Tag Archive | Southern Savvy Blog

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

California

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I belong to a book club that read a lovely little book last year called “Dear Bob and Sue.” This book tells the story of Matt and Karen Smith’s travels to all 59 U.S. National Parks written as a series of emails to their friends, Bob and Sue. The book is funny, irreverent, unpredictable, and sarcastic – all in the spirit of humor. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, I got some great travel ideas from it. I learned about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a three-day trip where you can visit Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite all in one fell swoop. I was sold!

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My husband and I flew into Fresno, California from Dallas and rented a car there. Fresno is a small airport and proved very convenient to getting a rental car and starting off on our merry way. We stopped for a wonderful lunch outside Fresno in Sanger and headed up the mountains to Sequoia National Park and the Wuksachi Lodge. The drive was spectacular! We went from wildflowers, farmland, and sunny, citrus groves to cloud-covered mountains and snowy roads in less than two hours.

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On our first day in Sequoia National Park, we visited the Lost Grove (the densest concentration of sequoias in the park) and General Sherman – my “must see!”  The General Sherman Tree is the largest living organism on the planet and the largest living tree in the world. It was just as magnificent as I had imagined! If you want to feel small and insignificant, just stand at its base and gaze up at its top 275 feet above you. I stood and wondered about all that this tree has lived through and witnessed in its 2200 years. If only it could talk…

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The next day we left for Kings Canyon National Park. The two parks intersect each other so you go from one to the other without much fanfare. We started at the Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center in Grant Grove Village and enjoyed the exhibits and a movie detailing the history of the parks – very interesting. The rangers were very helpful in letting us know which roads were open or closed and helped us plan our day.

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The park is at a high elevation (up to 14,000 ft) and on this particular day in April we experienced rain, sleet, and heavy fog – all in a matter of hours. Then lo and behold, the afternoon turned out to be sunny and clear. Luckily for us, the weather was a deterrent for crowds and we got to visit Grant Grove pretty much by ourselves. Grant Grove is only a mile from the visitors center and proved to be one of my favorite excursions. It consisted of a half-mile walking trail through the forest that loops to the German Grant Tree (third largest in the world and a “young” 1,650-years-old). The paved trail was easy to walk and we passed by fallen trees, crossed over streams, and wandered through giant sequoia groves.  The forest here was breathtakingly beautiful and on this particular day, the towering trees seemed ethereal and unworldly. There was no wind, no sound, sparse light, and a mystical fog all around. I loved it!

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Many of the higher altitude roads in Kings Canyon were closed to vehicles this time of year so we drove to a lower elevation and visited beautiful Hume Lake (a park ranger’s suggestion). The sun was shining, the water was glistening, and the temperature was perfect for exploring the area around the lake. We ended our afternoon after a relaxing stop here and headed for Yosemite National Park – our third and final stop!

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There is not anywhere else in the United States where national parks are located so close together as these three here in California. We spent a full twenty-four hours in each Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park before heading on to spend three days in Yosemite. I highly suggest trying the Majestic Mountain Loop whether it be for three days, a week, or maybe more.

I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did!

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Mission San Jose’

San Antonio, TX

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I had a lovely girl’s trip recently to San Antonio and one of our highlights was visiting a couple of the old Spanish missions along the Mission Trail. I am quite the art history buff and had always wanted to see a couple of the missions besides The Alamo, which I always enjoy visiting. 

The Mission San Jose’ y San Miguel de Aguayo (proper name) is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It was built in 1720, just two years after The Alamo was founded and only five miles downriver. Upon completion, it had the reputation of being the most beautiful church along the entire frontier of New Spain. It is the largest colonial mission still standing today.

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The five remaining missions are located near the San Antonio River and not far from downtown San Antonio. There is actually an official Mission Trail where one can walk, bike, or drive to each of the missions or just choose to visit a couple – which is what we did on this day. Mission San Jose’ was quite easy to find and parking was plentiful. We actually approached from the rear wall which gave us very impressive views of a garden, statues, the church, dome and bell tower.

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The church itself is quite stunning. It was constructed out of locally quarried Texas limestone by Spanish and Native American craftsmen. The flying buttresses, carvings, statues, bell towers, an ornate rose window, and quatrefoil patterns are very indicative of the European influence. The building surfaces are now worn and weathered but at one time were covered with brightly painted stucco. I imagine that 300 years ago the church facade was quite a sight to see with vivid blues, golds, and reds painted in large geometric patterns. I am certain the locals and natives had never seen anything quite like it!

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After walking around the outside of this main building, we passed through the large decorative doors into the sanctuary of the church. It was simple, ornate, and quite beautiful (regular services are still held here). We walked the expansive grounds of the mission and explored the walled fortification that provided workshops, storage spaces, a granary, visitor lodging, and homes for the priests and Native Americans. There were also wells and stone ovens scattered throughout the property that gave me a hint of what life was really like inside these walls in the 1700s.

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After exploring the property, we headed to the Visitor Center (located outside the walls) and enjoyed the displays and artifacts. We also watched a 23 minute film in the park theater that told the history of this mission, the land, and the people. It was most interesting and I highly suggest taking the time to learn more about Mission San Jose’ to fully appreciate its history and purpose. I now understand more about the pageantry, art, food, celebrations, and architecture of San Antonio after seeing how the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures began here and created the “Tejano” culture that we know today.

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Mission San Jose’ is an expansive, well-maintained property that includes the historic mission and grounds, a book store, a visitor’s center, free parking, and restrooms. It is well worth a visit when in the San Antonio area. Very interesting!

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The five San Antonio Missions are actually part of the National Park Service and are also  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  U.S. Park Rangers offer guided tours at Mission San Jose’  (check times at the visitor center).

Poston Gardens

Waxahachie, TX

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I may never have the opportunity to travel to Holland in my lifetime to see tulips, but I have made it to a couple of tulip farms in Texas. That may be as close as I ever get! Does that count?

Last year my husband and trekked a hour north of Dallas to Texas Tulips in Pilot Point, Texas. This year, we drove an hour south of Dallas to quaint Waxahachie, Texas to check out the new Poston Gardens. 

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We visited  Poston Gardens this past weekend and were some of the first visitors on a beautiful Sunday morning. Parking was on-site and the entrance fee was $10 per person. Tulip stems run $3.00 each and you may keep both the tulip and bulb. The staff was most helpful and very friendly. We soon had a plan and a large plastic basket and were off on our way to pick tulips. 

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Several staff members drive carts throughout the fields and we quickly hitched a ride to the bottom (and largest) field that is home to over 400,000 tulips. The colors were a sensory overload! After picking and exploring here, we worked our way back up to three other fields on foot. Walking is easy, all the paths are well-marked. Rows of tulips are spaced far enough apart to make it all very easy.

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The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful! Candy colors, neon colors, soft pastels, pale whites – you name it – they are in full bloom!! There were 26 types of tulips planted this year and I loved and wanted them all. We managed to come home with 40 fresh stems (quite a few bulbs) and currently have two gorgeous tulip bouquets brightening up our home. A staff member gave us info on how to preserve our tulip bulbs so that we can plant them ourselves this winter. Hopefully we will be growing a few beautiful tulips in our yard next Spring! Fingers crossed.

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These tulip fields in Waxahachie are very new. Poston Gardens just opened on March 15th of this year. The owner, John Poston, has planted 40 acres of this 60 acre farm with over 1 million tulips. Mr. Poston decided to use his farm land to grow and sell tulips to help support Daymark Living (a facility located next door to Poston Gardens). Daymark is a resort-style community that teaches people with intellectual and developmental delays to live more independently. Poston’s 23-year-old son was born with Down syndrome and once he turned 18, there weren’t a lot of options for him to live a normal, independent life. Frustrated, Poston planned and built Daymark to help his son and others like him gain valuable life skills.  For every tulip sold, a portion of the profits goes directly to Daymark and its mission. Some of the Daymark residents even work in the gardens.

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The four large tulip fields are spread throughout the gently rolling farmland with some beautiful views. There are tents at a couple of locations where staffers will count, wrap, and prepare your tulips for the trip home. There are also restrooms, food trucks, and picnic tables located on the property. You can spend as little or as much time here as you choose. 

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If you are interested in tulip picking this year, GO SOON!  Poston Gardens will only be open for a few more weeks or as long as the tulips remain (usually through April). It was a fun experience for us both and makes us feel even better knowing that we contributed to a good cause.

Enjoy!

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(Suggestions: 1. Take a trowel if you want to extract the bulbs with the blooms.  2. Take a large container of cool water to place tulips in for the ride home  3. Wear gardening gloves to keep hands and nails clean!)  

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Mi Tierra

San Antonio, TX

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Mi Tierra’s is not your average Tex Mex restaurant. 

Walking into Mi Tierra’s is a sensory overload. The smells of the fresh-cooked Tex Mex dishes, baked goods, coffees, and tortillas waft through the air. The atmosphere is loud and energetic. Regardless of the hour, there always seems to be lines of people standing inside and outside waiting for tables. Laughter fills the air. You are surrounded by lights, flowers, seasonal decorations, pinatas, photos, murals, tinsel, flags, etc. as a variety of colors explode on every wall, counter, table and ceiling. Dozens of brightly dressed servers hustle around with food-laden trays. Mi Tierra’s is a party waiting to happen. It is not just a breakfast, lunch or dinner place. It is a true dining experience.

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The official name of this restaurant is Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia. This San Antiono landmark began in 1941 as a three-table restaurant to feed the local farmers and workers who arrived at the San Antonio Mercado in the early morning hours before their work shifts. Seventy-eight years later, Mi Tierra’s is a world-famous landmark known for their authentic Tex Mex fare, margaritas, desserts, and mariachis. The cafe and bakery now seats over 500 patrons and is open 24/7. 

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Every opportunity I have to visit San Antonio, I will try to enjoy at least one meal at Mi Tierra’s, visit the bakery for take-out items, and shop at the Market Square. I dined here three decades ago with my husband, as a young married couple. We dined here with our kids as toddlers, adolescents, and then as teenagers.  We took relatives from North Carolina here to introduce them to Tex Mex. They loved the mariachis! I recently ate lunch here with good friends while enjoying a girls’ weekend of shopping in the area. Throughout the years, every visit has been memorable and we have enjoyed each and every meal. This past week, we spotted Elvis (complete with jet black hair, sunglasses, and a glittery cape) enjoying a bowl of tortilla soup for lunch.  You just never know who – or what – you may see.

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I readily admit that my favorite part of Mi Tierra’s (besides the festive year-round decorations) is the bakery or panaderia. The pastries, sweet rolls, pralines, empanadas, candied fruits, cookies, etc. are the reason the line for the bakery is always out the door. Patrons may also purchase tamales, tortillas, and a variety of salsas here as well. The pecan pralines, pumpkin empanadas, fig empanadas and the beautifully-colored Mexican conchas are the things my dreams are made of! Flaky crusts, sweet fillings, crunchy nuts, and pastel-colored sugar toppings – what is there NOT to like?

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If you find yourself in South Texas within driving distance of San Antonio and have a hankering for Tex Mex, I urge you to give Mi Tierra’s a try.  And let me know if, or when, you plan to head that way in the near future. I may want you to pick me up a little something from the bakery! 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger

Las Vegas, NV

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When mentioning to an acquaintance about an upcoming trip to Las Vegas, she stated that she and her husband were going the same weekend that I was. She said, “the minute we land, my husband has to go get his Ramsay burger.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

I do now!

Gordon Ramsay Burger is located in the Planet Hollywood Resort Casino and next to the Miracle Mile Mall. It is pretty easy to spot by the 30-foot wall of fire display and by the line of people usually standing and waiting to get in.

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The stylish, open-concept restaurant is pretty impressive with bright colored walls, televisions, comfy seating, and an energetic atmosphere. The walls are covered with large pics of the one and only, Chef Gordon Ramsay. This restaurant is most well-known for its menu of high-end burgers, hot dogs, fancy drinks, gourmet desserts and shakes. My group decided to check it out the afternoon we arrived and managed to beat the regular dinner crowd (which is usually a 2 to 3 hour wait). We checked in with the hostess at 5:00 p.m. and only had a thirty minute wait. We were given a pager and explored some nearby Miracle Mile shops to kill the time. No biggie.

After waiting only twenty minutes, we were seated by one of the friendly hostesses. The menu had so much to choose from and we were all quite hungry. Decisions, decisions. We began with Cheddar Ale Soup, Beer Battered Onion Rings, Truffle Parmesan Fries, and Burnt Ends Poutine for all to share and “taste test.”

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Where to begin? The soup was served with crispy parma ham, pretzel croutons and fresh chives and was very tasty. The onion rings were sprinkled with parmigiano-reggiano and were served with chipotle ketchup and cheddar ranch dip. Yum! The hand-cut truffle fries were crispy and delicious and were served in a little British flag cone. The poutine was awesome! This popular Canadian dish consisted of a platter of fries topped with tender burnt ends (brisket), black pepper gravy, cheddar cheese curds, and pickled onions. I was in hog heaven!

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Soon we were moving on to our main course and trying hard to pace ourselves. Members of my group ordered the Ultimate Cheeseburger, the Blue Cheeseburger, the Ale Dawg, and the Lobster & Shrimp Burger. What a feast it was! All the burgers are prime cuts of meat, cooked over open flames, and served on delicious house-made buns. The Ultimate Cheeseburger had a slice of aged provolone, sweet dubliner cheese, and soft boursin cheese. It was rich, gooey, and delicious. The Blue Cheeseburger had crumbled blue cheese, manchego cheese, figgy jam, arugula, cider vinegar and mayo. This was easily my favorite burger. The figgy jam had such a delightful taste in combination with the other ingredients – what an inventive pairing.

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The Ale Dawg was fantastic and was HUGE! It came with a bacon-wrapped NYC Sabrett weiner (twice as long as the bun), cheddar ale sauce, caramelized onions, fresno chiles, and was topped with cheddar dusted potato crisps. Best. Hotdog. Ever.  

The Lobster & Shrimp Burger consisted of a thick patty made from pan-seared lobster and rock shrimp and was topped with pickled veggies, an herb aioli, and fresh lettuce. Delish!

 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger is also well-known for their special shakes and desserts- but this group was way too full to try anything else. We were all stuffed to the gills but very satisfied! We actually ate here one last time before heading to the airport to fly back home. We enjoyed our second meal here as much as the first one days before.

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the future, I highly recommend dining at this little gourmet “burger joint.”  Ramsay seems to have found a way to elevate traditional burgers by mixing regular ingredients with new fusions and coming up with some pretty spectacular combos. The prices are reasonable, portions are large, dishes are unique, and the food is great. Chef Ramsay cooks a  #@%&*! great burger in my opinion. Loved it!!

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BNP Paribas Open

Indian Wells, CA

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I am a huge tennis fan, a Roger Federer groupie to be more exact. One of my all-time favorite vacations has been to Indian Wells, California to watch the BNP Paribas Open each March. I have had the opportunity to attend this professional tennis tournament several times and would go again tomorrow if given the chance!

What makes this tennis tournament so special? How long do you have?

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Roger Federer – greatest of all time

The location is spectacular! Indian Wells is located in Southern California in the gorgeous Coachella Valley. You can fly into Palm Springs or Orange County and easily drive to beautiful Indian Wells. This is the perfect setting for tennis in early spring and includes snowcapped mountains, blue skies, palm trees, citrus trees, colorful bogainvilleas, and dessert breezes.

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on the grounds at the Renaissance

The hotels and resorts located around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden are all top-notch. We have had the opportunity to stay at the Renaissance and the La Quinta resorts and both were enjoyable in their own way. The Renaissance is a favorite of the tennis pros and coaches and you get to “rub elbows” with some of the world’s top players on a daily basis. A beautiful pool, fantastic breakfast buffet, firepits, ping pong tables, and great restaurants make this a great choice. The elegant La Quinta is more spread out and provides you with a private “casita” and beautiful desert-landscaped grounds. Each set of 8 casitas surrounds their own private pool. There are several restaurants, bars, and grills on the property as well as nightly music in the common area. The spa and tennis center are both very upscale and everything here is near perfection.

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fire pit at the Renaissance 

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view from our room at the Renaissance

Transportation to and from the tennis matches is a breeze. This tournament has been going on since 2000 and travel options around the event are well-orchestrated. The local resorts offer bus service every 20-30 minutes. When staying at the Renaissance, we walked right out of the hotel lobby and caught a bus that dropped us at the gate. We purchased a parking pass when staying at the La Quinta and drove our own rental car and parked in VIP parking each day. We pulled into the designated lot and our car was valet parked for us – very nice! We left the grounds one day just to go have lunch in the town of La Quinta and enjoyed the freedom that a car provided us.

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behind our casita at La Quinta 

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La Quinta Tennis Center

 

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden is one of the best on tour. The 29 courts, the 16,000 seat main stadium, the grounds, the shops and restaurants, and the activities make this my “hands-down favorite” tennis venue. Try out tennis racquets, watch some pros warm up on the practice courts, buy some new tennis clothes, get some great vendor “freebies,”  take photos in a special photo booth, register to win prizes, or sip champagne under the palm trees. When you tire from all those activities, pull up a chair and watch matches on the big outdoor screen or grab a bite to eat from one of the various eateries and sit at a picnic table and enjoy people-watching. You may also see James Blake signing autographs, the Bryan brothers on stage with their band, Rod Laver walking around, or Chrissie Evert having a question-and-answer session with the crowd.  The grounds are alive and happening!

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night tennis

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maybe I can hit the ball with this!

 

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practice courts

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Chris Evert

Now for the best part – the tennis! I have had the opportunity to see my favorite players play (and win!) only a short distance from me.  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovich, and Juan Martin Del Potro, etc. all speak about how much they enjoy this tournament every year and it is easy to see why. The stadiums give you the feeling of being “up close and personal” with the top players in the world. After having attended Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, I can honestly say this is by far my favorite tennis venue.

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Roger Federer

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Juan Martin Del Potro

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enjoying a match

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Rafa Nadal

 

There are also many interesting and fun things to see and to do while in the Indian Wells and Palm Springs area, so be certain to add a few days to the beginning or end of your tennis time here. Check out all the little restaurants and shops in Old Town La Quinta. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for great views of the Coachella Valley. Explore Joshua Tree National Park for great hiking and rockclimbing opportunities. Drive into downtown Palm Springs for a great meal, a museum visit, and see the Walk of Stars. Drive a few miles to The Cafe at Shields Date Garden for a great meal on the patio, see the “date sex” movie, and have a delicious date shake. Take a day and drive over the mountains to Temecula and enjoy exploring and winetasting at some of the finest Southern California wineries.  Take a guided jeep or ATV tour and visit a desert oasis. Many possibilities await you!

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enjoying chardonnay in Temecula

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bacon-wrapped stuffed dates at Shields Date Garden 

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view of Palm Springs from the San Jacinto Mountains

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cozying up to Sonny Bono in downtown Palm Springs

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the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

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a joshua treet in Joshua Tree National Park

For all of you tennis fans, I hope that you get the opportunity to visit Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open at least once. We have had four great experiences and loved each and every visit (we book through Steve Furgal’s Tennis Tours and let them handle the hotels, additional days, and tennis tickets).

If you are interested and or would like more information, I will be glad to give you my two cent’s worth.

Go Roger!!

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sunset at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

Lip Smacking Food Tours

Las Vegas

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I recently celebrated a milestone birthday in Vegas with friends and family and scheduled a food adventure with Lip Smacking Food Tours. What a great way to “spice up” the usual Vegas trip! We scheduled the three-hour afternoon food tour, considered this our late lunch, and had plenty of time left for a night on the town and a late dinner. It worked out perfectly.

I have not been to Vegas in almost fifteen years and had no idea how much the restaurant business had grown. There are now over 350 restaurants on The Strip and every celebrity chef has their own place. There seems to be an absence of the old 99 cent steak buffets that were so popular in years past. Those are now replaced by high-end, fine dining establishments in every hotel and casino. Times they are a changin’…..for the better, in my opinion.

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After researching “things to do” in Vegas before our trip, I came across the highly rated food tours. The Lip Smacking Food Tours seemed to be the  perfect way to visit four high-end restaurants and taste a sampling of some very raved about dishes. What was not to like? You visit four amazing restaurants to sample their food and drink their craft cocktails (optional). It is advertised to be an easy walk between all the stops. The guide will fill you in on local art, Las Vegas history, and give you inside information that only the locals know. Sounds good – I signed us up!

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We met at The Focus, a beautiful water wall at the Aria Hotel. There were seven of us and seven others who joined the group. Whitney was our awesome (and gorgeous!) tour guide. She was extremely knowledgeable about the food scene and about Vegas in general.  The tour was relaxed (but not too slow) and very informative (without being boring ). Whitney kept us moving but never hurried.  In addition to the food sampling, we got a cultural/art tour and an overall V.I.P. Vegas experience. There were also a couple of completely unexpected surprises along the way. The tour was way more fun (and way more food) than just going to dinner somewhere.

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After a brief introduction to the tour guidelines, our first stop was Javier’s, a high-end Mexican restaurant well-known for premium tequilas and beautiful art work. We were seated in a gorgeous, private dining room ($3500 per night rental) at a beautifully decorated table. We sampled a variety of tasty salsas and chips, enchiladas (crab and organic chicken), traditional rice and beans, and a pineapple margarita (yum!). Delicioso!

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Our second stop was Estiatorio Milos, a Greek and Mediterranean seafood restaurant. We were seated at round tables with great views and displays of fresh vegetables and seafood were all around us. Food here was served family style. We feasted on baked bread with Greek olive oil and sprigs of fresh oregano. The Greek Salad (with delicious feta cheese), grilled octopus, and the Milos Special (fried zucchini tower with tzatziki and cheese) was delicious and most enjoyable. Every item was fresh and tasty. Loved it all.

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Our third stop was Momofuku, a new Asian/Korean restaurant. We began with Spicy Cucumbers and toasted cashews. Our second course was Pork Buns which were large bao buns stuffed with thick slices of pork belly.  The last course was a fantastic Chickpea Ramen. The roasted chickpeas, scallions, miso and bok choy created a great mix of flavors and it was most enjoyable. We sat by a large, graffiti-style wall mural that was really cool. This stop was a feast for eyes and bellies!

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At this point in the tour, we were pretty full….but we were on to our final stop. Our last restaurant was Cucina by Wolfgang Puck. What a way to end a food tour! This is the celebrity’s chef’s latest rustic Italian restaurant. We had desserts here and what a treat it was. The Salted Caramel Budino was creamy and delicious. The Tiramisu was perfection. The Vanilla Zeppole (think donut hole) with raspberry sauce was sweet and tart, all at the same time. The Cremoso sponge cake and mousse was my favorite. Delizioso! Since it was my birthday, I got a specially decorated plate and a birthday serenade by an Italian singer. It was a perfect ending to a most perfect day.

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At each restaurant, the staff was welcoming, prompt, and professional. We were seated at the best tables in the place. Printed menus were provided at each stop detailing the food and beverages. We were served in a quick and timely manner and any additional drink order was easily handled. The entire tour was top notch and quickly became one of the favorite things about our Vegas trip. We had been entertained, educated, and fed the best of the best. The complete experience, from beginning to end, was perfectly executed and my group thoroughly enjoyed it. Lip Smacking Food Tours did it up right!

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the near future and are a self-proclaimed “foodie,”  I highly suggest trying out Lip Smacking Food Tours. I will leave you with a few simple words of advice: go hungry, wear comfy shoes, pace yourself, and wear stretchy pants.

Bon appetit!

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