Desert Magic

When you live near the Pacific Ocean, you learn that there are times when the heat of the land and the water disagree, and you get something called “June Gloom,” lots of cloudy or foggy mornings clearing later, one hopes. In San Diego, the natural warmup for June Gloom is May Gray, and it works pretty much the same way.

On Saturday, May 12th, the forecast looked pretty miserable, so we decided to drive to the desert to find some sun. There’s a county park about 20 miles south of the huge desert park of Anza Borrego. It’s called Agua Caliente Springs for good reason: Several hot springs surface there, and it’s become a popular place to camp, except when it closes for the summer due to the heat. Interstate 8 leaves San Diego and heads pretty much due east, heading for Arizona and beyond, passing over the Laguna Pass summit at 4,055 feet.

The gray led us up and east, and as we went, we passed into thick clouds and rain, which became dense fog near two or three high points. The weather persisted until we passed the last of the coastal mountains and was replaced by bright sun, blinding after all the gloom. We turned north at Ocotillo, driving through windy conditions for about ten miles, until we crossed through a draw, and the wind magically stopped. Looking back west to the mountains, white clouds piled above them, stopping at the peaks like a cliff. Fifteen miles farther, Agua Caliente basked in lovely 80 degree sun with only light wind to cool things off.

Marsh Trail begins near the warden’s office and heads northwest for about a half mile to a small palm oasis created by another spring. Most of the trail is a dry creek bed of sand dotted with rocks, and it’s fairly level and easy going. Desert ridges reach up on either side, and it’s sometimes loaded with birds taking flies and gnats from the mesquite, creosote bush and cactus. On the 12th, the bird population is a little thin, but there are quite a few Pacific Slope Flycatchers calling out and a couple of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers to keep it interesting.

About two-thirds of the way up the trail, we met a young couple from San Diego who were spending the weekend with their young daughter. The woman told us that what they were really hoping to see was a desert bighorn sheep, which are numerous in the area but rarely seen. Ten minutes later, as if on cue, Laurel and her eagle eye spotted a ram up on the ridge to our south. He was young, but he sported two massive, curled horns. Another couple joined us, and we all watched as he sprung down the rocks towards us. He took his time, and ten minutes later disappeared into a draw.

It was our third time at Agua Caliente and our first sheep, a very exciting sight. We had seen a couple of young ones in Anza Borrego a few years before but not one here. None of the other folk had ever seen one here before either, and we were all inspired to see the young family’s wish come true.

The other couples were going back to the campground, and Laurel and I headed on to trail’s end by ourselves. The spring at the palm oasis was lackluster, and only a bit of mud was there now, barely enough for any animal to drink. We headed back on the trail and were surprised to find the same ram a little farther ahead up on the ridge again. He stayed up top, but followed along parallel to us as we hiked, grazing at times. After about twenty minutes, we reached the trailhead for the Desert Overlook trail, which is a steep climb to a view of the entire area. The ram crossed to the other side of the ridge and dropped out of sight, and we walked the last quarter mile or so back to the ranger station.

When we reached the campground, we looked back, and the ram was standing up on the nearest ridge, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. He stood there for a couple of minutes, then dropped back out of sight. So magical was his presence, that it half seemed to me that he had followed us all the way to make sure that we got back safely.

And there was a lot of excitement here, as well. One of the campers told us that 20 or 30 sheep had come down to water at one of the spring’s drainage canals. No one we talked to had seen this kind of thing happen before, and one of them had camped here seven times. Laurel and I missed the large group of sheep, but there were still eight or nine of them grazing right nearby.

There were a lot of birds in the trees around the campground, and we saw a couple that we have happily added to our year’s total, but it was the bighorn sheep that made May 12th so magical.

All That Jazz, and More

The alarm clock sounded off at 3 am on Friday, February 2nd. Laurel and I got out of bed and finished packing and loading the car, then drove to the airport for a 7 am flight to San Francisco. We connected there with a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Thanks to the three-hour time change, we didn’t land in Florida until about 6 pm.

Celebrity Summit

The reason for all this silliness was the Celebrity Summit, a recently renovated and posh cruise ship that embarked on Saturday afternoon for New Orleans and Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan, with 2,450 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But the thing that made this cruise extra special was the hundred or so of the best jazz musicians and singers in the world who were about to perform on Entertainment Cruise Productions’ 2018 Jazz Cruise.

Riverside Market Grill

In the meantime, we were in Ft. Lauderdale at dinner time. On our first trip to the city in 2010, the best beer we had been able to find was a bottle of Samuel Adams. But things are different in 2018, and Laurel found a brewpub on Yelp called Riverside Market Grill. We took a cab from our motel and found a bustling spot with two large walls of refrigerated cases that held more than a hundred different craft beers. They had plenty of draft beer on tap, as well. We tried a couple of pints of Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing near Tampa, and it was terrific. In addition to the mammoth beer inventory, Riverside Market Grill has a great brewpub menu.

We had dinner with our beers and chatted with friendly local quaffers and the owners, Julian and Lisa, who were very gracious hosts. Wherever we travel, beer lovers pay attention when they hear we’re from San Diego, “beer central” of California.

We had read about jazz cruises in prior years. Entertainment Cruise Productions has been doing them since 2001, but this year the list of talent just grabbed us, and we knew we had to be there. Each day, performances in several venues began around noon and lasted until midnight with the late night Birdland-produced series. Each concert was ninety minutes, and we saw three or four each day, so we were immersed in jazz for from four to six hours a day. And what a treat it was!

Birdland floats on the Jazz Cruise

I won’t go into the entire list, but a few highlights were, in the singer category, Kurt Elling, Nnenna Freelon, Ann Hampton Callaway, the New York Voices, John Pizzarelli, Niki Haris and Roberta Gambarini for starters. The musicians included the Clayton Brothers, Jeff Hamilton, Joey De Francesco, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Houston Person and Benny Green. Happily, a lot of the chairs and lounges for listening were comfortable, not just folding chairs. The large theater actually had rows divided like loveseats by twos with small tables, and the sight lines were very good.

Commander’s Palace

Monday, February 5th was Laurel’s birthday, and she was going to celebrate it in New Orleans! Around midday, we sighted land, and the Celebrity Summit headed upriver through miles and miles of Mississippi delta. We docked around four in the afternoon and went ashore at about five with a busload of hungry and thirsty passengers. Our destination was Commander’s Palace, an excellent restaurant in the Garden District of New Orleans. It was established in 1893 and features Creole fare. Our ship had booked the entire restaurant, and circular tables seating eight filled the dining space. As we entered, I told the hostess that it was Laurel’s birthday, and in a few minutes a bouquet of balloons was added to our centerpiece. They were pouring wine for all the guests, but I went to the bar and ordered two Sazeracs, the famous New Orleans cocktail made with rye and absinthe, although this one was made of cognac and Pernot.

One of the perks of sailing on this cruise is the fact that the singers and musicians live aboard and eat and drink and have lives like the passengers. When the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Laurel, two of the people at the table next to us were John Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, and they were singing, too. In fact, when we left to go back to the ship, we ended up in an overflow bus with just ourselves, John and Jessica, and Gianni Valenti and his wife. Gianni is the owner of New York’s famous Birdland.


We overnighted in New Orleans, and the next morning, Laurel and I went on a swamp tour in a covered, flat-bottomed boat. We learned a lot about the swamps and marshes that are so common in Louisiana, saw a Bald Eagle nest with eagles in it and, of course, plenty of alligators. In fact, Laurel got to hold one. I had to take the picture.

Back in the city, we had the pleasure of eating lunch at Muriel’s, a famous French Quarter restaurant. The food was superb, and a local jazz band played NOLA-style music. They also served us Sazeracs, which were the classic recipe, and they didn’t charge us extra for them. As the ads for the cruise said, “A taste of New Orleans.” This certainly whetted our appetite, and we’re eager to travel back for more.

The ship sailed in the early evening, bound for Cozumel, an island in the Yucatan region of Mexico, and we had nothing to do but spend a few more hours listening to great jazz.

When we reached Cozumel, we were surprised to learn that more cruise ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico call on the island than any other port. The docks were filled with lines of passengers from several ships, either walking to a bus or waiting for one to arrive. We had chosen an excursion to the site of ancient Mayan temples, combined with a beach visit, and our group walked several blocks through a bustling mall to reach our bus.

Mayan Beauty

Adrian, our excellent guide, informed us that while the Yucatan is full of Mayan ruins, the Mayan people are by no means extinct. In fact, while he is a native of the island who is not Mayan, his wife is. And throughout the region in Mexico and Central America, more than six and a half million Mayans live in today’s world. The island of Cozumel is known as the island of butterflies and flowers and is held sacred by the Maya, because it is the coastline in their land that’s farthest east, therefore, it’s the first point to welcome the rising sun.

Found my beach.

Laurel had hoped that the beach would be good for snorkeling, and she had brought her mask and snorkel, but the open surf crashing on the beach led her to a lifeguard station, where she learned that the water was dangerous. Instead, she settled for the option of sharing the shade of an umbrella with me, at a table on the sand with fish tacos and Pacificos and margaritas for lunch. Behind us, waiters literally ran full speed through the restaurant serving food and drinks to the overflowing crowd of visitors from the ships.

When the bus dropped us off back by the docks, we headed toward the ship, but noticed La Internacional Cerveceria, a craft beer bottle shop on the street, and had to check out the brews they carried. Behind the bar were rows of bottles brewed all over Mexico, along with plenty from the U.S., too. It’s amazing how craft breweries and beer shops are popping up in Mexico and Central America, as well as in the states. We tried a local IPA that turned out to be quite good.

Wycliffe Gordon pays tribute to Pops

We boarded the Summit in time to attend a swingin’ concert by the Clayton Brothers Quintet before dinner. The ship sailed at six, heading home to Ft. Lauderdale, which we would reach after our final day at sea. On Friday evening, the last night of the cruise, the New York Voices joined John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey for an all-star vocal session. The room was even more crowded than usual, since a lot of musicians were finished performing, and many of them stood in the wings and edges of the space to share in the music.

All in all, a cruise that Laurel and I will never forget.

Bigger Than IMAX II


Turret Arch in Arches National Park

We spent the night in nearby Torrey. The next morning, our car was totally covered with frost, but as soon as the sun hit it, it melted. We drove into the rising sun and two-and-a-half hours later reached what just might be the most spectacular place in all the Four Corners. (By the way, the Four Corners refers to the junction of the four states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.)

The Three Gossips at Arches

The place I’m talking about is Arches National Park, and the name says some of it, but not all. There are red rock arches here, but a whole lot more. One particularly interesting rock formation is called Three Gossips by the park, but to us it looked much more like the magi. Balancing rocks, rock structures that resemble giant pipe organs, towering pillars and, of course, natural arches. We drove through it twice, visiting at each area in morning and afternoon light.

Leaving the park, we passed a young woman selling organic peaches next to the road and stopped. She told us the peaches had been picked in Palisade that morning. We bought seven gigantic peaches for ten bucks, and the rest of the week we split one each day for a morning snack with coffee. They were the best peaches we have ever eaten. When we arrived home, I looked up Palisade on the web and found that it’s a small valley just east of Arches in southwest Colorado. Not only do they have plenty of orchards, but the climate there is also good for grapes, and there are 24 wineries in Palisade, as well. The town’s motto is, “Life tastes good here all year long.”

Organic peaches from Palisade

We loaded our peaches into the car and continued south to the sophisticated town of Moab, Utah. It caters to adventures of all kinds: hiking, river rafting and (they say) the best mountain biking in the world. We visited Moab Brewery for lunch and took a couple of cans of Johnny’s American IPA with us for later, then drove back up the couple of miles to Arches for our second look.

For dinner, I had seen The Ghost Bar and Jeffrey’s Steakhouse on Yelp, and it sounded good, but when we got there, the place looked classy, but was completely booked, so we started hunting on Laurel’s Android and found The Atomic Lounge. Maybe a strange name for a restaurant/bar, but they make some of the best craft cocktails we’ve tasted lately. Including plenty of classics like a mule, an old-fashioned and a Sazerac. Plus, their food is as good as their drinks, and, being Utah, you must eat as well as drink. A really great find.

Spruce Tree House–Mesa Verde

The next morning, we drove a couple of hours south to Mesa Verde National Park, past Canyonlands National Park. (There’s an abundance of riches here; you just can’t do them all.) We checked in at the visitor center and got some good advice for a short visit, then drove to the nearest attraction, the overlook for a pueblo called Spruce Tree House, which was built in the 12th century. We talked to the park ranger there and learned that the proper name for the ancient people who lived here is now Ancestral Pueblo people. Throughout recent history, they’ve been called the Anasazi, but we now know that “Anasazi” was the word for “enemy” in an adjoining nation’s vocabulary. Anasazi is out, Ancestral Pueblo is in.

Square Tower House

We drove to several other ancient sites, amazed by the ability of these people to build such complex structures on the faces of steep cliffs with only primitive tools. We didn’t do the hiking tours, since they must be booked in advance at the visitors center and involve some climbing, but seeing Mesa Verde only whetted my appetite to see more sites, like Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon. We’ll have to do those on other trips, because we will definitely be back, thrilling to the history and the geology of the region.

Our visit to Mesa Verde was our only excursion into Colorado, and now we drove south into New Mexico, the fourth of the Four Corners states. We planned to spend the night in Farmington, which turned out to be a welcome surprise. In her previous visits, Laurel hadn’t been that impressed with Farmington, but priorities had changed, and now we enjoyed the city and its surroundings.

The bar at Three Rivers Brewhouse

Three rivers, the Animas, San Juan and La Plata Rivers join each other in Farmington, and the brewpub in town is logically named Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse. Its excellent brews with food to match have made it quite successful. In fact, it occupies a full block on Main Street with the aforementioned brewpub, a pizzeria, tap and game room, and banquet hall. The Three Rivers Cubano sandwich with house-smoked pork shoulder and honey pork belly is outstanding.

The next morning, we visited the city’s Riverside Nature Center and headed up a trail next to the Animas River. Before we left the parking lot, we saw a few mule deer grazing in the brush, as well as prairie dogs poking their heads out of holes in the bare dirt patch on the opposite side. We talked to volunteers at their nature center and learned that the deer and are practically tame because they’re protected here and have access to feed and water. Children flock to the center to see the many birds that hang out at the feeders outside. There are many common birds on the feeders, but we even saw a Plumbeous Vireo and a Wilson’s Warbler among them.

Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs with me

We went back to Three Rivers Eatery for lunch and had an interesting chat about hops with Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs, two of the brewers.

Gallup movie palace

South of Farmington is the town of Gallup, New Mexico, made famous in Bobby Troup’s big hit, “Route 66.” Gallup has many stores specializing in Southwest Indian art and turquoise jewelry, including Navajo and Zuni artifacts and Hopi Kachinas. After racing through the huge Richardson’s Trading Company, which first opened in 1917 but was closing for the day when we arrived, Laurel found some lovely turquoise earrings and a necklace of turquoise beads at Silver House Trading Co.

On Friday, we started heading back west. First stop, Flagstaff, back in Arizona, and the following day, all the way home to San Diego. Today, we roughly followed the path of old Route 66, but now it’s I-40 and it’s not coming “from Chicago all the way.” The 40 comes clear across the country from Wilmington, North Carolina, almost due east of Atlanta and all the way west to Barstow. There’s an interesting break about halfway between Gallup and Flagstaff: Petrified Forest National Park, where the ground is littered with pieces of some very old trees, many of them ancestors of our cedar trees.

Flagstaff mural

Back in Flagstaff, we took a walk through the downtown area and found a terrific mural memorializing Route 66 and the railway that preceded it to the city. We also discovered one of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at for some time. It’s called Root, and the menu looked so fascinating that we came back later for dinner. But first, we drove back east about seven miles to Walnut Canyon National Monument, a wonderfully scenic park forested with high altitude pinyon pines. The canyon is another site where Ancestral Pueblos made their home, and here and there on the steep slopes of the canyon walls are structures where the hardy people built their homes, climbing up and down from them on ropes to live in safety.

We drove back to the safe haven of our Days Inn, then went to Root for dinner. The waiter gave us the drink menu, and we were pleased to see that this menu was as adventurous as the dinner menu. Excellent wine selection as well as craft cocktails. Laurel ordered a Hopped Up Pisco (Pisco, local hops, lemon, egg white, blood orange powder) and I had a Serenity (Chamomile infused rye, sweet and dry vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, barrel-aged bitters) and we split a Whole Leaf Caesar Salad and The Board (pork belly confit, country pork paté, Olli calabrese, peach-bourbon compote, Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, Point Reyes blue and accompaniments). We were not disappointed. Root is now a must visit whenever we’re in Flagstaff.

Plains prickly pear

Saturday morning, and we got an early start, since it’s a good seven hours to home. The weather continued to be sunny, and by the time we got to Phoenix, it was plenty hot again. This was my first time through all this majestic land, but it definitely won’t be my last.

If you’ve been patiently waiting to see more of Laurel’s beautiful photography, and large enough to look at, here’s the link. laurels southwest

Bigger Than IMAX

We enjoyed our trip up the coast in July so much that we decided to do some more driving, and Laurel and I drove through much of the Southwest in early October. Wow! I’ve traveled to a lot of places in this world, but I’ve never seen places that are so expansive and huge. The idea of wide open spaces had never been revealed like this to me before.

Photo courtesy Beaver Street Brewery

We left early Friday morning and stopped in Phoenix for lunch, where we discovered the Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen. Like the name says, they brew ale and serve food, both delicious. Two hours past Phoenix, we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped for the night. Since it’s 7,000 feet high, there’s beautiful high pine forest around the city, and we visited Picture Canyon, a nearby park. Back in Flagstaff, both of us were surprised at what a hoppin’ place it is. After checking into our motel, the Days Inn Flagstaff East, we had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Café, a very cool restaurant with lots of craft beers.

A note about Days Inn. We used these motels on several of our overnights, and we’re happy to report that Wyndham Resorts, who has acquired the chain, is doing an admirable job of updating and redesigning fresh, comfortable rooms with nice attention to detail. Most of them have bedstand lamps with electric outlets in the bases. Very handy for recharging phones and tablets. The Flagstaff East Days Inn has a hair dryer with a night light built into it, useful when you’re stumbling around in the dark looking for the bathroom in a strange room.

Saturday morning, we got up bright and early. And it was bright. We were fortunate through the entire trip and managed to miss a couple of storms passing through. Later in the week we arrived in Farmington, NM on a sunny day right after three days of rain. We headed north to the Grand Canyon, one of the main reasons for our trip. Laurel just couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, so I was knocked out (as everyone is) by the scale of the place, not to mention the beauty and colors of all the geological layers.

While researching our trip, I read that there was a hawk watch going on. An organization called uses volunteers all over the country to count raptors during their spring and fall migrations. We had already visited two hawk watch sites on other vacations: Hawk Hill at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, where WWII gun emplacements once guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and Key Largo in the Florida Keys where raptors leave the U.S. and head down into the Caribbean and South America. The Grand Canyon watch was taking place on Yaki Point, a small peninsula of rim jutting out above the southeast corner of the canyon.

At Yaki Point, we followed the signs and found three volunteers sitting in lawn chairs on a mostly level slab of rock whose edge dropped off to the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say, neither of us approached the edge. One of the men got up and welcomed us, and we began to chat about what they had been seeing and the other hawk watches we had visited. In my research, I had seen that three California Condors inhabited the Grand Canyon. The volunteer told us that was old info, and the reports were seldom up to date. In 2017, there are about thirty condors living in the canyon with three nests confirmed. Plus, that very day, a group from the Peregrine Fund, in collaboration with the Oregon Zoo, was releasing three condors south of Marble Canyon on the Vermilion Cliffs. We told him we were actually spending the night at Marble Canyon Lodge, and he told us that there had been a nest under the Navajo Bridge, just half a mile north of the lodge. Since it was a 3 1/2-hour drive, we decided to leave and get up there, but, before we left, an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, and they added them to their list. They told us it had been a slow day. Only about forty birds.

By the time we crossed the Navajo Bridge, it was nearly dark, so we drove a half mile past it and stopped at the lodge. We checked in and looked around, which took no time. Marble Canyon consists of the lodge, its gift shop and restaurant, all owned and operated by a Navajo family, plus a Chevron station. We paid for our dinner in the gift shop and discovered some beautiful artifacts, including one of the finest Navajo rugs we’d ever seen. Incidentallly, the LA Times just reviewed the lodge in their Travel section on October 22nd. Short article, but worth reading.

The sky was clear and blue on Sunday morning as we drove back to the bridge. The original steel Navajo Bridge was built in 1929, one of the first bridges to span the Colorado River before it reaches the Grand Canyon. In 1995, a new, wider bridge was built, and the old bridge became a pedestrian bridge. An interpretive center and parking lot are now located at its south end. Hikers, bikers and visitors who only want to take pictures of the beautiful view of the river and canyon use it regularly.

We parked and began to walk across the bridge as the sun moved above the canyon rim, lighting the west wall of the canyon. Laurel was taking pictures of the beautiful location, but we were also working hard to see below the bridge, searching for the kind of structure that could only nest young condors.

The California Condor is one of the world’s rarest birds. It is also the largest bird in North America, having a wingspan of almost ten feet, compared to the six-foot Golden Eagle wings. It became extinct in the wild during the 70s, mainly due to hunting and lead poisoning caused by the birds eating animals shot with lead bullets. The few remaining pairs were bred in captivity at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos and by the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. The Peregrine Fund was originally created to breed Peregrine Falcons, which were also on the verge of extinction due to DDT. Today, the fund breeds many species of raptors and works with other zoos, releasing condors at the Vermilion Cliffs, about 15 miles south of Marble Canyon. Today, including the three condors released the day before, there are more than 500 of the great birds in the wild.

At about two-thirds of the way across the bridge, I leaned over and looked back beneath the bridge and saw a huge black bird standing on a sunwashed ledge with its mammoth wings spread out to dry. Laurel was on the other side of the bridge, and I motioned her over, and she got this shot. Our first ever condor in the wild. We saw what looked like white paint on its wings. Our bird was P6, and the Peregrine Fund tells us it’s a female and the first second-generation condor from their program born in the wild. Her mother was born in the wild as well. She’s a juvenile, a little more than two years old and still with the blue head that young condors wear before they become adult and change to a red head.

A few minutes later Laurel spotted a second bird in the metal struts of the new bridge, which turned out to be an adult with the ID of J4. The Peregrine Fund tells us she was raised at their headquarters in Boise, Idaho and released at the Vermilion Cliffs. She’s about eight and a half years old.

We never found a nest, but we left soon after, elated with what we had seen. We turned off the highway a few miles south and drove a couple of miles up a dirt road to the Vermilion Cliffs viewing station that was still staffed by several volunteers watching yesterday’s release site. By the way, the Vermilion Cliffs are aptly named, standing out in the morning sun in bright red-orange layers.

At the top of the mesa we could see a structure that had been built, and the folks monitoring the site told us a butchered steer was used to coax the new birds out of their cages, which had taken several hours. The carrion had attracted several other condors, and at one point I saw five of them circling over the cliffs. Along with the numbered placards on their wings, each bird is equipped with a miniature transmitter, and one woman at the station was waving an antenna picking up VHF signals from the birds, while a second volunteer recorded her findings. A very impressive system, but when you’re saving an entire species, technology can be a big help.

If you’re as nuts about birds as we are, here’s a link to see the full list of the birds we saw on our way around the four states.

We crossed into Utah, and after passing through a couple of border towns, the sky opened up, and we were driving through the biggest country I can remember seeing. All around us were ranges of mesas and mountains, but all so far away that they seemed like miniature models. Close to us was nothing but sage desert, and it stretched away into the distance.

The beauty of Zion, including a desert bighorn ram.

When we reached Zion National Park with its spectacular cliffs and canyons, it felt downright intimate. We climbed aboard one of the shuttles, included in the entrance fare of many national parks, to get a look at the major parts of Zion’s canyons. On the way back to the visitor center, we got off at the trailhead for Emerald Pools Trail. The trail is nicely paved and involves some uphill walking, but is not too much for me. What was too much was the yelling and screaming of out-of-control children running up and down the trail, not to mention a couple of hikers who found it necessary to bring their bad pop music into the area on their iPhones. We couldn’t wait to get away from the crowds and find quieter spots in other parts of Zion.

We spent the night in St. George, about 50 minutes west of Zion. We had read good reviews about George’s Corner, a likely name for a restaurant in St. George, and we headed there after checking into the local Days Inn. It was Sunday night, and the place was full to the brim, so we gave the hostess our name and prepared to wait 30 minutes. True to her word, we were seated in just 30 minutes, and we discovered that Utah has some unique laws when it comes to alcoholic beverages, one being that you don’t order alcohol without also ordering food. Well, that was our plan anyway, so no bother. We ordered two Zion Canyon IPAs, brewed just outside the park itself in Springdale, and a lamb burger to split. Excellent on both counts.

Back at the motel, I checked the weather forecast for our visit to Bryce Canyon the next day. A couple of days earlier, the forecast was mostly sunny, but now we were dismayed to see a 40% chance of thunderstorms with rain and snow likely. Well, we had a schedule to follow, so we got up on Monday morning and drove north with our mugs filled with coffee. The highway traveled higher as we went north, and we reached an area full of small junipers and pinyon pine that had been dusted with snow. It was breathtaking, and we drove through it as tiny snowflakes drifted onto our windshield, so small and dry that the wind blew them off. We reached the entrance to the park under cloudy skies, but it was merely cold, not stormy as predicted.

Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all. It’s a series of amphitheater-like areas between 8,000 and 9,000 feet high filled with “hoodoos,” strange towers created by frost and erosion, that resemble stacks of rocks piled high in rows that might be symphonic organs or architecture from some ancient Mesopotamian city. They fill a large area that’s best seen by car with stops at the more special geologic structures. Very different from Zion, but each incredible in its own way.

Two-and-a-half hours northeast of Bryce another national park fills the Utah landscape. It’s Capitol Reef National Park, and it surrounds what was created over millions of years when an ancient fault lifted the lands to the west more than 7,000 feet higher than those to the east. Instead of cracking, the higher land folded over, leaving the more than 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold. Today, the fold can be seen as canyons, cliffs, domes and bridges of multi-colored red rock.

In the 1880’s, Mormon farmers settled in a part of what’s now the park, and they named it Fruita. It’s located at 5,500 feet at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, and they built irrigation systems and planted orchards of apple, peach, pear and apricot which still exist today. During the season, you can pick and eat fruit from some of the orchards in the park for free. Other orchards are privately owned, so be aware of which ones you’re sampling from.

And not to worry. When you visit Capitol Reef, you needn’t drive the entire 100 miles to see it. In fact, most of the park is only available to hardy souls on dirt roads, horseback or hiking trails. The eight-mile scenic route from the visitor center gives you a good look at what was created by the geologic cataclysm, plus a lovely drive through green and glowing orchards. The combination of red rock and green trees makes the whole place a painter’s dream.

-To be continued-

All photos by Laurel Scott unless noted.









Next Door Temecula

With all of our travels to wine regions in Baja, Washington and Oregon, we decided to stay home over the Labor Day weekend. Almost. Temecula is only an hour north of us, and it’s the home of a valley full of vineyards growing in size and respect.

We’re regular visitors to Temecula, but only to Old Town, which has a fine jazz club called Jazz at the Merc, as well as a very reasonable and very good Cuban restaurant, the Havana Kitchen, not to mention Rosa’s Cantina, not the classic Marty Robbins song, but an excellent Mexican restaurant with low prices.

But this year, fresh from our road trip north, we decided to check out our own homegrown product, and were we impressed!

Temecula and Valle de Guadalupe have a lot in common. Temecula is about ten miles long, the other twelve or so. Both valleys run southwest to northeast and have two main roads, one across the northern side and one on the south. Temecula is farther inland, but the Rainbow Gap in the coastal mountains brings ocean air into the valley.

Compared to vineyards farther north in the Central Coast and Napa-Sonoma, Temecula is fairly young, with the first grapes not planted until the Sixties. It now has approximately fifty wineries and is continuing to grow, and the region is home to many grapes, being at the same latitude as Spain, Italy and Southern France. Most wineries serve tastings of six wines, and we’ve found that three tastings a day is plenty. So there are many more places to visit when we return.

Another benefit of visiting wineries is that where there is wine, food follows fast behind, and some of the wineries have wonderful restaurants. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the middle of harvest time, and we spent one evening at Callaway’s Meritage Restaurant, where we saw the grape-picking going on after dark, when the grapes are more stable, so we were told. A type of tractor carrying fluorescent lights extended fore and aft drives slowly between the rows, and the pickers load grapes into plastic bins on the rear of the tractor. Everything is hand-picked.

The next morning we learned that other smaller wineries pick at dawn and are finished by eight o’clock, leaving their fields before the heat of the day.

Speaking of Callaway, it’s one of the first wineries you come to when you enter the valley on Rancho California Road, the northern road. It’s one of the oldest and largest wineries, so we decided to make that our first stop. Many of the wineries offer club rates on their wine. You get 20 or 25 percent off two bottles, then two more purchases of two over the next six months. The deals vary, with some wineries offering free tastings when you come back, and some include your guests as well. We liked the deal and the wine at Callaway, so signed up for membership. On the next two days, we went back to the winery and got free glasses of wine.

Most wineries charge $15 to $20 for six tastes, and over the weekend, we tasted some very good wines. Besides Callaway, we would highly recommend Cougar, a small winery which bottles all Italian grapes and also has a very reasonable Italian deli on the premises.

Another favorite is Frangipani, the name of the owners’ family, not the Hawaiian flower. Their Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were definitely worth bringing home. By the way, be sure to bring your camera—many of the wineries are situated on hills, and there are some great views of the surrounding vineyards.

Europa Village began with the idea to recreate the southern European wines in this valley, which mimics the climate and soil of Spain, southern France and Italy. Their Italian-style wines are called Vienza, and they’re very tasty.

Falkner is one winery where we became members. Their whites and reds both impressed us a lot, as did the people. They have an elegant restaurant called Pinnacle, which has a spectacular view of the valley, and, being members, we got half off the wine we drank with lunch.

We’ve heard that it’s easy to get carried away joining too many clubs, so we were careful not to overdo it and only joined three. The trip home was a pleasant one-hour drive on Labor Day, and we’ll definitely be heading back, since it’s so close.

Bon appetit!

The Best Coast

Incredible! Wild! Spectacular! Rugged! Bucolic!

Just five of the words that came to us as we drove up from San Diego to Seattle. Wordsmith Laurel said bucolic. As many of you know, I’m originally from Seattle, and I have two daughters and grandchildren up there. So we fly up every year to see them. This year, with all the buzz about road trips, we decided to rent a car and drive up, then fly back.

Why the 5?

Friends have asked us why we didn’t drive up the more scenic highways 101 and 1. First of all, the area around Big Sur is undriveable right now, thanks to a massive slide. But mainly, we chose the sights we wanted to see: San Luis Refuge. Sierra Nevada Brewery. Crater Lake. Eugene. Portland. Mt. Rainier. String them together, and the 5 only made sense. I have to mention that I guess I’ve become a Californian. No one in Seattle says, “The 5.” They call it “I-5.” But with so many highways in Southern California, we’ve learned to call them “the 110,” “the 91,”   or “the 5.”

We left on Friday, June 30th at 5:30 in the morning and beat a lot of the awful rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. We only had one slowdown all the way to the Grapevine north of LA. By about 1:30, we reached Merced. Like most towns in California, it has several new craft breweries. We decided on the 17th St. Public House. Merced was in the high 90s, and the AC inside the place was a welcome relief. We asked to see the menu, and the beertender apologized, explaining that they only serve beer, but we were welcome to buy food elsewhere and bring it in. We followed her advice and walked down the street to Donut King, which had three menus on the wall: Donuts, Subway-style sandwiches and French-influenced Vietnamese bahn mi. We brought a foot-long bahn mi and a bag of chips back to the public house and ordered two pints of one of their India pale ales. The IPA was quite good and refreshing, and the bahn mi was excellent.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles back south of Merced, is the main reason we made this side trip. This refuge is one of the most important wildlife preserves in all of California, for animals as well as birds. Talking to the game warden at the visitor center, we learned that thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly south from Alaska to winter here every year. A few years ago, we saw a small flock of the cranes in Fairbanks, but seeing these kinds of numbers would be a real thrill, so we’ve decided to head back up next February.

Swainson’s Hawk

In the meantime, we drove out into the preserve, where there are several self-guided auto tours to take. One tour travels five miles around an enclosure for endangered tule elk, and we got a good look at a herd of about 30 right near the dirt road. The next morning, we headed east to a trail where the ranger said we might see some good birds. Sure enough, a fair number of birds, including a beautiful Blue Grosbeak and unexpected Swainson’s Hawks.

If you’re really into birds, here’s a link to the full list of what we saw on the trip: Birds sighted on our trip to Seattle

We spent the night in Los Banos, a few miles south of San Luis, and stopped in at Paraiso Brewery, a friendly place that is brewing some very good beer. While we were there, they poured us a taste of a brew in progress. It had cucumber and chile flavors in it, but it was still flat in the barrel and yet to be carbonated. Nevertheless, both of us liked what was happening with it. For dinner, we discovered great Bar-B-Q, as Hot City BBQ & Bistro spells it. A major smoker sits next to the entrance, and you can often find Steve Weaver, the owner, who calls himself Boss Hog, sitting out there. This is BBQ to write home about, and after our first long day on the road, we went to bed happy.

A tip to those of you with big appetites: Wool Growers Restaurant has two branches, Los Banos and Bakersfield. We’ve eaten before at the Bakersfield place. It’s run by a Basque family, and everything is served family-style and in large portions. You won’t go away hungry.

In defense of the Central and San Joaquin Valleys, I need to point out that all of the miles through these areas are not necessarily a boring drive. At times, it’s inspiring because of all the produce California provides the country. In fact, the state grows more than 90% of the country’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts, garlic, plums, broccoli, nectarines, canned tomatoes, celery, apricots, wine grapes, strawberries, and cauliflower. Laurel had selected an album of iconic country singer Merle Haggard’s, and it fit perfectly with our drive through this rich countryside. While I’m at it, I should remind you that whenever you’re traveling on a secondary highway, don’t forget to stop along the way at local produce stands. Their produce is very fresh, and sometimes you find tasty things that you haven’t tried before.

Sierra Nevada Brewery

We drove north to Chico and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company for lunch. Opened in 1979, Sierra Nevada is now a major beer destination in Northern California. They’ve grown into a large facility with tours, a taproom and a restaurant. We saw families in cars from all over the map. After a tasty lunch and brew, we left Chico and headed up to Redding, where we spent the night. It was over 100 degrees, but our room was a very nice, air-conditioned Super 8 on Churn Creek Road. Nearby Final Draft Brewing had plenty of excellent beers and, believe it or not, peanut butter chicken bites, which were crunchy and tasty. It put us in mind of chicken satay, and, now that we’re home, we’re going to see if we can recreate them on our grill.

On Sunday morning, we visited the Sundial Bridge, a large pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is right next to it, and there are lots of activities, trails, and a museum. We’ll experience more of it sometime in the future, but today we have to drive to Crater Lake, take a look at it, then drive to Eugene for the night.

Into Oregon

Crater Lake

A small aside: A few years ago, we went to Yosemite over 4th of July weekend. We decided to drive in to the visitors’ center to get current information and a map. We sat in line in our car for over three hours, and by the time we reached the center, it had closed. We had to turn around and drive out of the park to our motel, then come back the next day—early! One would think, lesson learned. But no, we’re at it again, sitting in our car and idling up the mountain for two hours to see the stunning lake. It was worth it. Laurel was amazed at how blue the deepest lake in the country is. But never again will we travel to a big deal national park on any holiday.

The drive back down the mountain and north to Eugene was a long stretch of forested country, made better by the fact that there was almost no traffic. After checking into our motel, we took a look at Laurel’s Android for local brewpubs and found one less than half a mile away. We decided to walk there and reached Falling Sky Brewery after Google Maps took us on a silly route that became a full mile instead of half. The brews were very good, and the menu includes an excellent lamb burger. The secluded courtyard made it all even better, and the walk back was only a half mile, as originally advertised.

Hendricks Park

I had checked on local parks and other options for a little morning birding, and we chose Hendricks Park, with its famous rhododendron glen, only seven minutes from the motel. The park was green and lovely, and there were some late rhodies and azaleas still blooming. As far as the birds go, most of them were absent, but we thoroughly enjoyed the walk through these lovely gardens.

It’s a fairly short drive from Eugene to Portland, so we’d decided to check on some of the vineyards in the Willamette Valley on the way north, but we stopped for lunch in Salem first. When we arrived at the industrial park, a rainbow flag led us to Southside Speakeasy. Inside, the large room was empty, but our host, Russell (R.D.) Dean, appeared almost magically and greeted us warmly. As more customers arrived, we saw that the staff enthusiastically welcomed everyone, and most nights there’s live music and a large dance floor. Happily, the beer and liquor is legal now, as is gay marriage.

View from the winery

After lunch, we drove back south a few miles to the Willamette Valley Vineyards. The tasting room is high on a hill, with a terrific view of the vineyards below. Both of us love Pinot Noir, especially with salmon, and the Willamette Valley has a superior climate for that grape. We bought one of their Pinot Noirs and also a Pinot Gris, which is crisp and dry.

Halfway to Portland, in the northwest corner of the valley, is Purple Hands Winery in Dundee. They produce only Pinot Noirs, one from their own vineyard, and several from neighbors’ grapes. We tasted five and wanted to buy them all, but settled for just one, from the Stoller Vineyard in Dundee Hills. Jordan Ernst will probably serve you, and he knows a lot about this difficult but wonderful grape.

Just two doors north of Purple Hands is Deception Brewing Co. We stopped there for a flight of their beers, and they gave us some good advice for Portland, so, after arriving at our downtown motel, we looked up Breakside Brewery.

Breakside brew list

Breakside has three locations. We chose one that was across the Willamette River from us. (Portland is a city of many bridges, some of which connect to still other bridges.) We drove across and found this brewery, which was a total zoo overflowing with families and singles, all seemingly enjoying themselves. But it felt like too much to us, so we drove back to what’s known as the Alphabet neighborhood, which is also much closer to our Travelodge. This Breakside was definitely busy, on the large deck and inside, as well, but it looked doable. We went inside and amazingly got a table right across from the bar and its giant menu of beers. We split a pulled pork sandwich that hit the spot, along with two West Coast style IPAs, Breakside and Wanderlust, which we liked so much that we bought a bottle of each.

A Fourth to Remember

Powells-City of Books

Next day, on the Fourth of July, we spent the entire morning at Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore. It was a morning of discovery for Laurel, since she had never been to Portland, let alone Powell’s before. They call themselves City of Books for good reason. New or used, chances are you’ll find it there.

Blinded a little from reading so many covers and flyleaves, we walked up Salmon Street to The Picnic House, which I had found on Yelp and seemed a good choice. Believe me, it was more than good. Picnic doesn’t really conjure up the classy place we found ourselves in, designed by someone with a flair for creative solutions, including several growing walls covered with plants and other areas with antique printing plates. The cuisine was equally good. Try the wild mushroom soup. And the service was outstanding. Right next door is Barlow Artisanal Bar, owned by the same owners. It wasn’t yet open, but we took a peek, and they’ve done the same thing over there in art deco that they did with natural ingredients at The Picnic House.

Haystack Rock

Taking a hard left off the 5, we headed due west to Cannon Beach on the northern Oregon coast. Full of charm, from cottages to restaurants, the beach at Cannon Beach is dominated by giant Haystack Rock, along the lines of California’s Morro Rock at Morro Bay. Beautiful and sunny but windy, we had to take our binocs out to the rock to see what was flying.

Parentheses: Like many birders, we keep what we call a life list, which is a list of all the species of birds we’ve seen, along with the date and location first seen. When we left San Diego, our list stood at 499, and we were extra excited to see what our number 500 would be.

Female Harlequin Duck, courtesy

Well, we found out at Cannon Beach. Bobbing around in the rocks below the big rock were a couple of female Harlequin Ducks. We had never seen one before, so that was number 500. As I said, it was beautiful and sunny, but the north wind was blowing hard, a very cold wind. As we continued to search, my hands got so cold that I couldn’t hold my binoculars steady. My eyes were watering, and the wind blew our tripod over. We finally gave up and decided to drive back down the next morning.

Bridge over the Columbia River

We drove the forty minutes to Astoria, where we had reservations at the Columbia Inn for the evening. I had also made reservations for dinner at Bridgewater Bistro, which has a major view of the mammoth bridge that crosses the Columbia River at its mouth. The restaurant was getting excellent reviews, and, since it was July 4th, we figured we should reserve a table. It turned out to be a wise decision, since the back end of the place was reserved for a wedding party. The bride and groom were still in their wedding clothes, and everyone was making speeches and toasting the happy couple. It made us feel good, since our own eighth anniversary was coming up during the month. We toasted each other with artisanal Martinis. In addition to the very fine food, the service was terrific. Our server, Sharon, lured us into a dessert which we didn’t regret.

Back at our room at dusk, we crossed the street to a viewpoint deck that jutted out into the river. There were about twenty people already there, and in ten or fifteen minutes, the fireworks from upriver began. The neighbor cities of Astoria and Warrenton did themselves proud. When it was over, we walked back across the street to our room. What a nice, easy way to see some terrific Fourth of July fireworks!

On the morning of July 5th, the sun was shining, and the wind was calm in Cannon Beach. We went back out to the rock and saw several Tufted Puffins flying to a grassy area at the top, where they have dug burrows. Number 501! Driving back north, we stopped at Lewis & Clark National Park, site of Fort Clatsop where Lewis and Clark’s party spent the winter as the guests of local Indians who saved their lives. It’s a delightful park with trails that follow in the steps of the explorers and exhibits and demonstrations illustrating everything from the making of tallow to firing and loading a flintlock rifle. We continued up to Astoria and crossed the long bridge that spanned the Columbia between Oregon and Washington, then drove to Long Beach, the home of Willapa Bay oysters. We had a creamy dozen on the half shell and the best clam chowder we’d had in years at Castaway’s Seafood Grill. The new manager/chef Stephen is also a attentive server, and we had some interesting chats about all kinds of seafood.

Now we headed back across the bridge and east on Highway 101 to re-enter Washington at Longview. Coming down the long hill to the city, the view is dramatic, with several pulp mills and stacks and stacks of logs. We turned north onto Highway 5, then east toward the largest volcanic mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier. Paradise Inn is a classic lodge at 5,400 feet on the 14,411-foot mountain, and we had a room reserved. The weather was warm and sunny, and we had some spectacular views of the mighty mountain as we drove up, but we arrived fairly late, about 7:30 in the evening. At the reception desk, it turned out that an error had been made, and they had no room for us. (Later I discovered that I had mistakenly booked an inn at Paradise, CA.)

A Sweet Discovery

Dejected and worried about finding any room nearby, we went back down the mountain to the nearest tiny community of Ashford. If there were no rooms there, we would have to drive nearly an hour more to the outskirts of Tacoma. We passed two places with No Vacancy signs, then saw a neon sign in the window of Base Camp Bungalows which said OPEN. When we knocked, the owner came to the door, looked at the sign and said, “Oh, I forgot to turn that off.”

She could see the disappointment on our faces and asked, “How many nights do you need?”

“Only tonight.”

“Well, I have one bungalow left, just for tonight. Would you like to see it?”

We followed her back on a brick walkway between several cottages and mini-gardens. Back around the corner, she stopped and opened the door, “This is “Songbird.” Come on in.”

Inside was the prettiest little cottage you could imagine. Straight out of classic Disney. Polished wooden floor, which I later learned was ash. Everything detailed out, down to fresh-ground dark coffee and a real coffee pot. The view through the multi-paned window was filled with green, plus a little shrine that had two bird feeders on it.

View from Songbird

“Here’s a little bird seed that you can put out in the morning while you drink your coffee,” she said, handing Laurel a jar. “Then sit and see what comes.”

The manager’s name is Wendy, and it was great fun to spend some time the next morning talking to her about what she and her boyfriend have done to the place. It’s a perfect jewel, and the next time we decide to drive up to the mountain, we’ll stop here for sure.

It’s now Thursday morning, and we’re due in Seattle today, but the road trip isn’t quite over yet. We bypassed Seattle and drove up past Bellevue and Redmond, what’s known as the Eastside in Puget Sound country. We drove to Woodinville, a few miles north of the tip of Lake Washington, which borders the east side of Seattle for 22 miles. We had an excellent lunch on the patio of the Barking Frog. (We heard no barks and saw nary a tadpole). Then we drove to one of the nearby tasting rooms. Woodinville has had tasting rooms for large wineries and breweries like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Redhook for more than twenty years. The grapes and most of the bottling happens in Eastern Washington, but major marketing goes on here.

But today we discovered that the place is filled with tasting rooms. We arrived at our destination, Airfield Estates, which grows its grapes in the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Mountains. To our surprise, it was in an upscale strip mall with another dozen or so wineries. The brochure for the area lists 60 wineries represented right here. We got three bottles at Airfield and three more at nearby Goose Ridge, whose vineyard is in the Columbia Valley, nearly to Idaho and north of the Columbia River. We drove back to Seattle and spent three pleasant and summery days with friends and family.

Taylor Shellfish

We can’t forget to tell you about Taylor Shellfish. I wrote about them after last year’s visit to Seattle. This year, we discovered that they have three branches in Seattle: Lower Queen Anne Hill, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill. We spent one evening at their Melrose Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill and reaffirmed our belief that they have the best oysters you can get. Served in a stylish setting and with great service. Once you’re there, you’ll probably talk to Lance McCune, the general manager, who knows more about oysters than you could imagine.

Oh, one last note: If you’re flying home as we were, Alaska Airlines will allow a full case or half case of wine along with your luggage. No charge. Ask for details.

This trip has gotten me so into the idea of road trips that I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and this fall we’re planning a trip to the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon and Zion. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.

Good travels,

Vic (and Laurel)






A Grape Discovery


Over the Memorial Day weekend, Laurel and I drove down to Ensenada. We’ve visited the city many times before, but we had never gone inland to Guadalupe Valley. Recently, we’ve heard a lot of talk about wineries in the valley and decided to check it out for ourselves.

Just as you’re arriving at the north end of Ensenada, Highway 3 goes east, and the sign says, “Ruta de Vinicola.” We turned and drove through an industrial area full of trucks and dust. Beyond that, typical coastal scrub, chaparral and cactus for a few miles, then you come up to a ridge, and over it lies an amazingly green and beautiful valley, planted edge to edge with vineyards and olive trees. We had done some research, and our first stop was at a museum devoted to the history of wine and vineyards worldwide, beginning with the earliest grape growing in ancient Egypt and Georgia (Eastern Europe, not America).

We talked to a graphic designer in the boutique shop filled with all sorts of aspects of wine and vines. He gave us some excellent advice on where to go first. The museum even has a tasting room, and we got a detailed map showing vineyards, restaurants and hotels. We were astonished to find out there are about 160 vineyards in the valley, which produce ninety percent of the wine in Mexico!

Before we left for Mexico, we checked at Yelp and found some highly recommended wineries and restaurants. Many of the restaurants have chefs who use fresh ingredients from their own gardens and seasonal seafood and meat from local sources. It was about noon by now, so we drove up to Finca Altozano, one of the restaurants most highly rated. It was an open air, rustic place filled with happy eaters/drinkers. We found a place at the bar, which also offered the entire menu, and had mini-tostadas of octopus ceviche, house-made sausage and fresh-baked crusty bread with olive oil, along with glasses of a terrific local Sauvignon Blanc.

(I have to warn you. If you read this entire blog, you’ll go away hungry.)

Another warning: Part of the charm of Valle de Guadalupe is the fact that two paved roads run through it east and west. Highway 3 continues north to Tecate after it joins the northern road through the valley. There’s one paved road that connects the two on the west side. All of the roads to the wineries, hotels and restaurants are simply dirt, some of them a little bumpy, so your pace will be slow, and your car will need a bath when you get home to the states.

After lunch, we drove a little farther east to L.A. Cetto, one of the largest wineries in the valley, for our first tasting. We discovered that the tastings aren’t especially cheap and usually run between ten and fifteen dollars for five tastes, depending on the types of wines. We stood out under the shade of some large fig trees and tasted five, one of which we liked so much we bought a bottle. It’s a white blend, with Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir grapes. I might add that actually buying bottles needs to be a rare event, because the California wine industry protects itself, and only one liter per person is allowed through customs.

We visited a couple of other vineyards that afternoon, and both also offered excellent wines. After our tasting at La Cielo, they gave us the very nice glasses we had used. And Adobe Guadalupe told us about The Wine Connection in Del Mar, which sells both Adobe Guadalupe and L.A, Cetto, as well as a couple of other Mexican wines. Outside this winery is a row of stone mounds with flying horses mounted above them. Of course, they’re sculptures, made of metal, but create an interesting backdrop to the sampling area.

We took a break from wine during the afternoon and visited Laja, a restaurant that gets many five-star reviews. We made reservations for lunch the following afternoon.

Early Sunday morning, we left our hotel in Ensenada, near city center. The valley is only about a half hour from the city, so we had decided to stay there, even though the valley has some excellent hotels and resorts. Excited by what we had seen on Saturday and the prospect of lunch at Laja, we drove up and arrived before many of the wineries had opened for the day. We had heard very good things about Viña de Frannes, so we headed up the northern valley road. When we reached the entrance to the vineyard at about ten, a rope was still stretched across. One of the nearby guards waved to us, walked across and dropped the rope, then beckoned us through. The buildings of Viña de Frannes were still at some distance, probably more than half a mile away beyond large fields of grapes.When we arrived, we parked the car in an empty dirt parking area and walked to the main building.

Our server, a young woman who had only begun working there a short time before, greeted us and showed us to a row of tables outside on the veranda. We were the first customers of the day, and she spent quite some time pouring and describing each of the five wonderful wines we tasted. She told us that the winemaker, Ernesto Alvarez Morphy Camou, had opened Frannes just a few years ago, after many years of running his earlier vineyard, Chateau Camou. The new winery he named after his son, Francisco, plus Ernesto. The modern buildings of Frannes are nestled near the far northern edge of the valley, below steep bluffs, and the views from the veranda are beautiful. We still had to buy one of the two bottles California would allow back in the state, and we chose an exceptional 2012 Cabernet Franc to bring back.

After this incredible experience, we decided to find out what Ernesto’s flagship winery, Chateau Camou, was like, now with new owners. Camou turned out to be a huge whitewashed building with well-worn wooden doors. Inside, the place was filled with oak barrels and chandeliers, giving a buttery light to everything. The indoor welcome was as inviting as Frannes’ outdoor was. We drank some fine red wines, some of them fifteen years old, and a couple of surprisingly mature whites. By the time we finished at Camou, it was nearing our reservations at Laja, so we headed south.

Laja is a bit of a splurge but well worth the price. For fifty dollars, they serve eight courses, small enough so you don’t waddle away from the table, but large enough so you’re very satisfied. For an additional twenty-five, they match a local wine with each of the courses.

It turned out to be a wise decision on our part, because it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten, and included courses with scallops, octopus and local lamb you could cut with a fork. The spinach ravioli with duck cracklings was extra special, as was the catch of the day, which was white sea bass. Two very creative desserts finished the meal. Lemongrass and kohlrabi ice cream (Really!) followed by a spinach biscuit with goat cheese ice cream. We’ll be going back sooner than later.

EZ Exit

Last Thanksgiving, we drove down to Ensenada for the holiday. Coming back, we waited at the border for three and a half hours! We decided this would not work if we wanted to continue visiting Mexico. We found out about Sentri pass, which costs about a hundred dollars and lasts for five years. We now have Sentri passes, which are good anywhere you come through customs into the U.S. The Sentri pass line was less than a half hour long, and when we reached the gate, we handed our passes to the customs official. He scanned them and said, “Thank you. Go ahead,” as we were pulling out our passports. He said, “These are all I need,” when we told him that this was our first time using them, and we should expect our car to be thoroughly examined and even X-rayed.

He smiled and said, “The computer says everything’s okay, so have a nice day,” and we drove through with relief and delight at the way they worked. They take about three months to get, but they last five years. If you’re interested in visiting Mexico, as we are, I strongly suggest you get them. They even speed your wait through lines in airports anywhere in the country. Happy traveling!

Pura Vida for the birds

In early March, Laurel and I spent an incredible week in Costa Rica. We went to several of the national parks with a guide and spotted a total of 127 bird species. 89 of them were life birds. Following is the complete list, divided into the various locations.


Costa Rica 2017 Birds

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The italicized birds were life birds.

2/12—Metropolitan Parque La Sabana
Fulvous Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Muscovy Duck
Rock Pigeon
Black Vulture
Clay-colored Thrush
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Great Kiskadee

Turquoise-browed Motmot pair

Turquoise-browed Motmot pair

White-winged Dove

2/13—Carara National Park
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-tailed Flycatcher
Dusky Antbird
Rufous Piha
Streak-headed Wood Creeper
Bay-headed Tanager
Turquoise-browed Motmot
White-winged Dove
Chestnut-backed Antbird
White-shouldered Tanager
Great Tinamou
Lesser Greenlet
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Plain Xenops

Scarlet Macaws

Scarlet Macaws

Golden-naped Woodpecker
Scarlet Macaw
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Black-hooded Antshrike
Inca Dove
Blue-grey Tanager
Rufous-naped Wren
White-whiskered Puffbird 

2/13—Tropical Mangrove Boat Tour

Costa Rica Swift
Green Heron
Gray-breasted Swift
Great Kiskadee
White Ibis
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
White-tailed Kite
Groove-billed Ani
Mealy Parakeet
Boat-billed Heron
Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Northern Jacana

Orange-fronted Parakeet
Yellow-headed Caracara
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
Redwing Blackbird
Black-necked Stilt

Neotropic Cormorant
Magnificent Frigatebird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Baltimore Oriole
Yellow-naped Parrot
Barn Swallow

Yellow-naped Parrot

Yellow-naped Parrot

Cattle Egret
Northern Waterthrush
Roseate Spoonbill
Mangrove Hummingbird
Tropical Pewee
Green Kingfisher

Common Toady Flycatcher
Mangrove Yellow Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Mangrove Black Hawk
Mangrove Swallow
Brown Pelican

2/14—Tropical Adventure
White Hawk
Yellow-throated Toucan
Silver-throated Tanager
Buff-rumped Warbler
Black-faced Grosbeak
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Rufous Mourner
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Black-and-red Grosbeak
Long-billed Hermit
Ruddy Ground Dove

Mealy Parakeet

2/14—Cope’s at La Union

Long-billed Hermit
Spectacled Owl
Northern Jacana
Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana

Pale-vented Pigeon
Clay-colored Thrush
White-necked Jacobin
White-tipped Sicklebill
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Montezuma Oropendola
Scarlet-rumped Tanager
Keel-billed Toucan

2/15—Tortuga Island Cruise

Laughing Gull
Caspian Tern
Great Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird

Brown Pelican

Montezuma Oropendula

Montezuma Oropendula


2/16—Downtown San Jose
Crimson-fronted Parakeet

2/17—Quetzal National Park
Black-capped Flycatcher
Talamanca Hummingbird
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush
Blue-and-white Swallow
Blue-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher
Peg-billed Finch
Black Vulture
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus
Black-billed Nightingale Thrush
Volcano Hummingbird
Grey-breasted Wood Wren
Collared Redstart

2/17—Tapanti National Park
Cattle Egret
Turkey Vulture

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Common Chlorospingus

Yellowish Flycatcher
Scaled Antpitta
Torrent Tyrannulet
Black Phoebe
Collared Trogon
Olivaceous Wood Creeper
Black Guan

2/18—Poas Volcano National Park
Violet Sabrewing
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Magnificent Hummingbird
Baltimore Oriole
Black-cowled Oriole
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
Melodious Blackbird

Crested Guan

Crested Guan

2/18—La Paz Waterfall Park
Townsend’s Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Spangled-cheek Tanager
Chestnut-capped Finch
Crested Guan
White-tipped Dove

A Crested Guan in the park’s aviary seemed to develop a crush on Laurel’s long-legged tripod. It jumped down and began to rub against the legs.

We also saw several fascinating animals
Long-nosed Bat
Honduran White Bat
Phantasma Bat
Three-toed Sloth

Honduran White Bats

Honduran White Bats

Cope, our guide on Tuesday, found these bats for us on the underside of a banana leaf. Curled up, they are just a little larger than a mothball.





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I couldn’t end this list without showing off at least one of Costa Rica’s 52 beautiful hummingbirds. This little one is a Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

Pura Vida


Keel-billed Toucan

In English, pura vida means “pure life.” But in Costa Rica, it’s come to mean much more than that. The phrase means everything from “hello” to “excellent.” It’s the statement that symbolizes Costa Ricans’ love of their country and pride in what nature has given them.

Recently, Laurel and I visited Costa Rica for the first time, and we came to enjoy and respect what the Ticos, as they call themselves, have. The country ranks percentage-wise first in the world in protected land mass, with more than 25% of it designated as national parks or preserves. Since we’re avid birders, we were excited about the fact that, even though it’s only about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire, it’s home to more than 900 bird species and a wide variety of animals. In less than a week, we spotted nearly 90 life birds, thanks to our very able guides. (For bird lovers, I’m posting a separate blog that describes in detail what we saw.)


National Theatre in San Jose

We stayed in a comfortable condo complex in San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica. It’s about the same size as San Diego, but a word of caution here. If you’re enticed to visit Costa Rica, don’t rent a car and drive. The traffic is insane—narrow highways full of large trucks and crowded conditions everywhere around the city. Traffic lanes are marked, but treated merely as suggestions. In addition, street names just grew with the city. Avenida 3 is not necessarily next to Avenida 4. It takes an experienced taxi driver or guide to take you where you want to go.

That said, San Jose is an intriguing city full of parks and some excellent museums. We visited the Pre-Columbian Gold and Jade Museums, and they were both filled with wonderful art and provided an introduction to the history and culture of Costa Rica and its many indigenous peoples, several of whom still live in their old ways in various areas of the country.

Vic and Deimer

Deimer and me

Our primary guide, Deimer Espinosa, comes from a family that’s descended from the Charotegas people of Guanacaste, the region on the Pacific that now hosts several excellent beach resorts. He owns a company that has been influential in developing recycling methods for the country (you see recycle bins everywhere). He also leads a school that trains future guides, knowledgeable in the country’s flora and fauna. And he led us to a series of national parks and venues brimming with lush rainforests, crocodile rivers and tropical volcano craters. Everywhere we went, the spectacular countryside was fascinating and beautiful.

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and for a change of pace we decided to splurge and treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Rated #1 out of 524 restaurants in San Jose is a French restaurant named La Terrasse, so we made reservations (highly recommended, since the restaurant is in the owners’ home, and there are only six or seven tables). Here’s the address, in typical Tico fashion: Avenida 9, calle 15, 45 metros al Norte de Café Mundo, 25 metros al sur del hotel la Amistad, Barrio Otoya San José, describing that it’s 45 meters north of Café Mundo and 25 meters south of Hotel la Amistad, landmarks for the lost. Our cab driver knew the general location and, after a couple of wrong turns, found the home south of city center. We knocked on the door, and our host opened it and welcomed us in.

patricia richer

Patricia Richer

The chef of La Terrasse is Patricia Richer, and her husband, Gerald, is the waiter, wine steward and genial host. Together, they served us one of the best meals we have ever had. And in such lovely, intimate surroundings. Here’s the menu:

Vegetales orgánicos de Joseph Dugast, La BioFinca de Don Pepe.

“Para el placer de un cena romantica.”

Coctel Glamour

Crema de esparragos, aguacate
Cardamomo & coco

Mini brocheta de camarón con especias.

Mini Tarteleta de hongos y queso camembert
Pisto de berros.

Soupe d'asperges et avocat Saint ValentinPechuga de pato, especias
Emulsión de Martini blanco y naranja
Gratinado de papas al aceite de trufas.

Fondante de caramelo espéculos & nueces caramelizadas
Croquante de chocolate.
Trufas de chocolate blanco & praliné.

And here’s a photo to give you an idea of what their “small home” looks like:

San Valentin (Custom)We highly recommend that if you ever spend an evening in San Jose, spend it at La Terrasse.

On the wild side of Costa Rica, we spent a late afternoon cruising the Tarcoles River, which empties into the Pacific. In two hours, traveling up and down the river with our knowledgeable pilot, we spotted 42 different birds, 29 of them life birds! We also saw several crocodiles, some of them hauled out on the river’s grassy banks. One of them had to be at least twelve feet long. We asked the guide why some of them lie with their mouths opened wide, and he told us that’s how the crocs cool themselves. We finished at the mouth of the river in time to see the sun set out on the Pacific. Click on Jungle Crocodile Safari to read more about the boat ride.

On the way to the river, we stopped for lunch at Restaurante Bar & Grill Los Toneles and had some excellent sandwiches, actually washed down by a Costa Rican craft beer. The craft beer explosion has hit Costa Rica, too, and it was quite good. Like a lot of countries, there is one beer that everyone drinks. In Costa Rica, that beer is Imperial. It even comes in draft at some places and is not bad, but it’s not a craft beer.

P3On the day we spent in the city perusing the museums, we walked up Avenida Central and discovered that it turns into a pedestrian mall for blocks in the city center. Bustling and busy, with shops from farmacias to book stores, live bands and women selling their produce spread on blankets, it was a delightful find. On one corner, we even found a craft brew tavern. Called Pub P3, it’s on piso tres, the third floor, and it’s a sophisticated little club that looks out through open windows at the sights below. Flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew up the street while we sampled their excellent IPA.

We wanted to get a better look at Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and spent a day on Calypso Cruise’s terrific catamaran, the Manta Raya. It took us out on a calm sea through several islands off the coast and eventually to Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island, although we didn’t see any turtles). We spent five hours ashore on a beautiful sandy beach and had a terrific beach lunch. Laurel got in some snorkeling, and she saw a few fish but  said the water was warm and a little murky.


Lucia Quesada

On the last two days, we were joined by a lovely young guide named Lucia Quesada. She has recently finished her three years of education as a naturalist/guide, and she was a fountain of knowledge, not only for birds, but also the culture and history of the country. Her family comes from the Huetares people, on the southern part of the Caribbean side. She and Laurel became a dynamic duo, spotting birds everywhere and then finding them in the bird guide.

We visited the Poas Volcano, another national park, and had a great look at the still hot caldera, then avoided all the crowds when our Deimer and Lucia took us back on a trail where we only saw two or three people. On the way to the volcano, we stopped at a terrific restaurant, Freddo Fresas. It’s in the heart of strawberry country and has a wonderful selection of pastries and desserts featuring the gorgeous berries. Freddo owns land across the street from the restaurant and has turned it into a garden filled with feeders. Hummingbirds everywhere!

Saturday was our last day before returning to San Diego. We started by hunting for the legendary Quetzal, which has a national park named after it. We didn’t find it, but we saw plenty of other birds. Finally, we visited the La Paz Waterfall Park, which has a series of three waterfalls in lush jungle. At the top is a major tourist attraction which features a zoo and a large aviary. Lots of birds in the aviary, but we didn’t add any to our list. We still finished the week with 127 different birds, 89 of them new to us.

crested guanOne bird we saw in the aviary was a Crested Guan, about the size of a small turkey. We stopped near it to watch it perch on a railing. It seemed quite tame and was attracted to Laurel’s scope mounted on its tripod. Finally, the bird jumped down and began rubbing the legs of the tripod with its beak. Definitely, he must be a bird who appreciates long legs. Quite a laugh for all of us.

CR waterfallsA word of caution: If you want to climb down to see the waterfalls, be prepared for what seemed to be about 300 stairs. Fortunately, you only have to climb back a quarter of the way, where a shuttle bus is waiting. A strenuous climb, but worth it.

It was our first trip to Costa Rica, but it won’t be our last. The Ticos’ idea of “pura vida” is addicting.

The "pura vida" in Costa Rica

Pura vida in Costa Rica

Time Travelin’ Guy

Last night, Laurel and I experienced an event that, while not life-changing, certainly improved our lives, because we saw and heard the phenomenal music of Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxson.

blind boyPaxson was born in Watts to a family whose roots went back to Evangeline County, Louisiana. He grew up listening to his grandparents singing old country blues songs and began to play the fiddle at twelve, following that with the banjo two years later. He began to go blind as a teenager and lost most of his sight by the age of sixteen. He has added piano, harmonica, Cajun accordion, ukulele, guitar, and the bones to his musical arsenal, and is amazingly proficient at them all.

banjo geniusOn top of that, he talks through the entire show, telling stories and giving bits of information about the music he’s playing. For instance, he sat down at the piano and played a blues with the lyrics, “My baby left me on the 219, but she came back to me on the 217.” After finishing, he explained that back in the day, the 219 was the train from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and the 217 was the returning train.

At the end of his show, he told us he had one more number to do, but because of his blindness, it was too much work for him to leave the stage and come back for an encore, so we’d best give him the applause for an encore before he did his last song. And the audience went nuts.

at the pianoHe’s now 28 and is compared to major players like Taj Mahal and Keb Mo, but we’ve never heard anyone who seems to channel the music of the 1800s, the 1920s or the 1930s like this man. We’ve decided that he must be a time traveler from back then, but we’re fortunate to be hearing him now. Take a listen.

Mole In The Ground

I Ain’t Got Nobody


Click here to read the true story about Yamashita's Treasure, the inspiration of the book.

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Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

Stairway of the Gods continues to impress. The book's cover just won the Best Self-Published Book Cover Design Contest sponsored by A&A Printing.