Sublime Scottsdale

Extreme Wow Suite at the W Scottsdale in Arizona
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One of the few experiences of Arizona I’ve had was as a six-year-old living in a dust-bowl suburb of Phoenix for a year before my mother decided windstorms and lightening were better experienced in the concrete suburbs of Los Angeles.

So when I received an invite to Scottsdale, Arizona, I didn’t get too excited. Those hot and dusty days as a child obscured Arizona as a vacation destination from my mind. But, I thought to myself, “It can’t be too hot in January.” And, a stay at a W hotel certainly would make the experience much nicer.

Scottsdale is only a 20-minute drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and, as I found to my pleasure, it is a thriving cultural, culinary and sports center (the MLB Salt River Fields at Talking Stick is near Scottsdale, with an 11,000-square-foot stadium and 12  full-size training fields), with Sonoran desert beauty that entices hikers, balloonists and general lovers of the outdoors.

Following is part one of the highlights of my Scottsdale vacation.

Stylish Desert Stays

The 1,540 square foot Extreme WOW suite at the W Scottsdale

A stay at any W hotel is always unique. Each is themed to its location, this one being the desert of course. A wonderful scent of vanilla greets you when entering the lobby of the W Scottsdale, which is only a block from the heart of Old Town. To the left is a circle of petrified tree trunks that were fished out of an Indonesian lake (petrified wood is protected in Arizona), while the Living Room lounge area and bar, with cowhide covered chairs and leather sofas, invite visitors to kick back and stay awhile. The mix of rustic with the chic modernism, which the W hotels are known for, blend well at the W Scottsdale.  The hotel’s WOW suites,  decorated in bright colors with hip furnishings, reminiscent of the sixties, are popular with sports and movie celebs, who book these suites for special celebrations.

While it might be too hot in the summer to lie in the sun, the W Scottsdale’s WET pool offers lounges, cabanas and even a sand area that are very comfortable in the winter and early spring. At night, the area turns into an outdoor nightclub, with a DJ, and blue and pink lighting.

Blissful Beauty

The Bliss Spa check-in.

The Bliss Spas that are in all W hotels are spare affairs, with baby blue-and-white themed check-in, lounge, and treatment rooms, with a “no-frills, get-down-to-business” attitude. That business is enjoying top-notch treatments. I had a “blissage 49,” a 49-minute massage that’s designed for those who need to “get in and out” but be relaxed. Unlike typical spa and massage places that are either silent or offer meditative ambient music, Bliss Spas offers rhythm and blues tunes, and instead of fruit and vegetable sticks—brownies, cheese and crackers. All that’s missing is the wine.

Cultural Experiences

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright came to Scottsdale in 1937, and, with his apprentices, built Taliesin West from the desert, using rocks and sand. At the time, he had placed rocks with petroglyphs in certain spots, a practice that is now illegal.

Wright established an apprenticeship at Taliesin West to explore his unique idea of “living architecture,” combing indoor and outdoor spaces. It now serves as the accredited Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. It was also his and his wife Olgivanna’s personal winter home until his death in 1959.

The exterior of Taliesin West, Photo Judith Bromley

The angled, low-roofed buildings cause one to slouch in order to enter the various quarters, and it’s hard to imagine living there in the winter as the only heat in those days came from fireplaces built into corners of the rooms. But the views are fantastic, although power lines eventually marred the wide-open southeastern landscape, causing Wright to orient his outdoor living and entertaining space to have a view of the mountains to the northwest instead.

Tours take you through restored versions of his home before his death (Olgivanna had made changes after he died), and to the unique Cabaret Theater, whose six-sided rock and concrete walls are specially angled to maximize the acoustic quality of sound.

Scottsdale, as many culturally like-minded cities, also has an ArtWalk every Thursday. This one, however, has taken place for more than 30 years. There are more than a 100 art galleries in Scottsdale. Luckily a free trolley is available to relieve your feet.

 Culinary Tour

A Taste of Old Town Scottsdale is one of the best ways to be introduced to a variety of restaurants and other food-oriented venues in an afternoon.

We started at the Rusty Spur Saloon on Main Street. The oldest bar around, the likes of John Wayne to Jennifer Aniston have gone through its doors, perhaps to partake of their famous burgers. Live music is played seven days and nights a week.

The outdoor dining area at AZ88, The Bar

Just across the road from Rusty’s is Az88 The Bar,in the same plaza as the Scottsdale Historical Museum and Center for the Arts. Accompanying

our Peach Bellini’s were Hell’s Fire Chips, homemade potato chips sprinkled in bleu cheese and hot sauce, and a fresh and tasty Shrimp Ceviche. A unique sculpture of a Christmas tree (it was the first week of January), made of paper clips, hung from the ceiling. The restaurant, which is light and airy, with comfortable modern décor, is known for its cocktails and artwork, sometimes made by employees of the restaurant.

The Outrageous Olive Oils and Vinegars shop, our next stop back on Main Street, lives up to its name. We tasted gourmet vinegar that comes in

Outrageous Olive Oils and Vinegars in Old Town Scottsdale offers unique flavored oils and vinegars.

flavors such as chocolate, espresso and raspberry, and olive oils infused with basil or blood orange. They were definitely unique and delicious. They ship their products, and are well worth the price at $16 for a 12-oz. bottle of flavored olive oil or vinegar (oliveoilaz.com).

Other stops on our tour took us to Su Vino Winery, where you can have personal wine bottling parties; Cowboy Ciao, home of the original Stetson Chopped Salad; and Lee’s Cream Liqueur, which offers deliciously creamy, liqueur-infused ice cream.

Sushi in the Desert

Sushi Roku is the W Scottsdale’s onsite restaurant, where the fish is fresh and the extravagantly prepared special dishes, created by Executive Chef Matt Zdeb, are simply delicious. The yellowtail sashimi with diced chiles appetizer was light, flavorful and had the right amount of spiciness. The filet Mignon-wrapped asparagus was also a winner, and the crispy Mahi Mahi Tacos were succulent.

Some think that the “Los Angeles import” is a bit too Hollywood (Ryan Seacrest and Tori Spelling are two investors of the restaurant; scenes from “Baseball Wives” have filmed there), and too “glam,” but I thought it had a great energy and vibe, which spilled over perfectly to the W’s Living Room, where eclectic local bands perform live Thursday through Saturday nights. Two members from Vinyl Station, a Phoenix-based indie group, performed while I was there. Sporting Amish-style beards, while playing bass and guitar, they were quite good, singing cover tunes from the Beatles to Green Day, sometimes better than the originals, as well as their own tunes. Here’s a link to their Facebook page where you can check out some of their music.

 

 

Taboo Breaking in Vietnam

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Nha Trang at sunset from a $15 ocean view room

Not long ago, it was taboo for Americans to travel to Vietnam. The Vietnam government didn’t make access to their country easy for Americans and sometimes they even made it difficult. American thrill-seekers adventurous enough to take the journey were few and far between.

Now Vietnam’s borders are wide open and the word is starting to get out. It’s no longer taboo to explore the former war-torn region.

Author Henry Miller said, “Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing.” Actually, that quote goes on to say some other stuff, but conveying the rest would ruin the point.

The scars of the war are still evident throughout the country, but those scars, geographic and mental, are beginning to heal. Now they are increasingly harder to find. What you see now is a tropical country that is beginning to take major steps toward development and adapting to international influences, all the while holding on to its cultural roots.

Weasel coffee found in Hanoi at a street shop.

Weasel coffee? What’s that?

Rooted in Vietnam’s culture is its little known weasel coffee, which is the outcome of coffee berries that are fed to weasels (actually civets) for a little magic intestinal chemistry. After their morning cup and while reading little newspapers, the little weasels (probably deviously scoping yard sales) do their business with coffee bean farmers eagerly waiting. The little candy bar (Pay Day) looking poop is collected and sorted for its treasured coffee beans. After passing through the intestines, the beans transform and become less bitter and more aromatic. You might be a little bitter after shelling out $150 for a pound of the poopy beans.

Expensive beans, but little else will cost you much on your Vietnamese adventure.

Nearby Thailand gets much more of American dollars and one reason is that accommodations are at least twice as much. But if you’re going to Thailand for its bustling capital or for any number of its tropical beaches, then you might want to save yourself a penny or two and opt for Vietnam.

Vietnam has two bustling capitals and an endless number of beautiful beaches that have yet to be destroyed by corporate resorts. The trend of big dollar resorts plaguing Thailand is beginning to infect Vietnam. But there are still hundreds of mom and pop mini resorts being run at the high levels without all the stars and a Zagat rating. Take advantage of them while they are still there. In another 20 years they may not be there.

The northern capital of Hanoi at times resembles a modern city, but just a little behind on the times. But it’s rustic and inviting. Hanoi’s multicultural history makes it a city with international cuisine abound. But why would a guy from Los Angeles travel to Vietnam for Mexican food? Well, he doesn’t. But after getting his fill on the local Pho (rice noodles) it’s nice to find some fairly authentic burritos for the tasting.

Street food: Roasted duck

Of course you’ll find more than just Mexican food. In the old quarter you’ll find just about every kind of restaurant. But getting there can be a hair-raising experience as you play Frogger for real with the countless motorbikes and scooters weaving in and out of lanes without abandon. The locals take it a step at a time and so should you.

A walk around the capital will reveal that Vietnam is crazy for coffee. The number of street cafes is mind-boggling. Baristas are to Vietnam what 7-11 clerks are to America—maybe even more so. And for a dollar and a half you will find that the Vietnamese like their coffee strong. Served black in an Italian style cup, the espresso-like coffee packs a punch.

The food, like most everything in Vietnam, is priced quite reasonably. You’ll discover that even the upscale restaurants are affordable and would be considered cheap by Americans from any region of the country.

Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by most everybody, is Vietnam’s southern capital and the escape point of the United States at the end of the war. Now Americans should be fighting to get back. This city is vibrant and intoxicating and that’s before you try any of the local Bia Hoi (street beer).

The Sailing Club beach in Nha Trang . . . not a sailboat to be seen.

But who escapes city life to visit the city? Vietnam is about the beaches. How about an ocean view room in a clean and pleasant hotel for $15? Late winter, early spring and fall are the best times of year to visit the beaches of Vietnam before and after the humidity sets in which can make things a bit hot, muggy and miserable.

Nha Trang is a nice place to settle in for a week or so. The Sailing Club (named because there was possibly a sailboat anchored off shore there once 40 years ago) is essentially an upscale beach club with good food and drinks at a price. A lounge chair and umbrella are a cheap and worthwhile option for spending the day on the beach. Get their early, though because spots are limited. Once there enjoy the service of the friendly beach vendors/peddlers. Fruit, snacks, beer, t-shirts, crafts and much more will be served to you at far lower prices than the Sailing Club. Come back in the evening when the beach party and bonfire gets started.

Nha Trang has endless international cuisine, from Italian to Indian and essentially everything in between. It has accommodations for backpackers and for Mark Zuckerberg (who is said to visit one of the neighboring exclusive island resorts that aren’t even worth mentioning unless you own a mega-social networking website). You’ll find that $15 is enough for an ocean view as long as it’s not peak season.

Where can you find these gems? Don’t sweat it. Take a taxi from the airport. When the driver drops you off at the beach with your bags (the cue) droves of commission seeking independent vendors will give you flyers and endless options (from hostels to resorts). Don’t worry, they aren’t adding to the cost of your room. It’s just how business is done in that part of the world. Take the first two or three flyers and take a walk. Just ask to see the room before you hand over your passport (your security deposit). You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you feel comfortable. Yes, you’re being told to plan a trip without reserving your hotel. Come on, it’s Vietnam. It’s an adventure. Let loose.

Food? Take a walk. Street cafes and restaurants of every style and scale are everywhere. Just don’t be the soulless dipshit caught eating at KFC. OK, you can stop in for a quick soft serve on your way back to the beach from your Swedish massage.

Yup. Spas are everywhere too. Nha Trang is all about relaxing and revitalizing yourself. OK, and partying. But you have to do something between parties. Try the local mud baths and sauna, too.

Spas aren’t your style? OK, get a street haircut or go snorkeling on one of the reefs or go para-sailing, jet-skiing, windsurfing, or just go to the bar. Which one? Why stop at one? Visit them all. Each has it’s own influence and vibe. Or just spend a week on the beach at the Sailing Club.

If you need to treat yourself and save some money at the same time, then Vietnam is the destination for you. Explore a true treasure before corporate hotels and resorts ruin this little secret. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself breaking a few more taboos of your own. Henry Miller knows when you break taboos, something good happens.

Now you know, too.

 

[flagallery album=1 name=Vietnam]

Sweet Getaways for Valentine’s Day

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Whether you’ve only got a night, or a few weeks, here’s a few tempting getaways for couples, as well as a couple of ideas for those who are on their own for Valentine’s Day (or week).

 

“Make Out on Miracle Mile Package” (Wilshire, Los Angeles)

The Hotel Wilshire has launched a package for all those lovebirds out there– whether looking to get away for the night with a longtime love, or trying to impress a new one. Start the night out with 2 specialty Valentine’s Day cocktails and a 3 course dinner under the stars at The Roof on Wilshire. End the evening in your cozy hotel room and enjoy a surprise turndown service amenity. The icing on the heart-shaped cake: the guest who books the package gets a voucher for a 50% discount on next year’s Valentine’s Day promotion.

*Rates are $395 for guest room and $445 for a junior suite. Package runs Feb 10- 19. Parking Included. Tax and gratuity not included.

“Break-up and Move On Package”

The Hotel Wilshire created this package for those who became single right before Valentine’s Day and need a little R&R in order to “get back out there.” The hotel rooftop boasts an amazing bar and restaurant where the guest will enjoy 2 complimentary specialty cocktails and an appetizer. Also included in the package is a copy of the book “Its Not Me, Its You: The Ultimate Break-up Book”, and a gluttonous brownie sundae or a pint of Haagen Daaz for in-room enjoyment.  Rates are $285 for guest room and $335 for a junior suite. Package is available on Feb. 14.

6317 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90048; Toll Free: 855-419-9777 | Phone: 323-852-6000 | Fax: 323-852-6001; Email: reservations@hotelwilshire.com; http://www.hotelwilshire.com/
 

Galapagos Island Tour

The founder of Classic Journeys just visited the Galapagos over the holidays and took this photo of the Blue-Footed Boobies, whose mating dance you can watch on the trip as a special Valentine’s Day treat!

Classic Journeys will take you and your loved one on an island-based adventure, where you’ll get a real feel for how it is to have giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies outside your back door. (It’s easier and more interesting than making forays from a cruise ship.) Naturalist guides will lead you to extraordinary wildlife experiences, minus the flocks of tourists. You’ll have abundant chances to walk, kayak and snorkel up-close to marine iguanas, Galápagos penguins and other creatures found nowhere else on earth. Then we’ll take you a few steps farther—to the rim of the world’s second largest volcanic caldera, a family-owned coffee plantation, and much more. Throughout, you stay in waterfront boutique hotels and abide by “Leave No Trace” environmental standards. Special V-Day discount! Use Code DV12 for $500-off regular price.

Travel dates: Feb. 19-25. Price per person, double occupancy, $3,995.00. Includes hotels, all meals and additional accommodations. Flight an additional $475.  www.classicjourneys.com

 

Enjoy a blissful couple's massage in the romantic Couple’s Suite complete with indoor fireplace and Swiss shower.

Sweetheart Treatments (Carlsbad, Calif.)

The Aviara Spa at the Park Hyatt is offering several Valentine’s Day treats, good through the month of February, such as the Love Ritual (2 hrs. $400). Sweethearts can relax side-by-side with a Couple’s Massage in the romantic Couple’s Suite complete with indoor fireplace and Swiss shower. For an additional hour after the soothing massage, nibble on chocolate covered strawberries while enjoying the suite’s private relaxation lounge and oversized whirlpool for two on the outdoor terrace.

If you’re not too relaxed, head over to Park Hyatt Aviara’s Four-Diamond signature restaurant, Vivace, for a Valentine’s Day Dinner ($85 pp; $125 pp w/ wine pairings). Dine by the romantic fireplace while enjoying exquisite regional Italian cuisine by Chef de Cuisine Jesse Paul, who has created a 5-course menu with optional wine pairings to complement the holiday; menu highlights include Porchetta su Pane Grigliato (Roasted Pork Belly, Rapini, Provolone Fonduta, Organic Egg), Risotto all’Astice (Butter Poached Maine Lobster, Basil), Piccione Cotto sotto il Mattone (Squab cooked under a brick, Poached Egg, Polenta, Wild Mushrooms Huckleberry Mostarda) and Chocolate Panna Cotta and Italian Calabrian Chili.

7100 Aviara Resort Drive, Carlsbad, California, 92011;Tel: +1 760 448 1234 Fax: +1 760 603 6801; parkaviara.hyatt.com

Tropical Heart to Heart (Cabo San Lucas)

Capella Pedregal resort in Cabo San Lucas is offering a unique “Heart to Heart” two-night stay package during the month of February.

The luxurious Capella Pedregal resort in Cabo San Lucas is offering a unique “Heart to Heart” two-night stay package during the month of February, so that couples can treat themselves to a lavish and relaxing vacation during this passionate time of year. The experience begins immediately upon arrival at the San Jose airport, where a Personal Airport Greeter will meet guests and drive them through a stunning, 1,000 ft. privately-owned tunnel to get to the resort. Once at Capella Pedregal, things will only heat up with a beautiful ocean view room, complete with private plunge pool, rain shower, bath tub, and fireplace. Package includes: Ocean View Room for two nights; breakfast each morning; dinner for two at signature restaurant Don Manuel’s; two Massages in the Auriga Spa; romantic Rose Petal Turndown one evening; round trip airport transfers; a  glass blown Heart as a memento. Rates start at $845 for an ocean view king. www.capellahotels.com/cabosanlucas

 

The Grand Del Mar Suite Balcony.

Unplug and Reconnect (San Diego)

The Grand Del Mar is offering the  Disconnect Package through February 29, where guests are urged to completely unplug their electronic devices. No smart phones, iPads, laptops or other computers, and the guestroom TV will even be disconnected – all to help couples stay connected only with each other. Rate from $795 per night and includes: One-night accommodations; “Pour your own” berry-infused champagne cocktail upon arrival; Upgrade at time of booking within room or suite category; Choice of a 60-minute couple’s massage or a 2-hour horseback ride for two; Breakfast-in-bed for two (value of up to $50); Guaranteed late check-out at 2:00 p.m.; Complimentary overnight valet parking.

www.thegranddelmar.com; 858-314-2000

Romance on the Californian Coast

A view from a two-room suite at the Embassy Suites, Mandalay Beach Hotel and Resort.

What could be more perfect than a romantic stay in a seaside setting? Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort, nestled along the Central Coast in California, invites visitors to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special offering. The 2012 Valentine’s Day Package includes: One or two night accommodations in a deluxe suite; A chilled bottle of champagne with signature glasses; Teddy Bear with chocolates; Chocolate lollypop upon check in; One night from $199 per night; two-nights from $328. For more information, call Embassy Suites at 805-984-2500 or visit the website at www.mandalaybeach.embassysuites.com.

All the Single Ladies Cabana

For all the Single Ladies

The fun modern looking Pacific Edge hotel in Laguna Beach is offering a special package called,  “All My Single Ladies.” It includes a Cabana Day from 11am-9pm, and accommodates 4 guests, Bottle of Champagne,thirty-minute massages in Spa Cabana, Catered lunch in private cabana, One free cocktail for each girl at The Deck after Cabana Day, $155 per girl, for 4 girls.  647 South Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651 p. 949.281.5709; www.pacificedgehotel.com

 

 
 

The New Magnificent Mammoth

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Mammoth Mountain now sports up to 27 lifts, including the new "six-pack" Eagle Express and a Panorama Gondola that will take you from the slopes to The Village, a newer development full of restaurants, shops and luxury condominiums.

Note: Snow this December 2011 in Mammoth is scarce; however, resort operators are confident that it will come.

The last time I visited Mammoth Lakes, Calif. I was woken up about midnight by the ground shaking, and it shook several more times during the night.

Having recently seen the movie “Dante’s Peak,” in which a long-dormant volcano near an idyllic mountain town erupts and only one road out is available to safety, a similar description to the town of Mammoth Lakes, I could not fall back to sleep, worrying about how I was going to get out of town with my children and friends if the volcano blew.

That was 10 years ago, and the volcano near Mammoth still hasn’t erupted.

Now, this might not seem a propitious way to start a travel column, but the shaking ground and the idea of erupting volcanoes has not deterred growth in any manner at Mammoth, where the best skiing within driving distance of Los Angeles can be found (the Long Valley Caldera near Mammoth Lakes erupts about every 200,000 years; the most recent was 50,000 years ago, so it’s good for another 150,000 years).

First skied by those hardy enough to be pulled by rope tows powered by Ford Model A truck engines, Dave McCoy, a tow operator, bought the rights from the U.S. Forest Service in 1945 to operate a permanent rope tow; 10 years later he installed the first chairlift, Chair 1.

Today, there are 27 lifts, including the six-person Eagle Express, high-speed quads and the Panorama Gondola.

Intrawest bought a stake in Mammoth Mountain in 1996 and many new upscale amenities have been added to the ski resort.

The old Mammoth Lodge, with its multistory “rabbit-like warren” of hallways filled with lockers, ski shop and rental stores, as well as executive offices, is still the same (due for an upgrade soon I am told), but new is The Village, with upscale dining, lodging, shopping and even art galleries, located at the junction of Main Street and Minaret Road; you can ski to lunch by taking a gondola straight to The Village from the Canyon Lodge.

My sons and I went to lunch at Lulu, an upscale, yet casual (how can you not be, when tromping in with skis boots, gloves and assorted gear?) spot. The Peppered Calamari with Mustard Aioli is prepared with a light, yet buttery batter, and the Rosemary Chicken sandwich is quite delicious. For dinner one night, we went to Burgers Restaurant across the street, which was packed-waiting time at least 20 minutes without reservations. The portions at Burgers are large, the shakes are yummy and the staff is very friendly.

Also new in Mammoth Lakes are The Lodges at the Snowcreek Resort and the CreekHouse residences, both of which are the ultimate in luxury living in a resort town. The Lodges, which is off Old Mammoth Road behind town, is a 106-home community of two to three-bedroom living units, with up to 3,273 square feet of living space.

The unit we spent time in was decorated with large comfortable brown leather sofas and chairs, rustic yet unique furniture, and the kitchen would delight any gourmet cook, with plenty of granite island countertop space and top-of-the-line appliances. We had a beautiful view of an open meadow and the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the deck of the home, from where we watched the sunset.

The view will change, however, once plans are approved and ground is broken for a five-star Banff-like hotel and the addition of nine holes to the existing Ted Robinson-designed golf course. Also planned are a health and wellness spa, an equestrian center, and restaurants and shops for the area. However, if the developers stick to the classiness in which they’ve developed all other stages of Snowcreek Resort, the quiet beauty of the resort should be retained.

Another wonderful amenity of staying at the resort is the nearby athletic center, where you can do anything from playing basketball on a full-size indoor court to take spinning, yoga and swim classes.

The CreekHouse town homes, 118 in all, are scheduled to be completed soon, and have all the luxury amenities of The Lodges.

The new living units and town homes are a far cry from the first condominiums built in the 1970s at Snowcreek, of which the rooms are nice, yet compact. They are the more affordable options for those looking to buy at Snowcreek-a two-bedroom with loft was reselling for $699,000. The starting rate for a unit at The Lodges is $935,000 for a two-bedroom two-and-a-half bathroom unit, and the highest at the time of this writing-$2,025,000 for a three-bedroom with loft and four-and-a-half baths with double-car garage. Rentals start at $190 per night, midweek, for a one-bedroom and go up to $1,105 for a weekend night stay in a four-bedroom unit.

While some might lament the continuing building, some locals say it’s good for the area. Julie Wright, a broker for Snowcreek and a 20-year resident of Mammoth, said she’s worked every job under the sun to get by during that time-the new hotels, resorts and businesses afford better opportunity for locals and visitors alike, she said.

The one thing that definitely has not changed at Mammoth is the skiing-it’s worth the five-hour drive (Horizon Air plans to begin regional service from LAX starting late this year). On the Friday we visited, lines were short, snow was plenty and the sun was shining.

 

Resources:

Snowcreek Resort: 800.544.6007; 760.934.3333; www.snowcreekresort.com

Mammoth Mountain: 800-mammoth; www.mammothmountain.com

Burgers Restaurant: 6118 Minaret Rd; 760.934.6622

LuLu Restaurant and Bar: 1111 Forest Trail, #201; 760.924.8781

Tip: A great place to sled near Mammoth is found at the turnoff Tom’s Place, off Highway 395. Take the road west four miles to the end. It’s great for cross-country, too.

 

Spa, Gourmet Treats of Yountville

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The Bottega Bar in Yountville, Napa Valley

When heading to Northern California for fine wine, the busy town of Napa is the first place that comes to mind for a stay in the famous wine country of Napa Valley.

However, just a few miles north lies Yountville, a small, peaceful town that remains about the size it was when Mexico gave the land as a grant to George Calvert Yount about 130 years ago. The town, originally named Sebastopol but later changed to Yountville after its founder, is a sleepy, quiet place; perfect for a relaxing getaway to enjoy the finest of food and wine, galleries and shopping.

A stay during the fall at the Villagio Inn and Spa on the 23-acre Vintage Estates (which encompasses the Vintage Inn and the V Marketplace) resulted in a three-day getaway during which my companion and I left the town only once, for wine tasting at the nearby small, private winery.

Everything was practically at our fingertips, from dining and shopping, poolside relaxation and spa treats to walks through vineyards.

The Villagio Inn and Spa in Yountville, Napa Valley, is part of the 23-acre Vintage Estates.

It’s hard to leave the Mediterranean-style resort itself. Breakfast brings a sparkling wine buffet with everything from delicious pastries, fruit and made-to-order omelets. For lunch, a delicious endive and date salad, with Manchego in pear vinaigrette, accompanied by a beer (yes, I know, this is wine country, but there was plenty of that to imbibe later) was the perfect way to start an afternoon of exploring.

For complete relaxation, a visit to Spa Villagio is a must. Staff is extremely courteous and helpful. There are separate spa areas for men and women, with an outside whirlpool and lounging area with fireplaces, and inside, a sauna, steam room (with a unique and refreshing lemon juniper scent rather than the standard eucalyptus), lounging area with fireplace, Swiss showers and amenities such as samples of the Villagio’s signature lemon juniper body scrub to take into the shower. In fact, the spa offers the new Scrub Bar-you can choose your own mix of salts, sugars, oat or ground coffee, herbs and scented oils to create your own scrub, and then get a 20-minute body scrub from a therapist ($75, includes scrub to take home).

The twin whirlpool baths located on the rooftop of Spa Villagio offers a luxurious and private relaxing retreat for two.

The Spa Suites are the ultimate way to go for treatments alone, romantic couples or even a get-together with girlfriends. The private rooms have fireplaces, outdoor jetted soaking tubs, steam showers, wet bars, flat-screen televisions and private terraces. After a treatment (the Aromasoul Mediterranean Ritual that includes a body scrub with herbs blended with jojoba oil is a great stress reliever), a light spa lunch can be enjoyed in the room or on the terrace.

A walk through the Villagio’s vine-covered trellises leads to the shopping/dining gallery, V Marketplace 1870, which was originally a winery and distillery built by immigrant Gottleib Groezinger (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Quaint shops, selling everything from clothing and house wares to jewelry and artwork, are located in the main building, as well as Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant.

Bottega offers the ultimate dining experience. It is a rustic and cozy establishment, with multiple fireplaces, a wine bar and private dining areas. Reservations are recommended, as on a Wednesday evening it was packed.

Bottega’s menu is described as “micro-regional Italian cuisine” and many of the ingredients such as the pastas, cured

Bottega restaurant in Yountville, Napa Valley offers fine dining in a casually elegant atmosphere.

meats, fresh cheeses and cured olives are made in house. Even the sparkling water is served from the restaurant’s own well. We feasted on such delights as the Polenta Under Glass, served with caramelized wild mushrooms and balsamic game sauce, and the Linguine with Porcini Mushroom Sugo and Parmesan, which is out of this world.

In fact, everything we tasted was fantastic, and our waiter Walt was super knowledgeable (as well as entertaining), describing each dish as well as our wines in detail. Dessert brought the Tiramisu and sponge cake gelato “cocoa puff” served with warm chocolate sauce, paired with Far Niente winery’s 2005 Dolce Late Harvest, a supremely delicious dessert wine.

After all that good food and wine, it was a good thing the Villagio is within walking distance.

For another rich dining experience, Hurley’s restaurant serves a variety of fare that includes roasted chicken, seafood and steak, as well as special menus on occasion. During our visit, we sampled a special game menu that included venison Carpaccio and wild boar. Again, this place was packed, so reservations might be a good idea.

If you want to taste wine without getting in a car, there’s the V Wine Cellar at V Marketplace, as well as others in town. However, a visit to Keever Vineyards is a nice excursion.

Bill and Olga Keever retired from careers in telecommunications and became “farmers.” As Olga said, “There’s more to life than bridge.”

Right now they produce about 1,500 cases of wine per year (and hope to boost it to 2,000 soon). Their first crop produced a cabernet that received a 93 from Wine Spectator magazine. The winery is truly a family-run affair-their son Jason is the cellar master and their daughter Ashley helps with tours. Olga was a wonderful host, and gave us a private and informative tour. Reservations are needed for tours.

The visit to the friendly Keever family is reflective of the Yountville experience and was a perfect way to end our stay in Napa Valley.