Spa, Gourmet Treats of Yountville

Spa Villagio in Yountville, California
Bottega Bar Napa Valley, Yountville
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.

Tasty Dining, Smart Surroundings (Pacific Palisades)

The moment you walk into Taste at the Palisades, you feel right at home. The decor, in a palette of brown and

Taste at the Palisades offers an elegant, yet cozy environment for unique fine dining.

white with black-and-white photos by artist/celebrity photographer Paul Robinson adorning the walls is upscale, yet welcoming. Curtains separate tables, giving a sense of privacy, yet are short in width, enough to allow one to take in the buzzing scene. A library (a bookcase, literally) of wines separates one dining area from a small bar in the back, where guests can enjoy a special bar menu, with items priced less than $10.

Opened earlier this year by owners Morten Kaag and John Halter, the cozy ambience sets the scene for a wonderful meal, created by Chef Brian Sheard. Kaag said they wanted to create a neighborhood spot where people can come in and use it as “their kitchen.”Taste offers a fine selection of wines such as the Terrazas Malbec Reserve 2006 and more than a dozen starters, like the Ahi Tuna Tartare and the Roasted Red and Golden Beet Salad. The tuna tartare, made with little squares of ahi tuna and avocado shaped into two small towers, is light and served with a gentle spicy aioli. Dill gives it a pleasant tang, and jicama adds a nice texture. The presentation, with a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds, surrounded by a quartet of thin crostini, is quite nice as well.

The roasted beet salad is served with fresh arugula, which compliments the tasty beets, and two fried goat cheese balls served on the side are rich in flavor, yet light in texture.

Entrees range from the crispy Parmesan Chicken Paillard (chicken breast, garlic potato puree, white gravy, baby arugula salad and red onion jam), an eight-ounce Kobe Beef Cheese Burger (served with onion jam, arugula and tomato on a sesame bun) to the Meyer Lemon Risotto (asparagus tips, shallots, Meyer lemon zest, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Parmesan cheese crisp) and the ravioli of the day.

During a recent visit, I had cheese ravioli topped with fresh spinach and Parmesan. The ravioli was light and thin, and the ingredients simple, yet bursting with flavor. For dessert, the Chocolate Brioche Bread Pudding was divine. Served with vanilla gelato and creme Anglaise, the bread pudding was just the right blend, not too moist and definitely not dry.

Taste is child-friendly, offering a prix fixe selection of three courses on its Kids menu. The restaurant also serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner menu entree prices range from $16 to $26; starters are $8.50 to $13.

The ambiance of Taste does not fit its new location (the other Taste is on Melrose Avenue), a small strip mall on the corner of Palisades Drive and Sunset Boulevard, just a quarter mile north of Pacific Coast Highway. But once you walk in, you’re enveloped in an elegant environment, served by a friendly staff and made to feel as if you’re right at home.

Taste at the Palisades, 538 Palisades Dr., Pacific Palisades. 310.459.9808

Ojai Delights

The Gecko room porch looks out onto the grounds of the Emerald Iguana Inn in Ojai. Architect March Whitman used the 1900s river stone- and woodwork of the original buildings on the site as inspiration for the Art Nouveau inspired cottages. Image courtesy of Emerald Iguana Inn

Ojai Valley is a unique place for visitors and residents alike in that it offers distinct settings and activities, from the famed Ojai Music Festival to camping and fishing, to fine dining, wine tasting, and art gallery and spa hopping.

The Ojai Music festival, now in its sixth decade, happens next month, and it might be tough to find a place in town to stay near Libbey Bowl, where the main concerts take place, or anywhere in the “village” (as the local government describes itself) of 8,000 people, however, it’s worth a try to get a room at The Emerald Iguana Inn, which is a few blocks walk to the main part of town, and to Libbey Park. If booked, its sister lodging, The Blue Iguana, is off Highway 33, the main road into Ojai.
Ojai natives Marc and Julia Whitman bought the property that houses the Blue Iguana Inn about 13 years ago. They transformed a broken down motel into a rustic, stylish inn with a desert-like feel. The Emerald Iguana Inn was the second such venture for the couple that at first faced opposition from local residents, but the result is such a delight it is hard to imagine anyone opposing such an eye-pleasing establishment.Marc, an architect, designed both inns and Julia focused on the interiors. The feeling when arriving at the Emerald Iguana Inn, located in a cul-de-sac at the end of residential street, is that of a private retreat surrounded by lush foliage, flowers and a grove of California native oak and sycamore trees.
A multicolored, tiled “Emerald Iguana” fountain greets guests at one side of the gravel driveway. A medium sized pool is surrounded by an iron gate, and more plants, flowers and trees add a tropical feeling to the area. Breakfast of boiled eggs, an assortment of pastries, yogurt and fresh fruit, along with coffee or tea, and fresh orange juice is served daily, and in the evenings, guests can stop by the poolside office for wine and cheese. Both inns are beautifully appointed, with the Emerald furnished with items from Europe and Asia, and some rooms having wood- burning stove fireplaces, whirlpool or claw-foot bathtubs and private patios or balconies.

The focal point of the Emerald is the original “River Rock” house on the property that is nearly 100 years old, which Marc used with his unique style of architecture, featuring organic materials, and shapes and lines. Much of the artwork at both inns features Ojai artists, including that of Marc’s mother, Nancy Whitman.

Guests of either inn can be treated to private tours of the Taft Botanical Gardens, which is a must-see if one if visiting Ojai.

Situated on more than 20 acres, the gardens are renowned for their South African and Australian native plant collections. With the many unusual and colorful species of cacti, flowers and plants, it is an extraordinary experience to walk through the gardens; it feels as if you could encounter one of the fanciful characters from the story of Alice and Wonderland.

Dining in Ojai

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai.

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai. Founded more than 40 years ago by Alan Hooker, current owner David Skaggs (along with wife Edie) first got his start as a waiter there. Using herbs from its onsite garden, the gourmet dishes are fresh and delicious. The wine list is extensive with more than 650 selections, and the service is excellent. It’s as if you are dining amongst good friends or family members. The dining areas are set amongst lush foliage and one can take a walk through the gardens, where a stream wanders. If you dine there, the Grilled Diver Scallops are a must. Huge, tender U-1 0 scallops are grilled and served on lightly curried sweet corn sauce with oil infused with dry vermouth and basil, and shredded bok choy.

For a casual, no hassle lunch try Antonio’s Mexican Cantina at the east end of the main strip of Ojai. Nick Moeller, a former Hollywood nightclub manager, and his wife decided that Ojai was the perfect place to raise their two children, and bought the place from the original owner five years ago. Basics such as cheese enchiladas and nachos will fill you up as you take in the sun in the outdoor patio.

Vesta Restaurant also offers outdoor dining behind the main avenue (the restaurant can be accessed off Ojai Avenue across from Libbey Bowl, or from the courtyard in the back). Tasty, fresh lemonade is the perfect accompaniment to their sweet potato, garlic or rosemary-salted fries (order the Three-Way and you can have a taste of all three.) A variety of salads, sandwiches and wraps is on the lunch menu, and the macaroni and cheese is very good. The restaurant has a full wine and beer list, as well as specialty drinks. Before or after dining, you can browse for home or culinary accessories in the front store.

Ojai is filled with a plethora of wine tasting opportunities. If you’re downtown and don’t want to go too far, try the Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room and Art Gallery, located a few doors down from Vesta.

You can get a Shangri-La Flight for $10, featuring organic and vegan wines, or the Chiefs Peak Flight for $15, which also features organic and vegan, and unfiltered wines. Their 2007 Cabernet Franc, which is unrefined, unfiltered and vegan, is a smooth red that sells for only $30 per bottle.

If you love the music and crowds, do visit Ojai during the festival; if not, an off-season visit in February or March is a perfect time to visit. The weather may be a little cooler, but the quiet and the beauty of Ojai Valley are worth it.





– Emerald Iguana Inn: 108 Pauline St. Ojai, 93023; 805.646.5277;

– The Blue Iguana Inn: 11794 N. Ventura Ave. 805.646.5277;

– The Ranch House: 500 S. Lomita; 805.646.2360;

– Vesta Restaurant: 242 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.646.2339;

– Antonio’s Mexican Cantina: 106 S. Montgomery; 805.646.6353

– Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room: 208 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.640.1255;



Hard Rock Rocks Vegas

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas offers fine dining, great music and fascinating musical history.

A trip to Las Vegas for many symbolizes casinos and gambling, dinner and shows, lounging by pools and great shopping. For the most part, that’s not far off.

However, if you want to experience fascinating rock and roll history and outstanding live music, as well as some fine dining and drinking, then a visit to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is a must.

The concert venue at the Hard Rock in Vegas hosts performances that range from iconic groups such as ‘80s pop legend Duran Duran, Incubus and The Killers to thumping club music by DJ Tiesto.

Recording the history of rock through memorabilia since the opening of the first Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, is Warwick Stone, Memorabilia Curator and Art & Theme Consultant, whose workshop is located in a former suite in the original tower of Hard Rock Vegas. During a visit a few months ago, a caped Elvis costume was standing in the corner of his workshop, ready for a cleaning. A Britney Spears short, cheerleader costume stood on a table. During a personal tour, Stone talked about how he obtains and negotiates for the memorabilia that fill glass cases and frames throughout the hotel and casino. Stone said first and foremost an item must come with a story–something that verifies the wearer of the costume and where they performed in it. A photo, journal note, letter or something that gives all this is what he looks for. He carefully packages any items that tell the story in frames and cases.

Taking a group through the casino, Stone relayed such details as who made certain costumes, and the back-story behind the costumes before a certain star wore it. The story behind a Michael Jackson white, sequined glove on display in the lobby of the HRH All-Suite Tower that Stone told was of how the singer had gone to a premiere of a movie he made that received poor reaction, except for a man who was a fan and who applauded at the end. Jackson threw the man his glove as he was walking out of the theater. That person was a collector/dealer. Stone also told the story of when he was putting together the display at the hotel’s main entrance of The Killers costumes on skeletons. The band members thought the skeletons were too skinny, so they asked him to pad them. Stone subsequently padded the skeletons several times to the point that the heads look much smaller than the bodies, but the The Killers were happy with the result.

In keeping with the times, most displays have QR codes that visitors can scan to get the whole story on each one. Nirvana and heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold are the two most popular displays based on the number of hits. Make sure to schedule at least a full day to take in all the displays.

After a day of touring, visitors can relax at the Reliquary Spa where a number of treatments are offered. Or, if sun is what

Reliquary Water Sanctuary & Spa inside Hard Rock Hotel & Casino offers a variety of treatment options, including the Ancient Cane Ritual.

you want-and music, of course-the Rehab pool may be a relaxing spot for some (if you like super loud, thumping club music while you drink your cocktails). Once a super hot party spot that got in trouble for illegal drugs two years ago, screeners now check all bags for any type of illegal paraphernalia. The party is still going on there, but safe and saner now.

For dining at Hard Rock, 35 Steaks and Martinis, which is its newest gourmet food venue, is a must, no matter where you stay in Vegas. First, you’ve got the most creative mixed martinis around, such as the Spicy Signature Serrano Martini. Fresh sliced serrano peppers float in an icy mix of vodka and a lightly muddled hot pepper mix , giving a nice bite to your evening. Or there’s the 35 Gimlet, a mix of vodka, gin, lime juice and the added freshness of cucumber slices.

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas offers not only great concerts and a fascinating look at rock history, but now with its newly opened 35 Steaks and Martinis, also fine dining.

The food is just as good as the drinks. Appetizers like the delicate Crab Cake, made with the lump blue crab, Thai spice, red curry cream, and served with mango salad, or the charcuterie of thinly sliced salami and house made pickles are a delicious way to start the evening. For entrees, whether you go with seafood, such as the Seared Day Boat Scallops, which were the most perfectly cooked scallops I’ve ever eaten, or meat, of which there is a delightful choice, from Porterhouse, Prime Rib and Filet Mignon to the Tomahawk Chop (Long Bone Ribeye for two), you can’t go wrong. Everything at this restaurant is top-notch.

There is also a Pink Taco, Nobu and Johnny Smalls (which serves a menu from around the world it seems. Get a chili dog, beef sliders, sushi or asada tacos, they seem to have it all).

As for accommodations, the HRH All-Suite Tower rooms are luxurious and super modern–decorated in tones of white, grey and black, with large wall art featuring, what else but icons of rock and roll.

More information on the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, can be obtained at

The HRH All Suites Tower are sleekly modern, offering the ultimate in amenities.


Paradise in the Desert (Palm Springs)

“Welcome to Paradise,” said the manager.

This was in the midst of a “Twilight Zone” experience of trying to check in at the La Quinta Resort and Club in the desert, though, not due to the fault of the staff at the resort.

The La Quinta Resort and Club in Palm Springs

Gracious and accommodating they were, despite the fact my name could not be found on the reservations list, or anywhere else for that matter.

I waited as staff members flurried back and forth, trying to solve the mystery as to why my planned visit of one night at the famous hideaway resort and club, with some of the best golf courses in the world, was not listed anywhere. I was offered a refreshment, “A glass of wine, perhaps?” which seems to be the customary welcome to guests checking in. At first I said no thank you, and again no thank you after a second offer of a drink, though I did say, “I might need one soon,” when the staff did not recognize the name of a person I was told would be my contact at the resort. I finally did say yes when I was told the restaurant where I had dinner booked did not exist at the resort, or anywhere in the town of La Quinta.

As I sat in the rustic, yet plush, comfortable 85-year-old Santa Rosa Lounge, sipping my chardonnay, the manager at the time said even though there was no record of me at all at the hotel, I would be staying in a casita–with a private patio and spa.

I cannot say enough about how gracious the staff at La Quinta is. They are trained to make each and every guest feel as if they are the most important person they have visiting the club. And with absolute sincerity.

An employee on a gas-powered cart led me to parking near my casita, then to my room, where the bellboy showed me how to work the spa and the fireplace in the spacious room with a firm, king-sized bed. The bathroom itself had a “king-sized” bathtub, with a glass-enclosed shower next to it and a double-sink counter. It was 4:30 p.m. by the time I collapsed on the bed. As I contemplated the mystery of my Twilight Zone nonexistence (my stay was set up by a third party-I found out later I was mistakenly booked at a different hotel), I decided the best way to relax after a 3-and-a-half hour drive from Los Angeles (the drive normally takes 2-and-a-half hours max.), was to jump in the perfectly temperature-set spa with jets. So private is the patio and casita, I could have jettisoned my bathing suit-but, just in case, I kept in on.

The surrounding jagged, rocky Santa Rosa Mountains, which were outlined by a deep, cornflower blue sky, could be seen from my little corner of paradise. And when dark falls, the stars fill the sky.

Walter H. Morgan, who came to the desert in 1921 for health reasons, built the La Quinta Resort and Club, originally called the La Quinta Hotel. It was a self-contained, secluded hideaway for celebrities, high-profile politicos and society leaders-a place where the rich and famous could romp and relax away from prying eyes. It is located about 20 miles past Palm Springs, off the I-10.

So many famous people have stayed here it would be impossible to say who was the most noted guest. On the literary (and showbiz) side-Frank Capra stayed in one of the original 20 casitas. It is said he penned “It Happened One Night” in Casita No. 136 (named San Anselmo). The original desk he used sits in the casita, with a copy of the Academy Award-winning script for guests to peruse. Apparently, he became superstitious about his stay in the desert and returned year after year to pen other equally regarded classics such as “You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among others.

All the rooms and suites (now numbering 640) at the resort and club are decorated with old world, Spanish hacienda-style furniture.

On the other spectrum of famous guests-one casita is named the Eisenhower Villa. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to visit friends at La Quinta while he was still in office, and played golf here. The first golf course in the Coachella Valley was built at La Quinta-a 9-hole course designed by golfer Norman Beth, at the cost of $50,000. Greens fees were $1, open to the public.

The idea of pampering guests with massage treatments started in 1946 when John Balaban, a Chicagoan who bought it from hotelier Arnold S. Kirkeby, hired Marvin Guziewicz. For 39 years, Guziewicz treated guests to “massages in the sun.”

Now the resort and club offers a sybaritic array of spa treatments ranging from “celestial” showers and mustard baths to whole packages that include massage, facials, baths or showers and a choice of a variety of “body wraps.”

A stroll through the various sections of the 45-acre grounds takes you through the courtyards of other casitas, past pools

There are 25 pools on the grounds of La Quinta named after famous guest, such as Dietrich and Garbo.

(there are 25 on the grounds named after famous guests-Dietrich and Garbo were near my casita) and gurgling fountains. It is an extremely romantic place, however, families were seen at dinner and even at the health club, which was all right by me. There are so many activities here to keep everyone busy that I would consider bringing my children for a visit.

Most romantic to me was the setting of the Plaza and the Plaza Bar, which is elevated above a courtyard filled with sections of flowering gardens and fountains, and surrounded by shops. A musical group called The Inka Kings played indigenous, melodic tunes, while guests either dined or just partook of beverages outdoors. The weather was perfect-in the mid- to high-70s in the day (in early February)-although a bit colder at night.

I dined at the Adobe Grill, where I had a divine appetizer as a main course-a tamale pie made with layers of corn meal, sour cream, sauce and cheese.

At 11 a.m., despite the fact several hundred guests were to check in and out that Sunday, I was taken on a tour of the Mountain golf course, one of five at the resort. I do not play golf, but the beauty of this course astounded me. The contrast between the green lushness of the course and the desert rocky mountains it abuts is amazing.

The 16th Hole is my favorite. After riding up a narrow path, you have to get out of your cart and walk up a set of stone

Mountain Course at La Quinta Resort - La Quinta, CA

stairs to the 16th tee. It gives a spectacular, complete view of the rest of the course, including the Dunes course and beyond.

Later, I visited the Hacienda Grande in the northeast section of the resort where my casita is located, which is a suite with living and dining rooms, and with its own private pool in addition to a spa. He said actor Joe Pesci always angles to get this corner to himself.

And, after all the kindness of the staff at La Quinta, I was even allowed a late check-out of 2 p.m., which gave me time to indulge in another dip in the spa, swim in the Dietrich pool, and to luxuriate in the sun.

Ahhh yes, paradise it is.