Saturday, October 25, 2014

PS2


Palm Springs in the late winter may become an annual thing. Warm weather, fun friends, a pool, Mexican markets, a desert hike...all the things you need when Seattle is cold and dreary.

This past March our group booked a house for five days, last year they stayed for over a week so I was only able to meet them for part of the stay. We had early flights into Ontario, which made for an hour and 30 minute drive to PS, but the morning did allow for some beautiful Seattle photos from the sky.

After the obligatory Costco and Jensen's grocery runs we had a really good lunch on the patio at Jiao. I don't think any of us expected to find decent Vietnamese style food in the desert but we did, and it was, and the cocktails were good too!

Our house, called Sunstruck, was a big 5 bedroom home with pool and hot tub in the South Palm Springs area. After our 3pm check in it was cocktail and relaxation time!
On our first morning some of us went to the Mexican market. There is nothing like a store that sells giant chicharrones, house-made queso fresco, religious candles, and five different types of fresh chorizo. We could have stayed all day!


Unlike last year, we hadn't bought tickets for the tennis matches this time. And we didn't even do a dinner out on the town. Days were spent lounging in the pool, mixing up margaritas, grilling, and eating. My kind of perfectness. A couple of us headed back to Palm Canyon for short desert hike, this time we took one of the Andreas Canyon trails which has some really stunning rock formations.
On one of the last nights most of us decided to take the Aeriel Tramway up to the top of Chino Canyon. This is billed as the largest rotating tramcar in the world. It is a heart-stopping ride up the cliffs, with absolutely incredible views at the top. We were lucky enough to be there for sunset and and then a full moon. I'd highly recommend a trip up along with a cocktail or two at the top! A word to the wise, take a jacket; there was still some snow up there even though it was 90+F in the valley!

On a wet and windy day like today, I'm glad we've already booked our trip for March 2015. This time we'll fly in and out of Palm Springs Airport, which is so great as it gives us just that much more time for the pool. Any suggestions on what to see or do this time around?

Palm Springs photos

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part Two

After a great morning in horse country we got back on the Bourbon Trail!

Day 2:

Up next, Buffalo Trace in Lee's Town, Frankfort KY. I didn't realize but Buffalo Trace has only been named that since 1999 after being purchased by the Sazerac Company in 1992. Both Peychaud's and Reagan's bitters are made on-site today. The distillery has a long history as one of the oldest distilleries in the state, dating from the early 1800's, and a long roster of past owners whose names now grace many of the bottles; Blanton, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, & Elmer T. Lee.
The distillery is it's own little brick and stone town, many of the original buildings are still used, with pipes of whiskey traversing the grounds.

The distillery, back then it was Schenley, was also one of only six allowed to continue during prohibition, making "prescription" whiskey. We had the good fortune of having Bob as our guide, who is also a state folklorist, as he had some really interesting information about the history of the company.

We chose the Trace Tour, a complimentary tour that starts every hour on the hour. Bob walked us past a few of the historic buildings as he shared information, we watched a short and interesting film, and then we were guided into one of the warehouses. This particular warehouse was aging W.L. Weller, which we learned can end up as the illustrious Pappy Van Winkle if the master distiller determines it to be special enough.



From there we made our way to Blanton's Bottling Hall. The day we visited they were bottling E.H. Taylor and Blanton's, on two separate belts, all completely by hand. It was really fantastic to watch, and everyone on the crew was super friendly and happy to answer questions and chat. Every single bottle is filled, sealed, labeled, and packaged entirely by hand.
The guy putting the horse and rider corks in each bottle of Blanton's even went out of his way to find and give Elisabeth the first in the series, as the gift shop was out of them and E wanted one to complete her collection.

We finished up with a tasting and then spent a bit more time wandering the grounds on our own, they are really beautiful.

On the way home we stopped in at Liquor Barn, there are a few but we went to the one in Hamburg Pavillion. Now this retail emporium isn't actually on the Bourbon Trail, but it should be!

We had a great tasting of two of the Willett bourbons I'd wanted to sample, as well as these two rare Orphan Barrel bourbons. These are from defunct distilleries and are extremely limited in quantity so it was a good chance to try them. We were also told they've got their hands on a couple of bottles of Pappy which should be released in the next few weeks.
 
That night we conducted our own tasting thanks to the generosity of Jen's dads awesome liquor cabinet. And also he was asleep...

Day 3:

We fueled up for our last day of tasting by having ginormous and delicious Hot Brown's at Ramsey's Diner. A Hot Brown brunch is definitely the way to go!

Then we made our Woodford Reserve in Versailles, KY (pronounced completely different than you would in France!). Again the tours start on the hour every hour, but even on a rainy Tuesday afternoon we had to wait a full hour for the next available opening. Luckily they have a nice gift shop, a little cafe, and a comfortable lounge area complete with pretty fireplace.
When our Bourbon Discovery tour started we were taken to check out the massive vats of mash first. Every distillery, even though they are all making up the same end product, has such different methods and esthetics, it's really interesting. Here we saw mash in varying stages of fermentation and even got a peek at the new tanks they are building.

We then entered the distillation room where three absolutely gorgeous copper pot stills hold center stage.
Those beauties were worth the price of the $10 admission alone. We also surprisingly learned that not all Woodford bourbon is actually distilled here, that some comes from their location near Louisville. But I don't know how well informed our guide was, she was the least favorite of ours at all the distilleries and didn't seem to have a lot of in-depth knowledge.

Woodford has a unique barrel track which takes the barrels from the filling room and rolls them along to the warehouse. We followed their path to warehouse C, originally built back in 1890.
Here we entered the warehouse, which is directly connected to the bottling house, and learned a bit about how they store and age their whiskeys. And thanks to Jen's moms keen eye, we also learned they'll be releasing a rye next year!
After following the rolling barrels into the bottling room and seeing where they dump the bourbon, fill and box up the bottles, we returned to the main house and its tasting room. It's a new facility and decked out all in wood and copper. We tasted the Woodford Reserve and the Double Oaked side by side and enjoyed a bourbon ball before heading out to our last stop of the day.

With a plane to catch in just over 2 hours we had no time for a tour but we hit the gift shop at Four Roses to peruse what they might only be selling at the distillery.
 We found their Private Selection series, three different recipes to choose from, and bought a couple to bring home. The grounds here are very different from the others in that there is a Spanish feeling, I'd love to come back and tour around.

But for this time I'd say that hitting six distilleries over three days was a mighty fine effort! Until next time Kentucky!
All Kentucky photos here


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Kentucky Horse Country

We took a little break from the Bourbon Trail to experience the other thing that Kentucky is know for, horses.

First up, a day spent at Keeneland Horse Track. I've been to a few horse races in the past but nothing like Keeneland! It's an absolutely beautiful venue, dating back to the late 1930's. Jen's dad armed us with programs and pens, and they all gave Elisabeth and I some quick lessons in betting.

We immediately got in line to meet and have autographs signed by the jockeys. Some of them were super friendly and talkative, others just doing their thing, but it was a great introduction to the men (and women!) who would be racing and others who were icons in the sport.

We watched some of the races from our seats in the grandstand and others from down along the rail. A total of nine races were run and there were two run on the inner grass track which I had never seen before.
And of course we visited the paddock before a few races for an up close, front and center view of the amazing Thoroughbreds. After their handlers walked them around they were led to the jockeys who rode them into the track grounds. I was standing in front of the path when they walked them past, awesome!

The start gate was moved on the last race, directly in front of the stands which was very cool too. The entire day was fun, fun, fun! And it didn't hurt that I came out quite a bit ahead for the day. Beginner's luck and all that!

The next day we headed out to Windstar Farm to see how these Thoroughbreds live, and hear all about how they breed. TMI!

We drove past acres and acres of rolling bluegrass pastures divided by white or black horse fencing. It was absolutely gorgeous, especially with the leaves just starting to turn and some of the roads bordered by pretty stone fences.
Winstar has a well-known collection of winning stallions and they command quite a bit of cash for breeding. Their stallion, Distorted Humor, has already sired 124 stakes winners, and his stud fees are $100k per - um- pop. And that is just one of their stallions. Horse breeding is big bu$ine$$!!

Additionally the farm owns Tiznow who, along with many championships, is the only 2-time winner of the Breeder's Cup. He was out in his field, watching us but not interested in visiting, but still a sight to see.
 
But others like retired Paynter, were more than happy to say hello.

The tours at Windstar are free but you must book in advance. It's quite interesting and absolutely beautiful. Generally the stallions will be in their barn but I actually liked seeing them outside.
 
We headed to the near by Wallace Station deli for lunch after, enjoyed outside on the porch while plotting our return to the Bourbon Trail. 

 Kentucky photos

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part One

Kentucky is all about two things, bourbon and horses. Over the last few days I got to experience both and it was nothing short of awesome. Let's start with the bourbon!


Day 1:

Originally Jen, Elisabeth, and I had plans to fly into Lexington where Jen's parents live. But as we landed at DFW we learned our flight had been cancelled due to weather. I'm zero for three on smooth American Airlines flights thru Dallas this year. Immediately I got on the phone with a rep and learned that there were no more flights to Kentucky that evening and that the first flight out in the morning was to Louisville. Rescheduled, we set about about getting AA to book us into the Westin on their wholesale rate for the night. Upon checking in I worked us up three free cocktails in the bar. Free drinks, a Heavenly bed, and hanging with some of your best girlfriends- all ok.


An upside to the change in plans was that Jen's parents, Terry & Donna, were now
picking us up in Louisville, which is close to Bardstown, which has a whole slew of distilleries that originally we weren't going to get to visit. Upon touchdown, we loaded into their car and immediately sped off to visit Jim Beam.

Now if you are like me, a bit of a food and booze snob, you may be turning up your nose at visiting Jim Beam. You'd be mistaken to do this. Driving up to the property is fantastic. The historic buildings are so picturesque and the rickhouses are all black 7-story wood buildings, a very unusual site (to me at least).

Our guide Hunter was also excellent. We went through the fermentation room and even got to dip our fingers in the mash for a taste, viewed the massive column still with it's chimney sticking high above the roof of the distillery house, and learned the basics of bourbon making.

After this we entered the single-barrel bottling room where I helped to dump bourbon from a barrel of Knob Creek, Jen then rinsed the bottle with the same single- barrel whiskey that it would be filled with, she then Lavern & Shirley'd it onto the line where it was filled, capped, and labeled. Finally she gave it to the man who hand dipped the cap. She had placed a green sticker on it so we always knew which one was hers. Terry bought us the bottle which we consumed over the next two days. Single-barrel Knob Creek, A-OK.

The tour moved on to a room filled with various memorabilia and antique decanters. It concluded with a really interesting tour inside one of the all wood rickhouses and then into the tasting room. The pours were handled by computerized machines which we fed a pre-loaded card into, allowing each of us two tastes. Since there were five of us we worked together and came up with a nice selection of their high end products to taste through.

We walked around the grounds a bit on our own and had our lunch at their onsite BBQ joint. Again, I can't stress how pretty the facilities were here. We all agreed it's well worth the time, even if Beam isn't on your go- to list.

Next up we headed to Heaven Hill. Having just come off a formal tour we opted for the "bourbon connoisseur tour". The is was a short and sweet history lesson on HH/Evan Williams; one of only two family owned distilleries currently in operation, with many Beam family members employed as master distillers over the years.

The main part of the tour was the tasting. Although not held in their cool barrel tasting room, ours consisted of four products sold exclusively at the distillery. A wheated bourbon aged in cognac barrels, a William Heavenhill bonded bourbon and a 15-year old cask strength, and a 23 year Evan Williams.

We all found something special to buy here!

We couldn't resist a quick trip up to Willett, even though they had finished their tours for the day, the whiskey shop was still open. As it turned out the owner held the door open for all of us while the distiller explained their offerings. There's a law that only allows them to give you samples after you've toured so we weren't able to taste here. I did pick up a Willett 2-year rye which has just been released, as well as made some notes on their bourbons to try later.

Day one done, not a bad showing. We drove home to Lexington where Terry & Donna live, had some delicious country ham and pimento cheese with an apero before heading out to dinner at The Merrick Inn, an institution of traditional southern food. My fried chicken rocked!

Nice to meet you Kentucky!


All photos here.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Expect the Unexpected While Traveling

I'm on my way to France to team up with my bestie for two weeks of eating, drinking, and general merriment. We decided to meet in Lyon for a few days before heading to Burgundy and then on up to Paris. We are well prepared with reservations and the like.

Last night as I went to bed I got a text from Air France. "Your flight from Paris to Lyon has been cancelled. We are sorry for the inconvenience."



Not what you want to hear at 11pm on the eve of your vacation. Sigh. Turns out Air France has striking pilots (surprise!). I sent Forrest a text letting her know I would have to grab a train ticket and not to pick me up at Lyon's airport. Luckily she hadn't gone south yet and so we switched our plan to have her pick me up in Paris. Road trip!

When I got to the SeaTac this morning and glanced at my watch I noticed the battery had died. I also seem to have packed the headphone jack to my noise-canceling headset in my checked bag. If that's my "things happen in three" I'll happily take that and chalk it all up to first-world problems.

2 hours later...

I just found out that Delta has discontinued it's in air duty free shopping. WTF?? That is one of my highlights of international travel! NOW I'm feeling a bit rattled!



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Thursday, August 14, 2014

When in Rome?

A friend recently asked me for recommendations for Rome but I didn't have much to offer. The last time I was in Rome it was just for a short weekend, really not enough time, before sailing the Mediterranean.

I would recommend the Hotel Modigliani, which had been recommended to us by friends. It's a great location, very central, and although our room was tiny (by American standards) we had a balcony looking out to the hotel's back patio, where jasmine and citrus grew, scenting the air. The hotel has a good breakfast room and the staff were incredibly nice.

I would also recommend taking a walk to the Trevi Fountain, tossing in a coin (to insure your return to Rome) before making your way up the Spanish Steps. If you happen to do this at dusk when the light on the city is magical, all the better. Sure these are on every 'top things to see in Rome' list, and for good reason! Order an Aperol spritz or an espresso and do a little people watching.
I would also recommend the touristy Hop On, Hop Off bus if you have limited time as we did. Especially if you do it on your first day you can get a sense for where things are at in the city. And of course, you can get off and see some of the sights, explore an unknown neighborhood, jump back on, listen to the guide, etc. If you are traveling with friends you might want to make sure that you all know where you are going to "hop off" or else you might accidentally get separated, which I don't recommend!
I would absolutely recommend wandering the ruins of the Roman Forum and seeing the Colosseum. In fact, you should make reservations for a tour of the formerly not accessible lower and upper levels. This tour is amazing! You're taken to the lower level, which use to be under the Colosseum floor. Slaves, gladiators, animals, etc. were kept here and brought up using dumb waiter style apparatus'. It's awe-inspiring standing there, looking up and out of the stadium's walls.

The guide continues to the normal levels where spectators viewed the events. And then they will let you in to locked passages that lead up to the very top of the venue, with dramatic views to both below and the city around you. You must book this in advance, and they only allow a certain number of these tours per day.
You can wander the Forum on your own (there are plenty of self walks out there) or as part of the Colosseum tour. We did it on our own with the help of Lonely Planet, it's such a fascinating area to explore!
Of course I recommend touring the Vatican but again, a little planning goes a long way! With the help of the Rick Steve's guide (we'd never used it before but this tip alone sold me) we had reserved timed tickets in advance. This allowed us to skip the ridiculous queue outside and head directly to the entrance.

The only way to enter the Sistine Chapel is to go through the Vatican museum, but the museum is really interesting so it's hardly a bother. We picked a few rooms to explore along the way and soon we were stepping into the (not)peaceful chapel.

Once we had sufficiently crooked our necks, inspecting all the intricate paintings, the Rick Steve's guide proved itself again by directing us to a "tours only" exit which is a short cut to St Peter's Cathedral. No one stopped us or asked which tour we were a part of, and in minutes we were inside the cathedral, again skipping multiple hour long queues.
Did I mention that we were in the church on May 21, 2011? Hilarity ensued.

I wish I had more recommendations on dining in Rome but I have always found that the big foodie cities of the world require careful planning or they can end up serving you the most banal meals. We had researched, made lists, etc. but the city is huge and without knowing for sure where we'd be at any given time, our lists were a bust.

Drinks were easy to come by anywhere; Aperol spritz, beer, wine, martinis, no problem.

Our best meal was a lunch we had after visiting the Vatican. We hopped in a cab and sped over to La Campana restaurant, which is one of the oldest in Rome. The interior was cold and boring but the food was amazing!

Fried artichokes, fried zucchini flowers, pasta with truffles... we all loved it!

And upon leaving, and deciding to walk to the nearby Piazza Novona, we stumbled upon Antica Norcineria, a fantastic shop filled with amazing deli items. An unexpected opportunity to stock up on items to take home.

And of course we had pizza at Forno in the Campo di Fiorini one afternoon. The bianci was good, the mushroom was better. But I would have happily just grazed the market that was going on instead.

And on our last night we fancied it up and dined at the Michelin starred Mirabelle. The food was good, none of us were blown away, but the view was amazing. We had a table on the balcony, overlooking part of the city for sunset. The air was heavy with jasmine and the whole thing felt very over the top!
All photos from Rome are here.

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