Savvy Santa Barbara, CA

The “American Riviera” on California’s Coast 

By: Charlene Mixa

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Savvy travelers have been escaping to Santa Barbara for the past century. Located just 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is a world apart. Offering a soothing realm of distinct and subtle pleasures Santa Barbara’s intoxicating appeal arises from the convergence of elements found perhaps nowhere else in the world. A city of white-washed buildings with red tile roofs tucked between the mountains and the sea, laid back Santa Barbara resonates with an irresistibly sensuous allure. Inspired by its natural beauty, this city has long been an insider’s haunt for actors, authors and magnates looking for an unparalleled escape.

Our second stop in touring California’s coastal towns is Santa Barbara. The picturesque view of this city from US 101 is beautiful and alluring. Nestled between the blue sea of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, the city is captivating. We quickly locate the Cheshire Cat a Santa Barbara Bed and Breakfast Hotel, on the corner of Chapala Street and W. Valerio Street. The Cheshire Cat has two historical Queen Ann houses built in 1894, set among flower-filled gardens. Stepping into the Inn’s main living room and reception area with its antique decor, we are graciously greeted. The Cheshire Cat accommodations include romantic and cozy rooms, suites and cottages some with Jacuzzis or hot tubs, fireplaces and patios.

Cheshire Cat Bed & Breakfast

Cheshire Cat Bed & Breakfast

For this visit, Richard and I are staying in the Mobberley Cottage. Opening the door to this one-bedroom bungalow is a large living room with a welcoming fireplace, windows with great views of the Victorian houses on the street, and a comfy sectional sofa. The TV is hidden in the Armoire. French doors, in the cozy bedroom, open to a private patio with a hot tub. The cottage has a full kitchen with a separate breakfast nook. Everything we need for our visit over the Christmas Holiday. We spot the Cheshire Cat placemats and several other items keeping with the whimsical Alice in Wonderland Theme.

Now to see Santa Barbara- America’s most beautiful city! Just a short walk from the Cottage is State Street, the main street in Santa Barbara, which ends at Stearns Wharf. State Street boasts several shopping areas of the Old Town District and Paseo Nuevo each offering their own unique boutique and trendy shops and eclectic restaurants. The Spanish style architecture with the white-washed buildings and red tile roofs create Santa Barbara’s special appeal. We love it! A great city just to window shop and enjoy its excitement. The holiday lights add extra pizzazz. We enjoy a leisurely walk admiring the architecture and the many historical buildings. The Arlington Theatre with its grandiose design is impressive. It is one of the last remaining “atmospheric theaters” in the country. Santa Barbara is bustling this afternoon with shoppers, diners and visitors enjoying this dynamic city.

Returning to the Cheshire Cat, we stop by for afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres. As we sit by the warm, relaxing fire, the hostess provides several restaurant suggestions for our visit, especially for Christmas Day. It’s been a full day of traveling, so we opt for a light meal at Joe’s Café on State Street and quiet evening in the Cottage.

It’s Christmas Eve and our agenda today is golf. Before heading out, we walk to the Inn’s main house for breakfast. The hostess greets us with warm scones and we join several guests in the dining room.   The fresh breads, wholesome cereals and homemade fruit salad are excellent. Visiting with the other guests, we get ideas and suggestions for our California adventure.

Glen Annie Golf Club

Glen Annie Golf Club

Clear blue skies create a perfect day for golf at the Glen Annie Golf Club, a championship golf course situated in the rolling foothills of Santa Barbara. We pair up with a father and son for our 11:40AM tee time. Glen Annie exceeds our expectations offering plenty of challenge for golfers of all levels. Holes are uphill, downhill, around hills, and over dells. It is a fun course plus it has breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands. An early Christmas present – Richard Eagle’s Hole No. 3! A two on this 305 yard Par-4! Afterwards, we celebrate with drinks at the clubhouse. We toast this great Christmas Eve on the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach.

Merry Christmas! A clear blue sky greets us this Christmas morning. We are the first arrivals at Old Mission Santa Barbara for the 8:00 AM Mass. This 223 year old Mission lives up to its name, the “Queen of the Missions”. As the sun glistens on its spectacular architecture the Mission is “regal”. Sitting atop a hill the Mission has a commanding view of the city and bay. The sunrise over the sparkling waters of Santa Barbara Bay is magnificent. (Yes, we are on the west coast but the sunrise is over Santa Barbara Bay.) Once the Mission doors open we enter this beautiful neo-classical church with its baroque statues and paintings. The Bishop leads a wonderful Christmas Mass in celebration of Christ’s birthday.

Christmas with Santa at the Four Seasons

Christmas with Santa at the Four Seasons

After Mass, we have time to explore more areas of Santa Barbara. Stearns Wharf is busy with families and visitors enjoying the beautiful day and arriving for Christmas lunch at the Wharf’s restaurants. The panels along the Wharf give its history, the fire that destroyed it and the rebuilding of the current wharf. We drive to the Four Seasons Resort and admire this sprawling Resort decked out for the holidays. Santa Claus greets us in the Lobby. A great photo op! We roam around the resort grounds and across the street to the white sandy beach with its many walkers enjoying the gorgeous holiday.

Back to the Cottage, we have a light lunch and make all our Christmas calls to family and friends. Now we enjoy a relaxing afternoon with a dip in our hot tub on the private patio. With limited restaurants open for the holiday, we have reservations at the Wine Cask for dinner. It is a quiet Christmas dinner at our table for two near the fireplace. The three course meal is very good. We toast the holiday and our great visit to Santa Barbara. Later we plan our next day’s travel to visit the outstanding wineries on the way to Pismo Beach.

Visiting over the holiday limited some of our activities. Santa Barbara offers something for every age and interest. We’ve succumbed to its allure and will return another time to experience more of its activities, tours and attractions. The jeweled city is a “must visit” for a California coastal city.

If you go:
Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau

Cheshire Cat a Santa Barbara Bed and Breakfast Hotel, 36 W. Valerio Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Glen Annie Golf, 405len Annie Road, Goleta, CA 93117-1427

Old Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105-3611

Note: The Mission has an excellent tour of the grounds, gardens, church, cemetery and museum.

Vibrant Santa Cruz, CA

View from Hollins House of Pasatiempo Course and Monterey Bay

View from Hollins House of Pasatiempo Course and Monterey Bay

By:  Charlene S. Mixa

Whether seeking the nostalgia of historic Santa Cruz or the new charms of a vibrant seaside town with magnificent views of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, visitors will find it all in Santa Cruz. The rich history of Spanish settlers, the Mission Santa Cruz, a century old boardwalk and a well know surfing location creates a special aura with numerous activities such as hiking, surfing, shopping, sightseeing, and golf all readily available. Located 75 miles south of San Francisco and on the northern end of Monterey Bay Santa Cruz offers much more than just a place for sun and surf.

The Coastal towns of California continue to amaze and surprise us. Each town has its very own personality, uniqueness and allure. Traveling US 1 around Monterey Bay, we see the landscape change from the huge dunes along Seaside to expansive fields of artichokes and strawberries. As the highway approaches Santa Cruz nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay, the scene is one of busy seaside towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz. Golf is first on the agenda for today, as we take 17 North toward the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Avid golfers, we love playing the well-known courses around the country. From Pinehurst to Bandon Dunes each course brings a special experience. Yet, private courses such as Cypress Point and Augusta National, designed by world-renowned golf architect Alister MacKenzie, are exclusive and require special “connections” to play. We are excited that Pasatiempo Golf Club, also designed by MacKenzie, is a semi-private club. So we are off to play this historical top 100 course located just outside of Santa Cruz.

The road winds up the hillside to the clubhouse offering a great view of picturesque Monterey Bay. Taking the shuttle to the practice area, our driver educates us on Pasatiempo’s rich history. Not only did Alister MacKenzie design the course but it was his favorite course. In fact MacKenzie made his American home here and it is located on the No. 6 fairway. We learn Pasatiempo was the vision of Marion Hollins, the US Women’s Amateur Champion in 1921 and the only woman in America with a men’s handicap in polo. An astute business woman in a man’s world, she developed Pasatiempo as a real estate development with a golf course, clubhouse, a steeplechase course and bridal paths. Bobby Jones, missed the cut in a Pebble Beach event, so Marion invited him to play in the opening foursome of Pasatiempo. At the event, Bobby Jones meets Alister MacKenzie and the relationship developed that results in MacKenzie designing Augusta National. The Senior LPGA will be held at Pasatiempo this year and fine tuning is taking place gearing up for the event. On the rides to and from the practice area we appreciate the pride the drivers’ have in Pasatiempo.

From the No. 1 tee the view down the tree-lined fairway is scenic with Monterey Bay visible in the background. The Starter greets us and gives everyone a complimentary Pasatiempo towel and yardage book. The course has dramatic elevation changes and natural hazards in addition to parallel and tree lined fairways. Numerous large fairway bunkers and greenside bunkers quickly snatch misplaced shots. Each hole offers its own challenge with hillside fairways, ravines to carry, and either large undulating or sloping greens. Putting is a major challenge! The greens are fast and we consistently misread and misjudge. No one in our foursome mastered them. The No. 11 fairway is divided by a ravine, creating decisions regarding club selection. No. 18 is a fun finishing hole of a par 3 over a deep gorge to a green surrounded by bunkers nestled in the hillside. Pasatiempo is a must play for golfers in the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay area!

Afterwards we celebrate with drinks and a late lunch at Hollis House Restaurant, the former home of Marion Hollins. Sitting on the patio of Hollins House we have a fantastic view of the golf coursePasatiempo, Monterey Bay and the Monterey Peninsula. The food is terrific! The view is awesome! We toast this exciting and demanding Alister Mackenzie golf course and Marion Hollins vision and entrepreneurial spirit.

Using our GPS we locate the Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites Santa Cruz East on Ocean Street. The hotel is relatively new having opened in April 2009. It still has that fresh new feel. Plus it is conveniently located near Highway 17 and Highway 1. The staff is extremely helpful and we appreciate the underground parking. Our room is bright and comfortable with several modern touches to the décor including the complimentary wireless internet access and flat screen LCD TVs.

West Cliff Drive - Santa Cruz

West Cliff Drive – Santa Cruz

We freshen up and are off to explore Santa Cruz. With map in hand and our GPS, we learn preplanning can be important with the town’s one-way streets and winding streets. It is fun driving the busy town and finding our way around. Santa Cruz has a feeling of a seaside town where everyone was trying to find a spot of land near the water. Houses are jammed along streets and roads. Getting to Monterey Bay, we drive and park on the Wharf. Walking along the Wharf we find several restaurants, but even better are great views toward West Cliff Drive, the lighthouse and a terrific view of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. With the large roller coaster and many rides, the Boardwalk could easily be a full day event. We next head east to locate the Crowe’s Nest Restaurant. The restaurant has good seafood and spectacular waterfront views on the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. We enjoy a leisurely dinner with the scenery of Monterey Bay and a wonderful sunset.

The complimentary continental breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express starts our day. The weather is overcast as we drive to West Cliff Drive. Strolling the walkway along the drive, we are amazed at the number of surfers in the water. We watch as one climbs down steps built into the cliffs to a rocky shore, gingerly walking on the rocks to the water with his surf board. All wearing wet suites and waiting to catch a wave, we count over thirty surfers in one spot and just as many further down the cliff walk. A great ride! A surfer catches a wave and rides it all the way in! We walk up to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse which is currently home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Replica of Mission Santa Cruz

Replica of Mission Santa Cruz

With possible rain looming, we drive through downtown, Santa Cruz with its Clock Tower and tree-lined street. Its early morning but with the numerous restaurants and eateries lining the street, this would be a great downtown for shopping and dining. We’ve toured many of the California Missions and want to visit Mission Santa Cruz. Sitting on a bluff, the Holy Cross Church was constructed over the site of the original Franciscan mission. Walking around the church we locate the Plexiglas protecting the only remaining portion of original wall of the adobe mission founded in 1791. Two earthquakes and a severe storm eventually destroyed the remains of the Franciscan mission. Across the street we tour the ½ scale replica of Mission Santa Cruz, built in 1931. We grasp the detail to recapture the essence of the original mission. As light rain starts as we depart Santa Cruz. Before leaving, we make a quick loop through Capitola, another beachside town. It has a quainter more compact feel with shops and eateries along the streets near the beach and wharf.

Our visit to Santa Cruz has been fun with great golf, good food and learning more about this quintessential town. Santa Cruz is a fun coast town for any visitors its varied activities and appeal.

If you go:
Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council, 303 Water Street, Suite 100, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Pismo Beach, CA: A Real Beach Town

View of Pismo Pier

View of Pismo Pier

Active or Passive Adventures Await You!

By: Charlene S. Mixa

Quaint and charming Pismo Beach welcomes visitors to miles of beautiful beaches. Visitors seeking relaxation in a laid-back setting or endless hours of outdoor activities will find these and more at this picturesque seaside community. This hidden gem quietly boasts 23 miles of beautiful sandy beaches along with scenic gently, rolling hills. It is conveniently located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco just off US 101. Experience the thrill of riding an ATV on the famous Oceano Dunes, go wine tasting in the local wineries, walk along the pier or stroll the beachside shops and restaurants.

Our third stop on this visit to California’s coastal towns, we head to Pismo Beach from Santa Barbara, taking the route through the Santa Ynez Mountains. Stopping at several wineries along the way, we enjoy the scenic drive through the mountains and countryside. As we wind our way to the west, we arrive in Pismo Beach at the SeaVenture Resort and Spa. Located directly on the beach, the SeaVenture is one of the premier California beachfront hotels. The staff is very helpful and most welcoming as we check-in. A gentle rain starts as we unload making the covered parking extra special. The lobby is small but opens on to a sandy beach.

SeaVenture Room - Great Bed!

SeaVenture Room – Great Bed!

Our room is luxurious with deep green walls contrasting with bright white custom furniture and shutters. The king bed with its pristine white down comforter and pillows sits caddy-corner facing the sliding glass doors to the balcony. A gas fireplace adds warmth and coziness to the room’s casual elegance. Stepping out to our private balcony with its hot tub, we enjoy the view of the beach and the Dunes to the south. The rain shower gives us the perfect excuse to relax and refresh.

As the sun peeps out, we explore this seaside town. Exiting through the lobby, we walk onto a sandy beach with gentle ocean waves. A short stroll from the SeaVenture, we arrive at the 1,200’ long Pismo Pier. The view is picturesque! Looking inland, the rolling hills are a rich green, dotted with homes, and the low wispy clouds, add extra charm. Walking into the nostalgic seaside town at the end of the pier, we wander along the streets with its numerous novelty shops. Named for the Pismo Clam, many eateries tout the “best clam chowder”. Returning to the SeaVenture, we pass their restaurant with a great ocean view. Since we only have one night in Pismo, we elect to try a local restaurant, Steamers with a view of the bluffs on the edge of the town. Drizzling rain limits our exploration and our plan to go ATVing at the Oceano Dunes. A romantic evening in our cozy room with an excellent bottle of local wine is the perfect ending to the day.

Our morning begins with an enchanting continental breakfast basket delivered to our room. Sitting in our plush robes at the dinette table, we enjoy this complimentary breakfast served with real bowls and flatware. The fresh fruit plate is excellent!

Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes

Now we are off to check out famous Oceano Dunes. The Oceano sand dune area is recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California. It is also the State Vehicular Recreation Area and provides an impressive playground for off-highway enthusiast. Arriving at the Park entrance this Sunday morning, cars are lined up to get in. Parking outside the Park, we walk to the beach watching the cars and motor homes with trailers towing their ATV’s. We chat with a father and his sons, as they let air out of the truck tires to get better traction. The ATVing area is much further down the beach. It is a great way to have a fun-filled day with your family on this off-highway playground. We must return for our own experience on riding the Oceano Dunes. Now off to our own next adventure in California!

If you go:
SeaVenture Resort, 100 Ocean View Avenue, Pismo Beach, California 93449

Oceano Dunes SVRA


Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort

Richard walking the Labyrinthe

Richard walking the Labyrinthe

An Enchanting Experience Awaits You!

By Charlene S. Mixa

Seeking a unique resort? Yearning for relaxation of the body, mind, and spirit? Sycamore Mineral Springs enchants guests with an authentic mineral springs resort experience. Situated on 100 acres of forest, verdant meadows and gently rolling hills, Sycamore Springs offers a wonderful selection of activities to rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. Resting, relaxing, meditating, hiking, soaking, swimming, biking, wining and dining are choices at this captivating resort. Get re-energized with the array of transformative spa services. Experience body and mind classes in the Yoga Dome. Walk the labyrinth in the Meditation Garden. With over 100 years of commitment to living well, the Sycamore Mineral Springs is a hidden treasure.

Located half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco Sycamore Mineral Springs is just off US 101. Exiting on the Avila Beach Road, the road winds along the coastal mountains with the Resort nestled on a hillside. The enchantment of Sycamore Mineral Springs starts with an artfully prepared lunch at the award winning Gardens of Avila Restaurant. The intimate setting with the view of the garden’s century old stone patio creates a relaxing atmosphere. While I opt for the scrumptious and healthy Spinach Salad with sautéed Rock Shrimp, Richard has the Signature Black Angus Burger. Fantastic! Richard raves, “It is the best burger ever!”

Master Bedroom at the Prominence Suite

Master Bedroom at the Prominence Suite

A short drive up a steep winding road behind the main building we locate the Eminence Suites. Our one-bedroom spa suite, the Prominence, is a two story, spacious 1200 square foot unit. Downstairs is an open living and dining area with a full bath. The gigantic Master Bedroom, takes the entire second floor. A luxurious four-poster King Bed, a beautiful chaise lounge in the sitting area, the large dressing area with its double sinks and a walk-in closet create a stunning room. Topping it off is the large tiled shower with dual shower heads! Outside off the stairwell is a private mineral spring hot tub. Exquisite! The suite and its décor are excellent. Making good use of our short time, we unpack and plan our activities.

First we make an appointment for the well-known Mineral Springs Tub for the evening. Now to hike the Sycamore Crest Trail! Our suite is at the start of the two mile round trip trail. Taking a leisurely climb, we enjoy the scenery and the clear blue skies. The trail winds along the hillside through sections of scrub oaks with views of the green valleys. Much of the trail is an unpaved roadway with several steep sections. As the trail narrows and the woodlands give way to grasses, the summit presents breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. From this vantage point the coastal villages of Avila Bay and Port San Luis are visible. The bright sunny day is perfect for this exhilarating hike with its dramatic vista!

Next stop is the Labyrinth situated in the Meditation Garden. The labyrinth is a copy of the famous labyrinth of the Chartres Cathedral in France. Having visited the Chartres Cathedral it makes our experience even more special. Slowly walking through the labyrinth we each find our own individual reconnection to our inner self. Peaceful and serene is the setting. While in the Meditation Garden we locate the Cairn which was specially designed for Sycamore Mineral Springs. It reminds us of a beehive. From the Meditation Garden the Bob Jones Trail leads into the charming town of Avila Beach.

Avila Beach, CA

Avila Beach, CA

Situated on the central coast of California, Avila Beach is surrounded by gentle sloping hills. Recently rebuilt all the buildings in town are new with a warm seaside charm. Offering three piers along the ocean, it is a beautiful setting for walking the beach or piers. After exploring a few shops and restaurants, we decide to make a quick trip to San Luis Obispo. A much larger town with lots of activity on this Sunday afternoon, we find a local restaurant for dinner. Gladly we return to the serenity of Sycamore Mineral Springs.

Ah- Refreshing Mineral Springs Tub!

Ah- Refreshing Mineral Springs Tub!

Ah! The Mineral Spring Tub awaits us! As night falls, we put on the fluffy bath robes and head to the Gift Shop, the entrance for the Mineral Springs Tub. The host selects “The Shelter” a tub for two which is up some wooden steps. The Mineral Tubs are hidden among the trees and hillside providing privacy for the bathers. It is a cool night and we welcome the warm mineral spring water of this tub. Awesome! Sitting in the tub beneath the trees on this moonlit night is relaxing, romantic and just downright fun. We stay the full 45 minutes!  We love it! The time quickly passes and we return to our wonderful Prominence Suite. Sharing a bottle California wine we toast the “enchanting Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort”.

If you go: Note: Plan to spend at least a couple of days to truly experience all the Resort has to offer including the Spa Services, Yoga Dome, and many other activities.

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, 1215 Avila Beach Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

Going to Surf City, USA!

Pier and Surf City Beach

Pier and Surf City Beach

Huntington Beach, CA: Surf City & More!

 By: Charlene S. Mixa

We’re going to Surf City! Huntington Beach is a “hip” town on the California Coast. Just 45 minutes south of Los Angles, this trendy town offers more than excellent surfing. From its vibrant Main Street with unique shops, casual and fine dining restaurants, local pubs, the infamous Pier, to the white sandy beaches on the Pacific Ocean, Huntington Beach is an excellent getaway. As the song says “cause there’s always somethin’ goin’! 

Our trip to visit small towns along the California Coast has Huntington Beach as the first stop. On our arrival along the Pacific Coast Highway, we are pleasantly surprised. With ocean waves crashing on the deep sandy beach on one side of the highway, the city lights create a warm welcome on the other side. We spot the Shorebreak Hotel sign, our home away for the next few nights.

Shorebreak Hotel and The Strand

Shorebreak Hotel and The Strand

An upscale boutique hotel, the Shorebreak Hotel, is in the new Strand shopping complex. This contemporary hotel features a distinct surfing theme with elegant touches. In the second floor lobby a surfing video fills one wall, while another wall’s artwork is created totally from wetsuits. On the way to our fourth floor room, we notice each door has a shadow box partially filled with sand and a photo of surfers. Opening the door to our Waterfront King Suite, we are impressed. A spacious corner room the luxurious King Bed has individual wall lights, the executive desk’s picture window offers scenic views of the Pacific Ocean, comfortable chairs create a sitting area and another wall has a credenza with a flat panel high-definition television above it. Double doors in a hallway lead to a huge open deck with chaise lounges plus a table and chairs. A hammock adds extra pizzazz! From the deck our views of the beach, ocean, and city are picturesque. In the large bathroom the dressing area with its lighted mirror to the huge shower featuring unique black and white rectangular tiles shows the attention to detail in both design and décor.

After settling in, we’re off to Cucina ALESSÁ Restaurant seeking Italian food. Since the Shorebreak Hotel is centrally located, restaurants, shopping and the pier are all just steps away. Walking along Main Street, we admire the numerous shops and local eateries. The Cucina ALESSÁ Restaurant opened in Huntington Beach a few months ago, but this Sunday night it is bustling with several parties in their upstairs room. Everything is excellent from the savory menu of great Italian dishes, the warm hospitality, the superb service, and the delicious food. Our favorites are the signature appetizer dish of “Super Ravioli” and the scrumptious tiramisu served in a champagne glass. With full tummies we stroll down Main Street and on to the Huntington Beach Pier. It is a clear night with people enjoying the fresh cool ocean air.

The next morning we have a great day of golf and return along US Highway 1 to take in the alluring California Coastline. Riding through the towns we admire each one’s uniqueness from seaside towns to towns high on the bluffs above the ocean. Driving from the south to Huntington Beach we notice the many oil wells pumping along the highway. We also see offshore oil rigs.

Dinner tonight is at Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant. Having eaten at the original Duke’s on Waikiki Beach, we are anxious to see how it compares. The restaurant is on the beach side close to the start of the Pier. Named for Duke Kahanamoku, the famous surfer from Hawaii, who was renowned also for his “aloha spirit”. The restaurant is quiet this evening as we enjoy our meals. The heart of palm salad and fresh fish selections are very good. Our service is excellent!

Ready for our Gondola Ride!

Ready for our Gondola Ride!

Adding extra layers on this cool December night, we are ready to experience a gondola ride to see the festive Holiday Lights. Niko, our gondolier, assists us into the elegant gondola to begin our ride along the canals of Huntington Harbor. The gondolas are actually imported from Venice, Italy. Niko shares that the gondoliers even travel to Venice to partake in an annual gondolier event. As Niko slowly rows the gondola through the waterways, we marvel at the astounding holiday lights. One home’s theme is “Christmas at Tiffany’s.” The lights are spectacular as is the rich voice of Niko serenading us. The romantic gondola ride with the shimmering holiday lights is enchanting.

We stop by the Zimzala lounge at the Shorebreak Hotel for evening drinks. The ergonomic bar stools are comfy but do look a little weird. Chatting with the friendly bar tender, we learn he is an avid surfer. Bartending is a way to maintain his surfing habit. Many of the other people at the hotel that we talk with are surfers or are learning to surf. Surfing is alive and well in Surf City!

Huntington Beach has a rich history that could easily be lost on the average visitor. It really is more than just surfing. To better acquaint us with the city, Chris Epting a local writer and author of the book, “Images of America Huntington Beach California” is taking us on a tour. Walking the streets of Huntington Beach, Chris shares the history of many of the local sites from the beach, the pier, the town, the homes and the businesses in the area. Passionate about his town, Chris’ book is a photographic journey of this city from yesteryear to today. In its hundred year history Huntington Beach initially was a seaside village with visitors attracted to the ocean. Then in 1920’s the famous oil boom tripled the town’s size. Photos show hundreds of oil derricks along the shore and town. The derricks gave way to newer oil inventions. Then in the 1960’s, Jan and Dean’s song “Surf City” again put Huntington Beach on the map. The town is now a vacation destination for surfers and non-surfers. The miles of deep beaches provide space for all beach activities. We especially enjoy the walkway along the beach for early morning and afternoon walks.

Our final evening, we enjoy a dinner at Spark Woodfire Grill. At the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, the restaurant is on the second floor with indoor and outdoor seating. Our outside table is close to a fire pit with a view of the Pier and ocean. My Mac & Lobster special is delicious. We people watch from our perch above the town during dinner. It is a chilly night so fewer people are out. After dinner we wander through the stalls of the numerous vendors on Main Street for “Surf City Nights” held on Tuesday evenings.

We find Huntington Beach is a casual and cool town, preserving the mild and mellow California beach culture. Yet it is also a trendsetter of West Coast food, fashion and lifestyle. Yes, we “have some fun” in Surf City!

Huntington Beach Visitors Bureau, 301 Main Street Huntington Beach, CA 92648, 714- 969-3492


San Jose, CA- It’s not just high tech!


Hotel Valencia at Santana Row

Hotel Valencia at Santana Row

Exciting Silicon Valley 

By: Charlene S. Mixa

Sunshine 300 days a year, the San Jose skyline surrounded by mountains, steep hillside vineyards, tree-lined streets, sidewalk cafes, sports venues, and quaint yet bustling small towns are all found in Silicon Valley. San Jose, the tenth largest city in the nation is exciting and trendy while still having a small town charm. The city in this wide valley creates a warm welcome.

As we cross the Santa Cruz Mountains from the west, my husband, Richard and I are greeted with the magnificent view of San Jose and the scenic Silicon Valley. The vista is miles of forested hills with San Jose’s cityscape and small towns such as Los Gatos and Saratoga Springs dotting the landscape. I am looking forward to visiting this unique city and area, having a college classmate who always “raved” about San Jose.

It’s a bright clear Sunday afternoon as we arrive at Santana Row just outside San Jose. An upscale shopping district, Santana Row is bustling as shoppers stroll along the majestic palm lined sidewalks or have a bite to eat or drink at a sidewalk café or relax in one of the pocket parks by a trickling fountain. Santana Row is a true urban village, a town-within-a-town, creating a feeling of being in the south of France. It blends a distinctive mix of dining, shopping and living experiences. With 70 retail shops and boutiques, two dozen acclaimed restaurants and eateries, nine spas and salons, a six screen movie theatre and the boutique Hotel Valencia all within a few blocks we look forward to exploring Santana Row.

At the Hotel Valencia, the only hotel in Santana Row, we are directed to the 3rd floor, the hotel’s main lobby. The Hotel Valencia is a luxury chic contemporary hotel where old world European style meets sleek elegant modern design creating a cosmopolitan sophistication. A large courtyard with fire pits, potted palms, lush plants and water fountains is the backdrop for the registration desk. In our room, subtle details create a unique hotel experience with the architectural style of the arched foyer and the sleek ebony desk-top running the length of a wall. A huge wood framed mirror leans behind a comfy leather chair and hassock that entices weary travelers to relax. French doors open to a balcony overlooking one of Santana Row’s lush squares surrounded by boutique shops. Crisp plush white linens on the king size bed add to the luxuriousness of this world-class hotel. A special touch is the slim opaque window over the tub between the bedroom and the bathroom. Extra touches at the Hotel Valencia are the complimentary wireless Internet in guest rooms and a deluxe continental breakfast served daily.

With passes to the San Jose Sharks Hockey game, we head to the HP Pavilion. The arena is packed for this game against the Colorado Avalanche. We have fun watching fans and the game as the Sharks handily beat their opponents. Checking out the activity in this impressive arena, we locate a bar and eatery with multiple TV screens where we finish watching the game and celebrate the Shark’s win over cocktails.

We freshen up before walking to dinner at Thea Mediterranean only a block from the Hotel Valencia. Entering the restaurant, we are impressed with its sophistication and style. Named for the Greek goddess and mother of Helios, the restaurant offers an Eastern Mediterranean culinary adventure. A quiet evening, we relax and delight in this dining experience. Our waiter’s recommendations are truly scrumptious. I thoroughly love the Rainbow trout featuring a whole grilled fish with rainbow chard and lemon potatoes. Richard, savors his Rex sole, a pan seared filet with tomato caper stew, baby artichokes and Ladolmeno dressing over the sole. The wait staff and service is excellent!

After dinner, we window shop and people-watch as we walk along Santana Row. The night is clear and cool, perfect for the many outsider dining venues. We stop awhile and enjoy the outdoor entertainment in a wisteria covered square by a wine bar. At our hotel, behind the dramatic metal-beaded curtains is the Vbar, an ultra-modern lounge with a jet-black bar and red mood lighting. This Sunday night the Vbar is packed!

A full day is scheduled Monday, so we are up early for our complimentary breakfast at the Hotel Valencia’s Citrus Room. An excellent variety of cereals, sweet rolls, bagels, breads, and fresh local fruits provide the perfect start to our busy day.

Winchester Mystery House Museum

Winchester Mystery House Museum

Just across from Santana Row is the infamous Winchester Mystery House Museum where we are scheduled for the 9:00 AM tour. Laurel, our guide, greets us in the garden to begin the tour of this 160 room Victorian mansion. Sarah Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester Rifle, comes to life as Laurel shares stories of Sarah, her servants and her passion for continuing to build rooms in this bizarre mansion. On our tour of a 110 of the 160 room home, Laurel points out the architectural oddities of a stairway to nowhere, windows opening onto walls, doors opening onto vast spaces or directly onto a wall all to “confuse” the spirits of rifle victims. She points out the crafted stained glass windows from Tiffany of New York. Enthralled, we feel a connection to this lady with her unique obsession. While Sarah seemed fanatical in continually building and rebuilding rooms in her home, Laurel explains she was a very astute business woman highly regarded for her business acumen. Our question is, if she was so obsessed or felt guilty of those killed by the Winchester Rifle, why did she stay active in the rifle business. Why not just sell it? Everything about this suspected “haunted” mansion and its former owner is fascinating. The self guided garden tour is gorgeous with the perfectly manicured grounds and buildings outside the mansion. In the firearms museum, we learn the history of the Winchester Rifles and see the largest collections of Winchester Rifles on the West Coast.

After viewing 110 rooms, a massage is perfect for tired feet and bodies. Burke Williams Spa is conveniently next door to Hotel Valencia where the receptionist quickly welcomes us and sends us to the comfortable waiting area. While Richard tours the men’s spa, a hostess orients me to this world-class spa with a steam room, sauna, a large whirlpool bath area, changing room and showers. Donning a luxurious bath robe and comfy sandals, I prepare for the 50-minute Signature Massage. Elena, my masseuse, greets me and walks me to a private room where my exceptional massage experience starts. Explaining each step of this custom massage, Elena begins with a spray of their Signature blend of essential oils. Next, warm, moist heat pads are cocooned around my back to relax the muscles. Using textured gloves and Chinese herbs, Elena polishes my skin focusing on the forearms, feet and back. Elena works her magic on my tense muscles with a deep tissue massage. Calm and relaxed the 50 minutes pass quickly. Following the massage, I enjoy the steam room before cleaning up and heading out to meet Richard for lunch. More time is a must to really appreciate the Burke Williams spa experience and all that it offers. Richard loved the sandals so much he got information to order a pair.

Totally relaxed we walk to LB Steak at the Southeast corner of Santana Row. A modern American steakhouse, it is a Santana Row destination dining spot. We admire the chic and sexy décor of the restaurant dining area and the open-air patio. Our waitress gives several recommendations from this sophisticated restaurant’s varied lunch menu. I choose the “Time Savour Lunch,” a half sandwich of a sumptuous New England Lobster Roll on Brioche with a mixed green salad and French fries. Richard selects the delicious seared boat scallops with spring onions, abalone mushrooms and sunchoke puree. The restaurant is quiet this Monday with most patrons having business lunches. Our meals are each terrific as is the service! We easily see why LB Steak has earned a “Most Notable Newcomer” ranking in the 2010 Zagat Survey.

Wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains, home to more than 70 wineries, is a must. Our research shows the area produces Chardonnays, Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Driving the winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Savannah Chanelle Vineyards, we realize the wineries are spread out in this area of California. The 1912 Redwood Tasting Room at Savannah Chanelle was the original winery. The wines are excellent! They are best known for their Pinot Noir wines which are produced from local and estate grapes. The hostess explains the award-winning Zinfandel wines are from Zinfandel vines planted in 1910! Sharing that our next stop is the Ridge Winery, the hostess suggest we head out since it is a difficult drive up the mountain to their tasting room. A gentle rain starts as we take a quick photo of the mountain vineyards and villa at Savannah Chanelle.

The drive to Ridge Vineyards is a winding narrow road that then turns into a one lane road. Clear skies at the lower elevations; give a magnificent view of Silicon Valley. As we reach the mountaintop the rain begins and fog blocks the view from this 2,300 feet elevation. Chris Watkins, Wine Tasting Room Manager, greets us and introduces us to Ridge’s special premium wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Explaining that Ridge produces wines in two winery locations in northern California, Chris has a wealth of knowledge on Ridge and the Santa Cruz Mountains wineries. He gives us a superb education on this appellation and its worldwide notability. The wines are wonderful! Purchasing a bottle of Ridge Zinfandel for relatives we head back to Santana Row. As we leave the mountaintop the weather clears and we take in the valley view.

Now it is time to shop! Taking our time we stroll along Santana Rows charming thoroughfare checking out the unique shops and specialty boutiques. It has everything from Gucci, Burberry and Ferragamo to H&M, Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie. We take in Santana Row’s warm ambiance, lush landscaping and the several parks where you can sit awhile and people-watch.

View of Park at Santana Row

View of Park at Santana Row

We end our day with dinner at Hotel Valencia’s Citrus Restaurant. The restaurant offers a classic menu with hearty steaks, fresh seafood and vegetarian plates. Over drinks we recall our exciting time in the San Jose area. Our dining experience begins with the Citrus Signature crab cake and a Hollandaise sauce. I splurge on the mouth-watering 9-ounce lobster with the steamed asparagus and a béarnaise sauce. Richard has the shrimp atop angel hair pasta with shitake mushrooms, basil, asparagus, and sun-dried tomatoes. We top off dinner with a scrumptious desert of berries in a chocolate cup with whip cream for me while Richard enjoys the tiramisu. The food and service are all wonderful creating a perfect ending to our exciting visit to the Silicon Valley area.

San Jose and Silicon Valley exceed our expectations. I now realize why my college classmate always bragged out this area. It is beautiful, warm, welcoming and offers a variety of activities. Leaving town we did make a quick detour to Los Gatos check out this warm vibrant downtown. We realize that we only touched the surface of all this dynamic area offers.

If you go:
San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, 408 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, California USA 95110
800-SAN-JOSE or 800-726-5673

California’s Alluring Tri-Valley

Downtown Danville

Downtown Danville

Warmth and Charm Await You

By Charlene S. Mixa

A relaxed casual atmosphere of active, charming towns is found east of San Francisco nestled among rolling hills and valleys. The beautiful cities of Pleasanton, Livermore, Danville, Dublin and San Ramon are located in the Tri-Valley, California area. Three adjacent valleys – Amador, Livermore and San Ramon create the picturesque setting for these family-oriented communities less than a one hour drive from San Francisco.

In an earlier California trip, Richard and I happened on to Livermore, California and were extremely impressed with the community, its beautiful golf courses and excellent wineries. We look forward to a return visit to the Tri-Valley area to experience other towns in this scenic countryside.

A short drive from San Jose, we arrive at Callippe Preserve Golf Course, recently ranked among the top 10 in California by Golfweek Magazine and in the top 10 of America’s best new public courses by Golf Digest. Located in the Happy Valley area of Pleasanton, the course opened in November 2005. We are immediately impressed with the course and clubhouse. It is truly a premier public course. Luckily, the rains came through earlier in the day, so we tee off under a clear sky with cool, comfortable temperatures. Callippe Preserve is in excellent condition, plus the golf carts all have GPS system which is very helpful. The course is scenic as the front nine gently meanders through the valley. Ugh, the rains return as we finish the front nine. A short shower it quickly moves past giving way to clear skies. Extra challenges are found on the back nine as it winds through the foothills. Careful attention is necessary for our shots with the uphill, downhill and dogleg fairways which often cross gorges or ravines. We love the course! Richard says it is one of the best public courses he’s played.

Our accommodations are at the Pleasanton Marriott located conveniently near Interstate 580 and 650. Entering the hotel we find it combines the trendy lifestyle of Silicon Valley with a feel of the East Bay wine country. The staff is most helpful as we check in. Our room is spacious and comfortable. In addition to its modern luxurious style, we appreciate the extra touches of the 32 inch flat screen HDTV and spacious work area. We especially like the large upholstered head board with the adjustable reading lights built in, the comfy lounge chair and large bath towels. The Concierge Lounge with complimentary continental breakfast, daily snacks and evening cocktails is an extra special touch.

Refreshed, we head to historic downtown Pleasanton. The tree-lined main street creates a warm welcome and a small home town feel. Numerous restaurants and eateries line several blocks of the downtown area, as do many unique shops. The Wine Steward, housed in the old movie theater, combines a wine store with a tasting room. On the first floor, the wine store is stocked with varieties of global and local wines. The balcony features the tasting area with a bar and several tables. As we sample the local wines, Jim Denham, the owner, gives us insight in to the area wineries and their owners. The wines are all very good and we learn more about Jim’s vision for The Wine Steward to be more than a wine store and tasting room. Jim continues to utilize creative ideas such as wine classes, a wine club, experts for special wine tastings, and he even rents climate controlled wine storage space.

Walking down the street this Monday evening, we admire downtown Pleasanton and its shops. We continue a few blocks to The Farmer Restaurant at the historic Pleasanton Hotel. Originally built in 1864, The Farmers Hotel was the first hotel in Pleasanton. Following a fire, rebuilding and renovations in the early 20th century, it became The Pleasanton Hotel but no longer takes overnight guests. The Farmer Restaurant owes its name to the original Farmers Hotel and its current owner’s Elegant Farmer Restaurant in Oakland during the 60’s -80’s. Seated at a window table we have a view of Main Street and the tree-shaded patio. The restaurant’s menu is varied from a down home fried chicken to an excellent variety of seafood and meats. Our waiter’s recommendation for an appetizer is “Crostini with Beef” that is very tasty. My entrée of broiled salmon is the best! Richard’s baked filet of sole is delicious. Dinner ends perfectly with the scrumptious “Grammy’s Old Fashion Fruit Cobbler.” With full tummies it is time for relaxation at the Pleasanton Marriott.

A fifteen minute drive the next morning has us in Danville with its small-town atmosphere. Another historic town in the Tri-Valley area Danville’s downtown is only a few blocks. Strolling through town it projects a quaint, homey feel.

Downtown Danville

Downtown Danville

We locate Sideboard in the Danville Hotel. Much more than just a coffee shop, Sideboard’s offers inside or outside seating in a rustic comfy setting. The Morning Menu features a variety a breakfast options from the daily, freshly baked morning pastries to an elegant breakfast sandwich. Taking our order at the counter, we are quickly told the cinnamon roll is a must. An occasional coffee drinker, Richard has a latte served in a bowl while I enjoy watching my flower of Jasmine tea slowly open in the acrylic teapot. My poached farmhouse egg on Levain toast is excellent. Richard’s appetite is sated with his gourmet Breakfast Sandwich. The cinnamon roll was awesome! As the morning crowd strolls in we can see that the owners, Erin and Ford Andrews’ vision of a “neighborhood coffeehouse and kitchen” is achieved.

We are discovering the historic roots of Tri-Valley today with three museums on our schedule. Our first stop is the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, located behind the Danville Hotel and Sideboard. Housed in Danville’s restored 1891 Southern Pacific Depot, the museum preserves and celebrates the area’s history. Upon entering the museum we notice the huge quilt depicting the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely ditched the airliner into the Hudson River. The hands of god are holding the plane as it settles on the river. Our docent, Beverly, explains Sully is from Danville and how the quilt was donated to the museum. A majority of the exhibits are in the large depot room that features the Valley’s past in exhibits of artifacts, pictures of historic buildings and several unique items of historical importance to the Valley. A historical narrative frieze borders the top of the wall giving insight into the various changes of the Valley, its landscape and its people from Indians, early settlers to the early 20th century. The museum has special exhibits throughout the year. An upcoming one is on Abraham Lincoln and Beverly enlightens us on the involvement California, its people and families had in the Civil War. The museum is rich in the Valley’s history and culture.

Tao House -Eugene O'Neil National Historic Site

Tao House -Eugene O’Neil National Historic Site

Just outside the Museum a shuttle picks us up for the tour of Tao House – Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. Our docent, Jordan, begins describing the life of America’s only Nobel Prize winning playwright, as he drives the winding road through a Danville neighborhood. At Tao House, Jordan points out the property, the structure and architectural design of the house. He educates us on the similarity of O’Neill’s plays to those of the Greeks and his bringing “tragedy” to American theater. Touring his home, we hear about the challenges and the troubled family life that haunted Eugene O’Neill throughout his lifetime. These circumstances had a major impact on his plays, his family, and himself. In each room, Jordan tells of the eccentric personality of O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta. While at Tao House, O’Neill sought isolation to write his “soul grinding” autobiographical plays including a “Long Day’s Journey into Night” that made him America’s most important playwright. Visiting Tao House with its unique rooms, colors, style and magnificent views of Mount Diablo plus Jordan’s in depth descriptions of O’Neill and Carlotta, we have a new perspective of this infamous playwright and his life.

Blackhawk Museum- awesome cars!

Blackhawk Museum- awesome cars!

Finishing the two hour tour of Tao House, we worked up an appetite and head to Blackhawk Plaza. Blackhawk Plaza is the East Bay’s premier shopping and dining destination featuring an aquatic landscaped interior courtyard with terraced shopping and dining establishments. The Blackhawk Grille is at one end of the Plaza taking advantage of the view of the scenic “aquatic landscape” of rocks, with ponds and water cascading from one level to the next down the center of the plaza. The Grille’s huge floor to ceiling window frames a picturesque view of this water oasis. This trendy upscale restaurant is busy with the lunch crowd as we arrive. Serving lunch and dinner, the Blackhawk Grille offers a savory selection of freshly prepared food. The eclectic lunch menu has plenty of tasty choices for diners. Having had a big breakfast we opt for lighter meals of lobster bisque and the wild sea bass salad. The small plate of mini crab cake with tarragon shallot aioli is delicious. Intentions of eating light are gone as we sample the Valrhona Chocolate Ganache cake with a scoop of ice cream. Executive Chef, Ryan Jackson even stops by for a brief visit.

The opposite end of Plaza is the Blackhawk Museum, an automotive museum in a spectacular 70,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece to showcase these rolling sculptures. The museum is impressive with automobiles beautifully displayed as they sparkle and shine under the lights. A car lovers dream! Rows of cars from all eras, manufacturers, and countries beckon visitors. Dan guides us through the museums 90 cars explaining that many of the cars are on loan from Museum friends in all over the world. The museum boasts the most dramatic presentation of ‘coachbuilt’ cars in the world. Pointing out many unique cars such as the hunting car used by the Maharaja of India, Dan explains the car is not stainless steel but actually silver! We recognize cars from our parent’s era and our generation of a Packard, woody station wagon, Thunderbirds, VW bus, and all manufacturers of automobiles. Every car is in pristine condition! Superb! We could definitely have spent more time roaming through the museum.

Since the prediction is an afternoon of rain, we leave the Blackhawk Museum for a visit to the Jellyfish Spa, also located in the Blackhawk Plaza. As we step in the Spa, there is a huge water tank with Jellyfish floating in it. Trish, welcomes us and briefly explains Jellyfish Spa’s unique business model. The plan offers unlimited services on a membership basis for a monthly rate of $99.00. Members can have facials, massages, and their nails done as frequently as they want. Richard leaves with Drew for his relaxation massage, while Trish leads me off for my facial. The timing here is perfect, a great way to wind down after a very busy day. With us both relaxed and refreshed, we head back to the Pleasanton Marriott for some further relaxation.

The afternoon rains arrive as we head to Eddie Papa’s American Hangout for dinner. Located in a shopping center, Eddie Papa’s lives up to its goal as a fun, gathering place for families and friends. Crowded and noisy, the large, casual dining room is bustling with diners enjoying a meal or refreshments. The menu offers specialty foods from around the country and regionally inspired entrees. We immediately spot the Vernor’s Ginger Ale from Michigan. Eddie Papa’s is a fun place to “hangout” this rainy evening. The food and service is great. We especially love the creamy Macaroni and Cheese casserole, “Introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson, 1787. A decadent blend of Sonoma Cheddar and Jack cheeses.” People-watching is fun at the Hangout, as the wait staff delivers even cotton candy to excited diners.

Our final morning in Tri-Valley, following our complimentary breakfast in the Concierge Lounge, we are off to golf at Bridges Golf Club in San Ramon. The rains have passed and it is a beautiful clear day as we arrive for our early morning tee time. From the first tee we can see several holes of the course as it follows the natural landscape along a canyon. Playing the course we see why it has been rated by the Northern California Golf Association as one of the most challenging Courses in Northern California. The course is fun and definitely challenging with its narrowly sloped fairways, vast bunkers, quick greens and heavily landscaped hillsides. With pars on the first few holes, we think we may have tamed the course. It quickly proves us wrong as new obstacles greet us.. It is a great course to play a second round to have course knowledge. Bridges is an exciting Johnny Miller designed golf course and offers the ultimate public golf experience. We enjoy lunch at Bridges Club before heading off on our next California excursion. 

The Tri-Valley area exceeds our expectations with its rich history and small towns. The area is scenic with the rolling hills, the towns are welcoming and the people are gracious. Everything is close by with each of the towns being within fifteen minutes of each other. Tri-Valley is a great place to visit and a terrific area for Californians to live.

If you go:
Tri-Valley, California Convention & Visitors Bureau 349 Main Street Suite 203 Pleasanton, CA 94566
(925) 846-8910


Pacific Grove: Monterey Bay’s Enchanting Seaside Town

Scenic, Charming and a Place to Reconnect with Nature

By: Charlene S. Mixa

Scenic Monterey Bay

Scenic Monterey Bay

Romance, spectacular views, a seaside sanctuary, unique shops, and world-renowned restaurants beckon visitors to Pacific Grove. Located between Monterey and Pebble Beach, this quaint coastal town is scenic, relaxing, and a location to reconnect with nature. Beginning as a summer Methodist Camp in 1875, the Pacific Grove Retreat offered a place to worship, rest and meditate. The fragrant pines and fresh sea air enticed visitors. With the Monterey canneries bustling, this paradise inspired the saying “Carmel-by-the-Sea”, “Monterey-by-the Smell” and “Pacific Grove-by-God!”

While California’s charming towns dot its varied coastal terrain Pacific Grove boast “Best Seaside Town” by VIA Magazine and Life Magazine named it the “Most Romantic City in the US.” Richard and I look forward to another visit to Pacific Grove. Earlier trips focused on Monterey Peninsula’s tourist areas of 17-mile drive with its famous golf courses and upscale Carmel-by-the Sea. We are ready to reconnect with nature in this delightful seaside town.

Asilomar Beach

Asilomar Beach

Asilomar, the “Refuge by the Sea,” consists of 107 acres of diverse beachfront. Sitting on sand dunes above the Pacific Ocean and in a pine forest, Asilomar was initially built in the early 1900’s as a summer camp for the Young Women’s Christian Association. Driving through the stone entrance gates of Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds, we admire the cozy cabins, rustic lodges and unspoiled surroundings. We check in at the Phoebe A. Hearst Social Hall, a large, beautiful wood and stone building that now houses guest registration, a gift shop, a nice relaxing area and the primary location for Internet access.

Initially, we are assigned a room in the Pirate’s Den, which previously housed the young male staff during the summer camp. As a former summer camp, Asilomar’s guest rooms are rustic and simple providing an escape from the demands of everyday life such as TV’s, phones, and Internet. This is in keeping with helping guests get away from the outside world to reflect inwardly and appreciate the tranquil surroundings. Due to a mix up with our room, the staff moves us to a suite, which happens to offer some extra amenities along with its cozy charm.

Now to explore Asilomar! At registration we pick up literature on Julia Morgan’s Architecture and a walking tour of eight of the original buildings. A famed architect from California, Julia Morgan, employed the use of an Arts & Crafts architectural style for Asilomar. The goal was to restore craftsmanship and artistic form to all buildings bringing balance, health, harmony and happiness. We locate the buildings on our walk, stopping to better appreciate the structures with the use of local woods and stone plus their open spaces and natural lighting.

At the Dune Boardwalk we leave the buildings and the pine forest as the terrain gives way to low lying bushes and grasses. The boardwalk leads us to picturesque Asilomar Beach. This white sandy beach is one of the few beaches in Pacific Grove where you can actually walk on the beach. Most of the coastline in Pacific Grove is along low cliffs with rocky outcroppings. Going south along the Coast Trail we enjoy the scenic view and sounds as waves crash on the beach. The trail gives us the chance to also check out golfers as it borders the edge of Spanish Bay Golf Links. Returning to the boardwalk we follow the signs of the Living Dunes Trail. A massive restoration project begun in 1984 returned the dunes at Asilomar to their native state. We stroll along the Living Dunes ¼ mile boardwalk noting the stops in the Living Dunes guide with explanations on the dunes and its unique flora and fauna. With its magnificent beach, dunes, and pine forest, Asilomar creates a true harmony with nature and tranquility.

Following an afternoon of roaming Asilomar we return to our suite to relax before heading out to dinner. Driving to Pacific Grove’s downtown, we pass beach style cottages, bungalows, Victorian houses and numerous quaint bed & breakfasts. The charming downtown area is several blocks offering a variety of shops and numerous eateries.

We locate Passionfish just at the edge of the downtown area. Entering the restaurant it presents a crisp trendy setting yet a fun, casual atmosphere. Once seated, we quickly learn Passionfish is all about good food, good service and a good dining experience. Owned and operated by Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy Walter, Passionfish has received the Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence every year since 1998 and has a Zagat rating. With an excellent wine selection, we relax with our drinks as we review the menu. Offering a varied selection of sustainable seafood, we start with the Malaysian pole caught squid with a spicy cilantro-citrus sauce with mango. The Dungeness crab salad is layers of avocados and crab topped with spicy ginger vinaigrette. My entre’ of Sea Scallops with tomato-truffle butter, risotto custard and minted celery is excellent. Richard’s slow poached Sturgeon with lemon-grass jasmine rice and lemongrass slaw with spicy red curry vinaigrette is very tasty. The wait staff is extremely conscientious and Chef Ted even stops by to chat. Passionfish offers a great and unique dining experience!

We stroll through downtown Pacific Grove this beautiful evening, enjoying window shopping through the various shops and restaurants. It’s a relaxing evening with beautiful skies and mild temperatures. Tomorrow, we plan a day of walking along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, so it is early to bed.

As “leisure guests” at Asilomar our breakfast is included. Walking to the Dining Hall, we enter this large hall with its round tables that have a lazy Suzanne’s in the center. Signs atop the tables designate the group for conference attendees. We are directed to the table for “leisure guests”. The Dining Hall is busy this morning with many of the conference group tables already filled. A hot breakfast is served each day plus a wide assortment of other breakfast options offering stations for cereals, breads, bagels, sweet rolls, fresh fruit, and yogurt with numerous healthy toppings. The perfect beginning for our full day of outdoor activities!

Lover's Point

Lover’s Point

With clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 60’s we are off to walk along the Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Trail where it winds along the cliffs and shoreline of Pacific Grove. We drive along Sunset Drive with its spectacular ocean views and park on Ocean View Boulevard. The trail paths are designated for walkers and bikers. The view across Monterey Bay with the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance is fantastic. Walking the path along the cliff is one magnificent scene after another. Each turn offers a new special view as large waves crash on rocks along the shoreline. Photo opportunities abound! We sit and relax at benches along the path. The scenery with the sound of the waves is mesmerizing. We learn the history of Pacific Grove at a mural on a beach-wall. Nature is alive and well! In the water we spot Sea otters feeding on crabs and fish. In the bay whale watching boats cruise along with tourists seeking a glimpse of gray whales as they migrate north. Lover’s Point Park and Beach create an enchanting setting. Yes, Pacific Grove is a “dreamy” and “romantic” seaside town. As the path heads north toward Monterey’s Cannery Row, we stop and watch the harbor seals.

The serenity and spectacular cliff edge with the ocean view ends as the trail enters the popular vacation destination of Cannery Row. The new scene is shops, restaurants and hotels bustling with tourists. We detour along Cannery Row checking out the shops and walkways around buildings that sit over the water. Informative historical signs explain the heritage of Cannery Row with its fishing canneries, the rise and fall of the industry and the impact of John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row. We make a quick stop at the Pebble Beach Shop to check out any sales and a swing through Ghiradelli’s for a free sample of their delicious chocolate. As we continue on Old Fisherman’s Wharf, the sidewalk winds around buildings that border Monterey Bay. At Old Fisherman’s Wharf, we are accosted by hawkers at each restaurant urging us to sample their clam of the “best clam chowder.” On our return, we are back on the Coastal Trail which is now away from the coastline. We stop for a light lunch and admire the bungalows, bed & breakfasts, and houses along the trail. Now to relax at Asilomar! 

Upon recommendations of family and accolades of magazines of a restaurant “not to be missed”, we have reservations for dinner at the Sardine Factory. Actually housed in a building where sardine workers were once fed, the Sardine Factory is the highly successful dream of Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino. With their vision, Ted and Bert, overcame the business rules they broke of a restaurant that was on the wrong side of the tracks (no view nor near the water), an ugly building with stairs to climb and no marketing program. As we climb the stairs to the Sardine Factory, we agree there is nothing spectacular about the building. Opening the door, everything changes! The restaurant is alive with activity and welcoming. We are escorted to the Conservatory, one of several dining rooms. Surrounded by lush greenery beneath a glass-domed roof, we love the romantic and enchanting affect of this beautiful setting.  

Dining at the Sardine Factory- notice the Ice Swans!

Dining at the Sardine Factory- notice the Ice Swans!

The Sardine Factory definitely lives up to its acclaim of an unforgettable fine dining experience. The service and attention to detail is excellent. Each course is perfectly prepared beginning with our Appetizer Trio of calamari puffs, huge prawn cocktails, and tasty fried Castroville artichoke rings. Richard loves “the world famous” Abalone Bisque, which was served at President Regan’s inaugural dinner. The Acai salad is my healthy choice with poached pear, orange segments, walnuts and an Acai blackberry vinaigrette. The entrées of fresh Alaskan Halibut with crabmeat over spinach and broiled fresh wild Alaskan Salmon filet are fantastic. During dinner, Bert Cutino, stops by and shares the history and amusing stories about the restaurant. The grand finale is the “Sorbet on Ice Swans” glowing a deep blue as the waiter carries them across the room. The mango sorbet is delicious and light. A truly superb dining experience! 

Our final evening at Asilomar, we enjoy the fireplace and recall this exciting and memorable visit. Asilomar offered the tranquility in a natural setting and our peaceful walk along the spectacular Pacific Grove’s shoreline, touristy Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Coast Trail gave us an even better love of this “paradise”. For this visit in late March, the weather was perfect. Daytime temperatures were in the high 60’s with fantastic clear blue skies. The great restaurants of Pacific Grove’s Passionfish and Cannery Row’s Sardine Factory exceeded our expectations for fantastic dining experiences. Pacific Grove may be a quaint town but it has a lot to offer any visitor.

 If you go:
Asilomar Conference Grounds, 800 Asilomar Boulevard, Pacific Grove, CA 93950-3704

Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1770, Monterey, CA 93942

Passionfish, 701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950

Sardine Factory, 701 Wave Street, Monterey, CA 93940-1016
(831) 373-3775

The Grandeur of the Omni Grove Park Inn

An Enchanting Escape

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

Omni Grove Park Inn & Sunset Terrace

Omni Grove Park Inn & Sunset Terrace

Memories! A fall mountain vacation 20 years ago is my first memory of visiting the renowned Grove Park Inn.   One morning we hike Chimney Rock Park followed by an afternoon at the Biltmore Estate. Before sunset, we arrive at the Grove Park Inn. A massive unique stone structure on Sunset Mountain, the Inn exudes an enchantment with an aura of being in a Fairy Tale.  Continue reading

A North Carolina Vacation Headquarters-Black Mountain

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

A Welcoming “Front Porch” to Western North Carolina

Black Mountain's "Front Porch" Welcome

Black Mountain’s “Front Porch” Welcome

Where is your favorite vacation destination? As Travel Writers, we frequently hear this question. Our answer, “Each place has its own unique qualities.” Yet, when we seek a vacation get-a-way for a month, we consistently return to the North Carolina Mountains. Our vacation headquarters is Black Mountain, NC. Known as the “Front Porch” of Western North Carolina, it has a welcoming front porch, downhome charm. Serenity, fresh air, and magnificent mountain views are found in this quaint yet bustling small town in the Swannanoa Valley. Continue reading