Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dog-friendly Wine Country: Sonoma, CA

The city of Sonoma is surprisingly close to San Francisco - just about 45 minutes in the car gets you to the main plaza in this little wine town. This is the Carneros region of Sonoma wine country - further north (another 45 minutes or so) will find you in the Russian River area of Sonoma. Make no mistake: Sonoma is a huge county. Even Napa is a very long valley-based county. Santa Rosa is about 45 minutes from the actual city of Sonoma.

Carneros has tons of great wineries; however, due to the onslaught of massive rain storms, our trip was cut a bit short and we didn't get to fully explore as much as we liked (guess that will be a follow-up trip and blog!).

First stop in Sonoma: Three Dog Bakery. This store is huge with a bit of everything - including treats for the kitties! We were looking for lunch locations and the ladies working were super helpful in recommending places and letting us know that Sonoma Plaza is NOT dog-friendly. Huh? Really? Sure enough, big signs - no dogs allowed in the plaza, not even on leash. As we walked around the edge of the plaza fuzzbutt expressed his opinion of this. Thankfully I had doggie doo-doo bags. (How embarrassing).

After buying carrot cake and mini carob-chip cookies for fuzzbutt and being embarrassed by him on the plaza, we went to the Swiss Hotel. They have a nice front porch area which is covered and heated with heat lamps and the staff were very dog friendly! A bowl of water was brought out without us even having to ask. Food was pretty good and drinks were strong. A win-win for everyone!

After lunch we ventured to Cline Cellars where every tour bus in the world was stopped. It was madness. The grounds were very beautiful but we really didn't bother to explore much due to the weather. We did end up tasting there and the wines were decent. We didn't confirm their dog policy but they seemed pretty casual so it would be worth trying if you have a pup with you - they appear on several sites as being dog-friendly.

Our hotel for the night was further north, in Santa Rosa, near the Russian River area. The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country is dog-friendly with a $50 non-refundable fee. That is it - no other comments or restrictions. I asked about special walking areas (or areas to avoid) and was told any place is OK. The hotel has a great pool area and the rooms are typical Hilton rooms - nice bedding, ugly furniture. The restaurant at the hotel, Nectar, has an outdoor patio with heating lamps but is NOT dog accessible. Stupid, right? Dog friendly hotel with a restaurant where the patio can only be accessed by walking through the restaurant. Dumb. Well - you aren't really missing much - the food was horrible. The drinks were good, but the service was pathetic, at best. For details, check out my yelp review.

The next morning dawned cold and rainy. As in raining cats and dogs (ha-ha). We cut things short, but I was determined to go to the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center for their new food and wine pairing. For $25 you get seven (or more) pours of their reserve wines, paired with yummy little snacks. You really can't get much better than this! Our chef, Ryan, was terrific and explained everything he brought out. If you have dietary restrictions - speak up. Ryan adjusted on the fly for us when told hubby doesn't eat pork.

Due to the downpour of rain, we didn't take fuzzbutt into the wine center with us. I did ask and the gentleman working said he didn't see any signs forbidding it, so he didn't see any issue. Yeah!

And with that, we braved the storm and traffic to return home.

Happy Travels!

** This post approved by fuzzbutt

Friday, January 22, 2010

Essential Travel Kit for the Sarcastic Traveler

You are about to embark on an exciting journey to a place you've never been - whether domestic or international - what are the essential items you bring?

For this sarcastic traveler, I start with the guidebooks. Even if it is a business trip, I pick up the Lonely Planet book on the area. They do a nice job of giving you a quick history, they have great maps and are good about pointing out the pluses and minuses of different spots. The walking tours are usually very creative and take you into locations you may not have found as a casual tourist. I usually end up ripping out the maps and sections I want to carry with me since many of the books can be large and cumbersome to carry while walking around.

The other essential item is a Streetwise Map for the city. I adore these maps! They are laminated, concise, easy to use and best yet: you can whip one out quickly and find info before the folks around you realize you are a tourist!

The third book I buy only if I am in true tourist mode and not traveling for business. The Eyewitness Travel Guides are beautiful - lovely full color pictures and maps and lots of short concise information. I like how they break the destination into areas and color-code the pages that align to that area. These books also have a short history section at the beginning. Their lodging and eating sections are less detailed than the Lonely Planet books, so I use them primarily for planning sites to visit. These books are heavy and not really conducive to lugging around while you are touring. I use them for planning purposes only!

Outside of travel guides, there are a few other key items I bring: water, earplugs, eyeshades, a notebook and pen and cash. Yes, I travel with cash. It works in almost situation. I also print out copies of every itinerary I have and keep a copy of my passport hidden somewhere in my luggage. I rely on my cell phone for just about everything these days, but I don't trust it will be able to call up my e-ticket number when I am standing at the Air China counter arguing that yes, I do indeed have a ticket for this flight (real story, I'll share that one in another post some day). Finally, a small packet of tissues. You will need these in some parts of the world when you visit the public restrooms. Heck, sometimes you need that here in the US!

One last thing I learned traveling in Asia that is probably a good rule worldwide: If you cannot speak the local language, pick up several of the business cards for your hotel as soon as you arrive. They are usually printed in the local language and english.  If you are lost and need help getting back to your hotel, or your taxi driver does not understand you, use the business cards. This got me "home" at least once in Japan and a couple of times in China.

Happy Travels!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sleepin' in the Big Easy: French Quarter

Zzzzzzzzzz. . . .

Depending on your priorities and your ability to drink yourself into a stupor so you pass out and sleep through anything and everything, you may need to pick your hotel carefully. Anything on Bourbon Street is going to be raucous all night, without end. Also expect to enjoy the pleasant aroma of barf and piss through your windows or outside your door.

If you get a few streets away from Bourbon, you may have better luck. We stayed at the W French Quarter and had to change out of our room on the third floor. It overlooked Conti street and it sounded like the drunks in the alley were partying in our room.

Best advice if you like sleep: if you have points or a reward program with a hotel in the Central Business District, try that. If not, go with a higher-end hotel in the French Quarter and request and upper-floor room that does not overlook the street.

If you are the ultimate party animal and can sleep through anything, go for the cheap(er) places on Bourbon and enjoy the show!

NOLA: Must see places in New Orleans

I had one "must-do" place to visit on my NOLA list: the above-ground cemeteries. This is not because I am a huge Anne Rice fan or because I have relatives there - but rather because I find them beautiful and relaxing and these cemeteries are so famous that it seems like a loss to not visit them while they are still there.

We took the St. Charles Streetcar (totally easy to use, btw) out to the Garden District and visited Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Note to self: closed on Sundays. I think they had some other weird hours, so be sure to check. Very beautiful place and the antiquity of some of the graves was impressive. Word has it that the older cemeteries right by the French Quarter are very dangerous - full of pickpockets and muggers - which is really just a shame. Lafayette was clear of this kind of trouble and really just amazing.

While you are in this area, be sure to walk along Prytania Street and ogle the stunning houses.

The second place we stumbled across as we walked up the street from our hotel. The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum was totally geeky and cool. Be sure to take your time, read the self-guide manual and pay attention to the postings around and read them! I particularly enjoyed the history of alcohol (as in booze, not rubbing) in medicine.

Eatin' & Drinkin' in the Big Easy

We had a goal to eat and drink our way through New Orleans French Quarter. I can't say we hit all the top spots, but we put a dent in our goal! (Must visit again to finish up!)

Overall, cocktails in the Big Easy tend to be far sweeter than I like and the food ... you have to like seafood and pork to survive here. If you are vegetarian or vegan you may want to consider another vacation spot. 

Tourist Traps -
Napoleon House: The Pimms Cup they are suppose to be famous for was actually not bad. The food was very much below average. The place was kinda cool to check out, very busy, and service was sporadic.
Cafe Pontalba: Right by Jackson Square and claims to be in a very historic building. The food here was so sub-par it left me speechless.
Oceana Grill: Right by Bourbon Street. I hate panning this place because the server was super nice but the cocktails were pretty bad (don't order a dirty martini at a tourist trap - ugh). The food was totally average, but prices were good. I give them props for being open on Christmas Day though and would say if you are in a pinch, you can make do here.
Cafe Du Monde: Not all tourist traps are bad things. I strongly recommend getting in the "to-go" line. My coffee au lait was super-watered down and pretty lame but the beignets......delicious.

Over-rated - 
Arnaud's Restaurant: Really? This is suppose to be one of the gems on NOLA? The baked oysters were STUNNING but the quail was only partially de-boned and swathed in bacon which over-powered the other flavors. The filet mignon was flavorless and boring.
Pelican Club: Better than Arnaud's but still hit and miss with the food. The trio of duck had a 1/3 failure rate - the duck breast was in a too sweet sauce and was cold. The calamari was also very good, but the rest of the dishes were over-priced for the quality.

Pleasant Surprises -
Cafe Fleur de Lis: Like many places in NOLA, you better not be in a rush. We waited a long time for our breakfast but it was hot, good, filling and fattening. Oh - and cheap for this area.
Cafe Beignet: In my humble opinion, the coffee and beignets here were better than Cafe Du Monde. Loooooong wait here too (big surprise).
NOLA Restaurant: I have mentioned in earlier blog posts that I tend to be relatively anti-chain restaurants. I also tend to be anti-over-rated-weird-celebrities-who-annoy-me restaurants. And here Emeril went and proved me wrong. NOLA Restaurant had some big hits and the staff were superb!
Louisiana Pizza Kitchen: Who would have thought? Apparently they modeled themselvers after California Pizza Kitchen while trying to stay true to Louisiana food culture. They succeeded. And they had Raspberry Lambic - always a good way to our hearts. 

Big Hits -
Arnaud's French 75: This is technically a cigar bar, but was such a wonderful hit with us. The staff were very charming and the cocktails were amazing (not overly sweet like so many other places in NOLA). They have a small menu of snacks which were good. Love the atmosphere here and the old-timey feeling.
Brennan's Restaurant: A friend of mine called this "ridiculous breakfast" and I wholly agree. It is so rich, over-the-top, delicious yumminess that ridiculous is a great way to describe it. I can also vouch for the bloody marys, after all, I had four of them!

Looking forward to the next trip. I'm hungry.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

All About Airlines: American Airlines

In a time long, long ago, in a world where airlines didn't suck as much as today, there was an airline called "TWA". TWA had a novel concept of "more legroom" and had select seats where you could get an extra couple of inches so your knees did not get crushed when the jackass in front of you ratcheted their seat all the way back. Even better, on coast-to-coast flights, they had a major hub in St. Louis where you pretty much stopped "on the way" instead of having to go north to Chicago or south to Dallas.

Then, TWA was purchased by American Airlines and the suckiness began. First they pretty much killed the "More Room" campaign within the first couple of years. And they phased out the St. Louis hub, causing you to have to suffer Dallas (DFW) or Chicago (ugh - snow, always it seems!). Gee! Thanks AA!

And now. . . $20 per bag for checked luggage - no freebies. No DirectTV on the plane, no real satellite radio. No extra legroom, no politeness, no kindness. Just all crappiness all the time. To be fair, their staff are getting better but when you are at rock bottom, you've got a long way to go. The exception is the one flight attendant on our way to Dallas who was pretty funny and seemed to love his job. Dude - I am happy for you and hope you find a company to work for who appreciates that.

Oh - they have Wi-Fi on the planes. This helped me write this blog lambasting them. Revenge is sweet.