Feast your senses on Napa Valley's fresh food, vibrant surroundings, caring service and of course, tantalizing libations. Indian Summer season is high time for a well-deserved visit to Northern California's warm, sunny days and cool, breezy nights.
No matter how far one must travel to discover the likes of Sonoma, Yountville, Calistoga and more, part of every memorable trip is the journey there. Ours started out at the crack of dawn, where as we boarded a bright red Airbus 330, I could have sworn that Richard Branson himself was checking passes. Or was that just the lack of my usual am double-shot espresso? (You know you're flying early when even Starbucks isn't open yet!) All in all, it was an enjoyable ride.
On board, there was diversity galore! Our fellow passengers represented at least 15 nations, and the in-flight entertainment console offered browsing music, games and movies in everything from American to Zulu. Spanish 'Food Cubes' unfolded into an array of organic hummus, British water crackers, Belgian chocolate and itty bitty President brie triangles. Illy iced cappucino did the trick for my morning brain fuzz, so as I browsed music selections to make a personalized playlist, I came across Japanese pop, Brazilian blues and Jamaican reggae. Films that had barely come out on the big screen dotted my mini display (with cinema-worthy price tags to match). A few magazines and a nap later, we touched down at SFO and hurried over to pick up our rental car-lette to cruise up route 29 to Wine Country, USA.
If you had to choose only one winery to visit, it would be a challenge to dream up a better choice than Reverie ... a gorgeous haven hidden high atop Diamond Mountain. Scoped out on a whim by a millionaire who got fed up with his downtown investment lifestyle, thirsty for the natural beauty of abundant earth. Call ahead to see if Guillermo will take you on a tour; not only will you learn a lot, but you'll likely spontaneously decide to retire in a heavenly hilltop mansion nearby. Some prefer the Poe-esque cave walk-through; most fall in love with the redwood tasting room. Picture staggering redwood trees growing for centuries in a perfect circle, subtly complemented by homey benches to make the perfect setting to enjoy Reverie's special reserve collection. Relax, stay a while.
While Bleu-Blanc-Rouge has flown above Red-White & Blue for centuries in the domain of wine production, I must admit that Napa is doing quite a number in out-taste-testing Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Côtes du Rhône with superb reds and whites. In the bubbly category, Reims still reigns over Yountville; however, Chandon's milder, sweeter variety of pinots in their Cali sparklings is pleasing to the fun-loving, laid-back American palette vs. the sharp, brut air of traditional Moët.
The perfect way to discover Domaine Chandon's encyclopedia of local wine selections is to pair their best vintages with their best dishes. I'd say five courses would suffice (after all, a bike ride along the vineyards can only burn so many calories). Young star chef Perry Hoffman, son of the original owners of French Laundry, is a natural. He has a sweet touch on savory sauces yet desserts are rich and dark; this presents a refreshing contrast to the by-the-book culinary style of the Atlantic coast.
Amuse your palette with a single, beautifully posed citrusy prawn. En entrée, a zingy lobster bisque for him and warm foie gras a la poêle with cherry-cabernet reduction for her ... move onto Rising Sun-inspired halibut with soba noodles and then more candy-like cherries accompany the magret de canard. Quack. Yum. The lamb rack is delicious and certainly more manly than the duck; rosemary and thyme dance on your toungue, perfectly partnered with a glass of Russian River pinot noir. For dessert, yep, you guessed it --more cherries. Valrhona Chocolate Pâté would be amazing on its own, but Perry spiced it up with black pepper ice cream and topped his masterpiece with sun-dried cherries. Scrumptious. But no meal is complete without my macchiatto, certo. Even if that means staying longer than any other guests at Etoile. Grazie, caro!
Back at home at Maison Fleurie after a long day in Napa's creative playground for Michelin starlets, ah. Cozy French country charm and generous, hot breakfast awaiting in the morning. Somehow the appetite keeps coming back ... it must be the fresh air. Or it could be the just-popped muffins, scrumptious quiche, crunchy handmade granola and more delights waiting at your table. The smell of organic coffee wafts up to your room ...
Take your time getting back home on this unforgettable, uniquely Californian detour ... Along route 1, one must travel to discover at hidden wineries along the coast ... and what a breathtaking ride it is! If you are lucky enough to be the passenger, take a hi-def mini camcorder w/ you to capture the beauty of the Pacific splashing along pebbly beaches for your driving companion (and your jealous friends back home) to enjoy. The only question you will ask yourself after the trip is "So when are we going back? Soon?"
* Special Feature by Olga Levitsky *
Forget all the excuses about how long the flights are and how intimidating it could be to feel stranded on seemingly tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific ... Hawai'i will make it up to ya!
Having moved to the "melting pot" that is Washington DC from the homogeneous Soviet Moscow, you'd think that I would be prepared for diversity. I thought I was, until I spent a few days on the Big Island. The youngest (and largest) of the nearly 180 islands that make up Hawai'i, the Big Island greets you with miles and miles of sprawling lava rock and practically no vegetation, that is, if you fly into Kona on the East side of the island.
If you fly into Hilo on the West, on the other hand, you'll be greeted with a luscious rain forest. Finally, you can feel like you control the weather -- depending on your mood, drive to the East for non-stop sunshine (they get 10 inches of rainfall per year) or to the West for a cool drizzle (they average 150 inches per year).
The hotel industry has, of course, caught on to this fact, which is why you'll find all of the nice resorts around Kona. They've planted the grass, trees, exotic flowers, and even recruited some sea turtles to lay on the warm lava rocks around the beach areas. If you don't mind splurging a bit, definitely stay at the Four Season's Hualalai -- they are known for intutive service and creating a dreamy ambiance -- whether you find yourself listening to the gentle waterfall while relaxing in a hot tub, pampering your hands with a lava mud manicure at the spa, lounging in a hammock by the beach with a magazine and a cup of homegrown Kona coffee, or hitting a round of golf -- you're sure to be greeted with a friendly "Aloha" everywhere you turn.
Bored of lounging? Go for a drive! You can visit Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park for a history lesson in Hawaiian law, hop on a helicopter ride over an erupting volcano, stop by the botanical gardens to see some exotic flora and fauna, have lunch comprised of the juiciest lechee, pineapple and guava while overlooking the ocean on one side and a 100 foot waterfall on the other, or go to a luau to hear the story of the fire Goddess Pele told through hula dancing and fire throwing!
On to Maui, a much older and thus far more "civilized" island. This is where you'll find your Louis Vuitton and Gucci, art galleries galore (be sure to stop by Seargent's Fine Art in Lahaina, the former capital of Hawai'i), and lots more people. The Wailea area is the place to stay, it's centrally located to shops, restaurants and all Maui activities.
Be sure to check out the snorkeling -- there are boat cruises that take you out to an-almost-entirely underwater crater and untouched coral reefs near the beaches of some adjacent islands. If you go Dec-March, you're likely to spot whales on your ride back. Maui itself is also home to a few real gems -- the craters in Mt. Haleakala National Park make you feel like you are on Mars, the curvy Road to Hana beckons you to start your own little homemade coconut ice cream business amid the waterfalls and bamboo forests, and then, of course, there are the beaches -- take your pick: white sand, black sand, green sand or red sand. Oh, the possibilities!
Or you can just lay in your cabana with a Mai Thai, and, while enjoying the puzzlingly constant 80 degree sunshiny weather, ponder deep philosophical questions like why the Hawaiian goose is called a nene and a fish named Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. Aloha!
Now that we are all taking a moment to glance back at the year's memories and look forward to all that the new dawn may bring ...
Just a friendly reminder to appreciate the present - that tiny bit of time we can only live in now, but never recreate. Cheers!
Thanksgiving is not just about cutting through rubbery turkeys and wondering what's in the stuffing, passing around jiggly cranberry jelly and gooey pumpkin pie or hearing the same story told around the table from generation to generation. To some, it's about taking a step back from the daily routine to appreciate our loved ones, our friends, our blessings. And having fun traveling while we're at it!
San Francisco has become a Thanksgiving tradition to get away from the everyday and relax with my favorite people. There are many fantastic aspects to San Fran ... one being that in going to Cali, you win 3 hours from the East Coast. A lunchtime flight gets you there in time for l'apéro at XYZ Bar. Catching up with long lost friends over cosmos, mojitos and gin+tonics. House beats pump through the ambiance. Slip out to Infusion lounge to check out Scott's DJ'ing feats and old school hip hop in the next room to bring back memories. Like when names like 'Snoop' were hip. Lol.
These three words are sure to get you up after a jet-lagged night of socializing: heated indoor pool. Add a bubbly jacuzzi and a breathtaking panoramic view of the city and now we're talking. Vacation has begun. On the itinerary? Nothing set, but it would be nice to see some modern art in SoMa, hang with the hippies on Haight & Ashbury, pass characteristic Victorian townhomes dotting hilly historic streets, bargain for KidRobot figurines and silky pashminas in Chinatown.
Fisherman's Wharf, as much as it is a tourist trap, can be a fun distraction. Fat, brown harbor seals cheer you on as you try to gulf down an overflowing sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder, clowns on stilts and mimes breakdance to a saxophonist + trashcan drummer makeshift street band. Ghirardelli brings a smile to your face - albeit a goofy one, covered in hot fudge, as you slurp down your sundae. Bite into Peppermint bark and rich dark chocolate on one delectable little square, yum.
Back up Russian Hill in spiffy cable car digs to North Beach for la cena in a typical osteria italiana, where Chianti flows endlessly and the pizzaiolos are all smiles. Honestly, you're guaranteed a delicizio meal everywhere in this quartiere, but for the most memorable time, hit up Bocce with its interior garden terrace. Homemade gnocchi alla napolitana will make you forget about that low carb diet in an instant! Save room for freshly churned gelato at Caffè Greco. Zuppa ingelese has a punch to it, while baci is a classic flavor sure to please any pallette. And a scoop of caramello for Pammie, per piacere!
Another day, another adventure. Deciding to join the camera-clicking crowd of foreigners, we hike up curvy Lombard to see the city from up high. Then, postcard-worthy photos of the famed historic Victorian row houses on Steiner ... yep, just like in Full House, with neighbors walking Comet dogs at the park. Too bad the Olsen twins are all grown up.
Time for a late brunch at Cafe de la Presse; this has become a welcome tradition on each visit to SF. Omlette au feta pour moi, eggs benny à la Norvegienne pour lui. Deliciousness. Olchik, I missed you for the postcards and fluffly bowls of coffee!
With enough sunshine filling breezy November days, a stroll around the shops down Grant, Kearny and Maiden Lane turns into a quite redeeming Black Friday. Prada, anyone? Si, si, si! Grazie, caro.
After all that walking to break in new Paul Smiths, a pause in Union Square before the tree lighting ceremony is the perfect interlude. Somehow, despite the racket of kids muddling around the melting ice rink in such uncannily springy temperatures, this moment is still romantic. As the sun quietly sets in an array of blue, violet and rose hues, I lay my head on his shoulder and take in the warmth. Merci.
*Sigh* Back to nap, pack and get ready for the red-eye. One last evening at the W, tasting biodynamic reds of Côtes du Rhone. Swish, sniff, sip, savor. Repeat.
Do we really have to go? Next time we'll definitely spend some time in Sonoma and the Russian River Valley. Looking forward to meet the masterminds at Opus One and Frog's Leap. Maybe a detour to French Laundry along the way ...
What's in a weekend? Oh, the places you will go!
It all started innocently enough ... a last-minute visit to "La Grosse Pomme" ... traffic and beeping aside, it's true that the lights will inspire you. And when you're in good company, magical moments can seem to last forever.
Zoom up. Toll, toll. Surf the radio. We're here! Check in: W on Lex, sympa! Empire State peeking through the window. Quick shower and we're out on the town. First stop? Tummy grumbling ...
Graffitti, LES: Tiny. Unique. Spicy. Iron Chef Mehta creates miniature dishes with massive taste factor. Imagine green mint sorbet atop watermelon squares, green chile shrimp and mini grilled burgers with a kick of cumin. Sweeten it all off with a hazelnut cookie dough mousse cupcake. Who'da thunk?
Frenchie overload at Chloe, rats scurry into Decibel. On second thought, maybe not worth the wait. Calling it an early nite at 1am ... after a couple lychee martinis at Wetbar. Mmm.
Ah, good morning, sunshine! Crap, forgot Guccis in valet'd car. Too bad? Nah, $5 bucks in Chinatown for some label-less shades. Strolling down the streets of SoHo. Greek burgers at Bar 89. Wow, that was a lot of meat. Let's walk it off ... Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, Miu Miu, Michael, Kors, Prada, LV, lots o' cute little boutique w/ no sign. Whew! Nap time.
What's the plan for tonite? Waiting too long for world's best falafel at W. 53rd & 6th. Skip the line, go straight to Remi for 'Formaggio di Goat' (Grazie, Ale) and endless glasses of Tuscany's top red, Antinori. Magnifico! Story time with M and Ali. Humbling volunteer experience in the villages of Benin. Bridezilla moments. Good laughs. Ancora, ancora. Chin chin!
Wizz down to pack some meat at Standard. Champagne, sweet and bubbly (Merci, bb). Cosmo was not quite dry enough (Mi dispiace, cara). Gin & Tonic perfectly balanced (Enjoy, love to see you smile).
Hungry! Street vendor kebab dogs. Well done, pls. Pastis for dessert au chocolat. Miam, miam.
Since when is there cover at Bagatelle? Laisse tomber. Vento will do the trick to dance it all off.
Hailing a cab at 4am is always a workout. W signature Wonderful Bed. Fluffy pillows. Ah.
Light creeping in. No, don't wanna get up yet. Let's ...
Brunch at Hell's Kitchen, conveniently located in Hell's Kitchen. I love this city. Cash only. I love this city??
Unlimited Mimosas. Enough said. Six hours later, as the sun goes down, the guys are back from the game (vai, vai Roma!) and girltalk quiets down (already planning the next trip to catch up).
Tipsy walk back home, passed a few characters darting among the traffic. Instant live entertainment. Window shopping (ooooh, Ali, look at that one! Hail to Mr. Azria)
A warm breeze blows by as he takes me by the hand. I'm floating.
Evening falls, time to head back home - sweet, calm, home. Peut-etre le petit lapin est encore la?
Predictably, Jay-Z provides the soundtrack for our smooth ride. Almost there.
Monday - snap back to reality. Until next time, NYC.
Step just around the corner from the eclectic Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris' artsy 4th district, on rue Quincampoix, and enter into a surreal ambiance of hip lounge music mixed with upbeat house, endless mirrors, LCD screens galore ... hope you're dressed in your best Puma Black Label runners and have your iPod Nano latched on tight because you are in for quite a workout from the gorgeous, built trainers waiting at the door, all smiles ...
Welcome to l'Usine, a hot new fitness center concept that is a refreshing contrast to the gym as we know it.
Once you pick up your hot-of-the-press fluffy white towel and bottle of Evian, head to the main exercise floor where elliptical machines are arranged cleverly in an egg-shape around a flower of flat screens showing the newest movies for your viewing pleasure; treadmills and bikes have their own mini programmable TVs. The free weight and machine room is surrounded with mirrors so you can see yourself getting buffer by the minute. Remember those gorgeous trainers you met at the door? If desired, they shall stay by your side and guide you along a personalised circuit.
Turn your friends green with envy after a few classes of hyper-toning Body Balance; it's basically 60 minutes of abs and glutes but somehow the time flies amid the groovy surround sound and emerald-tinted lights. In fact, the instructors modify the color scheme in the room depending on the level of intensity of each class. Yoga is a relaxing treat in soothing lavendar tones accompanied by nature-y tunes. You'll be asking yourself in no time: is there an iPhone app for this experience? Hmmm... I'm sure even busybee Jobs wouldn't mind a designer gym break every now and then!
Can't sweat no more? It's time for a little R&R, or 'détente' as the French appellation.
Descending a winding staircase of centuries-old stone into the cave-like (as in vintage wine, not vampires) spa and relaxation area below, you can climb the built-in solid oak the stretching ladder to let the strain out of sore muscles. Or, go straight to the hammam steam room (ladies and gents each have their own, of course) before taking a shower in what feels like a dewy rainfall in the dawn of a summer forest ... again, they've thought of everything: gel and lotion infused with essential oils are provided.
Breathe deep before heading out, a sensory memory: l'Usine's candles bring back memories from the Ritz-Carlton Spa in San Francisco, where Archipelago's Havana wafts through the air, filling the room with notes of rich bergamot, delicate ylang-ylang and musk.
Hope you've enjoyed the visit, 'cause tomorrow your calves, thighs and arms will surely remind you of all the fun you had! It's okay to wait a few days before going back for seconds ...
L'Usine I 18 rue Quincampoix - 75004 - Paris - France I usineopera.com