Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Carnival Vista - Southern Caribbean

This will be a long one so feel free to skip to the stuff you care about most!

We spent 8 days on Carnival's newest ship - the Vista - cruising from Miami.

The Ship

Inside Cabin 7309
As usual, we booked an interior on Carnival.  The major difference in the new ship layout is one few closet side and a few less drawers.  We still had plenty of space for our stuff - we typically don't take much more than we need.  No real issues with the cabin and location other than a very slow response time with the TV and flipping through options.

The Food
We ate in the steakhouse on the first night (Fahrenheit 555), which has been moved from one of the highest decks to Deck 5.  The layout of the restaurant was a little different than most other Carnival steakhouses, but it was still fine.  The food, as usual, was amazing and worth the upcharge. A+
9oz filet from the steakhouse
We ate at the Italian restaurant on the last night (Cucina del Capitano) and made the mistake of having apps with friends about an hour and a half before our dinner reservation.  We weren't really that hungry for dinner and should have cancelled.  I can't say for sure if our opinion of the meal was swayed because we weren't that hungry or if the food quality changed from the first time we ate there on the Breeze a couple years ago.  Regardless, the apps (meatballs and risotto balls) and the bruscetta plate were all good.  I ordered the chicken parm and spaghetti.  My dish was very tasty.  The hubs ordered the short ribs and the rosemary roasted potatoes.  The potatoes were awesome and the short rib was WAY overflavored.  It was tender but just didn't taste that great.  We both ordered cannoli to go.  I love cannoli, like really love it, but this was a pretty big miss for us.  The chocolate shells were filled with a cheesecake-like filling rather than the expected marscapone and ricotta taste and it wasn't as thick as I'm used to.  B-

This was our first experience with the American Table concept in the main dining rooms, and I wasn't disappointed at all!  In general, all of the food we had at dinner was amazing!  Sea Day brunches are also fantastic - love the steak and eggs (filet mignon) and the mac n cheese with bacon.

The buffet was fine, and I really enjoyed the new addition of the homestyle soft serve ice cream made each day - two different flavors each day.  This station is in addition to the usual frozen yogurt and soft serve machines.

The deli on this ship has a different feel to it than the other ships, and the sandwich options were great.  Loved the different grilled cheese options, and I also enjoyed the falafel wrap one day.

We didn't eat at Bonsai Sushi, JiJi, or the Seafood Shack.

Overall, we ate way too much:)

The Alcohol
We decided against buying the Cheers drink package because 1) it is required for both people in a cabin to purchase and 2) we were SCUBA diving in two ports and had to watch our consumption the day before each dive.  Instead, we bought the deluxe Cruising the Vineyards wine package (middle tier) for $153 including gratuities.  This package had a fair list of wine of which we could choose 5.  It was not restricted to the main dining room.

We also purchased several different drinks over the course of the cruise at Alchemy.  Besides my dirty martinis (made with muddled green olives), we never ordered from the menu.  The bartenders there will create whatever you want.

Entertainment (and venues)
This is where things were fell apart for me.  I'll start with the good first because I think that's only fair.

The Good
  • The Dive-in Movies (outside on Lido) were great as usual.  Changed up the movies with mostly new releases each night (from 2-3 different movies each night).  
  • The live musicians, especially the violin trio, were amazing!
  • The changing LED displays in the atrium and the casinos - so fun!  
  • Lots of seating around the ship to just relax
  • The cruise director is amazing!  If you get a chance to sail with Matt Mitcham, you will understand why he's viewed as one of the best throughout the whole fleet.
  • The gym seemed a bit bigger than some of the older ships.

The Bad
  • There is an IMAX movie theater with current release movies that costs right around what you'd pay on land - $13 for adults.  Why?  Just why?  After having enjoyed the current release movies on the Disney ships, for FREE, I guess I'm just spoiled.  I do wonder how much Carnival is actually making by having this theater on board because I never saw anyone buying tickets. We didn't appreciate the upcharge, so we didn't go.  Whatever.  What really irks me, though, is that the IMAX took up a fair amount of space that could have been used for something better. Which leads me to...
  • The main theater set-up.  It's the smallest one I have seen (haven't been on Sunshine), and the rows of chairs are a disaster.  There are poles you can't see around from the back, and you better get there EARLY because it fills up FAST!  Again, lack of seating.  Yay, you can move chairs to fit the needs of the shows.  Bully for you, Carnival (dripping with sarcasm if you hadn't caught that yet...).  So let's talk about those chairs for a sec.  There are literally rows of seating that are on the same level as the row in front of them, no downward slope.  Sorry, short people, you're out of luck if you get stuck in those seats. And if you're in the middle of the row, you literally have to crawl over people to get out.  
  • The comedy and disco rooms are one in the same.  Small and cramped with big fat poles.  Yada yada yada.  This means no late night comedy.  Also, the DJ on our cruise sucked.
  • Finally, the lead Playlist singers on this ship were terrible.  Like polar opposite of the awesome cast that we experienced a couple months ago on Celebrity.  There was one good guy out of the four leads.  Two of the other leads threw their voices (or whispered) in such strange ways that I'm hoping that they are just doing whatever the director (or vocal coaches) are telling them to do because I could hardly sit and listen to them without cringing.  We made it to two shows and just couldn't stomach any more.  It was the worst cast of singers we've encountered on a ship.  Maybe that makes me lucky that we haven't come across this sooner?
Overall Ship Impressions
Fantastic crew members, wonderful food, solid live musicians, and pretty decor.  We wouldn't readily choose this ship again unless the itinerary and price were REALLY good.  I missed the Breeze, or any other Carnival ship for that matter.

Ports of Call
Grand Turk - Oasis Divers
I booked our 2-tank boat dive through the ship because I would have probably booked Oasis Divers on my own anyway.  They picked us by boat close to the pier and then took us to the dive shop behind Jack's Shack to be fitted with our equipment.

Our group of 17 cruise divers was (thankfully) divided between two boats.  We ended up in the group of 6 - whew!  We dove two different sites along the infamous Grand Turk wall.  Let me tell, 7000' ft down just fades right to black beneath you.  We saw a spotted ray, sea turtle, a VERY playful Nassau Grouper that must have had a crush on our dive master because she followed us for quite a long time and just wanted to cuddle into his hand.  She didn't like me much when I tried to touch her, though. Oh well, she was slimy anyway.

Overall, very good diving and SCUBA operation. Just prepare for a larger group if you decide to book with them.

Dominican Republic - Catalina Island Carnival Excursion
This was booked through the ship and was a group excursion with 30 of our cruising friends.  There are no food options on the island so plan accordingly.  You will be bused from port to the marina where you will board a shuttle boat.  The boat ride to Catalina Island is about 30 minutes.  The beach is beautiful, and there are free lounge chairs and a cash bar.  It was OK, but not sure I'd want to book unless a fun group of friends goes, too.

Aruba was a relaxed day for us.  We walked across the street to the bus terminal and hopped on one of the #10 buses for $2.60 pp each way.  We were dropped off at DePalm Pier (beside RIU Palace and the Hilton) and walked to Bugaloe, a fun little beach bar and grill sitting right on the water.  Very easy day.
Sunset in Aruba - beach next to Bugaloe
Curacao - Bas Harts Diving
This was, hands-down, one of the best excursions we have ever done! I did a fair amount of research for diving Curacao as this was on my bucket list since I was certified years ago.  I considered both the Dive Bus (shore diving is done across on their "house" reef) and Bas Harts.  Ultimately I chose the one that included transportation to and from the port.  Best decision I could have made.

We were picked up promptly at the meeting time by Nick.  He was actually there a little early but we didn't realize it was our truck.  Oops.  I asked him if anyone else was joining us, and he replied that no, we had booked a private tour, so it was just the two of us.  Sweet!  We threw our gear into the bed of the double-cab, 4-wheel drive truck and off we went to our first beach destination.  To say that we were out in the middle of nowhere is understatement.  Without a 4-wheel drive truck or jeep, there's no way we could have made it to "no name" beach.  We were the only ones there!

Nick, our guide and dive master, locked up our few valuables in the safe and pointed out the security cameras installed in the truck.  This dive company looks out for their guests, and I really appreciated that.  We did our quick safety briefing and intro to the dive site, and then Nick assembled and helped us into our gear.  We had never shore dived before, and it was awesome!  So much sealife and healthy coral!  After 40 minutes in the water, we came back to shore, loaded up our gear, had a quick snack and water, and drove to the next drive site, Playa Largu, a coral beach.  Again, we were pretty much the only people there.  This stop was more incredible than the last, and we saw SO much sealife!  I can't describe with words how beautiful it was!

Nick took very good care of us and was very safety conscious.  We had a wonderful day, got see parts of the island that I never imagined, and saw so many cool sea creatures - spotted ray, different eels, juvenile and adult lionfish, juvenile and adult spotted drums, ets.

I would 100% book through Bas Harts again, and below you will see one of the photos that Nick took of the sites and us along the way.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Celebrity Reflection - Western Caribbean

For Spring Break 2016, the hubs wanted to do a land vacation instead of a cruise so we stayed at Couples Negril for 5 days.  It was wonderful, and we got that out of our system for a while.  For a couple of years we had been talking about trying a different cruise line.  If you have followed by travels over the years, we have cruised Carnival (two weeks shy of Platinum after this year), Royal Caribbean, and Disney.  I started researching and came across Celebrity.  I had heard good things but always assumed it was out of our price range.  I was pleasantly surprised that I was quite wrong.

We had cabin 6192, obstructed view balcony (or as they call it, veranda).  Please note that the hubs and I have only ever booked interior or oceanview, so this was our first balcony.  The obstructed view didn't bother us.  The room was spacious, and the bathroom was big (relatively speaking) as well.  At first I was worried about lack of drawer space, but the closet and other nooks and crannies were plenty for us.  Since the room was fairly mid-ship, it was easy to get to the aft or forward.  I also appreciated the small but adequate selection of free on-demand movies.  The provided shampoo, conditioner, and lotion were also good.

Food (and Bars)
We ate either in the buffet or the main dining room so I cannot speak to the specialty restaurants.

The buffet for breakfast was quite good - quality selections all-around.  Lunch was just so-so - Disney has them beat in this area.  We never ate dinner here.

The main dining room for breakfast and lunch had very nice selections - much more expansive and fancy than Carnival.  For dinner, we had a terrific dining staff that we requested each night - we had chosen Select Dining rather than a set dinner time as I like flexible (and apparently being the first one lined up at 5:30 for dinner.  I like to eat, and I'm not afraid of the early special!).  Honestly, we arrived so early each night that not only did we get a fabulous serving team we also got a table by the window - 6 nights in a row.  Pretty darn good if you ask me!

Let's keep talking about the main dining room.  Like I said, our serving team was flipping awesome!  The sommelier was great, and the wine list for the dining room had some really solid selections that fit right into the premium drink package.  The food selections each night were great.  Some standouts for me was the nightly creme brulee dessert option, the mushroom risotto (my word!), lamb chops, and lobster tail (which our server cut for me) served on Chic Night #2.  The only thing I didn't like was one of Greg's fish dishes and the beef wellington.  I didn't feel as if I missed out on any of the specialty restaurants because the dining room was SO good.

Now, onto the Cafe al Bacio - the coffee bar.  All of the specialty coffees (both virgin and not) were included, which made this girl VERY happy!  Very quick service that you can take to-go or stay there to drink.  Also included are free sweet bites.

I really enjoyed the martini bar's drink selections as well as decor.  The bar itself was ice.  Nice!

We spent a good deal of time in Cellar Masters with the wonderful sommelier, Stefania.  Really great wine selections included port.  Very comfortable environment.  We had a fair amount of OBC so we signed up for the Riedel glass education class.

Although the entertainment in the evenings was more subdued than Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the live band was quite good. The shows in the theater were absolutely phenomenal, and I'm not sure if it's specific just to this cast, hopefully it's the same across the fleet.  The singers were outstanding and blew away any other cast I had ever seen on a ship, including Disney.  I would liken them more to the talent that you will see in Broadway shows.  Elysium, was particularly amazing.

The gym, because we had to work off calories, was part of a few of our days.  It was spacious, and I definitely found it bigger and better than any other ship we have been on.

I found this cruise to be the most relaxing one that we have ever taken.  I never felt rushed or that we were running around non-stop.  If I wanted a latte, I got a latte.  If I wanted a mimosa, I got a mimosa.  If I wanted to sit on the balcony and enjoy the salt air, I did.

I cannot say enough about the wonderful service we received on board from all of the different staff members from food and beverage, to shore excursions, to guest services, to our room steward.  I felt that it compared to a Disney cruise, but ranked a bit higher.  I can tell you that it was a hell of a lot cheaper than Disney would have been and actually cheaper than Carnival for the type of room we got and all of the amenities.

Cozumel - We booked a private SCUBA trip with Alison.  It was a wonderful experience, and I would definitely use her again.  We caught a taxi right outside of the port for $10 and were dropped off at the marina Alison uses.  We a little guidance, we found her boat.  We did a two-tank dive with a surface interval of about 45 minutes.  She provided water and bananas as a snack.  She was good about personalizing the trip for us and making sure that we were all safe. The taxi back to port was $8.  I prepaid the $180 (for both of us) via paypal ahead of time.

Grand Cayman - We were supposed dive in Grand Cayman through the ship, but the excursion was cancelled due to water conditions.  We took the OBC we were refunded and booked the Dolphin Push, Pull, Swim through Celebrity.  Bad move.  We couldn't take any cameras in, and the cheapest photo was WAY to expensive.  The hubs thinks it was $25 for one photo, but I remember it being more like $50.  Regardless of the actual cost, we said "screw it" and didn't buy one.  It sucks because we have no photo evidence we were even there.  So back to the excursion, each person spent maybe 3 minutes with actually dolphin interaction.  Outside of the prescribed interaction, there was no additional opportunities just to pet the dolphin.  At a $110pp, I was expecting a bit more and was disappointed.  At least the money didn't come out of our pocket, but a facial on board might have been nice...

Labadee, Haiti (private island) - If you have the drink package, you can utilize it on the island, which was fantastic.  There's nothing like a pina colada while enjoying a beach.  The buffet lunch served was OK.  There was plenty of space for everyone from the ship to spread out so it didn't feel overcrowded at all.  I still like Coco Cay (RCL) the best with Carnival's island coming in second.

Confession, we also ported at Falmouth, Jamaica, but we did not leave the ship...

Skip if you want!
Let's breakdown the financial stuff so we can see how 7 days on Celebrity compared to Couples last year.  As I said at the beginning, I had always perceived Celebrity as too expensive, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how it stacked up to our other vacations.

I use www.CruCon.com as my travel agent for cruises (though not usually for Carnival).  They give additional benefits if something is either booked or transferred while they are having a sale.  I booked the Reflection during the Memorial Day sale, and I had booked with them before.  I received $100 in OBC from the sale for our room type and additional $50 OBC since I have a loyalty number with CruCon.  And, I didn't know this while booking, but CruCon paid a portion of the upgraded perks package, which dropped our charges by $120.  So, if you are following, I saved $120 by using CruCon and also received $150 OBC.

Let's continue and talk about Celebrity's promo packages, which I LOVE.  Celebrity gives you the option on certain room types and above (we had an obstructed-view veranda). They will allow to choose 1 or 2 perks.  If you want to upgrade the promo package to include all 4 perks, this is the Go Best package.  Here's what this included for our veranda room:

  • unlimited internet
  • pre-paid gratuities
  • premium drink package (all drinks up to $13 are included - coffee, non-alcoholic, and alcoholic)
  • $300 OBC ($450 if you take into account CruCon's incentives). 
In summary, I'd say we got a pretty darn good deal.  When I compared it to a Carnival balcony with a similar itinerary on that same date and added up the gratuities and drink package, we came out way better by booking through Celebrity.  So there you have it.

Disney Wonder

This trip was a short girls' weekend cruise on the Disney Wonder, re-positioning from San Juan to Port Canaveral.

We flew Southwest from MCO to SJU and had a very easy flight (about 2.5 hours). After collecting our baggage, we went out to the taxi terminal, told them where were going, and they gave us a price for the taxi and baggage from the air port to the Pan American pier.  For 3 passengers with 4 pieces of luggage, we paid $26 + tip.  The taxi ride was about 20 minutes or so and uneventful.

We stayed in a Deluxe Oceanview with Veranda Aft (7118).  The room shook horribly every night and had a terrible rattling in the ceiling panels.  We are not sure if the rattling is unique to this room or more common, but if I had to venture a guess, all Aft cabins may experience this.  None of us really slept well at night due to the vibration and the rattling.

The room is a nice size for 3 adults, and I love the split bathroom (sink and toilet on side, sink and tub on the other side).  Plenty of drawer and closet space.

Food in the main dining rooms was really good.  Palo (specialty dining) is still simply amazing!  Buffets are solid but always really crowded.

I took advantage of the movie theatre on board and watched a recently released movie in 3D.  The nice thing about Disney ships is that they run current releases that Disney Corp owns.  And they are free.

The new show, Frozen, was awesome.  Disney's Broadway-style shows do not disappoint.

We wanted to go to a martini tasting but found out that we had to register ahead of time.  We showed up at the room and were told no one booked so it was cancelled.  Super disappointing.

Favorite bar to grab super fancy cocktails is the Cadillac Lounge.

Disney gives you 50MB of wifi free on the first day of the cruise until midnight, and I found it sufficiently fast.  They also have several different packages available for purchase that should any need if you have to be connected while at sea.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Portland, OR

Following our weekend in Seattle, we spent a day and a half in downtown Portland.

We had booked Amtrak tickets ahead of time for $63 total, and the scenic train ride took about 4 hours.

Portland Marriott City Center 
This hotel is in the best location!  Very central, close to Pioneer Square, Mother's, Blue Star Donuts, etc.

Jake's Famous Crawfish -  This bar and restaurant has been around for a very long time, and many of the old fictures are still in use or on display.  Good food and nice place to stop for happy hour.  It apparently gets crazy busy for dinner, so happy hour might be your best bet to try it out if you don't want to wait.

Clyde Common - I kind of wish that we'd tried this place out for dinner because happy hour wasn't that enticing.  OK food and drink specials.

Mother's BistroOh. So. Good!  Happy hour is simply wonderful, and we ordered several different special drinks and items from the menu.  All of it was fantastic.  Mother's is a Portland institution, so you must visit!

Portland City Grill sits on the 30th floor so the view is fantastic. Seems to be quite the popular choice for both locals and visitors as the place was packed half an hour into happy hour.  We got there around 4:30 after walking from Mother's.  Good wine by the glass or bottle, tasty food, but let's face, the atmosphere and the views are what make this place so cool.  Highly recommend.

There's also a plethora of food trucks scattered around downtown that represent almost every type of cuisine that you could dream of eating.  You will not starve in this city!

Things to Do
Free Walking Tour - Secrets of Portlandia - At 11am, every day, rain or shine, Erik offers a free walking tour that is roughly 1.5-2 hours long. He is very knowledgeable and gave Portland some context. He explained the drinking fountains we saw all around the city, which reminded me of the fountains around Rome. It's cool potable water that comes down from the mountains and available to anyone who wants a sip.  He's personable, funny, safety-conscious, and is used to working with a mixed crowd.  You can't go wrong.  Just show up in front of the court house on Pioneer Square, and you're set!

Eat some donuts.  Really.  Voodoo donuts is this crazy popular place, but I had read reviews to visit Blue Star instead.  I can't compare the two since we didn't visit Voodoo, but boy was Blue Star good albeit a bit pricier than Krispy Kreme.

Willamette Valley, OR

On the hunt for great Pinot Noir, we spent 3 full days exploring several Willamette Valley AVA's.  I can unequivocally say that WV is far less commercial and pretentious than Napa (which we sill love) and the tasting prices reflect this.  The wines are still in the $25-75 range for most, so in that respect, it is similar to California.  What you will find, though, is that the people are super nice and love what they do.  A lot of the wineries started as farms, and you will drive through farm fields everywhere you go. It's beautiful.  And picturesque. And hilly - very curvy and hilly - so share your tastings!  Most of the tasting guides did ask us if we wanted to share, which implies that it's common practice in WV.

We booked Amtrak from Seattle to Portland ahead of time, and the cost was $63 for both of us. Much cheaper than flying!  There was free wifi on the train and pretty views, so the almost 4 hour ride didn't seem so bad.

AirBNB Room Rental  - this was our very first time using this website and booking a room (or in our case rooms) in someone's house.  I was a bit nervous to be sharing space with owners, but it worked out very well for us.  Three nights only cost us $312 total.  At a half mile from downtown McMinnville, it was a very easy walk to restaurants, cafes, shops, and tasting rooms.  There was plenty of parking available when we did have the car with us, but it was nice to have the walking option.  Our hosts were super friendly, and we did get to spend a bit of time with them on our last night, which was great.

Crescent Cafe (McMinnville) - The prices are on par with other places, and the breakfast was quite large.  Cute little cafe downtown.

McMenamin's Roof Top Bar at the Hotel Oregon (McMinnville) - We visited for happy hour (I know you are shocked).  Really good hard cherry cider and coffee rubbed burger. The roof top offers great views of the mountains. We walked down to the cellar bar before leaving, and it was a neat little dive bar reminiscent of days long gone by. If you have ever visited the basement restaurant bar at The Old Pink House in Savannah, this looks like a mini version of it. Very cool restored and fully operational hotel.

Subterra (Newberg)- There was no one else there but us when we walked in for happy hour at the bar.  Although the food was good, the happy hour menu was not the one that is posted on the website, which really rubbed me the wrong way from the start.  The small plates menu online indicates that some of the items are half-priced during HH - not the case when we were there.  Prices were $2 off. People, it's really NOT that hard to make sure that your website is up-to-date - put in a little effort! We ordered a couple things, which were good, but they definitely were higher than what I'd expect for HH.

Taste of 808 (Newberg)- We went straight here after leaving Subterra - they share the same parking lot.  The staff was nice, and the food was good and well-priced.  It's a mix of carry our and sit down, so this place is good for a quick bit to eat as you are moving around the wineries.

La Sierra Mexican Grill (Dundee) - Stopped here for lunch.  Quick service, good food options for lunch, and surprise dessert at the end.  Worth going to if you are craving some Mexican.

The Horse Radish - Several wineries recommended this place for lunch, and I see why.  There is a nice selection of sandwiches, and they are TASTY!  And big.  The hubs and I could easily have split one.

Left Coast Cellars - LCC ranks as one of our highlights of wine country, and it was totally unexpected.  We met a couple along our wanderings, and as locals and grape growers, they recommended stopping for a bite to eat at this place called Left Coast.  The name doesn't exactly draw you in, but the whole experience was awesome!  They have a little cafe with fresh made selections and a chef that is there to explain them to you.  The food was DELICIOUS!  We were able to pair our wine flight with the food to see how the different varietals and vintages held up to food, which was nice.  The people, especially Riley and Ivey, were super helpful and very attentive.  We loved our short time there and highly recommend it.

Bethel Heights - Cool place to visit, but our taste buds were too exhausted to actually taste much of the wine.  That's a first for us - our tongues were totally burnt out so we went to lunch.  It's a popular place, so I'm sure the wine is good.

St. Innocent - Interesting wine, but I'm not sure I'd push someone to visit here.

Witness Tree - Small, cute tasting room.  Nice wine selection.  One of the best Chardonnay's I had in Oregon - much more like the California oakiness that I prefer.  Neat place for a visit, and we heard good things about their neighbor, Cristom, so it would be a good opportunity to hit two good ones very close together.

Armamenta - This was our very first winery visit when we drove into the Valley from Portland, and the son was just opening up the tasting room for his mom.  He left when she came down from the house and offered us some cheese and crackers with our wine flight.  Darlene is such a welcoming host!  She explained the history of the winery and gave us some good insight of what to expect over the next couple of days.  Highly recommend this place!

Utopia - I love winery dogs, and you will be greeted by two cuties when you arrive.  Dan, the owner and winemaker, came down to greet us after his daughter unlocked the tasting room for us.  His wine is incredible, and this would be a great place to picnic - wonderful valley views and a bocce ball court.

Argyle - When I asked several people for sparkling wine recommendations, they all pointed us to Argyle.  We had a very nice tasting experience in their expansive tasting room and joined the Pop wine club.  Recommend!

Chehalem - It's unassuming with quality wine.  If you are looking for a quick tasting, you can easily get through the flight in 30 minutes with the friendly staff or sit enjoy your sips for an hour.

Willamette Valley Vineyards - This place is actually a tasting room in downtown McMinnville. You can stop here for a flight or a glass and just relax.  Very comfortable atmosphere. The wines are good, too.

White Rose - Whoa, this one ended up being pretty pricey in comparison to all of the other wineries we visited.  Expensive tasting, expensive (but delicious) wine.  Beautiful property.

Four Graces - The tasting room is in a converted house, and it's really quaint.  The back patio area is expansive and looks to be a great place for a picnic lunch.  They do have cheese and crackers for purchase in the tasting room.  Solid little winery.

Fairsing - Yet another beautiful place to visit with a new tasting room (house?).  Great wine, great views, friendly staff.  Very good rose.

Fairsing - LEED certified facility
Youngberg Hill - Youngberg Hill is also a bed and breakfast.  It's absolutely gorgeous, and I bet that it's a wonderful place to call home for a couple days.  One of the owners led our testing in the inn's carpeted living room.  Spacious and comfortable space that opens onto a large patio area overlooking the vineyards.  Recommend.

Ken Wright - The tasting room is an old train station in the town of Carlton.  Maybe we were too tired and full after lunch, but we were not at all impressed.  Skip.


  • Share tastings!
  • Takes lots of photos.
  • Do NOT trust your GPS.
  • Be prepared for very long driveways that are both paved and unpaved.  
  • Use a printed map as a guideline and then pay attention to the blue winery signage.  You will rely on that more than GPS at time.  When in doubt, call the winery to get directions!
  • Ask for recommendations from other wineries.  They will gladly give you suggestions for the rest of your day.

Seattle, WA

Disclaimer - we LOVE happy hour because we can try a bunch of different things rather than just two full meals.

The weather in Seattle in June is totally bipolar.  They had a heat wave in the 90s a week before we visited, and then our weekend required some creative layering to keep out the chill.  And be prepared for rain.  At least, like Florida, you see the sheets first and can gain some advanced notice.

Renaissance Seattle Hotel - my absolute favorite part about this hotel was the beautiful club lounge that had a Starbucks custom coffee machine available throughout the day.  Sweet!  The breakfasts were great, and the snacks in the evening were nice, too.  Great views of the city from the club floor.  The hotel sits atop a hill at the corner of 6th and Madison, so although it's not far from most places, expect to tackle some hills.  It's not as bad as San Fran, but there are some steep hills that all go down toward the water.

The Tasting Room - OK, so this place isn't REALLY a restaurant, but they do offer a small selection of food items to enjoy along with their wine flights or glasses.  The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and there is a fair representation of different Washington wineries and their offerings. The Tasting Room makes for a lovely place to relax after a long morning of walking.  We visited on two different days in order to try more of the flights.

Blueacre Seafood - Based on a recommendation from our hotel concierge, we went to Blueacre, and it was quite tasty with a good happy hour selection.  Recommend.

Sazerac - Another happy hour option, and it was nice and close to our hotel, which meant we didn't get soaked by rain on our walk back to the Renaissance.  Try the pizza from the HH menu.

Market Grill (in Pike Place) - Our concierge recommended this little hole-in-the-wall sized eatery in the middle of Pike Place Market, and we are so glad we took his advice.  Copper River salmon was in season, and we had it grilled - freaking awesome! Great clam chowder, too!  Great stop for lunch.

List - This was seriously the best happy hour outside of our favorite Orlando haunts. Great wine specials, fantastic food, small atmosphere, wonderful service, and the gnocchi was absolutely the best!

Ivar's Pier 54 Fish Bar is a great place for a quick lunch. The cod used in the fish n chips was super flaky with no fishiness whatsoever. Clam chowder at Market Grill was way better, though!  Prices are good compared to some of the other places down the street (Alaskan Way), and the ordering process was more quick service than sit down - perfect when you don't want to spend a lot of time waiting.

Palomino - Palomino's happy hour is great!  The food is so yummy, and the drink specials are really good.  Would go back in a heart beat!

Things to Do
La Buona Tavola - Truffle Cafe - The hubs and I might possible be obsessed with everything truffle (the mushroom, not the chocolate), so when I saw that this was a place mentioned on Yelp, I knew we had to visit.  One of the reviewers suggested stopping by Beecher's Handmade Cheese and buying the Mac n Cheese there.  So we did.  And it was awesome.  When we arrived at the Truffle Cafe, a staff member oriented us with the store and sampling options.  There are tasting sticks available so you can try almost everything the store sells - sweet!  We ordered a wine flight and paired that with the different truffle oils and pastes over our amazingly creamy Beecher's treat!  Definitely recommend visiting the cheese place first and then the Truffle Cafe.  You can thank me later.

Beneath the Streets - This tour was recommended to us by our hotel concierge who had been pretty spot on with his restaurant recommendations, so we trusted his judgement when signing up for this tour.  The guy leading it was very knowledgeable, and the tour was truly fascinating.  You could almost picture the way things use to be before Seattle was raised up as a city away from the rising sea levels.  There is a good amount of walking and stairs, but nothing too terrible.  Glad we did this.

We could have done all the touristy stuff but just didn't feel like it on this trip.  We walked to the Space Needle but did not go up.  I also wasn't dying to see the locks or the city from the water.  We spent a lot of time eating and drinking and walking off all the food and wine:)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Napa Valley, CA

They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.  Well, sorry, but this is one addiction I'm OK keeping!  In fact, now that we've gone mainly paleo, wine is my ONLY vice, and Napa remains a favorite vacation destination!

*Remember to check your Winery Finder app for discounts and BOGO's at different wineries when you are driving around!

Rental Home
We were finally able to take advantage of our wine club membership with The Terraces and rented one of their houses for three nights with four other people.  The two houses are only available for rent by wine club members, so most people probably wouldn't even realize they have guest homes on property.  We loved the location because it was much further north than where we've stayed in the past - on Silverado Trail a quarter mile south of Zinfandel Lane.

View Coming in from the driveway to the right side of the house.
The house is beautifully nestled among the vineyard and has a huge wrap-around porch, wonderfully equipped kitchen, and 3 newly renovated full bathrooms.  The owners said that wifi will finally be installed within the next week - we just missed it!

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon
Wineries - Napa
The Terraces - I'm totally biased, but I think everyone should visit!  Currently, tastings are $25pp or you can take a tour for $45pp.  While I was talking to Sharon, one of the owners, she said they may be raising their prices so check the website.  Newly learned fact: they lose money on tastings and make money on wine purchases.  In other words, check the prices when calling to book your appointment! While we were staying there, Terraces was bottling some of their wines.  What a neat experience! The bottling is done in a giant semi-truck trailer built AROUND the equipment.

Peju - Returned to Peju for another visit.  This time, our wine guide was Alan - the well-known singing entertainer.  The wines here are still solid - recommend a visit.  Tasting is waived with purchase and no appointment is necessary.

Black Stallion - Spent a bit more time here on our second visit.  I bought another bottle of the Viogner, and I'm sure you will find something here you like.  The tasting room is spacious and comfortable.

Madonna Estate - We stopped by Madonna on our way into Napa.  It's located in the Carneros region, so further south than Napa itself.  A big tour bus of about 30 people had pulled in right before us, but the tasting room staff accommodated us within a few minutes and took us to a different tasting room.  We appreciated the customer service.  The winery itself is cute, but nothing spectacular - same with the wines.  I ended up buying a Gewurztraminer that will be perfect for Thanksgiving, and it was unique enough for the Napa region that I couldn't pass it up.  It's not a wine you see often.  In summary, it's worth a visit if you are down in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Lava Vine - This place was recommended to us by a couple other wineries.  The website says that reservations are needed for groups of 7 or more, but that is not the case - it's groups of 6.  They were very busy when we walked in with our group of 6, and the guy seemed a little caught off guard.  He served us, but we kind of got an unwelcome feeling.  After the drunk tour group left, he admitted that he had his hands full with the group and had to monitor their alcohol intake.  Knowing that and seeing his demeanor change for the better, I'd say it's a cool little stop if you are up on Silverado Trail.  It's super close to Lincoln Rd in Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena - If you have ever seen the movie Bottleshock, then you know why we just had to go.  The property is absolutely gorgeous and has many opportunities for great photographs.  The wine, though, is not stunning.  We didn't buy anything here.  Go see it once and you're good.
Chateau Montelena - Calistoga
Chimney Rock - We visited Chimney Rock with a wine club member.  We didn't have a reservation, and it was super packed.  We were seated after a few minutes outside on the patio, and the wine guide was attentive - until she completely disappeared.  The wine member went in after about 10 minutes of no eye contact from any staff and asked if we could finish the tasting.  The tasting room had pretty much cleared out by this point, but the service still wasn't up to where it should be for such a high-end winery.  They did comp our tasting fees and found a white reserved only for a certain wine club level so we could try it - absolutely stunning! We bought the bottle right there and then, and the sour taste that I had in my mouth from the poor service dissipated somewhat.  Try with caution and make a reservation beforehand.

Rutherford Hill - Great views and interesting wines.  Located on Silverado Trail, it is a sister to Chimney Rock with less stuffiness.  It's a nice place for a picnic, but I wasn't bowled over by the wines.

Tank Garage - This new place absolutely blew us all away, and it provided the perfect reason why you can't ever judge a book by its cover.  Tank Garage literally sits just feet from Hwy 29 in Calistoga and looks like NOTHING from the outside except for an old garage.  It's not until you step up to the bar that you realize this place is legit.  Heath, our wine guide, explained that the winemaker will never replicate a wine - all of their releases will be different from the last.  There is a wine worth mentioning that is called Golden Era of Roller Derby, and this wine is freaking awesome.  It starts with a pineapple nose and front on the tongue before turning into banana in the middle and finish. Truly unique!  This is a quick, unpretentious stop - highly recommend a visit if you are up that way.
Tank Garage Winery
Envy - We started off a morning here - nothing like drinking wine at 10AM! - and the wine guide was so pleasant and chipper.  The wines are great, and our friend fell in the love with the late harvest dessert wine - the color is near gold!  It's a nice little tasting room and a neat place to visit.

Franciscan -  I had consumed a Franciscan Chard before the trip and instantly decided that I had to go there!  Unfortunately, we couldn't get in to either Rombauer or Markham, so Franciscan's Chardonnay kind of made up for it.  The wines are solid, but this winery definitely has a Mondavi-commercial feel to it.  I had no idea that they were part of a huge wine conglomerate, and that was disappointing to find out.  Visit if you like their wines or are curious about them.  Skip if you want small-winery service.

Paradigm - We met Mary Ann, the hospitality director, while hanging out at The Terraces.  A beautiful black lab greeted us when we parked and ushered into the very tiny tasting room.  The wine is good, and the property is cute, but it's a little pricey.  They do have an interesting rose if are into that - it's 100% Merlot.

Wineries - Sonoma
Buena Vista Winery - This was our first stop of the day, and I had super low expectations going in because I knew that it would be much more commercial due to its history as Napa's first winery. Well, I was right about the commercial part, but what I didn't expect was to love it so much.  The wines are great, and you get to taste while on your tour of the old facilities.  The new owners are very eccentric so expect to see the unexpected.  The sparkling rose at the beginning of the tour was fantastic, and I'm neither a sparkly nor a rose person.  I think that it's definitely worthy of a visit.
Buena Vista Winery
Nicholson Ranch - OK, so NR has a good story to it and they take a lot of pride in their wine making.  The tour and property are also nice.  The wine, though, is quite pricey, so just be prepared for that.  The views from NR are absolutely spectacular, so you may want to consider relaxing for a bit with a bite to eat and glass of wine.

Robledo - Famous for being the first latino-owned winery in the area, Robledo is a small place with a fantastic port.  Other than the port and the story, the winery underwhelming.  Consider skipping.

McKenzie-Mueller - Family owned winery with a tasting room that is literally in a garage - sometimes these are the best places!  The property itself is beautiful, and the wine carries wonderful qualities.  Definitely worth a visit if you are looking for a family-feel with absolutely no airs.

Torc - We booked a dinner reservation at Torc via Open Table following our Sonoma tour.  The food is excellent and the atmosphere interesting.  I wasn't entirely blown away, but I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever about this restaurant.

Carpe Diem - Oh how I love, thee!  Their restaurant and bar are back in service following the earthquake that shook down some bricks (and did a lot of damage).  Happy hour remains delightful (I swear that I dream about the truffle parmesan popcorn!) with a nice selection of apps and a constantly rotating happy hour wine offerings.

Gott's Roadside - It only took our fifth visit to Napa to try Gott's for the first time!  Every other time we have wanted to go, the lines were insane!  When we went for dinner Wednesday night, the location near Yountville was reasonably busy with almost no wait.  The selection of burgers is more than adequate, and I love that you can ask for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun - one of the only times I really tried to stay paleo on this trip.

Tour Company
Platypus - We broke form and actually hired a tour company to take us around Sonoma.  For $110pp (+ automatic 15% gratuity attached to groups of 4 or more), we had a great driver, comfortable van, cheese board, and picnic lunch for our full-day tour.  We were picked up at the Napa Valley Visitor's Center at 10AM and were so happy to learn that we were the ONLY people on that tour - we could have had up to 6 more people with us.  What a pleasant surprise first thing in the morning.  For me, handing over the planning reigns to someone else (our driver) was absolutely freeing.  I usually obsess over every little thing, especially when we have friends with us, and I didn't have to do that at all on this tour.  SO WORTH IT!  Besides Robledo, which was a bit of a let-down, the winery choices were awesome.  One other thing to note, they keep your records on file if you have used them before and also take notes of wineries you tell them you don't wish to visit.  This helps guests from repeating places they've already been to.