6 Reasons to Visit Sonoma in 2016

 

JACUZZITASTE

Tasting for free at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Napa started it, of course, the wine revolution in the state of California. Like a typical big brother, it lords its tenure and viniculture muscle over little sister Sonoma. The two counties are both known for their beautiful wineries and rolling hills crawling with grape vines. Napa Valley may boast bigger and more well-known properties, but Sonoma Valley guards its own superlatives, which in many ways make it a more well-rounded destination. As spring’s warmth begins to coax out fresh green vineyard canopies, add these six Sonoma Valley benefits to your travel plans.

  1. Free wine tastings

Along Wine Road, you will find more than 400 wineries that welcome the public for tastings of their wares and a chance to purchase wines that are often unavailable or difficult to find elsewhere. At more than 60 of the wineries you can score free tastings: Some simply don’t charge; others are on the Visa Signature Perks plan, where if you show that particular credit card, you get complimentary tastings for two. Tastings usually run around $20 or more per person, so you can realize great savings if you plan ahead and get on the Visa Signature program, which also gets you discounts on purchases made at the qualifying wineries.

  1. The charming town of Sonoma

Smaller and more neighborly than the city of Napa, downtown Sonoma orderly comports itself around a square with a park at center and the historic city hall. Known as Sonoma Plaza, it ranks as the largest plaza in California. A state historic park takes up one block of Spain Street, which borders the plaza on one side. It encompasses a number of Spanish colonial sites including the circa-1823 Mission San Francisco Solano — the 21st and last mission built in Alta California. The historic El Dorado hotel with its highly hailed Kitchen restaurant overlooks the plaza. Or keep in the mission theme at elegant Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn a few blocks from the plaza. Its Santé restaurant absolutely shines at fine California cuisine. Or go for craft cocktails and modern munchies at Whiskey Bar & Grill downtown. Among the shops and galleries around the square, foodies should not miss the Sonoma Cheese Factory, so much more than its name implies.

  1. The equally charming town of Healdsburg

A shopper’s and diner’s delight, Healdsburg too centers around a town plaza. Wine tasting rooms, galleries, and fun gift and clothing shops surround the central park and the block to the north. Check out Studio Barndiva for local artworks and wine sipping. Circa 1902 Healdsburg Inn will put you up in style in the thick of all the charm and action.

  1. Madrona Manor

MADRONA

Tableside ice cream at Madrona Manor

For inimitable historic lodging and over-the-top dining experience in the Healdsburg area, Madrona Manor revolves around a beautiful Victorian mansion built in 1881. The grounds overlook vineyards and hold gorgeous gardens of flowers, statuary, a lovely pool, citrus trees, and vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Luxury accommodations live in the mansion, the Carriage House, the School House, and other cottages and vintage structures. The dining room too occupies the mansion for an elegant foray into molecular gastronomy that wows the taste buds course after course.

  1. Sonoma Raceway

Home to nationally televised NASCAR, Indy-car, and motorcycle races, the Sonoma Raceway is a little-known bonus to car enthusiasts visiting the area. Right at the southern threshold to wine country, it lets visitors tour around the scenic, hilly track for free when there are no racing events. Many days you can watch drivers enrolled in its Audi Sportscar Experience take to the track. Or suit up and try it yourself. Don’t miss the spit-and-shine garage housing McLarens and other luxe  cars. Then wash away the road dust with a short drive to Ram’s Gate, Viansa, and Jacuzzi wineries. (The latter offers free wine tastings to the general public.)

RACEWAY

  1. Beaches

Sonoma’s best edge over Napa Valley just might be what lies at the edge of its western shore – Pacific Ocean beaches. Rugged cliffs overlook golden sands and  migrating gray whales for more than 55 miles along the dramatic coastline. (In spring the whales are heading southbound from Alaska to Mexico, and volunteers are on hand at Bodega Head to help spot them and answer questions.) Other favorite beaches include Bowling Ball Beach, Goat Rock State Beach, and Salmon Creek Beach.

Bahamas: Rolling in the Deep at Deep Water Cay

First we floated above a sand desert with sparse vegetation and sparser inhabitants. Suddenly the terrain turned to prairie, and signs of life picked up. Then bam! I found

Welcome!

Welcome!

myself above the most beautiful garden I had ever seen – bursting with color, waving hypnotically, casting a spell with natives ranging from purple infinitesimal to six-feet-wide gliding monstrosities.

It was not a dream. It seemed like a dream, but I was wide awake and quite wide-eyed behind my snorkel mask at a dive site known as Thrift Harbour at the eastern extremes of Grand Bahama Island.

Grand Bahama Island: You know it as home to Freeport and Lucaya, but this place couldn’t be further removed. Only thing in common? The incredible palette of gem-like blues and greens painting the pure, clear water.

Dive master Phillip from Deep Water Cay resort guided me on this snorkeling adventure that ended at one of the Bahamas’ famed blue holes. But guiding seemed superfluous to this drift dive where the current did all the guiding. Phillip merely pointed out the eagle rays, barracudas, cubera snappers, a constellation of sea stars, and other amazing sea life that inhabited this experience, which felt so much like swimming in one of the aquariums at Atlantis. But better, oh so much better.

Resorting to Deep Water Cay

Deep Water Cay occupies its own 2.5-mile island at the East End of GBI, just a conch shell’s throw from McLean’s Town.

Conch is especially iconic here, home of October’s annual Conch Cracking Festival.

Bonefish is the other icon. Fishermen in these parts claim it to have the best fishing and biggest bonefish of anywhere in the Bahamas. Heck, after a few Kaliks (the local beer), make that “best in the world.”

Kaliks go down smoothly at DWC’s beachfront tiki bar after a day on the water, whether it has been spent flats casting for bonefish, deep-sea fishing for mahi, scuba diving the shallow offshore reef, snorkeling and lunch at a deserted island, kayaking or paddleboarding among the mangroves, or simply lazing on the beach or by the infinity pool that drops off the edge into a mirage of too-beautiful-to-believe water.

For most guests, the highlight of the day is fighting a 20-inch bonefish. For me, during my four-day stay, it was dinner. Executive Chef Owen has worked his way from native Bahamas to Nassau and Italy. He uses local catches – often provided by guests – in inventive ways that meld Bahamian and new American styles. My first night in, a guest shared his mahi catch, which Chef Alex prepared simply roasted with herbs and potatoes. It changed my whole opinion about the fish I previously had turned up my nose at.

All in a Day’s Play

Your table awaits.

Your table awaits.

At Deep Water Cay, the day starts with hot buffet breakfast followed by an almost mass exodus to the sea.

Box lunches open in the boat or at “Lunch Beach” or another isolated beach on one of several uninhabited islands that punctuate in quick succession GBI’s East End like Morse code.

The tiki bar awaits tall tales and sea-driven thirst upon return. Deluxe munchies and happy hour cocktails happen around the infinity pool while guests watch slides of their day’s adventure, before repairing to the dining room for something enormously wonderful. They then play billiards and other games in the posh lodge decorated with mounted fish and historic images from the lodge’s bygones picturing illustrious guests such as Curt Gowdy.

Legendary fishermen founded DWC as their playground in 1958 – Palm Beach guide Gil Drake, Sr., and Field & Stream editor A.J. McClane. Modern-day celebs have included Tom Brokaw and Liam Neeson.

A 2011 renovation brought the historic property into the 21st century plushly. It reopened with a new look and determination to attract families, couples, scuba divers and snorkelers, kayakers and paddleboarders, as well as the fish-frenzied.

Accommodations range from cheerful guest rooms in the historic cottages to luxury three-bedroom rental homes with views of the reef-barricaded sea. Basically, anything you desire here is yours, except for televisions in the accommodations and other such bothersome conveniences.

Massage? Sure, in your room or seaside. Conch salad for lunch? Absolutely, fresh from the resort’s conch pen. A boat break at Sweeting’s Cay for Bahama Mamas? No problem. A shuttle to McLean’s Town for native dinner? What time would you like to leave? A charter flight directly from South Florida to the cay? DWC has its own landing strip and customs office and will make arrangements.

Heck, our bonefishing guide was even willing to hook a bonefish for us to reel in so we could have our picture on the slideshow that night. Instead I hooked into three that never made it to the boat and a mammoth eagle ray that thankfully finally broke the line before it did my back.

I cared not. Gazing at the horizon — where the water softened to the same shade as the hazy sky, so you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended — catching bonefish seemed a waste of relaxation.

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Charleston Foodie Fling

Tomato pie.

TOMATOPIE

Dixie Supply tomato pie

I had one singular foodie goal for our trip to Charleston, SC, for the holidays. On my last trip, more than two years ago, I’d successfully sated my shrimp ‘n’ grits cravings. I had eaten my fill of Lowcountry Boil and she crab soup. I had reveled in fine nouvelle Lowcountry cuisine at McCrady’s.All that feasting, alas, had left me with no spare appetite to fit in a wedge of tomato pie from Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe, an off-the-eaten path legend of Charleston’s famed dining scene. And so I dragged my relatives into a convenience store strip where a few tables outside in the parking lot accounts for its best in atmosphere.

Inside, slaloming through other packed and packed-close tables, we made our way to the line at the counter, where we perused a menu of Carolina specialties and more mainstream sandwiches – everything from fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese (a.k.a. Southern caviar) to turkey and brie on a croissant.

My tomato pie would come with sweet potato cornbread, Read more of this post

Riviera Maya: Celebrating the turn of an era

Chichén Itzá’s famous temple

The Maya believe the higher your elevation, the closer you are to the gods.

Standing atop the Maya’s second tallest temple in Cobá, I could see their point: I truly did feel closer to the gods — if the sensation that you are standing on the brink of death-by-falling qualifies.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that the culmination of the Mayan calendar this December signals the end of the world or the beginning of a new era, all the debate and apprehension may have piqued your interest in the Maya culture.

Mine was, and that’s how I ended up in Mexico’s Riviera Maya in pursuit of all things Maya.

Maya Calendar Confusion

“For Mayas, the obsession was time and space,” said Pedro, a guide Read more of this post

Bahamas Fishing Adventure

The ‘Reluctant Angler’ hits Bahamian waters

“Most people go a lifetime without catching a fish like that,” Capt. Mike Russell told me aboard the Chubasca III.

It surprised me, the rush of pride I felt there afloat in the 6,000-foot deep waters outside of Nassau Harbour, mugging for the camera with the 20-

Me and my mahi

pound mahi-mahi I had just reeled in. A Facebook moment to be sure.I had, up to that same moment, considered the sport of fishing, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s golfing analogy, as a good boat ride spoiled. The next day, after pulling in four bonefish and a small Nassau grouper off the sand flats in the Bahamas’ Out Islands, I started to “get” the whole attraction. Read more of this post