Twenty-Four Hours in Napa’s Coolest Community

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Calistoga has become my family’s go-to place for a Napa getaway, for a variety of reasons, and we returned in early August for a one-night visit that couldn’t have been pleasanter.

The village is just a short drive from the East Bay, where we live, but takes you to a whole different world. It’s relatively affordable compared to other places in Wine Country, and compact enough to explore easily by foot once you arrive. There’s also a nice variety of shops, dining options and lodging.

When it comes to the latter, the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs resort is definitely the best place within miles for a family stay. The rooms are perfectly nice, but the real lure is a sprawling patio area boasting three different pools of different varieties and a large Jacuzzi gazebo that could probably fit about 20 people or so comfortably. Another huge plus is the resort’s location on Washington Street just a block off the heart of downtown. You can walk to a dozen restaurants in 10 minutes or less, or bring back some take-out food from Cal-Mart—a wonderful supermarket loaded with a massive spread of prepared eats ranging from tacos and corn dogs to soups and salads.

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The property no longer offers a ‘day-rate’ as it used to, for those who wanted to just pool-lounge without sleeping over, but it does have a nice policy allowing guests to stay the day by the pool even after they’ve checked out.  As for other lodgings, we’ve also enjoyed the Sunburst, a handsomely spruced-up motor lodge near the end of town—but it seems far-more ideal for couples than families with young children. Dr. Wilkinson’s, famed for their mud baths, is another possibility, though I can’t claim to have stayed there since the late seventies, when my brother and I along with a friend raised the ire of management by placing all the lounge chairs in the pool. File that one under ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’

I should also mention the Washington Street Lodging, a charming little place a short walk from downtown that offers a variety of nice cottages and is pet-friendly. But it’s probably more ideal for a cold-season escape as there are no pools on premises.

As for the dining-out spots, we have come to rely on Checkers as the best family-friendly choice. It’s a perfect blend of classy but casual, and offers a solid menu blending Italian and continental fare; some offbeat options like a delicious Chinese chicken salad add to the choices. I thoroughly enjoyed the butternut squash ravioli on our most recent visit, and everyone else at our small party gave a thumbs-up as well. One nice touch with the deserts is you can order the ice cream by the scoop depending on how hungry you still are, with single scoops arriving in old-timey silver bowls akin to something from a 1950s soda fountain.

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While we spent most of our time lounging poolside on this most recent escape, in the past we’ve enjoyed visiting the town’s serene Orthodox Monastery and the colorful Ca’Toga Art Gallery—loaded with unique art and showcasing a fantastical mural on its high ceiling.

Truthfully, regardless of what you do, in my mind Calistoga is all about relaxing and going with the flow. It really is one of those places where it’s hard not to have a good time.

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Three Reasons to Put Dana Point on Your Bucket List

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Let’s face it, the Southern California coast is a trove of cool places and amazing experiences. Why should groups—or families—take the time to explore in particular the upscale enclave known as Dana Point?

I discovered during a small press junket that there are plenty of reasons, but three stood out as especially ‘can’t-miss,’ beginning with an unforgettably amazing boat outing and ending with one of the most impressive meals I’ve had in ages.

Here’s a quick take on the trio of temptations that should have parents and planners considering this southern slice of coastal Orange County.

Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

Debarking from the picturesque Dana Point Marina, Captain Dave’s offers a veritable mini-armada of possible ships (and outings) to enjoy, but the Manute’a is hard to top—a comfy and spacious catamaran with a special touch that took our enjoyable outing to another level.

 

Humpback Whale

The Manute’a has been specially designed with two viewing pods below deck—and below sea-level—that allow you to swim at eye level with sea creatures. It was already a breathtaking sight when the ship became accompanied by literally thousands of dolphins who seemed to make a game out of racing alongside us almost close enough to touch. But it truly became otherworldly when I entered the left viewing portal and lay down flanked by massive windows along my side; the proximity to these wonderful animals, and the forward motion of the ship, really makes it feel like you’re part of the pod swimming along with them.

Common Dolphin

And this description barely does the outing justice; you really have to experience it to truly grasp the sensation. The crew adds to all the fun with humorous trivia, fascinating facts and one of Capt. Dave’s home-made fudge brownies to dig into at trip’s end.

The Stonehill Tavern at Monarch Beach Resort

Operated by famed Chef Michael Mina this is without doubt one of the best restaurants in California. While the setting is modern-sleek, the food is both creative and comforting (and of course delicious); it’s also a great place for groups, with some compelling private dining areas and many of the plates served ‘family-style.’ Our small group of seven especially enjoyed the establishment’s iconic dish, Lobster Pot Pie. Yes, this might sound like heresy to lobster purists, but you’ll be a believer after one bite.

Stonehill Tavern entrance

The appetizers are another highlight, and it doesn’t really matter which ones you order since they’re all sensational. We shared something that included tortellini and quail eggs, which sounded a bit questionable to me on paper. And it was delectable. Make sure to give yourself a few hours to enjoy your meal here, it’s a marathon not a sprint—and every dish is worth savoring.

The Ocean Institute

Set along the Dana Point Harbor, this is a venue that groups and families should know about. It’s home to some interesting event spaces—including a conference hall complete with 25-foot-long gray whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling—and also maintains a pair of replica tall-ships for seafaring fun. It additionally hosts a facility of various aquaria that kids will love to explore, and is home to numerous educational programs.

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Kids can even take a seafaring field trip overnight aboard one of the ships, or a three-to-five day educational jaunt to Catalina where they become part of the crew. It’s hard to imagine a more unforgettable escape for children with a sense of adventure.

On a final note, it would be unfair to leave out our host property, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. This is a first-class resort in every way and is literally steps from the beautiful beach. The cuisine here is also impressive, including Raya, where our group savored some fantastic finger foods for lunch—including lobster tacos and ‘piloncillo’ shrimp that were simply mouthwatering. The views from the resort’s bluff-top locale are yet another bonus, and it’s only a 10-minute walk down the beach from the Stonehill Tavern and Monarch Beach resort.

Dana Point Vista

Photo credits: Swimming dolphins – Mark Tyson/DolphinSafari.com; catamaran exterior: Mike Johnson/DolphinSafari.com.

Six Cool Summer Spots to Explore in Richmond

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Richmond, Calif., might not be on everyone’s summertime bucket list, but that’s one of the reasons it’s such a cool locale to explore in the hot season. You definitely won’t be dealing with San Francisco-level traffic or parking, and you’ll likely also discover some uncharted territory. Here are six family-friendly lures to uncover in Rich City.

The Gyuto Foundation

Who would have thought that the Bay Area’s largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery (pictured above) would await at a remote location in the Richmond Hills? This serene oasis is a great little getaway for a walk in the woods—down their designated ‘path to enlightenment’—some blissful meditation, or just some fun photo-ops by their gorgeous alfresco murals and quiet courtyard complete with fountain. An offbeat little gift shop, run on an ‘honor system’ of payment, is a must-stop for a charming memento. Don’t forget to turn the massive Dharma wheel (clockwise!) to spread joy and good energy before departing.

The Plunge

This Point Richmond icon underwent some major upgrades in recent years, and offers indoor swimming in a historic building adorned with some impressive murals. The Plunge teams with the Richmond Swim Center (behind Kennedy High on Cutting Boulevard) as the City of Richmond’s Aquatic Division venues. For family fun, consider the Tot Splash at the Plunge from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, or the Family Recreation Swim at the Swim Center from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Friday.

Alvarado Park

This overlooked oasis is a favorite picnicking spot for those that have discovered it, and offers plenty of shady trails and places for kids to safely splash around in the creek that cuts through Alvarado. There’s also a playground, public restrooms, and large fields for Frisbee tossing and other fun. Groups can also contact the Parks Department and reserve one of the superb picnicking spots for a memorable party or reunion. A handsome gazebo offers yet another gathering spot.

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Rosie the Riveter Welcome Center

Located by the Craneway Pavilion along Richmond’s waterfront, this vital venue is officially part of the state parks system but is really a blend of industrial museum, gift shop and free movie theater showing historical documentaries. The theme here is local Richmond home-front history during WWII, when countless women—epitomized by the legendary icon Rosie the Riveter—took on key roles with shipbuilding and other traditionally male roles. It’s airy interior and location along the windswept bay makes it a good place to beat the heat as well.

The Red Oak Victory 

Another showcase of Richmond’s WWII heritage, the massive Red Oak Victory warship is hidden away down Canal Boulevard by the charmingly industrial Riggers Loft wine cooperative. The Red Oak is a worthwhile visit just for a low-key tour (self-guided or volunteer-led), but is also home to frequent events like community pancake breakfasts right on deck and even classic film showings in the ship theater. The kitschy gift shop is a must-see and on-board volunteers are knowledgeable and filled with quirky facts.

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Model Train Museum

This is a truly offbeat venue that will only take about half-an-hour to explore fully, but anyone even halfway intrigued by scale-model railroads will have a blast. Located in a cavernous edifice at 900A Dornan Drive (near the bay in Point Richmond), the Golden State Model Railroad Museum offers visitors the chance to view some exceptional model landscapes offering historical takes on various California locales, plus an array of model trains scooting along the tracks. Currently, Sundays are the best time to come visit as that’s the only day trains are officially slated to be operating. Bring a picnic lunch and make a day of it by exploring the sprawling and popular park across the street.

 

 

 

Monterey’s Best Meetings Hotel Gets Even Better

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The Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey has achieved its status as the city’s top event property almost by default—with its location adjoining the popular Monterey Conference Center and abutting vibrant Alvarado Street.

Now the hotel is seriously earning that status following a lengthy and ambitious overhaul that has culminated in the recent opening of Jacks Monterey, a snazzy new dining spot that focuses on local, sustainably grown foods and fresh seafood.

While that might not be earth-shattering in itself, and more or less follows the major dining trend of the day, what I like most about Jacks is the group-friendly aspects of dining there. The sharing of food and drink is always a good conversation starter and the new restaurant clearly has groups in mind with a selection of menu items that can be shared, including cocktails.

Tuyet_s Elixir (Pineapple pitcher) Elyx Vodka, hibiscus bitters, mint honey, pineapple puree, soda

Sharing plates feature the Chef’s Signature Bread with creamy artichoke and pecorino cheese baked in a cast-iron skillet; Jacks N’ Cheese Bake created with locally sourced Schoch Farms Monterey Jack cheese and persillade; Halibut Paupiette served with Asian vegetables, shitakes, steamed rice, black beans and garlic sauce; Pajaro Pastures Goat Moussaka with herb béchamel sauce; and the Harris Ranch New York Strip with potato gratin, prosciutto, watercress salad and pink peppercorn butter. Hungry yet?

In addition to the numerous regional wines on the menu, guests can enjoy brews made right on the premises at Peter B’s Brewpub, and there are also plenty of handcrafted cocktails to consider. But my favorite concept is the “Group Effort” experience curated by an onsite mixologist. Tuyet. Guests can order bespoke drinks served in a copper pineapple for two to share, or in a larger copper pineapple for four or more, accompanied by a serving ladle. One favorite features a mashup of Elyx Vodka, hibiscus bitters, mint-honey syrup and soda.

The Jacks launch is just one facet of the major makeover that has also introduced a new entry plaza, revamped the atrium lobby, added a new bar and revitalized the adjoining conference center.

The Portola Hotel & Spa also offers 379 guestrooms, outdoor pool with a Jacuzzi and cabanas, numerous special packages (including offers exclusively for families), bicycle rentals and on-site shops and galleries.

New Portola Lower Lobby

Why Groups Should Care About Portland’s Newest Hotel

Hi-Lo Hotel

If you’ve been watching the Portland (Ore.) hotel scene over the past several years you probably know by now it’s been expanding explosively, just as the city’s drinking and dining landscape has taken off.

Hip and luxurious boutique properties have been at the heart of the Portland hotel renaissance, so it’s easy even for a cool property like the brand-new Hi-Lo Hotel to get lost in the shuffle. So why should groups and event planners start looking this property over rather than overlooking it?

Here are a few good reasons:

  • Launched by Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the new 120-room lodging blends comfortable luxury with the architecture of the 1910 Oregon Pioneer Building.
  • The property has a number of interesting meeting/function spaces to consider, ranging from The Draft (a cozy boardroom for about 12) to The Commons (just under 1,200 square feet of classy meeting space).
  • Killer craft cocktails at the Lo Bar or mouthwatering Mexican cuisine at the stylish Alto-Bajo restaurant, guided by the well-known Chip Barnes—formerly of Moto. Another nice touch is that the menu was developed in concert with acclaimed Oaxacan Chef Iliana de la Vega to add even more flair and authenticity.
  • Attendees will also enjoy details like the free Wi-Fi and in-room entertainment enhanced by Netflix and various apps.
  • A location in the heart of the city gives groups easy access to the best restaurants, attractions and business venues in Portland.

This is definitely a luxe property, so it’s probably not a perfect fit for every group or event. But for small to mid-size groups that have the freedom to splurge a little bit, it seems certain to be a big hit.

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Also, while not really group-focused, the property was still offering a special ‘Exactly Like Nothing Else’ package as this article was being posted. The package includes a two-night stay and a meet-up with a top local designer to create customized clothing for the guest.

Marriott’s Autograph Collection launched about seven years ago and is on track to reach 200 hotels over the next five years.

(Photo Credit: William James Photography)

Highlights from a Kid’s First Disneyland Adventure

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I’ve been to Disneyland several times now, but none of the other visits even came close to the fun of taking my family there for the first time last year. Watching our son Logan, who had just turned four, having his mind blown by experiences like meeting Buzz Lightyear and trying his first real roller-coaster experience was truly awesome.

For starters here are specifically the experiences Logan said he enjoyed most, followed by his dad’s brief insights and perspectives. :  )

  1. The Mickey Ferris Wheel. Hookay, I missed this one while taking part in a meeting planner FAM, but my wife Kathy told me the prominent Mickey Ferris Wheel that towers over the Paradise Pier section of California Adventure is actually a harrowing experience that involves the carriages on the wheel sliding up and down on tracks while the contraption turns. But Logan loved it apparently and repeatedly said it was the best thing at Disney.
  2. Room Service. See, this is what happens when you let a four-year-old take over a travel blog, but there you have it. I will say that the room service at the Disneyland Resort was fantastic and the entire property was top-notch. BTW, I had the spaghetti and meatballs and it was delicious.
  3. Meeting a girl. Yes, my son—freshly turned four—was already meeting girls at Disneyland. This incident reportedly took place on the approach to the Mickey Ferris Wheel, where he held hands with an older woman of around six and then went on the ride with her. Now I’m wondering if that’s why he liked the Ferris wheel so much.

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Dad’s thoughts:

  • The Build-a –Bear Workshop, located in the Disney Downtown adjoining the two theme parks was a good break from the hustle and bustle (and lines) of the theme park. The entire downtown area is pretty cool and has some reasonably affordable and good food. I had never been to an ‘Earl of Sandwich’ and have to confess their food is very tasty.
  • For my money the two best places for kids under 7 are probably the Toontown section of the Magic Kingdom and the Radiator Springs part of California Adventure. Logan enjoyed his first roller coaster ride at Toontown, which also has some cool attractions to explore (such as Donald Duck’s boat) when the lines get crazy long for the rides.
  • Do whatever you can to arrange your lodging on-site at Disney if your budget allows, it makes it so much easier to take a break from it all, give your child a nap and so forth. And consider splurging for a dinner at the Napa Rose (within Disney’s Grand California Hotel), one of the best restaurants in Anaheim.
  • This is probably obvious advice, but make sure to see the nightly parade and show up early for a good viewing spot. They have completely ramped up the parade and it’s definitely a ‘don’t-miss it’ element of Disneyland now. The fireworks are almost as dazzling but not quite.

I hope these tips come in handy, and feel free to leave some of your own for other parents to ponder!

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Four Can’t-Miss Group Tips for Dubai Travel

Sailboat Hotel

I can’t contend to being an expert on Dubai travel, but during a whirlwind five-day FAM hosted by Visit Dubai there was plenty of takeaway for event and group trip planners to consider. Here are some suggestions for groups to ponder when visiting the UAE’s most spectacular city, based on my experiences and what really clicked for the hundreds of meeting planners and media who took part in the immersive visit.

Get out in the desert and party. I would say the highlight of the FAM for a large proportion of our contingency was an evening at Al Sahara Desert Camp, hosted about an hour outside of the city proper in and around a fortress-like structure that looked like something out of a Foreign Legion film from the 1930s. Camel rides, exotic foods, falconers, cool pop-up stores and hookah smoking added to the fun atmosphere, as did some posh tent stanchions with lush cushions and colorful tapestries.

Al Sahara Desert Camp

Don’t forget the culture. Another eye-opening experience for our group was a lunchtime visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, highlighted by time-tested Arabian architecture and the presence of numerous sheikhs and a traditional mosque. During a casual group meal with countless trays loaded with exotic delicacies, we were treated to an informal lecture from an Arabian Sheikh that provided some insights from the Islamic perspective on a variety of topics, including spirituality and feminism. In a locale that has only officially existed in its present state since 1971—and is home to residents from all over the world—this is an excellent way to actually experience some of the age-old heritage of the Middle East.

Sheik Mohammed Centre

Have a ‘moving’ experience. Our group explored numerous treks and tours during the FAM journey, from Segway excursions to helicopter rides out of the spectacular Atlantis The Palm resort. A personal highlight was a boat ride on the snazzy Bateaux Dubai along the Dubai Creek, which is a superb way to see some of the city’s more ancient areas in complete comfort. Also amazing was climbing aboard the most high-tech elevator you’ll ever see to reach the viewing platform a hundred stories or so high upon the towering Burj Khalifa—which is, almost unbelievably, more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Burj Khalifa

Revel in the resorts. Regardless of where your group stays, consider taking a tour or hosting an event at one or two of the other amazing properties in Dubai. Exploring the famed sailboat hotel is a must, and a group meal at Atlantis the Palm’s Ossiano—with sharks and manta rays swimming by your tables in the floor-to-ceiling aquarium glass—is also worthwhile. For an impressive evening event, consider the Madinat Jumeirah (below) where guests can board ‘abras’ (akin to an Arabian gondola) and float through a serene canal to a courtyard alive with music, entertainment, elegant outdoor food kiosks and posh indoor spaces as well. Visit Dubai held such a celebration here for a final-night send-off, and it was simply spectacular.

Madinat Jumeirah,