Golfing gals hit Napa!

Napa may be a hotspot for couples, but this gang of golfing gals from Arizona needed a getaway while our home golf course was being taken over by the men for their final golf event of the year in mid-April. Our second love is wine – so Napa was a natural fit. Sorry hubbies – you’re a close third!

Golfing gals do Napa!

After a 90 minute flight from Phoenix to San Fran, followed by a 90 minute chauffeured drive we arrived at our accommodations at Silverado Resort on Silverado Trail in the eastern side of the Rutherford township in the middle of the Napa Valley. Since golf is our first love, we played two days of golf sandwiching a day of hitting wineries.

Entrance to Silverado Resort, off of Silverado Trail in Rutherford, Napa Valley.

As we waited for our rooms to be ready we hit the links at the Silverado North Course, host to the PGA Safeway Open (first tournament of the FedEx Cup season). The benign conditions did not offset the challenge of the heavily tree-lined, narrow fairways lined with thick sticky rough, finishing off on crowned greens that ran fast. One of our gals recently moved to Santa Clara, a 2 hour drive south of Napa. She surprised us with a car filled with wine, beer and snacks. You da best crazy girl!! After a very long day of travel and challenging golf, we indulged in all the above, along with some intensely heated matches of bocce ball and corn hole. Then early to bed to ready ourselves for a day of wine tastings.

Can you guess which one likes to push us over the line and which keeps us toeing the line? 🙂

Testing our tossing abilities after a day of wine tasting with the corn hole toss at the Silverado Resort.

Bocce ball courts at Silverado Resort – a great place to wind down after a day or golf or wine tastings.

The rooms are spacious, each with a private outside entrance, and possible wild life sightings – see pic below. With a Starbucks onsite it was nice to get our days started with a much-needed jolt of energy. My roomy and I traded turns for the morning jaunt to Starbucks – but she wins extra points by spoiling me with a turn down service of 4 Advil to ease the pains of a day of golfing and/or drinking.

A couple of deer made their way through the inner courtyard area outside our patio at Silverado Resort.

Our winery tour day began with car service by Damon of Bliss Wine Tours – pick-up at 9:30 am. The studly and sweet Damon took great care of us gals all day long and we would highly recommend his services! He had a cooler full of water to keep us hydrated between wineries (we aren’t ones to waste a single drop at the wine tastings); he was highly knowledgeable about the area and the wineries; he was prepared with a wine opener and tracked down extra cups for us to enjoy a newly purchased bottle of wine to have with deli sandwiches we pre-ordered from the historical Oakville Grocery.

We started our day of winery visits at Robert Mondavi Winery – the first winery I ever visited some 30 years ago when there were only a couple of dozen wineries compared to over 450 wineries today in the Napa Valley. Mondavi has matured into one of the pinnacle wineries of the Napa Valley. The Mission-style winery sits on a 35-acre vineyard and we were treated to a full tour of their beautiful, lush, expansive, extremely clean winery while becoming informed about the wine business as a whole.

Robert Mondavi Winery.

The gals experiencing the first wine tasting of the day, 10 am, at Robert Mondavi.

After lunch it was off to a very unique winery – Raymond Vineyards. A beautiful setting with a large garden area replete with a mini-animal farm with goats and chickens. A fairly nondescript entrance is an offset to what lies behind several doors; The Red Room – reminiscent of a speak-easy highlighted in hues of red from the furniture to the lighting; the Crystal Cellar – we playfully dubbed the S&M room with fuchsia lighting flooding the ornate cases of cut crystal ware, animal skin covered wine barrels, and mannequin swinging from a trapeze – oh the parties that must go on in this room; and the more subdued Library – walls lined with rows and rows of bottles instead of books and a library ladder to reach them all. Be sure to check out the Corridor of Senses. Sadly the Raymond wine did not pass our tastebud test, but the winery itself was worth the visit.

Mannequins hanging from a trapeze in the Crystal wine tasting room at Raymond Winery.

The mini-animal farm at Raymond Winery. The whole scene is a real head scratcher, but oh so entertaining.

Our winery tour day was on a warm spring day and after a couple of wineries we were ready to mix it up a bit with a couple of beers. On cue Damon scored a few more brownie points knowing right where to take us for one of the coldest beers we have ever tasted – and that’s saying a lot! We played a few games of pool at this no-name dive bar, enjoying our cold beers, while Damon tracked down another great winery for us to properly fill out our wine tour day.

Truly a ‘no name’ bar for the gals to take a breather from the wine tastings.

A little billiards and ice-cold beer at the no name bar in Rutherford.

Goosecross Cellars was not on our original line-up of wineries, but when we found ourselves with a little extra time before our final wine tour, Damon made a call and got us into this family owned Yountville winery. The recently built ‘hospitality’ structure has a nouveau rustic look and feel with a relaxing back patio overlooking their expansive vineyard. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines – reds were bold, but smooth and the whites were crisp, but refreshing. Not a bad little find. Thank you Damon.

Goosecross Winery.

Our day finished with an opportunity to meet Sue McNerney, owner of Le Chanceux, a boutique winery consisting of a 1 acre plot of cabernet sauvignon grapevines. What she has been able achieve with that micro plot has earned her high accolades in a very short period of time (nee’ 2002). Sue is a genuine soul who ran with a dream and made it a reality. Her cabernet sauvignon, grown from French root-stock, can hold its own against some of the long-standing heavy hitters from the Napa Valley. I have found over the years I often get a headache from lesser quality cabernet sauvignons – but am happy to report no headaches from Sue’s premium variety.

Sue McNerney, proprietor of Le Chanceux winery – ‘One Woman, One Wine’!

Our third day in Napa had us back at the golf course – the South Course at Silverado Resort. After a day of being plied with great wines, we all apparently loosened up and a more enjoyable day of golf than we did on the North Course. The South Course is a more open course and with a more consistent feel hole to hole and green to green with a level of beautify that we all felt eclipsed the North Course.

Approach into the beautiful 13th hole from the center cut of the fairway.

One of our group was not able to join us in Napa in time to take in the winery tours, so on our way back to the San Fran airport for our trip back to AZ we searched out one last winery to share what Napa is all about for this winery virgin. We struck out on our first two attempts at Domaine Carneros – apparently a great place for a champagne tasting, and Del Dotto Vineyards, specifically their Napa Historic Winery and Caves . They were listed as having walk-in tastings available, but by the time we arrived at 10 am on a Saturday morning both vineyards were so full they could not accommodate any more walk-ins. We eventually found a quaint little winery down the road from Domaine Carneros called Madonna Estate. They were able to accommodate us and show this group of golfing gals a good time, finishing our golf/wine outing in true Napa style.

Golf/wine gals wind-up the Napa weekend at Madonna winery. We shall return to expand our search for more Napa wine and golf!

Check out more fun pics from trip ‘Napa Gals Trip‘ in the Global Gallery tab.

I’m back!! After a 3 1/2 year journey!

After a very long hiatus to give full attention to the building our family’s forever dream home, I am back to my writing, most importantly the writing of my travel blog.

But what a journey it has been. The home build was a year in the design process and another 2 1/2 years in the construction process. As much as the home build was a labor of love, it became a full time commitment in the final 18 months and I chose to put my writing on a temporary hold to give the build my full undivided attention.

In those 3 1/2 years I’m sure I logged enough road miles to earn AAA elite status – if there is such a thing! We chose to build on top of hill – but to accomplish our desire of building a one level home we had to excavate 25 feet deep from the highest point of the hill to the lowest point of the foundation. But after 6 plus months of digging, and exporting over 1200 truckloads of unusable material (325 of those were boulders alone), we had our flat lot. Now we can stay here until we are old and can race up and down the hallways with our walkers with no worries of stairs!

Luckily I somehow managed to fit in some very special trips during this busy time!

My last post was May of 2015. The following places are where I’ve been since then: Big Sky and Billings, Montana; Sedona (twice), Scottsdale and Wickenburg, Arizona; Napa Valley (twice), California; Vancouver, British Columbia; 4 different trips to Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York; Palm Springs, California; Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and a few other jaunts betwixt and between these amazing trips.

I will also reprise my monthly food blog. My need to fill my foodie desires never wavered during the home build project. Had to keep that strength up!

As much as I love to travel, there is no place like home and nothing like coming home. Especially when home allows me views that equal any I’ve ever experienced in my travels. Rugged red mountain ranges, hawks soaring through the open skies, lush green golf courses and orchards dotting the saguaro laden desert landscape, owls and coyotes making their presence known in the dark of night with their hoots and howls .

But…this is a travel blog, and there are many more amazing destinations on my bucket list to see and experience. So time to get back to my nomadic living and narrate!

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Napa redux!

It had been 27 years since my husband and I had visited the Napa Valley when we took a trip there last fall. I assumed that it would be several more years before we made a return trip. But that Napa wine experience got under our skin, and when my husband learned he had a conference to attend in San Francisco that pull for a return trip to Napa was too strong to resist. It certainly isn’t that we have become learned wine connoisseurs. But we have become fans of the area, especially the upper Napa Valley – from the southern town of Yountville to Calistoga in the north and all points in between.

The Napa Valley

We could travel to Napa another twenty times and not even come close to seeing all there is to see. Along with developing a mature wine tasting palette, we are learning how to get the most out of spending a couple of days in this amazing region. Amazing because of the moderate temperatures, pretty much year round. Amazing because of the beautiful wineries that dot both sides of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Amazing because of the quaint small towns that emerge out of the acres upon acres of vines that line both roadways. Amazing because of the interesting, entertaining and informational wine tours.

It is hard to control the desire to hire a driver and see as many wineries in a day as opening hours allow. But we have quickly learned that patience truly is a virtue when experiencing the finished product of the efforts of vintners who have devoted years if not decades to the amazing craft of wine-making.

A beautiful view of the valley below the castle and it's own vineyards flowing out in every direction

A beautiful view of the valley of vineyards below the Castello di Amorosa and its own vineyards flowing out in every direction

There are many ways to visit wineries, and each winery has their own style they prefer to use to share their end products with the public. One thing we find amazing in Napa is how many wineries do not sell to retail outlets. A good many we visit sell only to their members or to favorite restaurants of their choosing. They prefer not to have their wines’ value diminished by selling mass quantities. So they sell less for more. Is their wine any better than those sold in mass quantities? What and who get to distinguish that comparison? We have certainly tried our share of wines over the last 30 years, but what we have found out is our taste buds are integral to us and what tastes good us. And even at that, my husband and I do not share the same tastes. We can sit with 5 glasses of wine in front of us and not agree on any one of them.

For us, we have discovered the niche of finding wineries that offer up a personal one-on-one experience vs group tastings. We learn more about the specific winery, the wines they make and the story behind the wine and wine makers. And for us this has value, as well as it is neat to showcase wines in our wine cellar that you can’t just run down to the local liquor store and pick up.

Private tasting room at Fantesca Winery - where we were treated to a one-on-one presentation of Fantesca wines

Private tasting room at Fantesca Winery – where we were treated to a one-on-one presentation of Fantesca wines

Instead of Napa becoming a once in a while post, it looks as though my husband and I are going to make a great effort to get to Napa at least once a year, so this will be an ongoing post, where I will review the wineries we drink at, the restaurants we eat at, the little towns we walk around and any other activities each new trip to Napa affords us.

We are learning that it is not only okay, but important to not give into the urge to drink every last drop poured for you at the wine tastings. There is a clay pot there for a reason – taste what you need to get a flavor of the wine and then toss out the rest. It is a sad waste of a lot of great wine, but your head will thank you in the morning. It also helps to have a fairly clean palette so that when we get to the final winery of the day my tongue is not numb and my head not swirling.

Whether you do or don’t watch your intake of wine, I still highly recommend hiring a car service. Not only is it nice to be dropped off and picked up at the front entrance of each winery, but many of these drivers have lived in the area for years, moved here because of a love of the region and wine-making or something to do with wine, and often have some great local stories or stats that you probably won’t get at the wineries, restaurants or lodging.

This time we stayed at the Calistoga Ranch, an Auberge Resort property. Most of the wineries we wanted to visit were in Calistoga. It is a resort built along a roadway that creeps up into the hillsides of this part of the valley. Each unit is like a glorified treehouse, that are tucked into a heavily wooded area. The units are quiet, and much to my husband’s pleasure have an outdoor shower! Apparently even in invigorating 55 degree temps the shower was a refreshing change of pace. This wimp stuck to the warm cozy indoor shower.

Unit #141 - the highest most unit in the development. Very quiet and serene.

Unit #141 – the highest unit at the Calistoga Ranch. Very quiet and serene.

Chateau Montelena. On our last visit to Napa, every winery we stopped at asked if we had watched a movie entitled, “Bottleshock.” Based strongly on the story of how the Napa Valley outpaced the dyed in the wool French wine market in the 1976 wine tasting competition. In a blind test of chardonnay’s the Chateau Montelana was picked unanimously by a mainly French wine judging panel over a strong line-up of French chardonnays. When the results were read the outrage was so palpable that some of the judges tried to rescind their vote once they learned what they had done because they could not conceive that an American/Californian wine had beat out their beloved French wines.

The winery is beautiful with an old world charm of a French Chateau facade replete with ivy starting to turn vibrant fall colors. Below sits a naturalized area with a pathway winding around lush greens spaces and a pond with beautiful local fauna and flora. And a red bridge tying the whole scene together. Inside the winery there are three beautifully hand carved wood bars for patrons to step up to and be served a flight of several wines of their choosing. No appointment necessary here, so pick off-peak times to visit as it is a highly sought after winery to visit. We went at opening on a Saturday morning at 9:30 am and had the place to ourselves and the attention of everyone working.

Our first winery - Chateau Montelena. Looks like it has been there for four centuries not four decades.

Our first winery – Chateau Montelena. Looks like it has been there for four centuries not four decades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another angle of the grounds at Chateau Montelena - need to leave more time on our next visit so we can fully walk the grounds.

Another angle of the grounds at Chateau Montelena – need to leave more time on our next visit so we can fully walk the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantesca Estate and WineryNext we were off to a special treat when it comes to how to really enjoy a wine tasting tour – in our humble opinion. We arrived at Fantesca Winery at about 10:30 and for the next 90 minutes we were spoiled with the knowledge and charm of a young wine expert. She was new at Fantesca, but had been in the wine business for nearly a decade. We started with a viewing of the Fantesca vineyard that flows down from the base of the winery into the rolling hills below. After a quick peak into the caves dug out of the hillside to store the newly barreled wine, we headed up into a beautifully appointed wine tasting room.

The etched argyle pattern on the Fantesca bottles comes from the owners idea to use a carnival theme based on the cirque du soleil theme

The etched argyle pattern on the Fantesca bottles comes from the owners idea to use a carnival theme based on an old Italian comedy troupe that inspired cirque du soleil and the outfits they wore

Fantesca Winery hired the apparent Queen of wine makers, Heidi Peterson Barrett, to create their wines. Heidi is said to have a palette for wine that maybe one in a billion people are born with. She is the most highly sought after vintner and is the only vintner, male or female, to score four perfect 100-point ratings  on wines she has created. And has her name attached to the most expensive bottle of wine sold in this region – a 6-litre bottle of Screaming Eagle – that had scored one of those 100 point ratings. This certainly was a tipping point for us when deciding whether to purchase Fantesca wines.

And once we tasted, even their young wines, we could truly tell the difference between wine being made by somebody with Heidi Barrett’s talents vs an average run of the mill vintner, whose only talent is a love for the craft of making wine. The smoothness and robust flavor of even Fantesca’s young wines outpaced any other wine we have tried – even those that have had ample aging time.

Castello di AmorosaOur third and final winery of the day was a place the locals call, “the castle.” And as the following pictures show, it is just that – a castle. A replica of an Italian 13th century castle that was built stone by stone in the same style that was used all those centuries ago. It is certainly a site to behold, but it has also become a huge tourist trap and wine tours can consist of a couple of dozen people per tour, with several tours going on at the same time. The wine is good, but the tour is equally about the castle and how it was built and all of its special attractions including a torture chamber in the dungeon. The vistas from the turrets offer views of amazing scenery and several of the large, more well-known wineries in the area.

Hard to believe this castle isn't somewhere in Italy and isn't several centuries old!

Hard to believe this castle isn’t somewhere in Italy and isn’t several centuries old!

Several reasons pull you to a winery, and those same reasons may entice you to choose to buy their wines – everything from the creativity of the wine labels or the bottles themselves, to the wine tour experience, to the actual taste of the wines. We have bought wines based on all of those reasons and more, and the desire to continue the journey only becomes more tantalizing with each visit. Just as I will never be completely sated by a single glass of wine, I will never be sated with a single visit to the Napa Valley.

We flew into the quieter Sacramento Airport, rented a car and drove the two lane state Highway 128 which winds tightly through the countryside, along creeks, past lakes, through a heavily treed and then a heavily burned out area, eventually morphing into Silverado Trail in the upper Napa Valley about two hours later.

After our visit in Napa, we made our way into San Francisco. My husband had meetings while I took in the sites and sounds of a bustling San Fran. Experienced a glass blowing demonstration by world-renowned Randy Strong, lunch at the historic Claremont Hotel Club and Spa sitting up high in the hills of Berkeley, and some wonderful dinners of local fresh seafood.

Check out more pictures under Napa Redux in the Global Gallery!

 

I will highlight the where we ate in the new “end of the month – where to eat” posts I’m starting this month.

Traveling is exciting, but “There’s no place like home!”

We’re not in Kansas anymore Dorothy! Oh wait, yes we are. That’s exactly where all our moves have taken my husband and I – back to Kansas, for the second time. As Dorothy so eloquently said in the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home!” and I couldn’t agree more. And for me ‘home’ has culminated in many different locations. I may not have a pair of ruby-red slippers to take me back home, but as much as I love to travel there is nothing better than coming back home.

I have been very lucky throughout my lifetime to have some amazing places to come home to: Minnesota, California, Montana, Kansas, Arizona, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Some of these places are a little better known to the masses, but I found out through living in all these places each location offers up a set up unique characteristics that make them very embraceable places to live AND visit.

Minnesota: My beloved Minnesota. This is where I grew up, and for me that means this will always be home. I was born in Northfield – town of Cows (large agriculture community), Colleges (St. Olaf and Carleton) and Contentment. Inside the city limits an academic nature prevails, but as soon as you hit the outskirts of town you are enveloped in perfectly aligned fields of corn and beans; orchards that are ripe with scents from spring to fall; and cows, horses and other livestock roaming the succulent stands of grasslands. If all of that doesn’t spell ‘contentment’ I don’t know what does.

I spent many weekends with my family “Up North“, along the shores of Lake Superior. Downhill skiing at Lutsen; cross-country skiing on the Gunflint Trail; walking the streets of Grand Marais; hiking trails with amazing views of Lake Superior; and having walleye meals at the Lutsen Lodge.

My husband and I moved back to Minnesota in 1991, and our son was born there a year later. Many of our family members still live there and to me there are fewer more beautiful states. Minnesota showcases the four seasons better than any other state I have visited or lived in. There is nothing like the scent of the spring bloom of the lilacs mixing with the flowering crabapple trees; the summer ripened lush green fairways and thick forests of trees of golf courses; a drive along the St. Croix or Mississippi Rivers showcasing the vibrant colors of fall; or a walk through the snow packed backwoods roads of Minnesota with evergreens draped with a fresh snowfall.

The lush green fairways and thick trees that line Northfield Golf Club, Northfield, MN - "The Money Tree"

The lush green fairways and thick trees of summer that line Northfield Golf Club, Northfield, MN – “The Money Tree”

The fall colors of Minnesota

The fall colors of Minnesota

California: My husband and I married in 1986, and our honeymoon was driving from Minnesota to California – our first home away from home. We lived in Stockton, CA. The best feature of Stockton was its location. We were an hour to San Francisco for fresh crab and strong coffee; an hour to Napa Valley to replenish our wine supply; two hours to Yosemite National Park to float down Merced River. In the one year we lived in Stockton, we had more family visitors than any other place we have lived within the same time frame. Locally we played several great golf courses; took walks along inland waterways fed from San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean; visited a burgeoning local wine industry; and enjoyed great weather year round.

The rows of grape vines in Napa Valley, producing some of the best wines in the world

The rows of grape vines in Napa Valley, producing some of the best wines in the world

Montana: Big Sky country! And until you visit this massive beautiful state, you can’t comprehend just how accurate that state motto is. Being based out of Great Falls, which sits along the Missouri River, afforded a great location to visit the many highlights throughout the state. Head northwest to the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park – be sure to try some huckleberries; continue west into the quaint small western town of Whitefish that sits at the base of Big Mountain ski area; turn south along the great boating lake Flathead Lake; continue south into the Bitterroot Mountains of Missoula; veer a little southeast to the mining (past and present) town of Butte; continue east to fish the Gallatin River or ski at Big Sky or Bridger Bowl outside of Bozeman; then work your way back north along the Missouri River as it cuts through some of the most beautiful Rocky Mountain settings in the country. And to the east are the plains of Montana where Lewis and Clark trekked back in the 1800’s.

Big Sky country, where the (deer) and the antelope roam, Montana

Kansas: I first lived here 25 years ago, and my daughter was born here in 1991. Having never visited the area, I was in awe of the lush rolling hills of Kansas City. When I learned we were returning to KS, I had no reservations in returning – especially since KC straddles the Kansas/Missouri line, so you are getting the highlights of two great states at your fingertips. The people are a mix of Mid-western nice and southern charm and take great pride in the care of their properties; strong family and work ethics; and great cooking. The unique Spanish architecture of The Plaza (great shopping and eating) is a draw, especially as outlined in lights for the holiday season; the stately mansions of Mission Hills are tough to be replicated anywhere; not being a huge fan of BBQ, even I have to admit the BBQ in KC is “…to die for!”

One of the areas most well-known BBQ stops, be ready to wait – but it’s worth it!

Four must haves at Jack Stack BBQ: pork ribs, burnt ends, cheesy corn bake and hickory pit beans.

Arizona: I have lived in Arizona, specifically the Phoenix area, a couple of different times and it will be where my husband and I retire, but Arizona has been the preferred vacation spot for my family, going back almost 40 years – my how this place has changed in 40 years. The dry warmth was always an appeal for a winter getaway from the humid cold of Minnesota. And being avid golfers it was a natural choice. As noted in my previous post I lived there as a junior in high school, when no major highways through the valley existed, and often Tempe and Mesa would be cut off from the rest of the valley when the monsoons hit and the Salt River bottoms flooded.

With the development of several major freeways, the city is now easy to navigate. Besides golf (albeit some of the best golf in the country) and an opportunity for a great tan, the valley has much too offer the visitor. Hiking trails abound throughout the surrounding mountain ranges providing spectacular views; floating down the upper Salt River watching wild horses drink from the shoreline; never-ending supply of great eateries; shopping to rival any other major city; a plethora of beautiful cars adorn the roadways; concerts, theaters, museums galore to satisfy the cultural palette.

The views from atop one of the surrounding high points that line that Phoenix Valley

The views from atop one of the surrounding high points that line that Phoenix Valley

The night skies from the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

The night skies from the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

Saskatchewan: The year 2000 found us moving northward. At this stage in my life I assumed I would be working my way south to warmer drier climates. Instead we headed north to one of the coldest climates known to man, that has a population of more than a few hundred. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan was our landing spot. It didn’t take long to realize that as challenging as it was to survive the winters, the people held a warmth to offset even the coldest of days. It was a great place to bring up our children.

The standing joke in Saskatchewan is that you can see your dog run away for 3 days – because it is so flat there. But you have to give the pioneers of Regina a lot of credit for making Regina a/k/a the Queen City a place worth living and visiting. Every tree in the city was hand planted in this once desolate plain, and Wascana Lake was created to be the center piece of the city with the stately provincial legislature building sitting proudly at its shores, and walking paths that take you along the lake and out into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Queen of England and all of her children have been visitors, since Canada is a Commonwealth of England; and there has been no shortage of great acts (ie. Rolling Stones, ACDC, Prince) through this city that sits on the one main highway through Canada – the Trans-Canada 1.

Downtown Regina serves as a backdrop to Wascana Lake and the Legislature building

Alberta: My stay in Calgary, Alberta was short-lived, only two years, but it wasn’t hard to make a real go of it in a city that sits in the foothills of some of the most majestic Rocky Mountain ranges in the world. Our kids were off to university by now, and so my husband and I took the opportunity to live in a high-rise condo, affording us amazing daily views. The weekend we moved there I sat on our 25th floor deck and listened to an outdoor concert, that was being held along the banks of the Bow River. The concert was part of the world-famous Calgary Stampede, based two blocks from our apartment when the whole city of Calgary turns into a cowboy theme park for the better part of two weeks.

While the city itself has a lot to offer, the proximity to places like Banff and Lake Louise make it an equally appealing place to live. Summer golf and hiking and winter skiing await you on a beautiful drive through a greatly untouched Bow River Valley, on a well maintained four-lane highway, past Cranbrook – stop in for a helicopter ride to reach new hiking heights. On into Banff National Park to get your fill of natures beauty: glacier fed turquoise blue lakes; snow-capped mountains even in the middle of summer; wildlife roaming over manmade animal bridges; clean fresh crisp air year round.

One of the many turquoise blue water lakes in the Banff National Park, Alberta - with snow capped peaks in this July picture

One of the many turquoise blue water lakes in the Banff National Park, Alberta – with snow-capped peaks in this July picture

Napa Valley: wining and dining to the extremes!

Arriving in the Napa Valley in the dead of night my sense of smell was heightened. The season was harvest time – and the aroma of the fermenting grapes was intense. In the morning the vibrant fall colors of grape vines lining the valleys and hills was brighter than any sunrise.

Grapes going through fermentation, Quintessa Winery, Napa Valley

Grapes going through fermentation, Quintessa Winery, Napa Valley

Valley vines of Chimney Rock, Napa Valley

Grape wines of Chimney Rock line the valley of Napa

Tribute vines at Hess Winery, Napa Valley - this plot is planted for the sole purpose as a tribute to the Monks who once owned a winery in this area.

Tribute vines at Hess Winery, Napa Valley – this plot is planted for the sole purpose as a tribute to the Monks who originally planted these vines

I wasn’t ready for the rural look and feel of the Napa wine country. My husband and I had visited here 27 years ago when there were a few dozen working wineries. After years of hearing about the ongoing explosion of wineries, I was expecting a much more commercialized, chaotic setting. But what I found was a couple of winding two-lane roads, with wineries lined up like dominoes, albeit very beautiful dominoes – all with their own unique look.

Hess, Quintessa, Jarvis, Chimney Rock, Grgich, Stag’s Leap, Joseph Phelps – a line-up of wineries to rival any list. In a valley of some 350 working wineries, the tours were as unique as the wines they served. How many ways can you make cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, merlot or malbec? After wine tastings at each of these wineries, the answer is – A LOT!

Jarvis Winery, Napa Valley

Jarvis Winery, Napa Valley

Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley

Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley

Hess Winery, Napa Valley

Hess Winery, Napa Valley

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley

Several decades ago local laws were set up to keep the Napa Valley focused on the wine industry with ecology first procedures. No winery is allowed to have a restaurant; no franchises allowed to be built; and even though over 80% are corporately owned now, most are organic in nature using local resources to grow some of the best wine grapes in the world.

The restaurants that have set up house in the Napa Valley stay within that same mindset of being organically unique. Most have their own on site gardens and obtain many of their ingredients from the local region. My husband and I decided to indulge in not only one, but two prix fixe dinners with wine pairings – as if we hadn’t already had enough of the latter!

Three words: The French Laundry. The name came from the business that used to be housed in the building this restaurant is in – which was a ‘french laundry.’ The room we ate in used to be the steaming room. But nowadays the only connection to that business is the ‘French’ part. The dinner is arguably the best French cuisine I have ever encountered – and I have tasted my share. Anthony Bordain – dubbed it ‘The greatest restaurant in the world, period.”

Although most dining venues in the valley are casual, attire at The French Laundry leans heavy on the sophisticated side. Servers are dressed in perfectly laundered navy blue suits. Although very knowledgeable about the dishes they are serving, servers serve with a restrained precision and a zipped lip. The chef’s tasting menu of eight plus courses reads like who’s who of the most tantalizing, decadent sensory overloaded recipes one could ever hope to encounter. The French Laundry is the epitome of a fine dining experience.

Poached Lobster at French Laundry, Napa Valley

Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster: Wildflower honey-poached Cranberries, garden celery and Musquee de Provence Pumpkin Porridge. The French Laundry, Napa Valley

Steak at French Laundry, Napa Valley

Charcoal-grilled Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boef”: slow roasted ruby beets, caramelized garden broccoli, glazed salsify and aged balsamic vinegar. The French Laundry, Napa Valley

We stayed at Meadowood, in St. Helena, which happened to be the location of our second prix fixe dining experience, at The Restaurant. Similar in terms of attire, dinner jackets required, the atmosphere was a more relaxed and interactive social setting. The courses were plentiful, 13 in number and equally pleasing to the palette, but that is where the similarities end in comparing The Restaurant to The French Laundry. The creativity of the chef was not only evident in the quality of his dishes, but in the whimsical choices of serving ‘platters.’

Pumpkin mole curds served on a bed of salt, The Restaurant

Pumpkin mole curds served on a bed of salt. The Restaurant

fresh herbs and beet macaroon served on the open pages of a botanical garden book
Fresh herbs and beet macaroon served on the open pages of a botanical garden book. The Restaurant

Locally grown miniature veggies served on natural cut wood platter, The Restaurant

Locally grown miniature veggies served on natural cut wood platter. The Restaurant

The only thing the Napa Valley left me wanting for, was more time to spend in the Napa Valley. I only touched the outer reaches of what this amazing location has to offer. Alas, my stomach and liver need a breather. And my wine cellar is amply full. But – I will be back! Sooner than later!

Check out more pictures in the Global Gallery tab!

What wineries to visit: Get a good map of the valley, and randomly pick a handful – you can’t go wrong in my opinion. Open to the public or by appointment only; $15 or $60 for a tasting; large or small winery; valley or hillside winery. As was proved in the movie Bottle Shock (which every winery will recommend you see), you can’t go wrong with any wine from the Napa Valley.

Where to stay: If you are willing to splurge, you can’t beat the remote quietness of the Meadowood, with miles of hiking paths, a great couple of restaurants, attentive service and oversized rooms in dozens of cottages spread out over their heavily wooded 250-acre estate.

Where to eat: I think I covered that. But if you are looking for something a little more relaxed and less expensive, try Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen or her other restaurants, Mustard’s Grill or Pawlcyn’s.