!) of Orangatang, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Peach Fritter, No Name, Miami Vice, Arnold Palmer, or other donuts…  You can even pick up a 3 gallon bucket (yes, a bucket, lid and all) of day olds for just $5.  Natalie was a saint for waiting with me in the cold, but I picked up a sampler box here too and enjoyed them all weekend long!

Welcome to Portland's Donut Holy Land - Portland, OR

The next morning, we grabbed the rental car and made our way southwest for a wonderful day of wine tasting in the Willamette Valley.  With helpful recommendations from friends in the area (Tristaetum, Sokol Blosser, Zerba, and Four Graces) we sampled Oregon wines, enjoyed a wonderful picnic lunch and just barely scratched the surface of the area, so we are looking forward to a return visit to stock up and check a bag (or two) on the flight home…

The Vineyards and Countryside of Willamette Valley - Portland, OR

Saturday night was spent with a good friend from college and enjoyed catching up, sharing some excellent Mexican food, and walked to another culinary high point, the ice cream shop known as Salt & Straw…  For all of my life, I have been a simple ice cream guy, enjoying Vanilla in a Root Beer Float, Strawberry in a banana split, or the occasional Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough if I was feeling adventurous at Cold Stone Creamery.  This was something entirely different and amazing…  Start with uber-fresh and natural, organic, and sustainable ingredients whipped up into tantalizing flavor combinations like Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper (some of the best ice cream I have ever had), Honey Lavender, Pear with Blue Cheese, and you start to get the picture.  Reasonably priced, two good-sized scoops set you back just $5.25 and the line snaking out the door explains the rest.  Take note, Baskin Robbins — your days may be numbered…

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Sunday Morning sent us to Lake Oswego, where we passed by the Sellwood Bridge, which was undergoing a move to repair and replace the 87 year old structure with a new, seismically sound replacement.  It’s an important link for the local people as it is the only place to cross the river for 12 miles, and is heavily used, so it was a sight to see as they perform all of this work.

Our stop in Lake Oswego this morning was the Crave Bake Shop, a Gluten-Free haven of bakery wonder where the Gluten-Free actually won over the world…  You see, there is this little show called Cupcake Wars, where bakers the world over come and battle it out on the culinary stage.  The owner of Crave brought her Gluten-Free masterpieces to the big show and won out over the standard wheat flour wielding bakers.  And that my friends, is a David and Goliath tale of triumph.

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This morning, we picked up a little sampling of everything (and a few to make the trek home and spend some down time in our freezer until they will be enjoyed!) allowing us to try Hot Chocolate, Birthday Cake, Rasp-Terry, Black and White, and Apple Fritter Cupcakes (The Apple Fritter was one of the cupcakes featured on Cupcake Wars, and is like Apple Pie in a paper wrapper — so good!)  In addition, they do scones, cinnamon rolls, and cake bites (think cake pops with no stick, but full of yum!)

From here, we headed south and east to reach Silver Falls State Park, where we would brave a little snow, a little ice, and be treated to amazing waterfalls set against the lush temperate rain forest of the Oregon wilderness.  Driving into the area we were completely surrounded by freezing fog with temps hovering just below 30.  Less than 5 minutes from our first stop, the fog evaporated, and we had sun and blue skies for our visit, making the 34 degree day seem almost like summer!  (Several people have already asked — we did not freeze and we really were not cold — we packed well, wore layers, had beanies and gloves, and really didn’t notice the chill at all!) Our first stop was for the North Falls and with a short 5 minute walk, we reached the viewpoint and got to enjoy this…

Self-Portrait at Silver Falls State Park - Portland, OR

From here, we continued our way through enjoying nature in the quiet and calm of the park.  There were lots of families out today (it being a holiday) and parents with kids were out enjoying the sun and the sights, though, we still probably didn’t see more than 100 people for the entire trip.

We arrived at the South Falls about an hour later, after several short stops along the way, and got to have this view to ourselves…

South Falls at Silver Falls State Park - Portland, OR

After enjoying a picnic lunch out amongst the trees, we slowly began to make our way back home, and within minutes of leaving the State Park, we were once again surrounded by the Frozen Fog…  It is errie, cold, but has the most amazing residual effect…  As the fog surrounds the trees, the fences, the plants, etc., the frozen water droplets get attached and the result looks like this…

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Looks like snow, feels like snow, but…

No Snow On The Ground! A Frozen Fog Winter Wonderland - Portland, OR

The roads are completely dry and clear, as the moisture can’t take hold on the asphalt and the shoulders…

Our drive back was enjoyable, though we were surprised by the amount of traffic that Portland presented us on the way back to our hotel on a Monday night (holiday travelers returning and some commute traffic?), but it didn’t impact our trip at all.

We headed home with wonderful memories, and a desire to make a return trip just as soon as we can…  Thanks Portland for a fantastic weekend away and we’ll see you real soon!

South Falls at Silver Falls State Park - Portland, OR
South Falls at Silver Falls State Park – Portland, OR
The Icicles Were Both Beautiful and Dangerous - Portland, OR
The Icicles Were Both Beautiful and Dangerous – Portland, OR
It's Like Snow, Without The Snow! - Portland, OR
It's Like Snow, Without The Snow! – Portland, OR
North Falls at Silver Falls State Park - Portland, OR
North Falls at Silver Falls State Park – Portland, OR
Open 24/7, This Place is Popular With Locals and Tourists Alike - Portland, OR
Open 24/7, This Place is Popular With Locals and Tourists Alike – Portland, OR
The Sample Tray at Deschutes Brewery - Portland, OR
The Sample Tray at Deschutes Brewery – Portland, OR
 
The View From The Top of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse - West End, Bermuda

Bermuda: West End, Horseshoe Bay, & The Pink Bus

Monday, December 17, 2012:  Bermuda

After five days at sea, we finally saw land in the form of the island chain of Bermuda.  As it was our first visit to this port of call, we were excited to spend a portion of the day exploring the northernmost point of the famous “Bermuda Triangle”.  Though we were originally slated to dock in the capital city of Hamilton, we were advised that our berth location would shift to West End, as the current port was being used as a polling place in the country’s national election!  In exchange for the exceptionally minor inconvenience, we were afforded an extra hour to visit while in port.

As we made our way into the West End port area, we had a commanding view of many islands in the Bermudan area.  West End is located on the northern tip of the west end of the islands, as if the islands spiral outwards counterclockwise from the capital city of Hamilton.  Though West End is only a 20 minute ferry crossing from Hamilton, by local bus, the 12 mile trip  took almost an hour, as it is anything but a straight line!

We exited the ship just before 9:30am and unfortunately missed the once an hour ferry to Hamilton by just a couple minutes, so we quickly jumped on a local bus to the capital and enjoyed a very nice drive into town, while admiring local life along the way.  The polling places were well marked, with security forces, and a number of folks just outside each location in suits and formal business attire.  From the looks of signs and other advertisements, it looked like there were two primary parties competing for leadership.  These were the PLP and the OBA, reflecting their green and red colors, respectively.  The process seemed extremely professional and quite calm everywhere we went around the islands.

Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano - Naples, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano – Naples, Italy
Prayer Candles - Montserrat, Spain
Prayer Candles – Montserrat, Spain
The Cathedral - Palermo, Sicily, Italy
The Cathedral – Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Queen Elizabeth Park in Hamilton - West End, Bermuda
Queen Elizabeth Park in Hamilton – West End, Bermuda
The Duomo - Monreale, Italy
The Duomo – Monreale, Italy
Botanic Garden - Gibraltar, UK
Botanic Garden – Gibraltar, UK
 

Taking advantage of the all-day travel pass (any bus or ferry) for $12, we rode the #8 local bus (all the local buses are pink in color) into Hamilton and jumped off right in the heart of downtown Hamilton. Starting from near the ferry terminal, we made our way around the local streets to the bus terminal, just a few blocks away.  From here, we picked up a #7 bus outbound and headed to the South Shore beaches and to our first stop of the day, Horseshoe Bay.

In the high season, you could only imagine the gridlock that must be faced by hundreds of sun worshippers as they attempted to ride the bus, walk, or bring their cars to the tiny little parking lot of this little piece of paradise.  The pure, white, talc beach, the crystal clear water, the blue skies and warm sun, and the crashing waves make you want to just plant yourself here and never want to leave.

When we arrived, we were excited to find this spot to be shared with less then a half dozen people and a lazy dog.  The quiet, broken only by the ocean breeze and the crashing of the waves threatened to derail our entire day of sightseeing as the thought crossed our minds to just kick off our shoes and spend the day here.  It is still Winter (at least in theory), so we enjoyed some time here, took plenty of pictures, and headed back up the hill to the road to pick up the next bus along our route.

Trevi Fountain - Rome, Italy
Trevi Fountain – Rome, Italy
The Coastline Just Mesmerizes - Amalfi Coast, Italy
The Coastline Just Mesmerizes – Amalfi Coast, Italy
Weather Vane at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse - West End, Bermuda
Weather Vane at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse – West End, Bermuda
The Ceiling of the Hassan II Mosque - Casablanca, Morocco
The Ceiling of the Hassan II Mosque – Casablanca, Morocco
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano - Naples, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano – Naples, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano - Naples, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano – Naples, Italy
 

As we continued to head outbound from the capital, the next stop on our list was the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse.  Erected in 1846, it is the highest point on the islands and provides not only critical navigation assistance to ships in the harbor and surrounding coastline, but also incredible views from the top (once you climb the 185 steps to get there).

Our bus dropped us off at the foot of Lighthouse Road, requiring us to walk up the hill for just about 10 minutes.  It was an easy walk and with minimal traffic in the area, we just walked on the road (there are no sidewalks in most spots on Bermuda).  Once we reached the crest of the hill, the lighthouse was off to our left side.

Upon arrival, we ducked into the Gift Shop, purchased our tickets for admission to the top ($2.50 each) and made our way to the circular entryway of the main tower.  From here, it was a slow and steady pace up 185 steps to the top.  Along the way, there were a number of landings offering a little rest and some information about the history of the lighthouse.

The Interior of Our Restaurant, Basmane - Casablanca, Morocco
The Interior of Our Restaurant, Basmane – Casablanca, Morocco
The Food Just Kept Coming - Pontone, Italy
The Food Just Kept Coming – Pontone, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano - Naples, Italy
Herculaneum or Scavi de Ercolano – Naples, Italy
The Tugboat Powerful - West End, Bermuda
The Tugboat Powerful – West End, Bermuda
The Duomo - Monreale, Italy
The Duomo – Monreale, Italy
Returning to Naples - Amalfi Coast, Italy
Returning to Naples – Amalfi Coast, Italy
 

At the top, a small wooden door (maybe 24 inches wide by 4 feet tall) allowed you onto the catwalk, a small 18 inch wide walkway that surrounded the top of the lighthouse.  There was a stiff breeze up at the top, however, once you were outside, you could see for miles in every direction.  We could see all the way back to West End and our cruise ship!  (That was over 10 miles!)

We shared the catwalk with another half dozen people (very thankful there were not more as it was a tight squeeze up there!) and spent about 20 minutes admiring the view and noticing just how many individual islands that made up Bermuda (far more than we had originally considered).

Plenty of pictures later, we slowly made our way back down 185 steps, back down the hill to the base of Lighthouse Road, and back to the bus shelter to await our inbound bus to bring us back to the capital city of Hamilton.  Took about 20 minutes to get back into the city center, and from here, we began a one hour walking tour of the city that we found online.

The Duomo - Monreale, Italy
The Duomo – Monreale, Italy
Enjoying The View at Horseshoe Bay - West End, Bermuda
Enjoying The View at Horseshoe Bay – West End, Bermuda
The Sant Joan Funicular Back Down Hill - Montserrat, Spain
The Sant Joan Funicular Back Down Hill – Montserrat, Spain
Santa Magdalena Viewpoint - Montserrat, Spain
Santa Magdalena Viewpoint – Montserrat, Spain
Weather Vane at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse - West End, Bermuda
Weather Vane at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse – West End, Bermuda
Looking Out To The Sea - Pontone, Italy
Looking Out To The Sea – Pontone, Italy
 

We started along the waterfront at the old Bank of Bermuda (now a massive HSBC building) and wound our way through history, religion, and government along the way.  We saw the first Bermuda post office (Peron), walked through Queen Elizabeth Park (recently renamed for her majesty as a tribute for the Diamond Jubilee), passed the City Hall and Arts Centre (it has the most interesting/odd compass on its clock tower), walked through the beautiful Cathedral (Check out the Warriors Chapel inside!), and finally to Session House (home of the Supreme Court and the Assembly), Cabinet House (home of the Senate), and the Cenotaph (tribute to the fallen Bermudan soliders).

We arrived back at the waterfront in time to take the 2pm ferry back to West End, and reboarded our ship around 2:30.  What a wonderful introduction to Bermuda!  We look forward to returning again for some beach time and maybe a trip to St. Georges, too!

 

Where Will The Next Journey Take You?