Tag Archives: Hearst Castle

WORLD’S TEN BEST BAR EXPERIENCES

7 May
Italy - Venice, Harry's Bar, San Marco

Harry’s Bar
Courtesy: Share Alike

HARRY’S BAR (VENICE, ITALY):  During my last trip to Venice, I became a “regular” at Harry’s Bar, albeit sadly only temporarily. By the second visit, the waiter inquired if I would again like a bellini, (Prosecco with rosy-hued peach puree.)  Thereafter, when I entered, he would give a nod and subtle smile. Whenever I am in Venice, I relish spending time at this iconic bar where I find the ambience enchanting and service impeccable. I think the patrons who complain about the prices, dress code, and service just don’t get it. This is an elegant, historical place which has maintained the tradition that has made it so loved. If one looks close, it will become apparent that Harry’s has a surprisingly simple approach to drinks, cuisine and atmosphere. Bellinis are served in the simple clear highball-type glass etched with the Harry’s Bar logo. They favor local, relatively inexpensive wines over high-priced wines. The food is simply but perfectly prepared, such as the popular French toasted cheese sandwich.  The upstairs dining room also serves fresh, simple, sumptuous food. I like to slide into the bar in the afternoon to relax and refresh myself in between exploring areas where tourists are seldom seen. My smile, polite salutations and attempts at speaking Italian have always been greeted with nothing but cordial attention and professional service. For me, Harry’s is worth every penny I’ve spent there.

Calle Ocho

Calle Ocho

CALLE OCHO (BORDEAUX, FRANCE):  Cuban music was blaring out onto the pedestrian-only street in Bordeaux. Ever a lover of music venues, and a huge fan of Cuban music, I ventured in. This was an atmospheric, dive bar with mojitos being mixed and served non-stop. Cuban cigars were plentiful in the din of the music and many languages being spoken. I made the mistake of saying a few friendly sentences to the enebriated woman beside me. That did it-she unleashed a torrent of words along with large plumes of smoke, telling me of  moving from Cuba to Bordeaux and then a series of unfortunate events that had befallen her with regard to love, work and where she lived. Shaking my head in a sympathetic manner apparently encouraged her, but in reality I only understood a portion of what she said. This loud, lively convivial Cuban bar was a surprising find in Bordeaux, although my new “friend” discreetly informed me of the abundance of ex-pat Cubans living there.

RIO SCENARIUM (RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL):  The exhilarating, pulsating rhythm of Brazilian samba greeted us as we exited our cab to the colorful three story beacon that is the Rio Scenarium located on an otherwise dark street. We were seated on the first floor where we primed ourselves with caipirinhas – Brazil’s national drink – and danced to the infectious music.  Samba was excellently executed, but all styles of dance were welcome. The crowd consisted of all ages; the younger crowd gravitated to the upper two floors for music more suited to their taste. We had friendly table neighbors, and talked when we could make ourselves heard. Rio Scenarium’s evocative atmosphere is an eclectic explosion of antiques, memorabilia, and kitsch.

Palapa Bar and Grill

Palapa Bar and Grill

PALAPA BAR & GRILL (AMBERGRIS CAYE, SAN PEDRO, BELIZE):  Sitting under the square palapa (palm grass) roof overlooking the crystal clear, vibrant blue of the Caribbean below is one of my favorite bar views. A half mile north of San Pedro town, is Palapa Bar & Grill. We stumbled on it, or more accurately, discovered it when our family was exploring the north end of Ambergris Caye while driving a golf cart (the standard mode of transportation on the island.)  The main bar is on the second floor which affords a panoramic vista of the water out to the barrier reef, the second longest in the world. We love the fresh fruit cocktails and “mocktails” for the kids. The other “bar” is in the water below where you can float on inflated tire inner tubes while buckets of icy cold local Belikin beer are dispatched to you by rope. Don’t forget to “leave your mark” by writing something on the bar.

 Swing Dancing to Stompy Jones at Top of the Mark


Swing Dancing to Stompy Jones at Top of the Mark

TOP OF THE MARK (INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL: SAN FRANCISCO): Swing dancing on the 19th floor rooftop bar with a spectacular 360 degree panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline is a rarified experience. Located on Nob Hill in the Intercontinental Hotel, the historic bar opened in 1939.  What made this locale particularly fun was the live entertainment. On several occasions, I had the chance to listen and dance to the Stompy Jones band, who play revved up “jump style” swing music.  The sextet was formed in 1998, and has since received numerous accolades and awards, even being featured in two movies. Donning characteristic short 1930’s-style ties, the band features bounce, piano, thumpin’ stand-up bass, double-shuffle drumming, trumpet sax, and vocals. I also enjoyed the talented pianist and vocalist, Ricardo Scales, who plays many musical styles; my favorite is Latin Jazz. Sample the ambitious “100 martinis” offered at Top of the Mark.  The last time I was there the service was extremely poor, even though the bar was not that crowded.

MOCAMBO BAR (TAORMINA, SICILY, ITALY):   After an Italian woman spontaneously stood up and danced an exactingly authentic tarantella to the live transient band at a panoramic restaurant in Taormina, we were eager for more music and dance. We headed down the street and in the main square found Mocambo Bar. Unaware of its storied past, opening in 1952 and hosting a number of celebrities, we settled in on the outdoor patio adorned with oleander and orange blossoms which had views of Mt. Etna and the sea. Not usually one for audience participation, when summoned, we reluctantly joined other enlisted audience members to play various percussion instruments with the keyboardist in the indoor part of the bar.  Our shared experience and musical ineptitude cemented an immediate bond between we newly recruited musicians; we sat together sharing travel stories, laughing, drinking and dancing. It was a magical night.

Hearst Castle's Neptune Pool

Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool

HEARST CASTLE NEPTUNE POOL PATIO (SAN SIMEON, CALIFORNIA):  We sipped our sparkling wine by the Neptune Pool, against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the imposing Casa Grande (more commonly called Hearst Castle) on the other. Construction of the Neptune Pool with its Roman temple façade  began in 1924, and after several design changes was finally completed in 1936 with marble pavilions, serpentine tiles, fountains, and alabaster lanterns.  We dressed in period clothing, as did many other attendees at “Enchanted Evening,” the Castle’s annual gala.  We walked around the pool while sampling appetizers and listening to the chamber string orchestra in this mesmerizing location. As the fog rolled in, the lighting proffered an ethereal atmosphere. We reluctantly tore ourselves away and headed for the dinner and auction with hopes of winning the opportunity to swim in the Neptune Pool.

HEMINGWAY BAR (RITZ, PARIS, FRANCE):  Tucked in the back of the Ritz is the legendary Hemingway Bar. Renowned bars are often over-rated – the Hemingway is a noteworthy exception. The atmosphere is cozy and clubby with wood walls and comfortable leather chairs, tasty snacks and fantastic cocktails. Papa’s gun, bust, and mementos adorn the walls. Mixologist extraordinaire Colin Field made this the place to get the city’s best cocktails. The Ritz and the Hemingway Bar closed for major renovations not long after we stayed there in 2012, but plans are for the Bar to re-open after the improvements. I just hope they will retain the original atmosphere and convince Colin Field to return.

Gran Caffe Chioggia Courtesy: Creative Common

Gran Caffe Chioggia
Courtesy: Creative Common

GRAN CAFFE CHIOGGIA (VENICE, ITALY):  Located on Piazzetta di San Marco with views of St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s palace, the clock tower and the lagoon, Gran Caffe Chioggia is always my final stop for the evening. The band is phenomenal, the best on the Piazza or Piazetta, and I daresay some of the most talented, entertaining musicians. Led by the exceptional violinist, Joseph Martin Miotti, the band plays a dazzling array of musical styles including classical, gypsy, swing, rock, tango, movie themes and more with the other band members playing piano, stand-up bass, accordion.  The charismatic Joseph manages to communicate humor in some songs such as his quirky rendition of the theme from the Pink Panther movie (which can be seen on YouTube.). We found the tuxedo-clad waiters professional and polite; service can be slow and it is expensive, but there is not a cover charge to listen to the music as there are in other venues on the Piazza. Many people choose to stand outside of the seating area to enjoy the music, but I prefer a more experiential encounter by sitting in the thick of the action.  In inclement weather, the band plays under the historic portico. During my first visit many years ago, on a rainy evening we enjoyed swing dancing to the band’s big band sounds under the warm, amber-hued lighting under the portico.

Norman Vito at Petrossian Bar

Norman Vito at Petrossian Bar

PETROSSIAN BAR AND LOUNGE AT BACCARAT BAR (BELLAGIO, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA):   Located in plain sight, but under-appreciated, are two gems for live music.  The elegant Petrossian Bar, located just across from the Bellagio’s front desk and around the corner from the gorgeous flower conservatory and botanical gardens, prominently displays a one-of-kind Steinway grand.  The pianists are extremely talented; I spoke with several of them who all had interesting histories to share. For example, Norman Vito told me of growing up in the Philippines and his experiences with Imelda Marcos and Van Cliburn. The music starts at 10 a.m. and continues with a
series of pianists until closing at 12:45 a.m. The Petrosssian Bar has varied offerings including traditional afternoon tea service, Russian specialties such as caviar, smoked salmon, and vodka samples, and a nice selection of wine and specialty-infused cocktails. Only a few short steps away is the Lounge at the Baccarat Bar, which features classic jazz in a stylish, sleek environment. The rotating musicians typically include a pianist/vocalist and a stand-up bass. The Lounge affords of a view of the high-end Baccarat gaming. I was quite amused by the cast of characters playing Baccarat – those dressed to the nines, slouchy-dressed, nervous chain smokers, young hipsters, superstitious seat movers, and more.  The bar offers a good selection of wine and cocktails. Performances start at 4:15 p.m. and continue until 1:00 a.m.

Harry's Bellini: Hope to see you soon: Cheers!

Harry’s Bellini:
Hope to see you soon: Cheers!

Advertisements

VACATION IN THE HAPPIEST PLACE IN AMERICA

1 May
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

San Luis Obispo California has been named by Oprah Winfrey as “the happiest place in America.”  New York Times best-selling author and explorer, Dan Buettner, called San Luis Obispo the top spot for the happiest places in the United States in his book Thrive.  San Luis Obispo was also one of ten recommended best places to see in 2013 by the L.A. Times. People who aren’t fortunate enough to live in San Luis Obispo and its charming surrounding environs can make this a fulfilling vacation destination for well-known attractions, as well as some unexpected finds. The problem, if one wants to call it that, is there are so many things to do and see, is narrowing down the list to a manageable itinerary that has a balance of both energizing and relaxing activities. Trying to explore every area of the County would be exhausting; focusing on one or two areas of the County allows the visitor to really experience a specific region. These are some of the top travel destinations in the County.

San Luis Obispo Creek

San Luis Obispo Creek

The City of San Luis Obispo is centrally located and just inland enough from the ocean to have a temperate, sunny climate most of the year. San Luis or SLO, as it is called by many locals, is a college town, with the bars, stores and eateries that attract that population; they coexist with wine bars and gourmet restaurants which may appeal more to mature audiences. Start by exploring the inviting, historic downtown area which includes a creek, sculptures of bears (that non-locals are surprised to learn are native to this area), and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa started in 1772. The church of this active parish has several unique features including that it is the only “L-shaped” mission.

There are many great restaurants in downtown San Luis, with many types of cuisine in casual to upscale locales. Open all day starting at 11 a.m., Novo Restaurant uses in-house roasted spices in their globally-inspired cuisine, including Asian, Mediterranean, and South American. Novo has a bevy of adult beverages including local and international wines, beer, sake, a full bar, and non-alcoholic selections. The creekside patio offers the relaxing sounds of the babbling San Luis Obispo creek.  A more upscale atmosphere is found at Koberl at Blue located in the historic J.P. Andrews building. They offer creative European- and Asian-inspired dishes for snacks and dinner in their convivial bar or the more formal dining room. A full-bar and wines selected to complement foods are available.

Madonna-Inn-photos-Exterior

Madonna Inn

A short five-minute drive from downtown is the kitschy Madonna Inn celebrated for its unique, themed rooms (Caveman, Old Mill, some which include rock showers or waterfalls),  dominant hot pink paint, and the infamous men’s waterfall urinal where a waterwheel  and waterfall are activated by a laser light when it detects a “customer.” The Madonna Inn boasts a large dance floor which attracts many phenomenal local dancers who impress with swing, salsa, foxtrot, cha-cha, rumba, waltzes and more. Mondays bring out students from the Cal Poly dance clubs who provide energetic, entertaining dance displays, which sometimes includes exciting dance “lifts” or “aerials.”

2761645

Hearst Castle

The County’s northern most beach area starts from just south of the start of Big Sur’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway; San Simeon is the starting point for touring Hearst Castle, almost three decades in the making. The mansion evokes strong feelings from visitors who either find the hodgepodge collection of antiques and architectural styles impressive or tacky. Just seven miles north of San Simeon is the popular northern elephant seal rookery where twice a year these gargantuan mammals stop for birthing, breeding, molting and resting. Each of the county’s many beaches has unique offerings from quirky Cayucos, surf-friendly Morro Bay, teeming tidepools at Montaña de Oro, the classic beach town of Pismo Beach, and the sand dunes in Oceano where cars can still drive on the beach. There are also places where people can fulfill the dream of riding a horse along the beach. Local beaches have a tendency to be foggy in the summer, with Avila Beach and Cayucos tending to be the most likely to be sunny in the summer. Restaurant picks in Cayucos include Hoppe’s Garden Bistro, which features French- and Austrian-inspired cuisine, and Schooner’s restaurant and bar, a diametrically opposite atmosphere, where leather-skinned locals and beach patrons come for the fantastic beach view from the second floor with the hopes of seeing the mystical “green flash.”

.

images

Paso vineyard

Paso Robles and Templeton in northern San Luis Obispo County have become meccas for enophiles, foodies, and festivals, while maintaining their friendly small town ambience. Many of the oak-studded hills of rural northern San Luis Obispo County are lined with rows of zinfandel, pinot noir, Rhone varietals, and native Spanish and Italian grapes. Tasting rooms vary from the small, intimate owner/winemaker operations to larger Mission- and European-inspired venues. Wineries often sponsor events such as winemaker dinners, live music, cooking classes, art exhibits, hot air ballooning, movies and more. For a safe and relaxing wine crawl, transportation is available by local wine trolleys and vans, or reasonably-priced limos. Downtown “Paso” has evolved from a town that emphasized a rural, ranching lifestyle to one that also embraces some of the county’s best cuisine, comfortable to luxurious lodging, and stellar live entertainment. An alternative to driving to the wineries is to stay in downtown Paso and “hoof it” to downtown wine tasting rooms such as Asuncion Ridge, which focuses on Pinot Noir and red blends, Bodegas Paso Robles which features Spanish and Portuguese grapes and wines, and Paso Wine Centre, which serves 48 changing local wines.

From downtown Paso, one can walk to some of the top restaurants in the county.  Il Cortile features seasonal, rustic fine-dining Italian cuisine and warm, welcoming staff. Open for dinner, specialties include creative appetizers, a bountiful selection of mozzarella cheeses, homemade pasta, and when available, pork osso bucco, a house favorite. They have a balanced selection of good local and Italian wines.  Artisan serves locally-sourced, creative American fare. Their lunch and dinner menus are inspired by local farmers’ markets, organic farms and proteins that are sustainably-farmed or caught in the wild. Besides a large California wine selection featuring mostly fine and limited production local wines, they also have a diverse beer selection. Bistro Laurent offers Provencal dishes for lunch and more traditional French bistro cuisine at dinner with the choice of a prix-fixe or a la carte menu. The friendly, knowledgeable sommelier is available to assist in a wine selection in that matches the diner’s palate and pocketbook. An outdoor patio is available for dining al fresco

Hotel ChevalThe best downtown lodging is at the Hotel Cheval, a small luxury boutique hotel, just a half a block from the large city park, which is the hub for the many local festivals and weekly Farmer’s Market. They offer many amenities including cushy linens, welcome cookies, bedtime chocolates, breakfast, fireplace in the central patio, and dog-friendly premises. Although not downtown, the nearby Adelaide Inn and La Bellasera Hotel and Suites also offer comfortable, upscale rooms and amenities. For the more budget-minded, there are several reasonably-priced chain or locally-owned hotels. For those desiring a more pastoral setting, many Bed and Breakfasts are available, most at a very reasonable price.  For lengthy lists of local wineries, restaurants, lodging options, and upcoming festivals or events, go to www.travel.paso.com and www.pasorobleschamber.com.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10_07_04 AMTempleton is a small, historic town just a few minutes south of Paso.  McPhee’s Grill is a popular downtown eatery located in the building that was the first store in Templeton built in 1886. Hitching posts for horses still adorn the front of the building. Friendly, hands-on owner and chef, Ian McPhee, cooks, greets customers, and even clears tables if needed.  McPhee’s specializes in oak-grilled meats, “with a dedication to great food and great service.” They have a good selection of local wines; as well, they have a relationship with renowned winemaker Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat, who crafts wines specifically for McPhee’s. Also on Main Street is locals-favorite wine and beer bar is 15 Degrees C Wine Shop and Bar. Master Sommelier, Ali Carscaden, has one of the largest selections of wine on the Central Coast, with many local and unique international wines. They offer a great charcuterie meat and cheese plate artfully-designed with marcona almonds, castelvetrano olives, seasonal fruit and when available, seasonal, decorative flowers.  Saturday mornings at the Templeton Park is where people can find one of the county’s best farmers’ markets, with local produce, organic grain-fed meats, local nuts, flowers, fresh goat cheese, and food cooked to order.  Serving the community since 1887, the nearby Bethel Lutheran Church is the oldest church west of the Mississippi. While wine-tasting, a great spot for a midday lunch is Farmstand 46, which is in the middle of the “Westside Templeton wineries” on Highway 46. They offer tasty gourmet meals featuring organic, estate-grown produce and herbs.

D’Anbino’s Winery/Concert Venue

An unexpected bonus of staying in northern San Luis Obispo County is the wealth of talented musicians who perform at a variety of local venues. The premier North County music venue is D’Anbino Vineyard and Cellar tasting Room, known for their stellar entertainment, great acoustics, and welcoming ambience of the owners, John D’Andrea and Carmine Rubino, who have had award-winning professional careers in recording, film and television. The tasting room, which is less than four blocks from downtown, offers afternoon performances on the week-end and evening concerts featuring everything from standards to rock and roll. The Pony Club in the Hotel Cheval offers live music on the week-ends, which can be enjoyed on their inviting outdoor courtyard.  During the summer, there are live concerts at the Templeton Park on Wednesdays and the Paso Robles City Park on Fridays. Many of the wineries offer live music, especially in the summer. Unfortunately the winery concert schedules are not available in one central location, but can be found on the individual winery websites.

Additional information on the local music and dance scene can be found in this writer’s monthly column Mostly Music column: slocoastjournal.com/docs/mostlymusic.html