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.

Short hike to Annie’s Canyon near San Diego

Annie’s Canyon Trail is more a destination than a trail. Or perhaps it’s best described as a “trail within a trail” – part of the San Elijo Lagoon Reserve trails. Our short 1.5 mile round trip trek started at the north end of North Rios Avenue. (Find parking information, maps and a trail guide online.) We parked at the cul-de-sac and followed the trail easterly along the San Elijo Lagoon. You’ll quickly see it really is an interpretive nature trail complete with park benches and label posts for trees, bushes and other flora. Look up ahead you’ll see Interstate 5; look back over your shoulder, you’ll see the lagoon and a glimpse of the ocean.

In less than half a mile, you’ll reach a fork to the right. Continue walking, as this only is another neighborhood access point, not the direction to Annie’s Canyon. However, if you want to make a side trip you can, but there’s not really much to see along this section, except for a very large tree. On a warm day, you may want to enjoy the shade of this old twisted trunk and limbs of what may be a eucalyptus tree (I’m not sure). It reminded me of the “tree of life” from Game of Thrones or other fantasy fiction.

Back to the main trail, continue heading east until you see the Annie’s Canyon sign. Now here’s where we were a bit confused. We knew this was a loop canyon hike, but didn’t realize it was a one-way loop. The recommendation is to stay to the right and climb up through the slot canyon up to the viewpoint and complete the loop on the other side. We took the left trail, which indicated a more moderate ascent. When we reached the viewpoint, we realized we should have taken the other direction.

At the top, looking west are sweeping views of the lagoon, the ocean, and the occasional water birds surveying the landscape. Looking east, the fast moving freeway traffic between Solana Beach and Encinitas is a reminder you’re still in the city.

Once at the top, we enjoyed our views, snapped a few photos and backtracked down, and around, headed up the canyon slot section for a little ways. But the afternoon was slipping away, and we wanted to enjoy some beach time at Fletcher’s Cove so we cut our short hike even shorter, and headed back to the car.

The San Diego area is one of our perfect getaway destinations, because it has everything we enjoy — taking a morning hike through the canyons and lagoon parks, followed by a few hours at the beach, then topping it off with a dinner of pizza and local craft brews.

Coachella Valley-Rancho Mirage-Palm Springs Getaway

Often our trips to the Palm Springs, Calif. area involve little more than dining, shopping, relaxing poolside with an icy drink and a good book. We wanted to do a bit more this visit; we planned a couple of hikes, a tramway trip to the top of San Jacinto Mountains followed by the inevitable dining, shopping and relaxing poolside. But we found ourselves in the first week of this month with temperatures well below the average, accompanied by strong winds, rain, and at the top of the mountain: snow. Which brings us to the number one travel tip: Always have a “plan b.”

The first morning we started out with a short hike. The winds were whipping around the desert at 30 mph, so we located a short hike that was somewhat protected by nearby hills and a thousand or so palms: the easy 1.7 miles to McCallum Pond at Coachella Valley Preserve.

Our second hike on this getaway weekend was also fairly short. We made the 1.8-mile climb up to Tahquitz Canyon Falls.

Both hikes are excellent for all ages and abilities. Both offer great views, geographic variety and photographic possibilities. Both can be prime activities for those looking for one to two hour excursions to supplement a day of shopping, sightseeing, a round of golf or lounging poolside.

In the case of inclement weather, always have a few indoor activities lined up. Several museums, shopping malls, galleries in the area provide indoor things-to-do. Because both my husband and I enjoy craft beer, we opted to visit two of several craft beer breweries. One is La Quinta Brewing in La Quinta, a 15-20 minute drive from Palm Springs. Old Town La Quinta is a picturesque and pleasant array of shops, galleries and eateries.

Beers sampled at La Quinta included the Poolside Blonde, an easy-drinking, light blonde ale, the Bloody Hot Summer, a refreshing, fruity beer, the Even Par 7.2 IPA, a smooth, perfectly balanced IPA, the Heatwave Amber Ale, a tasty brew with malt and caramel, and the Koffi Porter, with rich coffee, chocolate and malt.

 

The second brewery we visited was Coachella Valley Brewing Company, located about two miles north of our resort Westin Mission Hills.

Coachella Valley Brewing (or CVB) has many types of brews with a wide variety of flavors and blends, something for almost everyone, except the amber, red or brown ale drinker.  Beers we enjoyed were the I-10 IPA, a lower alcohol session IPA, the Kolschella, a refreshing Kolsch-style German ale, the Harvester, an imperial IPA with grapefruit, and the Palms to Pines, a triple IPA at 13 percent APV!

After a weekend of wind and rain, we wrapped up our getaway with a day of abundant sunshine next to the Westin Mission Hills pool. We like to recommend: Allow ample time on the last day to let the events of your vacation soak in. Let the intermittent bursts of kids splashing and laughing blended with faint sounds of different styles of music and low rumble of adult chatter lull you into relaxation as you turn the page of your book or magazine or swipe your Kindle. Gaze up at the sun through the palms, take a deep breath and know: no matter what the weather or other environmental factors; you’ve had the time to unwind.

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

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Create your own travel memories

Re-create vacation memories with sensory reminders (Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis)Not all vacation memories come in the form of photo snapshots. Not all souvenirs are found in gift shops. You can establish your own souvenirs of your vacation or weekend getaway by re-creating and re-stimulating the senses.

I just returned from a weekend escape at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California. It was an all-too-quick, but wonderful little getaway – a change of scenery, simply to relax and recharge. I didn’t book any expensive spa treatments and I didn’t take out my frustrations on a golf ball. But I wanted to remember those relaxing “ah” moments. Through my travels, I have found the best way to do that is to bring back little sensory mementos.

Even maps and brochures can bring back vacation feelings

Sight. Obviously all the photos, videos, brochures, postcards will bring back those great vacation feelings immediately. Just upload all the images to your computer and push play. The brochures, maps and cards you picked up at the concierge desk will fill in the blanks if you want to refresh details about your visit. Even my hotel site map from my weekend will bring back some pleasant thoughts of our gorgeous morning walks along the gardens, golf course fairways, tennis courts, spa and playground. Another ideas: Get creative. Remember the way your towels were arranged or folded in your hotel room? You can do the same in your guest bath at home. Like a gallery print from the lobby? You can undoubtedly find one very similar online for your home. Sometimes just simply arranging your seashells in a clear vase or desk lamp pedestal will send you back to your getaway.

Sound. This is a good memory jogger. Most people will remember old songs then recall the accompanying circumstances and situations linked to those songs. On our first night of our Rancho Mirage weekend getaway, we heard a really nice Fireside Lounge performer, Michael Keeth. His music put us into one of those “please-suspend-this-moment-in-time” mind frames. We were perfectly content to listen to the acoustic guitar music while sipping our drinks. We didn’t want to leave. But we were able to get one his CDs. Now we have musical reminders of that wonderful evening.

Candles, soap, lotions are perfect souvenirs

Smell. So many fragrant plants and flowers surround the gardens and golf course at the Westin Mission Hills. Sometime I may want to re-capture that same fantastic aroma to recall a garden walk or morning breeze on the balcony. So I’ll do a little research: identify the origins of those scents and purchase them to enjoy later. Taking home the complimentary hotel hand and body lotions will produce a similar, less dramatic reaction. The same fragrances will remind me of an extra long vacation shower or a bubble bath soak. I like Westin’s fresh White Tea Aloe bath and body collection, so I’ll use it during the hectic work week. The fragrance alone will send me back to my October getaway weekend at the Mission Hills. Other suggestions: buy a candle, sachet, spray or diffuser oil from your spa resort to put in your office. What a great instant de-stressor!

Taste. Ever have such a fantastic dinner — you just had to have the recipe? Just make a simple inquiry. Many chefs will share their most requested dishes, and many bartenders will be happy share their signature drinks. Or if you like experimenting in the kitchen, just try to re-create the dish at home. Investigate possibilities of bringing back or shipping regional delicacies. Check resort websites for posted recipes or online booksellers for cookbooks. It would be nice idea to again share that special honeymoon vacation dinner on your anniversary.

Find resort bedding in online catalogs

Touch. No, I’m not recommending packing up hotel towels or bathrobes. But an increasing number of lodging brands offer linens, bathrobes and other merchandise to guests through a “home collection” catalog or website. Westin, Marriott and Hilton all do. Then you can order that big thirsty bath sheet or snuggly duvet cover for your own home.

Going forward, I’m going to strive to be creative about ways to bring home vacation memories — no more wasting money on cheesy key chains, refrigerator magnets or shot glasses!

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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.

 

fountains

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.

tram

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.

Five things we love about San Diego’s Dolphin Motel

Great location, guest services and low room rates make Dolphin Motel an excellent value

Does anyone still use the term, “Zonie?” That’s the not-so-affectionate name given to Arizonans who, thinking they need a beach weekend or a break from the 100-degree heat, escape to California, especially the San Diego area. View other definitions at your own risk on UrbanDictionary.com. Californians no doubt, still complain about the high numbers of Zonies causing traffic jams and taking up parking spaces. Conversely Zonies may still gripe about the high prices just to experience a few beaches and ocean breezes. That’s why many Arizonans visiting California are always on the lookout for good deals.  Look no further for the best lodging value in San Diego: it’s the Dolphin Motel.

The sign says it all: "Why Pay More?"

1. Value

Value is our number one reason we love this harborview property. The combination of the motel’s basic amenities, location and inexpensive room rates make it the best lodging value for short stays in San Diego. The Dolphin Motel has free Wi-Fi, cable TV, continental breakfast, refrigerators in some rooms, early check-in and late check-out (upon request) for the low room rate of approximately $55 to $60 per night in San Diego. It’s difficult to find anything less than $100 that’s actually clean, comfortable and close-in.

Nearby parks and piers provide fishing opportunities

2. Proximity

Visitors to San Diego during the winter months will most likely opt for non-beach activities anyway, so they will prefer to stay close to all the events and attractions. Several big attractions in San Diego are just a short 10-15 minute drive from the Dolphin Motel: Sea World, San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, USS Midway, Petco Park, Gaslamp Quarter, Historic Old Town, Westfield Horton Plaza and San Diego Convention Center. If you’ll be flying into San Diego, you’ll be glad to know that the Dolphin Motel is just two miles from the airport. On our visit to a boat show at the convention center, we appreciated the short distances to marinas, Shelter Island and Harbor Island parks, seafood markets plus some of the best shopping, restaurants and nightlife in the city.

Nearby to Dolphin Motel is the Friendship Bell at Shelter Island

3. Cleanliness

White walls, white sheets, white blankets and white towels: everything is white – even the patio chairs. It’s not really the way I would decorate but it definitely sends a message of clean. And it’s not a dingy, yellowy, spotted kind of white, either. It’s bright white. The rooms have wall art which provide an occasional splash of color. At least you feel confident these rooms are clean! The outside area is spotless too! This well-maintained, well-cleaned motel creates a peace-of-mind you deserve for a good night’s rest for your short stay. The rooms aren’t spacious, but ample enough for all your gear and your new plush Shamu whale from Sea World.

Marinas are just a short walk away from the Dolphin Motel

4. Continental Breakfast

I know, I know: so many places offer breakfast, but here I felt like I was getting something special, even though it’s just coffee, fresh fruit and muffins. While seated on the patio just outside your room, or up on the small corner balcony upstairs, you can eat breakfast, enjoy the harbor views and watch as the sport fishermen prepare to depart. We were fortunate to also see jets taking off and landing at the North Island Naval Complex across the bay.

5. Guest Service

This is the reason Dolphin Motel earns five stars on reviewer-type websites such as Tripadvisor.com.  At least in this case, you can trust the reviews. The Dolphin Motel has been in the same family for over 36 years. Following our recent stay, all of us in our party shared the feeling that the owners and staff are sincere hosts who truly value their guests’ stay. The management provides excellent guest service plus great concierge service, giving you all the information you need about San Diego. These folks offer such a genuine welcome and friendliness, you feel as though you were staying the weekend with long-time friends, or relatives. (Okay, maybe scratch out relatives).

Pelicans are plentiful around the waterfront areas near the Dolphin Motel