Eat tacos and get gas

 

Not that kind of gas! Gasoline. Fuel for your Ford or Fiat. Over the past few months, we’ve noticed that some of the best taquerias are those located immediately adjacent to gas stations. Combine your fuel stop with a food stop. Location, location, location!

Las Palapas Taco Grill

One such restaurant is Las Palapas Taco Grill in Yuma, Ariz. Our trips to San Diego recently have been more frequent and we have made it a point to stop in Yuma for gas. (It’s also a few cents per gallon less here than in California.) Next to the Chevron off of Interstate 8, on Fortuna Road is Las Palapas. It’s a counter service eatery and each meal is made to order. Expect a little bit of a wait during busy times, but we’ve always been very satisfied with the quality of the food and quick service. 

We’ve been a patron of Las Palapas probably four or five times and all the tacos we’ve eaten have been delicious: Ensenada fish tacos, Baja shrimp tacos, pastor and carne asada steak tacos. There’s no scrimping on the fillings. The fish tacos are among my favorites. Although the menu says it’s Alaskan pollock, the fish tastes so fresh and is perfectly breaded and fried; it actually melts in your mouth! You’d think you’re sitting next to the Sea of Cortez eating a fisherman’s catch of the day. The salsa bar provides a variety of tasty hot and mild choices for both topping and dipping. Tortilla chips are crispy and fresh.

Don’t be discouraged by a few negative comments on some restaurant review sites. To us, Las Palapas Taco Grill never disappoints. We look forward to our next taco lunch!

El Salsas Taco Shop

Another taqueria we have recently discovered, is on the route from Phoenix to Las Vegas in Kingman.  Just as Yuma is sort of our unofficial halfway point between Phoenix and San Diego; Kingman is our unofficial halfway point between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Immediately adjacent to the intersection of Interstate 40 and State Route 93 is El Salsas Taco Shop. If you can’t find it on the map, just look for the Chevron gas station. It’s next door.

We’ve been to El Salsas only once, but judging by some of the other patrons’ reviews, it’s among the best you’ll find for a quick and convenient taco lunch on your next trip through Kingman. The entrance is unassuming; you’ll find it tucked neatly next door to the Chevron’s convenience mart. 

The time we stopped, I ordered the fish (my favorite) and Chuck opted for the carne. Our tacos were fresh and very tasty, and like Las Palapas, they also feature a well-stocked salsa buffet. Tasty tortillas and plenty of fresh meat (or fish), and veggie fillings made these tacos memorable. We’ll have to return or another meal here soon. Who’s ready for a trip to Vegas or northwest Arizona?

Next time you’re driving through Yuma or Kingman, Arizona, take a travel tip from me: Get gas and eat tacos!

A memorable evening at Cordiano Winery in Escondido, Calif.

As we drove into the San Diego area from Arizona, I texted a friend living in Escondido we were arriving that evening. She suggested we meet for pizza and wine at the Cordiano Winery. She jokingly mentioned the wine was passable but the pizza is good. Well, I’d have to correct her on her remarks. After our dinner there, I thought the wine was good, and the pizza was excellent. 😀 But what made our visit to Cordiano Winery special was the total package experience.

Cordiano Winery sits nestled in the hills overlooking the San Pasqual Valley. Highland Valley Road takes you on a meandering journey up to the winery and surrounding vineyards. Cool June breezes at the top of the hill greeted us as we exited the car. We almost felt too chilly, but it was welcomed after a 119-degree week in Arizona.

As we entered the dining area, I imagined how one must feel at a family gathering at a vineyard in the coastal regions of Italy. There were large groups of families and friends, sipping their wine and laughing. Couples stood arm-in-arm gazing out to the West while the sun beginning its descent. Children were running between the tables, dodging both diners and servers. This dining area had the atmosphere of a rural family estate; the true ambiance of vineyard dining.


After the hostess showed us to our table, we were given menus to select a pizza and wine. We chose three different pizzas for our group, a veggie with tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms and roasted bell peppers; a supreme with sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, zucchini, mushrooms and peppers; and a Margherita pizza. Our wine choice was the Duetto, a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. My husband volunteered to put in the order for our group up at the counter and he soon returned with the wine and glasses.

The Duetto wine was light and easy drinking; and our conversations kept us occupied while the sun continued its disappearing performance and we were served our pizzas. These pizzas were delicious. Their crusts were flavorful and well-seasoned without being overly done and the toppings were fresh and plentiful. And we tried keeping up the discussion while eating but our appetites and the tasty pies won the battle, and we soon found ourselves with short stints of silence between bites.

Without warning, we glanced around and found ourselves in the middle of empty tables. The staff had begun their closing routine, folding up umbrellas, tablecloths and napkins and we knew it was time to end the evening. Good food, good wine, great conversation between friends and family, but most of all — the delightful environment truly made this evening more than simply memorable. It was perfect. We’ll be back in Escondido soon and we’ll most assuredly make it a point to return to Cordiano Winery.

A few of my favorite travel apps

 

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In no particular order and for no particular reason, I thought I’d share some of my favorite travel mobile apps. Having an iPhone 4S, I rely on some of these apps when planning my vacations, after I reach my destination or merely dreaming about my next travel adventure.

1. Glympse

Several months ago, a friend sent me an email with an unknown link. We were awaiting her arrival to our home for a dinner gathering. When I opened the link, up came a Glympse. It was much more than an itinerary. With the wonder of GPS, I could follow her car in real-time as it entered on the freeway, stopped at the traffic lights and turned onto our street. With Glympse, I could see her speed, estimated time of arrival as well as starting point and destination. It’s also possible to send messages with your trip. (For example: “We stopped to pick up something for dessert.”) “Glympses” can be shared with friends through email or social media.

2. FlightTrack

I know I’ll get some flack from die-hard TripIt users, but I’m not a frequent flyer or business traveler so much of the TripIt functionality is a bit too much for me. FlightTrack has many of the same tools as TripIt. I like FlightTrack Pro for its built-in SeatGuru airline-seating layout. The detailed terminal map and legend make it easy to find connection gates, restrooms, ATM, taxi stands, etc. You can see airport flight boards, earth-view flight routes, historical on-time data and so much more.

3. Hotel Tonight

Relatively new but continually expanding and updating its city database is Hotel Tonight, an app that helps travelers find last minute hotel rooms. Its virtual front desk opens up at noon local time. If you’re searching for local rooms or planning a last minute getaway, this app is for you. For example, I’ll be in London next month and I may want to find a last minute lodging deal  the night before I depart. Those $300 rooms in London’s preferred hotel districts often are available for about $200 or less on Hotel Tonight. (For London lodging options, that’s a great deal.)

4. Kayak

Kayak is my ‘go-to’ app for general travel pricing guidelines — for hotels, airfares, car rentals, etc. When one of my friends or clients asks, “What’s a flight to Hawaii cost these days?” I can usually provide a fairly accurate answer based on my Kayak search. Not all airlines are available through Kayak, though, so I just use as more of a jumping off point, and then I start my search for deeper discounts. Kayak also has discount alert and flight tracker tools.

5. Hawaii Beaches

Okay, I know Hawaii Beaches isn’t really a ‘travel app’ but more of a compilation of beach videos. Actually, I think most of these videos probably have ‘dubbed-in’ wave sounds. But hey, when you can’t get away to the beach, you can make the beach come to you — at least through your mobile device. Click on one of the islands to view a teaser clip of various beaches around one of the Hawaiian islands. Grab an icy Mai Tai, relax in your Arizona backyard lawn chair and experience the beaches of Maui… or Kauai…  or…

6. Surf Report

I’m sure similar apps exist with more features and less bugs but the Oakley Surf Report gives me the info I need in one place. What? Who me? Of course, I’m no surfer. I’m just a beach bunny. Every chance I get, I run to the place where water meets sand. Surf Report provides me with wave size, water temperature, and weather conditions for thousands of beaches around the world. I’m usually on the look-out for warm waters with some ‘mahina’ (low and flat) waves for snorkeling, kayaking and — who knows — possibly trying my skills at stand-up paddleboarding. And if I DO get in the mood to surf, I always can watch the videos — right in the shade of my palapa.

What are some of your favorite travel apps? I’m always looking for new ones…

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Leisurely lunch at The Cafe in Sonoita

Once in a while I get a huge desire for a big, juicy burger. Who doesn’t?  Again when I feel that craving I hope I’ll be near Sonoita, Arizona, so I can stop in The Café. Chuck and I recently enjoyed a leisurely Saturday lunch at this wonderful little country café, located just east of the intersection of State Routes 83 and 82, about 45 miles southeast of Tucson. While I can’t accurately testify about all the menu items, I can report my findings about the Blue Cheese Burger and “the day’s special” green chile cheeseburger. These were among the best I’ve had in a long time.

More reasons to dine at The Café in Sonoita:

On-the-way to wine country

Before an afternoon of wine-tasting at any one or more of the Sonoita and Elgin area wineries, you may want to have a bit of lunch. The Café is one of just a few eateries in Sonoita. The drive from I-10 south to Sonoita along highway 83 is part of an entire stretch of officially-designated scenic Arizona highway. You’ll see some of Arizona’s best farm and ranch lands.

Views from the patio at The Cafe

Views from the patio at The Cafe

Excellent mountain views

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much from the outside, but who cares? You came here for a good meal, and you’ll be enjoying it either inside the rustic, oak and brick interior or you’ll be out on the patio gazing at the Santa Rita Mountains or the Canelo Hills while you dine. And those mountain views are excellent. On the warm, sunny Saturday we visited, the higher elevations were still under a layer of snow.

Molly enjoying the dog friendly patio at The Cafe

Molly enjoying the dog friendly patio at The Cafe

Dog-friendly outdoor seating

A separate entrance to the patio from the outside often will indicate a restaurant has a dog-friendly area. Since each restaurant has its own policy and each Arizona county government has its own health restrictions, I will first inquire before I bring Molly over to the patio gate.

Green chile burger was the special of the day

Green chile burger was the special of the day

 

Blue Cheese Burger

Blue Cheese Burger

Mouthwatering menu

The Café’s lunch list clearly shows that this restaurant is a few steps ahead of other Arizona rural cafés. The menu excites the taste buds with one of these selections: a Black and Bleu Salad with steak, blue cheese with greens and cucumbers, a Hot Bacon Vinn Salad with tomato, apple bacon and walnuts or a grilled cheese sandwich with cheddar, Swiss, provolone cheese and homemade pesto. The burgers we were served were really tasty — fresh, hot beef patty with melted cheeses, sesame bun, veggies and condiments on the side with crisp fries… need I go on?

Get there early to get a table -- this place fills up fast for Saturday lunch

Get there early to get a table — this place fills up fast for Saturday lunch

Locals eat here

Most of us already know: it’s obvious to distinguish tourists from locals when you step into a restaurant. When you see a solid representation of locals, you can be confident of consistency in food quality, customer service and value. Chuck and I can’t wait to return.

Top-notch service from Kirsten at The Cafe

Top-notch service from Kirsten at The Cafe

You can also find AzGetawayTravel.com on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Five Reasons to dine at Babe’s Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage

Babe's Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse beer sampler

After a short but steep morning hike in the desert mountains of Rancho Mirage, Calif., (see previous post), we opted for lunch at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse. Hot, tired, thirsty and hungry, we may have found any restaurant option more than adequate, but we were authentically impressed with this casual barbecue eatery at The River shopping center. So here are five reasons we’ll be returning to Babe’s:

1. Barbecue. We loved the large variety menu selections of barbecue sandwiches, combination plates and platters. Our lunch sandwich temptations included choices of chicken, pork, sausage, brisket or tri-tip with two side selections of French fries, sweet potato fries, cole slaw, baked beans or turkey chili. As a no-risk diner, I stayed on the conservative side and ordered a simple sandwich lunch but other menu selections that raised my interest were: the tri-tip or shrimp po’ boy, or the smoked black angus short rib sandwich with hot link sausage, brisket, grilled onions, pickles with Babe’s spicy sauce. My pulled pork sandwich plate comprised two sandwiches. The meat was tender and juicy and dabbled with Babe’s own barbecue sauce. It wasn’t smothered with sauce, as others have attempted, as if to mask a tough meat cut or to soften up a dried, overcooked brisket. Only negative about this sandwich: it was served on a white refined flour bun. Babe’s barbecue sauce compensated for the bun drawback — it’s just the right balance of smoke, spice and sweet to pair with pork, or any barbecue meat.

2. Service. Our service was right on the mark. Sometimes servers get a little too anxious to try to move customers — ours was not. Some servers lose track of tables and neglect customers — ours did not. Some servers are a little too aggressive, trying to pump up sales for the larger tip — ours did not. He was knowledgeable about the menu products, brews and local area.

Three pigs welcome diners to Babe's Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse

3. Vibe. I’m not sure about using the ‘vibe’ category, but I suspect this includes a description of décor and clientele. One word to describe the casual interior at Babe’s Brew House: whimsical. Okay, maybe the word should be kitschy. Porcine objects are everywhere: pig lamps, pig windows, pig statues, pig pictures. Seating is comfortable, ranging from cozy booths to spacious tables to accommodate groups. We stopped by on a Sunday around noon, so we witnessed an influx of The River center shoppers, seniors, large families and the after-church crowd.

4. Price. All menu items are fairly reasonably priced – especially when you compare prices to other restaurants in the area. Our two sandwiches with beer samples came to less than $50 with tax and tip. (The beer samples were at least half of the bill.) Meal portions are large so two persons could easily split an entrée or sandwich plate.

5. Brews. We sampled six of Babe’s beers: Hog Tie Rye, Babe’s Classic Golden Ale, Honey Blonde Ale, a wheat beer called Das Schwein Dunkel Weizen, 29 Palms Pale Ale and Blackfin Lager. I thought three of the samples were very good: the honey blonde, the dark lager and the 29 Palms. The latter was my favorite — it had just the right balance of malt and hops, an easy drinking pale ale.

Added notes: Babe’s original owner was Donald Callender, known for founding the Marie Callender’s restaurant chain (Marie’s son). He died in 2009, but current chef/brewer/manager Arthur Vasquez continues his legacy.

According to Palm Springs Life’s Desert Guide, Babe’s is the valley’s only onsite brewery.

Babe’s has won awards for Palm Springs Life magazine’s Best of the Best for Best Barbecue Restaurant, Best Happy Hour and Best Cocktails. This  pub’s not only known for its beers, but its signature cocktails.

Pulled pork sandwich platter at Babe's could feed two

Find AzGetawayTravel.com on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

10 Reasons to stay at Rio Las Vegas

Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas

A long weekend at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas recently made me realize there’s a lot to like about this resort. I’m not saying the Rio can compare with the flashy newer resort casinos, but it wasn’t hard to come up with 10 reasons the Rio should be near the top of any budget-minded Vegas vacationer’s lodging list.

10. Shopping

Exploring the the Masquerade Village shops, we found many deep discounts on a variety of goods, such as Las Vegas souvenirs, travel incidentals, sundries, apparel and food.

9. Rooms

Because Rio is an all-suite hotel, rooms are more spacious than other Vegas hotels. Most rooms have sofa-beds, refrigerators, larger floor space and expanded bathroom vanity areas.

8. Value

Being a short distance off the strip means lower room rates.  Rio is one of several Caesar’s Resorts with no added resort fees, which makes staying here more practical for travelers on a budget. Rates range from $69 for a basic king or 2-queen suite to about $300 for a large 1100-square foot suite. Seek out discounts on deal websites like smartervegas.com or visitlasvegas.com.

7. Discounts

While we’re on the subject of value: If you enlist in the Total Reward’s program, you then have the opportunity for greater discounts at shops, restaurants, bars and shows. Every dollar you spend at the resort or casino earns you credits to advance to higher benefit tier levels. Ask for additional information about deals, discounts or passes at check in. Also, compare drink prices — since they vary bar to bar. Or simply sit for a spell at the slots and sip your sauvignon — gratis.

6. Dining

Rio has a wide variety of dining options that includes a basic Burger King Whopper Bar in the Masquerade Village, to an upscale Martorano’s with Italian fare. We found good value at the Sao Paulo Café for breakfast, Sports Deli for sub sandwiches at lunchtime and All-American Bar & Grille for dinner. Meal portions are large so most diners could split an entree and still feel well-fed.

Rio Resort and Casino is dog-friendly

5. Dog Friendly

I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to bring their dog to a Vegas resort/casino, but there are certainly are people who do, and the Rio accommodates them with its PetStay program.

Pool area at the Rio

4. Spa , salon and fitness center

While your spouse is busy at the blackjack tables, you can enjoy a massage, spa pedicure or salon facial. At the fitness center, pay a daily fee of $22 or $55 for three days, so you won’t have to interrupt your workout schedule. The spa is conveniently located adjacent to the pool area.

3. Nightlife

Dance into the wee hours at either the Crown Theater Nightclub or the Voodoo Lounge. The latter is 50 and 51 stories up, on top of the Masquerade tower. As you would expect, the views are spectacular. But be prepared to shell out a good chunk of precious winnings for drinks and dinner.

Upside-down Carnival parade "float" from Show in the Sky

2. Entertainment

Rio regularly features Penn & Teller, a magic act with a little bit of everything including “knives, guns, fire, a gorilla and a show girl,” according to the website. Bachelorette-partying girls and their future mothers-in-law won’t want to miss the Chippendale dancers’ show. Add these to special performances by singers, comedians, dance troupes and celebrity imitators and you’ll get a wide variety of entertainment offerings. But we think the best entertainment is the free “Show in the Sky” which is performed hourly Thursday through Saturday evenings at Masquerade Village.

Star Trek Las Vegas convention attendees pose for photos

1. Host to the Star Trek Convention

This, in my opinion, is the best reason to stay at the Rio. This was the second year Creation Entertainment has presented its Star Trek Las Vegas event at the Rio. I like the convention at the Rio Las Vegas for several reasons: Convention corridors are wide; restrooms are plentiful; eateries are abundant; meeting rooms and exhibition halls are large enough to hold record-breaking numbers of Trek fans. Staff is courteous, friendly and employees themselves get caught up in the Trek excitement — they too transform into “Trekkies” for the weekend. Plentiful small group rooms are perfect settings for celebrity photo ops and autograph sessions. Smaller stage halls are used for geeky panel discussions, Star Trek collectibles auctioning, planetary science presentations — even children’s craft sessions. Some Trek fans are still disappointed the convention moved away from its longtime home at the Hilton, but I think the Rio is a good fit. I overheard some grumblings, but they were the usual gripes about high drink prices, smoky casinos or long front-desk lines. But I’m one Star Trek convention-goer who’s happy with the Rio hosting the event. It’s hard to imagine Star Trek Las Vegas at any other resort.

Pros outweigh cons at Ashurst Lake

Arizona visitors to Arizona’s Ashurst Lake likely will conclude the pros slightly outweigh the cons. Ashurst Lake, located about 20 miles south of Flagstaff, has several strong points to its favor, but it does have a few minuses. However, those negatives shouldn’t be enough to keep most people away.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is usually filled. Water from rainfall, snowmelt and a few springs keeps the lake as a recreation attraction, even during dry early summer months. While Mormon Lake and Lake Mary are reduced to large puddles, fishermen could catch their yield at Ashurst Lake. Stocked rainbow trout is the common sight on stringers. Also, shoreline is easily accessible for the most part. From the road, several parking lots or two campgrounds, it’s an easy walk to the water’s edge.

Minus: Sadly, as you walk along the water’s edge you’ll see the large amounts of garbage. I understand some fisherman may unintentionally leave behind a broken bobber or two, but the bags of trash, cartons of empty beer cans, disposable diapers, broken lawn chairs, etc. make me discouraged. Ugh. A major peeve of mine: Some campers or day users are simply too lazy to carry their garbage back to the trash cans or their cars.

Plus: At Ashurst Lake you can see forever… well, at least for miles. You’ll be able lose any claustrophobia you picked up from the dense Ponderosa pines in nearby Coconino National Forest. You can inhale deep breaths of big sky before you realize you’re still in Arizona, not Montana. Late summer afternoons will consolidate those big cumulus clouds overhead. At Ashurst Lake, you’ll have full view of the monsoon storm cells mounting over the San Francisco Peaks.

Minus: Your views and images both from your mind’s eye and on digital media can’t help but include those high voltage electric transmission lines, Yes, I suppose a more ambitious photographer would “photoshop them out” of the photos, but then you’d have to question: Is the scenery around the electric poles really worth the photo editing effort? No: It’s a reality — Ashurst Lake just isn’t that beautiful. It’s more “ruggedly handsome.”

Plus: If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of metro Phoenix, Tucson or Flagstaff (is it okay to use the word, “metro” before Flagstaff?), you can find peace and tranquility at Ashurst Lake. The only screams heard will be those of joy when a youngster catches his first rainbow trout or when a group of teenage girls pretend to rock their canoe to and fro as if to tip it over. Or you may hear a call from shoreline to parking lot to bring down another beer or sandwich from the cooler. You may hear the calls from a huge variety of birds coming from the south end of the lake in the reedy, marshy areas. Great blue herons, ducks and many other shorebirds congregate at Ashurst Lake. Bring your scopes, zoom lenses and binoculars to get a closer view.

Minus: After you’ve spent a nice afternoon walking the lake, fishing offshore or from a small boat you may need to the restroom facilities. Please be warned: You may want to hold it until you get back to your camper, trailer or Mormon Lake Lodge. The restrooms we saw were pretty disgusting.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is great for boating. When we visited, we saw cartoppers, canoes, kayaks and a small, motorized pontoon boat (10HP limit). Most operators had their lines dropped to fish, but I think these boaters were really out on the lake for some of other “plusses.” What’s more, the boat ramp at Ashurst Lake makes launching a breeze.

Power towers, trashy shoreline and stinky outhouses might keep some people away from Ashurst Lake, but I believe most visitors will decide the pros will outnumber the cons. Camping is nearby; the shoreline is walkable; fishing is consistently good; wildlife – especially birds of all sizes and species – is plentiful. And Ashurst Lake is a short half hour drive from Flagstaff.

Note: While I was looking up info about Ashurst Lake, I landed on Arizona Game and Fish Department’s HabiMap. I didn’t even know this existed! If you like mapping and playing with layers, images and attributes like I do, you may want to play around with it. Plus, AGFD is always putting out more data and updates, so if you haven’t been to this mapping website lately, you may want to check it out again.

Fine Italian dining at Mare Blu in Rocky Point

dining room

Stop! Drop the lame excuse to try new restaurants! Now step away from your comfort zone! When choosing seafood restaurants during your next visit to Puerto Penasco, try something different! Mare Blu Ristorante has been on Sandy Beach for two years, so it’s certainly not new to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), but its difference is remarkable.

I usually don’t like to write reviews based on only one visit, so feel free to call this blog, “a first taste review.” During our Rocky Point vacations, we try to eat out for at least one nice seafood dinner. Unfortunately over the years, we have been stuck in a “restaurant rut” – going to the same two or three restaurants in the Old Port section of town.

On this recent trip, we just happened to stop by Mare Blu before attending Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers’ annual “Circus Mexicus” concert, held this year, just steps away, near Wrecked at the Reef. Sometimes spontaneous dinner outings– those new restaurant adventures — don’t turn out very well. Thankfully, this time, our ‘first taste’ of Mare Blu was delightful!

Upon arriving, I was immediately impressed by the well-maintained condition of the building and interior dining room, piano lounge and bar. Unlike the casual pool room, bikini and flip-flop ‘ambience’ at the Reef, the Mare Blu has finesse, polished charm — almost an aura of elegance. Our hostess seated us on the front outside patio, so we could watch the peak tide of Mare di Cortez as well as a growing number of concertgoers were lining up early.

piano

Grand piano in the Mare Blu cocktail lounge.

As I’m reading the menu my first thought is: What an ambitious goal, to capture the epitome of a fine, elegant Italian restaurant in Rocky Point… on Sandy Beach… next to the ‘Reef.’ (Now please don’t get me wrong. — I’ve nothing against Wrecked on the Reef. It has its own merits, but those will have to wait for another blog post.) The Mare Blu menu offers a solid, wide range of appetizers, soups, salads and entrees. The oenophiles in our group were pleased about the wine selection.

bar selections

Wine and liquor on display in Mare Blu Ristorante lounge.

We started with two appetizers, calamari and clams. The fried calamari was some of the best I’ve tasted in a long time: tender, succulent and lightly breaded! The clams were freshly steamed in a tasty bath of garlic and white wine. My husband and I shared one entrée: shrimp and angel hair pasta in pesto. The pasta was cooked perfectly — neither overcooked nor molto al dente. And my shrimp could have been absolutely perfect if only it had spent a minute or two less on the grill. But the combination of taste, presentation and quantity more than made up for the slightly overcooked shrimp. The two other couples in our group ordered unique menu selections so we all sampled a variety of menu items. Everyone was extremely satisfied.

patio

Sit outdoors on Mare Blu patio and you’ll be enjoying beach-side dining

At this well-organized, well-staffed and well-executed restaurant, we were happy to pay a bit more for high quality food, excellent service plus beachside dining. Plan to spend about $25 to $30 per person for the entire experience. Mare Blu Ristorante is worth it!

Readers: If you’ve been to Rocky Point recently, what are your favorite dining spots? I would love to know your recommendations!

Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop in Pine, Ariz.

Randall House sign

If this Memorial Day weekend is typical of almost any other three-day weekend, Arizonans will take to the freeways, streets and back roads en route to high country campgrounds and resorts, in search of cooler temperatures. Motorists planning a drive through Pine, Arizona will want to stop for breakfast or lunch at the historic Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop.

Randall House certainly isn’t new. The restaurant has been in operation since 1998. But not all visitors realize that this pioneer home was once a popular community gathering place. Some may not know how pioneer homeowner Mary Ellen Randall would invite nearby residents for pastries and coffee on their way to and from the post office. During the early 1900s, Mrs. Randall was not only famous for her homemade breads, muffins, cookies and pies, but she was also known for her generous hospitality. She had a knack for making everyone feel at home. On their way home from school, children would stop by the Randall’s home for freshly baked cookies. Current restaurateurs Barbara and Patrick O’Connor are continuing Mary Ellen Randall’s tradition of warmth and hospitality — and homemade cooking.

The restaurant, located at the original Randall home site and serves breakfast and lunch Wednesdays through Sundays, is a historic point of interest. Visitors can peer through glass openings in the walls to see a log and adobe section of the original cabin. The first dwelling was constructed by Alfred Jason Randall in 1881. Alfred’s grandson George Randall with his wife Mary Ellen lived at this home for much of the 20th century. George passed away in 1987. In 1998, following Mary Ellen’s death, the building was restored and remodeled by the O’Connors, who then transformed it into a restaurant. Mrs. Randall would be pleased.

 

 

kitchen

Randall House dining room resembles a farmhouse kitchen

On a recent visit, our server invited us to have a tour the restaurant and grounds. While waiting for our meal, I strolled around the back of the home to see the backyard and outbuildings, as well as the tiny library, picnic tables, walking paths and gardens that compose the adjoining Randall Park. While walking through each of the interior dining rooms at Randall House, I realized that this more than just a casual breakfast and lunch spot. It’s also a gift shop. Wooden corner cupboards support unique toys, crafts and goodies ‘to go.’ After your meal, I recommend browsing for kitchen gifts such as colorful aprons, trivet holders, counter canisters, cutting boards or specialty toys like hobbyhorses, crafts kits and wooden puzzles.

About the food and service: I had no complaints, but after all, it was just our first visit. However, our service wasn’t nearly as slow as the consensus from the reviews sites describes. After I spent a few minutes walking through the restaurant and around the grounds, snapping a few photos and I came back to my table, lunch was served. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, I had ordered the featured lunch special of fish tacos  — a set of nicely grilled tilapia with a side of tasty slaw. My husband had a taco salad, which he said was very tasty and filling.

 

meal

Lunch special: Tilapia fish tacos with cole slaw

As I walked through the dining rooms, I saw a large group of women who had just finished their meals and were preparing to leave. As I waited for them to walk out so I take a photo, I noticed their plates, still on the table. They were empty! All of these gals had completely cleaned their plates! Whatever they ordered must have been well worth every crumb!

Randall House is known for its quaint, country style dining, homemade, made-to-order breakfasts of quiche, pancakes, French toast, omelets, muffins and scones. The same is true for its lunches: hearty sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. But don’t think this place is just for ladies’ luncheons. The portions appear ample enough to fill up the hungriest of ‘he-men.’ This I know first hand — it’s one advantage to sitting on the front patio: you can witness the satisfied expressions on well-fed, departing patrons.

patio

Randall House: historic home, pleasant patio, gift shop and restaurant

Readers: What are your favorite eateries in Mogollon Rim Country?

 

 

Relaxing Palm Springs not just for golfers

westin mission hills

Relaxing Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Within four hours, it’s possible to drive from Phoenix to a popular vacation destination with world-class resorts, spas, golf, shops, attractions and outdoor recreation. And no, I wasn’t referring to a rush-hour marathon, moving at a snail’s pace to Scottsdale. Rather, I was remembering a recent road trip-vacation to Palm Springs, California.

 

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Not all water features are golf course traps at Westin Mission Hills

Sometimes it’s necessary to actually leave Arizona to feel like you’re really “away from it all.” Sure, it’s nice to splurge at a Scottsdale or Phoenix resort for the occasional “staycation,” but traveling to Palm Springs and its environs gives you that “clean getaway” feel. It’s just far enough away so you feel like a tourist, but close enough so you feel like a weekender. One major downside: the drive is a bit tedious. Except for a couple of mildly interesting mountain passes and the Colorado River crossing; it’s mostly mile after mile of monotony. Bring plenty of music or audio books.

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Allow time to see the views from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Before I had discovered Palm Springs as a weekend getaway destination, I’d thought there was no reason to stop between Phoenix and the Pacific coastline, except maybe a quick pullover at some place like Palm Springs or Blythe, Calif. for a gas fill-up or a Thirstbuster. As an Arizona newcomer in my 20s, Palm Springs to me was just a bunch of shopping centers, golf courses and retirement homes. Oh, wait….

So I have to confess: when we booked our week at nearby Rancho Mirage, Calif. at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, I was skeptical. But now I admit: we were impressed at check-in. Front desk and concierge staff were friendly, helpful and efficient. Our one-bedroom villa was clean and spacious. Our balcony easily accommodated a full dining patio set so we could enjoy dawn and dusk overlooking a lush garden area with meandering stream. The main resort facility boasts several open-air dining options for guests’ easygoing breakfasts and casual lunches. The Fireside Lounge bar and outdoor fireplace lures patrons to linger longer. And what better says, “Palm Springs” than to be relaxing in a warm swimming pool or waiting for your next putt while gazing at snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains?

palm canyon

Make time for side trips such as hiking in Palm Canyon

If you vacation in Palm Springs — whatever resort you choose — you may get so relaxed and comfortable, you’ll be tempted to abandon those other  activities. Be strong! You can do it all! Just allow an extra day or two for hiking into Palm Canyon, riding up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, visiting the Living Desert Zoo and touring Joshua Tree National Park. (Better make that three or four extra days.) Or you could meld into the stereotype: golf, eat, drink, shop. There’s nothing wrong with that either!

Consider spending one day for a cruise past examples of desert modernism architecture, because Palm Springs is the prime location of these post-World War II sleek, angular structural designs.  And if you’re a fan of TV’s “Mad Men,” you’re quite possibly in the best place to channel your “inner Don Draper” with a tour of 1950s and 60s-era homes, hotels and office buildings. Or course, that would mean leaving your Old Fashioned drink and your comfy spot in the cocktail lounge.

Readers: What are your favorite southern California getaways? I would love to get your comments… you can also follow me on Twitter (@azgetawaytravel) or ‘like’ me on Facebook. Read other Southwest Travel blogs at AZCVoices/Travel.