Culver City: Los Angeles County’s Newest Hot Spot for Art and Cuisine

For Los Angeles residents, when friends from out of town ask where to go when visiting, three places usually come to mind: Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Venice Beach. Well, it’s time to add another location to that list. What was once thought of as a sleepy place to drive by on your way to somewhere else has become one of Los Angeles’ most talked about walking neighborhoods and trendy places to go: Culver City.

After I conducted a few “research” visits, it was clear to me the rumor about Culver City becoming Los Angeles's newest stylish neighborhood was in fact true. Part of Culver City’s appeal is its convenient location east of Santa Monica and Venice, south of Beverly Hills, and north of the Los Angeles International Airport. It’s easy to get to the intersection of Washington and Culver boulevards, which is the center of it all. Whether you are a lover of the arts, a lover of good food, or a lover of culture, Culver City will not disappoint.

Over the last decade the commercial real estate market helped change the perception of the once-sleepy town with the creation of daring and unconventional office buildings designed by Eric Owen Moss. To go along with the image and structural changes, city officials chose to renovate the downtown public areas, such as sidewalks and medians, with the hopes of attracting new businesses; and that is exactly what happened. Little by little, more and more boutiques, galleries, and restaurants began taking up space. Since the area had so much historical Hollywood nostalgia attached to it, the hired designers and architects were inspired to maintain the existing ambience and décor and just add some modern day expansion.

The jewel of Culver City’s renovation is undoubtedly The Culver Hotel, which has earned its right as an iconic historical building. The hotel originally opened its doors to many budding stars, including a 21-year-old Greta Garbo, the cast of “Gone With The Wind,” Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, and even the Munchkins during the making of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Due to its unique shape, the Culver Hotel more closely resembles an intimate manor than a flatiron building—even at six stories (a skyscraper by 1924 standards). During the hotel’s renovation it was of utmost importance the hotel preserve the original architecture and layout. The hotel merged classic and contemporary elegance with just enough modern luxury to ensure guests would still feel as through they were taken back in time.

The hotel’s Grand Lobby is filled with magnificent armchairs and projections of classic black and white movies play on the wall. The lobby’s Dining Room hosts quite a selection of handcrafted cocktails along with a fabulous menu. I had the popular short ribs entrée, served sizzling in an iron skillet. The ribs were roasted for four hours and served with potatoes and Brussels sprouts that literally melted in my mouth. I also tried the sea bass, which was equally delicious served in a spicy broth with charred kale, and topped that off with a creamy Bailey’s chocolate mousse for dessert. The perfect additions to this hotel are the up-and-coming jazz artists who play every evening in the lobby, which truly transforms the venue into a roaring Supper Club.

Those that want a different “Culver-esque” experience can pass the lobby and head up the stairs to the Velvet Lounge, which is reminiscent of a 1920’s speakeasy with a twist of Parisian boudoir. The Velvet Lounge is open Thursdays through Saturdays after 8 p.m. and offers plenty of secluded corners to enjoy an aperitif.

After a wonderful evening, I headed up to my room, and oh how lush it was! A stylish foyer greeted me as I entered the vintage-meets-modern suite. The master bedroom had a luxurious king-size bed, a flat-screen television, an antique oak armoire, and a large Victorian-inspired bathtub. It reeked of romance. A separate living area featured reclaimed wood floors, a queen sleeper sofa, a writing desk, a second flat-screen television, and a full bath with shower. For extra privacy, the two rooms could be closed off from each other with beautiful wooden double doors.

For those intrigued by art and gallery exhibitions, there are plenty of options to explore. There are the more established galleries, such as Blum & Poe, and the outsider-art champions, such as Billy Shire Fine Arts. Roam the area to find all sorts of newcomers.

There are a number of truly idiosyncratic venues calling Culver City home, including the SPF:a Gallery. Visit the Gregg Fleishman Studio to see how Fleishman uses equal parts mathematics and whimsicalness in his creative style. Stop by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where founder David Wilson offers relics and hologram-enhanced exhibits about such unique topics as the history of the cat’s cradle string game. 

If you are a fan of furniture, the 10,000-square-foot Jefferson West Inc. displays European antiques, American folk art, and 20th-century designs. Modernists may want to check out Denizen Design Gallery, which showcases colorful contemporary furniture made by local designers. If it’s refinished vintage furniture and retro stainless-steel pieces that interest you, pop into Empiric.

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After a busy day walking from gallery to gallery, you most definitely should stop by Seventy7 for a cocktail. This small, candle-lit corner lounge is tucked away in an alley behind the Bank of America on Culver Boulevard. When you look through the peephole in the door, you will see gold crushed velvet wallpaper, brown leather banquettes, and amber chandelier lighting. It creates the perfect setting to transport you to the Belle Epoque Era in Paris! On Wednesdays, the lounge hosts a burlesque show, which has become a popular theme night. Between the fabulous uniqueness and taste of the handcrafted cocktails, general manager Matthew Goldberg has really created quite a special swanky scene.

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It’s ironic that what was formerly known as a culinary no man's land now boasts a huge variety of restaurants. I had the opportunity to try two: East Borough and Wildcraft

At East Borough, the menu starts with a base of Vietnamese street food using traditional ingredients. Then it incorporates additional ingredients and techniques to add a varied dinning experience. I was daring and tried the pork belly and egg over ginger jasmine rice and the wok-charred oxtail with rice noodles topped with a crispy poached egg. Both were delicious. The pho baguette, however, was my favorite. Beef brisket, basil, onions, and a hoisin sriracha sauce served with pho for dipping—yum! The traditional French dip now has fierce competition. On the lighter, healthier side I had the papaya salad, with green papaya, lemongrass grilled pork, cucumber, rau ram, thai basil, peanuts, and soy vinaigrette. Owner John Cao and co-owner and chef Cloe Trans shared their tagline with me: “By no means traditional, by all means authentic.” Kudos to you both; you achieved just that!

Wildcraft features chef Tin Vuong’s take on modern Italian cuisine, in particular la cucina Piemontese. The design is a traditional Italian tavern aesthetic and is intimate, sophisticated, and fun. You can dine in the main dining area to stay closely connected with the kitchen or out on the patio, where wooden tables and benches made of rope create an inviting ambiance. The menu ranges from wonderful salads (try the roasted pear, speck, watercress, frisee, pistachios, and pear dressing) to wood-fired pizza (such as the burrata, provolone, squash blossoms, fried rosemary, shaved pistachio, and orange oil). For those who love Brussels sprouts, Wildcraft’s are served with brown butter and almonds Parmigiano, and they were the best I have ever had.

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With so many varieties of restaurants to choose from in Culver City you are bound to find anything you may be craving.

Ten years ago, Culver City would not have come to mind when thinking of an area that blends art, culinary, and cultural scenes in Los Angeles, but the newly reinvented Culver City has sure proven itself to be such a place and continues to do so. Congratulations Culver City for putting yourself on the map as a “place to go” and “place to live” for both visitors and locals. Keep those restaurants, gastropubs, galleries, shopping, and cultural events coming—we love it!

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Bourbon Trails, Delectable Dining, and Stunning Scenery in Kentucky

Within 10 minutes of experiencing both Louisville and Lexington, I was pleasantly surprised to learn there is way more to what these cities offer than the once a year Kentucky Derby.

Downtown Louisville is booming with galleries, restaurants, performance spaces, funky loft buildings, and tree-lined streets with old Victorian homes. In a nutshell: Over the last decade, Louisville has been reinvented. Entire neighborhoods, such a Butchertown and East Market, have exploded into a culinary dream. The East Market District is perhaps the best of the city’s revitalization projects. Dubbed NuLu (New Louisville), the neighborhood features antiques stores and a plethora of new galleries.

Just a 50-minute drive from Louisville is Lexington, also known as the Horse Capital of the World. The picturesque drive between the two cities offers views of horse pasture after horse pasture in all their grandeur. Lexington is known around the world for its role in producing champion racehorses. The rich horse farms of Central Kentucky are where the top racehorses are bred, born, trained, officially registered, bought, sold, retired to stud, and eventually buried.

The vibe Lexington has is vastly different from bustling Louisville. From its scenic byways and highways, one can turn off and find smaller towns offering historic, scenic, and peaceful places, and it appears there is always some type of seasonal event happening.

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All of the hotels and inns in which I had the opportunity to stay were uniquely different and all are very much worth mentioning.

The Brown Hotel in Louisville is a stunning 16-story property with a distinctive English Renaissance design and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Not only is it known for its breathtaking turn-of-the-century architecture, but also locals and visitors visit for its legendary dish, “The Hot Brown”—an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce. Now it may not sound exciting, but take my word, there is a reason why it has such a world-renowned reputation. It’s decadent.

In addition to being introduced to my first Hot Brown, I also welcomed my first Mint Julep, a Kentucky staple. The drink is the perfect blend of bourbon, sugar, and mint.

Another breathtaking hotel in Louisville is the Seelbach Hilton, home to the Oakroom, Kentucky’s first and only AAA five-diamond restaurant. The restaurant's decor is reminiscent of an old gentlemen’s billiards hall.  Be sure to have a drink at the Old Seelbach Bar (voted one of the top 50 bars in the world) right off the grand lobby.

Opposite of the Louisville hotels’ grand style was the Gratz Park Inn in Lexington. This is a boutique hotel that honors the décor of the past with some modern comforts. It is located in Lexington’s Historic District, within walking distance of all downtown has to offer, and has an abundance of historic charm and Southern hospitality.

I was thrilled to be able to take part in quite a few of the main attractions these two cities offer.

Even though I am not a bourbon enthusiast, visiting some distilleries was a must, since Kentucky bourbon has such a famous history. I suggest those who have a fondness for bourbon take part in the Bourbon Trail, which stretches 70 miles and covers nine distilleries (suggested time needed to visit them all is three days).

I visited the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, located in downtown Louisville's historic Whiskey Row. I also toured Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which holds the title of “world’s most award-winning distillery.” Both guided tours featured an operating artisanal distillery, where you learn the process for making bourbon, as well as very generous premium bourbon tastings.

Whether or not its Derby day, week, or season, visiting a Kentucky horse track is a must. I was lucky enough to visit on the opening weekend of Churchill Downs and the closing weekend of Keeneland. Churchill Downs is in downtown Louisville; be sure to grab breakfast at Wagner’s Pharmacy right across from the track, as it’s the go to hangout for jockeys and sportswriters. It has barely changed since 1922, and the Wagner’s counter displays fading photos of legends—two- and four-legged—from Derby history. Browse over them while you dine on a cheap but tasty home-style, no frills breakfast.

The Keeneland track in Lexington is a National Historic Landmark. This track features beautifully landscaped grounds that are open to the public every day. Fans and horsemen alike can enjoy its spectacular racing, attend one of its annual horse sales, or simply visit the grounds and enjoy Keeneland’s timeless beauty.

Keeneland is also the world’s premier Thoroughbred auction house, selling more champions and stakes winners than any other sales company and unmatched in terms of offering the best horses, state-of-the-art sales facilities, and a range of client amenities.

And what’s a visit to Lexington without a visit to a Thoroughbred farm? Come spring, Lexington tourism will offer horse farm touring excursions. If my experience at Runnymede Horse Farm in Paris, Kentucky, was any indication of what’s in store, this new program will be hugely successful.

The Clay family who owns Runnymede is dedicated to raising great Thoroughbreds that have been a hallmark for generations. Runnymede’s incomparable history goes back to 1867, when Colonel Ezekiel Clay founded the farm and began to breed Hall of Fame horses including Ben Brush, winner of the Kentucky Derby, and Hanover, who won the Belmont Stakes and 17 consecutive races.

Visiting both cities was not just about horses and hooch. I was there just before Halloween, and for the second year in a row Louisville hosted the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular. This art installation is held in Iroquois Park for more than a month and features 5,000 carved pumpkins lining a quarter-mile walking trail, illuminated at night. The event surely earned its right to use “spectacular” in its title, as it was just that.

When I think of great dining cities, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago come to mind. I would never have thought Louisville or Lexington … until now. I was really impressed with many of the dining experiences I had on my visit, and for anyone with an epicurean curiosity I highly suggest the following:

Bistro 1860   
Louisville, Kentucky

Picture a farmhouse colliding with eclectic décor. Now add in a charming outside patio entrance and a uniquely intimate interior dining area, topped with the tantalizing culinary creations of renowned chef Michael Crouch. Chef Crouch’s menu features exquisite French-American fusion cuisine—and now you know why this bistro is such a hot spot. What I loved and found so unique was Bistro 1860 has a special à trois niveaux style of dining. This trademarked style offers three sizes of portion: bite size, appetizer, and entrée portion. Whether you know exactly what you want or prefer to sample a variety of tastes, you can! My favorites included the lobster Hush Puppy, the pan-seared lump crab cakes, the Hudson Valley duck confit strudel, the espresso-grilled Creekstone ribeye, and the grilled Colorado rack of lamb.

Bistro 1860 also offers a Cruvinet system, which keeps up to 54 opened bottles of wine as fresh as the moment they were uncorked for up to six weeks. The restaurant’s extensive wine list offers something for even the most discriminating connoisseur.

Proof on Main 
Louisville, Kentucky

Proof on Main is located downtown in the acclaimed 21c Museum Hotel. With a commitment to local farming, the restaurant delivers plates infused with local flavor. The bar is a local hot spot and features more than 75 Kentucky bourbons. Complementing the culinary artistry are avante garde art exhibitions, curated by 21c Museum and rotating every few months. Chef Levon Wallace has created an extremely unique menu, with items such as whipped ricotta, charred octopus, roasted bones, diver scallops, and Woodland Farm hog chop.

Distilled Restaurant
Lexington, Kentucky

From award-winning Heirloom Restaurant in Midway, Kentucky, stems Distilled at Gratz Park Inn. Chef Mark Wombles has outdone himself and with his team has designed an artful and elevated approach of farm-to-table Southern cuisine. The ambience was casual yet upscale; the tasting meal I had showed off chef Wombles’ talent of artistic expression in both ingredients and presentation. Some items I sampled included the vegetable and pear salads, the Delmonico steak, the pickle-brined fried chicken, and the Weisenberger grits.

Shakespeare & Co 
Lexington Kentucky

I found this dining venue to be a hidden gem. It is located among the impressive architecture and monumental buildings of Lexington’s downtown area and houses a full-service bar and a private outdoor seating area, but what really made it stand out to me was how it was exquisitely decorated in a distinct Shakespearean and Boudoir style. The menu itself has a broad range of items and offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No matter which you choose, I promise it will not disappoint.

Lexington and Louisville are two destinations so very different from each other yet so close in proximity. A trip to Kentucky is very much worth it to discover and enjoy what this dynamic duo has to offer.

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Chihuly on Display at Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery when you start feeling a lull in your life. I recently felt that wanderlust feeling and chose to head to Scottsdale for a quick getaway. Who doesn’t want a mix of 80-degree weather, cool evening breezes, baseball Spring Training, and some culture?

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Culture, in this case, meant a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to see the incredible “Chihuly in the Garden” art installation. Dale Chihuly is best recognized for his studio glass movement and elevating the perception of glass from the realm of craft to fine art. His work is in more than 200 museum collections worldwide, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Smithsonian. Many know his work from the ceiling in the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas or from the sculptures at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Although I walked the garden trails at the Desert Botanical Garden at midday, I hear twilight is the most beautiful time to see his work because the installations become uniquely lit. Chihuly’s work will be featured at the gardens through May 18, 2014.

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I always have a hard time selecting where to stay in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area, as there are so many hotels. I mainly look for a property that has consistently great service, a big bar, beautiful grounds and rooms, and of course, is dog friendly. My choice on this trip was the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch.

This property is the perfect spot for a mix of both R&R and some nightlife. I am always thrilled when there is a separate adult pool area, especially given it was spring break time and there were many families around. The poolside service was fabulous as they knew exactly when to mosey on over to ask if we needed another margarita—and the answer was, yes we did! In the evening, we didn’t have to go far to hear some great music; the lobby bar was packed and was the place to be. There are cascading fountains and glowing fireplaces both indoors and outdoors in a stunning lounge setting. We even canceled our dinner reservations offsite and chose to order from the lobby restaurant and remain under the stars while listening to a great acoustic musician.

Whether in a regular hotel room or a beautiful casita, you will surely love the layout of Gainey Ranch. The only regret I have was I didn’t get to indulge in the spa, which when I walked through it had the most heavenly fragrance. I managed to purchase a funky necklace, however, as a reminder to go back for a treatment. Counting the days….

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LA Live Hosts All-Star Chef Classic

This weekend, I am heading to the All-Star Chef Classic, the first-ever culinary event of its kind, which will put the world’s best culinary talents center stage. This modern food event will bring together more than 25 highly acclaimed chefs for unique and interactive dining experiences. I am so excited to be able to see such incredible talent live under one roof.

The three-day event will take place at LA Live’s Event Deck and will feature a constellation of chefs including Iñaki Aizpitarte, Roy Choi, Michael Cimarusti, Josiah Citrin, Dominique Crenn, Vinny Dotolo, Wylie Dufresne, Graham Elliot, Jennifer Jasinski, Gavin Kaysen, Ludo Lefebvre, David LeFevre, Donald Link, Waylynn Lucas, Marc Meneau, David Myers, Nancy Oakes, Alain Passard, Naomi Pomeroy, Paul Qui, Alex Seidel, Jon Shook, Nancy Silverton, and Ricardo Zarate.

The two main venues of the event are the Restaurant Stadium and the Chef's Tasting Arena. Restaurant Stadium will bring more than 250 fans kitchen-side in a small VIP stadium-setting. It will be the setting for the “French Masters Dinner”and the “All-Star Lunch,” while the Chef’s Tasting Arena will host the “Grill and Chill” and “Savor the Season” events.

An OMG event I plan to attend will be hosted by Los Angeles’ own Ludo Lefebvre on March 21. The French Masters Dinner will celebrate French culinary excellence through the generations. Two of the world’s greatest chefs, Alain Passard and Marc Meneau, and Paris “it” chef Iñaki Aizpitarte will meet in Restaurant Stadium for a collaboration of international culinary talent. Five-course dinner? Yes, please! The dinner will be topped off with a French wine pairing and crowd interaction. I can’t wait!

At the All-Star Lunch on March 22, chefs Nancy Silverton, Nancy Oakes, Waylynn Lucas, Dominique Crenn, and Naomi Pomeroy will cook, plate, present, and discuss their dishes and techniques to the crowd. Later that day at the Grill and Chill, I’m looking forward to learning about the many ways different cultures cook over an open flame. The 650-person international cookout will feature diverse chefs including Roy Choi, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, Donald Link, Paul Qui, Jon Shook, and Ricardo Zarate. There will also be cookbook signings, recipe ideas, and VIP lounge areas.

Wrapping up the weekend is Savor the Season on March 23. LA has an abundance of seasonal, fresh, local ingredients, and chefs including Wylie Dufresne, Graham Elliot, Jennifer Jasinski, David Myers, Vinny Dotolo, David LeFevre, Josiah Citrin, and Alex Seidel will create seasonal dishes using produce from local farmers and purveyors. The 600 event attendees, including myself, will leave with recipe cards to prepare the dishes at home. Guess I will be doing some home cooking over the next few months!

The Chef's Tasting Arena is designed to complement the Restaurant Stadium and will feature an expansive layout for tastings. At this location, guests will be able to meet their favorite chefs and taste multi-cultural cuisines. For me, walking around and having the opportunity to meet so many chefs I have only seen on television and read about is the cherry on the sundae.

Tickets for the All-Star Chef Classic start at $65. Purchase tickets online at the All-Star Chef Classic website or call (877) 234-8425 for ticket packages and additional information.

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Scottsdale's Gone Seersucker, From Polo to Dining

More than 15,000 men and woman were dressed in plaids, pinstripes, and seersuckers. There was an unsurpassed lineup of Ferraris and Porsches. Bottles of Penfolds were poured, and Veuve Clicquot was sipped. Add to that mental picture a field of galloping horses under a blue sky and 75-degree weather and POOF! Welcome to the Scottsdale Polo Championships.

Other than the “who is wearing what” competition, the main event that took place November 1 and 2 was between the All-Star Women versus the Arizona Polo Club Men and the Clogau Wales Polo Team versus the United States Military Polo Team. After some exciting chukkers (period of play) with bumps, backshots, and hooks, the Wales team was presented with the Molina Cup.

Personally, I find polo matches to be both exciting and a bit intimidating. What other sport has such grace and speed AND requires attendees to be fashionable?

According to Melissa Hornung, a member of the women’s polo team, to become an accomplished polo player it takes “general athleticism, eye-to-hand coordination, experience in riding and balance, and most importantly fearlessness.” It’s that fearlessness that drives world-class players such as Jeff Hall and Sunny Hale to exceed in the ranks and participate in the Scottsdale event.

Whether attending polo in Palm Beach, the Hamptons, or Scottsdale, Hornung points out both beach polo and turf polo bring the same type of hype and chic glamour. Plus, polo allows a valid reason to drink wine, Champagne, and cocktails all day long (the Penfolds 2010 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz served in Scottsdale was my favorite).

Other than the fabric worn at polo matches, another type of Searsucker is Brian Malarkeyʼs funky and spacious Scottsdale restaurant. Chef Malarkeyʼs whimsical personality is evocated through his inventive dishes. The most flavorful and unique dishes that stood out for me included an appetizer of squid with Granny Smith apples, beef tartare with Taro Chips and quail yolk, and a prosciutto, beet, pine nut, burrata, and brown sugar salad. When in San Diego, Austin, or Scottsdale be sure to hit up Searsucker—or any Malarkey eatery—and prepare to be impressed.

A few other must-mention Scottsdale dining experiences I had include:

The House Brasserie

The House Brasserie offers sheer culinary artistry. The look is vintage quaint. Chef Matt Carter has created a fabulous eclectic brunch menu. Each dish I sampled I would deem award winning, from the warm mascarpone crêpe stuffed with fig, huckleberry, and strawberry and served with hazelnut-honey mint sauce to the scrambled eggs with asparagus and ricotta served on griddle bread.

The roast vegetable tartine won me over. I had to sample the Dungeness crab fried rice with mollet egg and aji amarillo and the organic goat cheese poppy seed cheesecake with a drizzle of minted lavender strawberry and an espresso-cocoa crumble. I cannot count the amount of times I said “Mmmm….” (To go along with the brunch, try the house specialty Pimmʼs Mule or go with a good old-fashioned mimosa.)

Salty Sow

The Salty Sow tagline reads, “Fancy Sips and Slow Cookin’,” but it should say “Delicious Eats.” Chef Harold Marmulstein serves modern farmhouse cuisine with new cooking techniques and Old World methods, such as braising, poaching, and stewing. The ambience is warm and welcoming with both an inside and outside dining area that resembles a farmhouse with funky artwork on the walls. My favorite dishes included crispy Brussels sprout leaves, cauliflower, and wild rice casserole (with almonds, Parmesan, and garlic cream); the Asiago-crusted lemon sole so light it melts in your mouth; and the pork ragout slow cooked over polenta. I strongly suggest stopping by this eatery when in Scottsdale. (P.S. The sangria was a big hit at my table.)

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Posh

Warning: This restaurant is for epicurean adventurers only. A dream come true for those who seek to be daring when dining, Posh serves “Improvisational Cuisine.” Chef Joshua Hebert and his culinary team prepare a tasting menu for each individual person. Each guest is given a list—which might include items such as kangaroo, snails, venison, goat, striped bass, and lobster—and asked to check off any items they might be allergic to or would not be open to trying. After you submit your list, it’s go time. From a five-course to a 12-course dinner (with wine parings), the experience has diners waiting to see what is placed in front of them. Oh the surprises that await!

Distrito

Located in the Saguaro hotel, this Jose Garces Mexican restaurant serves contemporary interpretations of regional favorites. It had one of the best ceviches I’ve ever had by far, topped with a homemade lime sorbet. Both tacos we sampled—the plantain-crusted mahi mahi with chipotle remoulade and avocado and the marinated hanger steak with salsa verde—were perfectly seasoned. Too bad the guacamole didn’t come in a bottomless bowl.

The Herb Box

The approach at this downtown Scottsdale restaurant can be summed up in three words: innovative, healthy creations. At this evening’s tasting, all the dishes I sampled were gluten free. The options were endless; chilled cilantro-lime crab dip with plantain chips, Thai barbecue baby back ribs, and green apple slaw, butternut squash, and corn enchiladas were some dishes that really stood out.

Chef Becky J. Windels has the ability to take what is freshest at the farm stand and, with an open mind, set forth an idea that drives her in the kitchen. Whether sitting outside above the canal or inside in the warm interior, you will be pleased with this choice.

The Saguaro Hotel (which played host to the Polo Weekend and is where I stayed) has a fabulous location in the heart of Old Town. The rooms are layered with vintage cameras and contemporary and natural furnishings in wood and leather, including handcrafted pieces imported from Mexico. There are two very different pool areas: one offers tranquility and one has a bar ready for action. The hotel staff was over-the-top helpful, and the best part: It’s pet friendly.

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October Is the Month to Visit Santa Barbara

Less than a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles is beautiful Santa Barbara, the American Riviera. Marinas, farmland, beaches, trendy restaurants, vineyards, shopping … this town has it all.

Throughout the month of October, epicure.sb will highlight local restaurants, shops, services, and wineries by offering special deals and events. I was lucky enough to be invited on a press trip previewing a few epicure.sb experiences.

Lunch next to the harbor at On the Alley was our first stop. The restaurant offers quick take-out food of the same quality as the famous Brophy Bros. (it is under the same ownership) with little to no wait. My choice: the baked clams and fried avocado taco.

After a short trip on the local 50-cent shuttle (as part of Santa Barbara’s car free initiative), we ended up at Kunin Wines, a wine-tasting establishment.

Owner and winemaker Seth Kunin led us through a tasting of wines from his own label. On October 18, during epicure.sb, Seth is offering “Winemaker for a Day,” where participants can join him for a component tasting and blending seminar. After tasting varietals, each participant will have the opportunity to create his or her own unique version of a Rhône blend featuring Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsaut, and Counoise. Post-wine tasting, we were transported to the State Street farmers market via pedicab. During epicure.sb, you can explore the Urban Wine Trail via pedicab on a two-hour tour for a special rate of $60 for two people.

While farm-to-table dining is becoming more and more popular, farm-to-happy-hour was a first for me. Led through the farmers market by Patrick Reynolds, libations aficionado and owner of the swanky Wildcat Lounge, we were educated about what fruits and vegetables Patrick likes to use in his concoctions.

At Wildcat, Reynolds created incredibly unique cocktail blends for us to sample using fresh-squeezed organic fruits, vegetables, and garnishes. On October 3, the bar will feature Cannonball Adderley, Turner Classic Movies, and a cocktail list geared toward the best sensory memories of Santa Barbara. With drinks such as “The Goodland” and “Tangerine Falls,” it will be farm-to-bar at its best.

After wine tasting AND cocktail tasting, we were eager to put something in our stomachs—and probably were all swaying a bit.

Sama Sama Test Kitchen is an Indonesian-influenced restaurant with a backyard-courtyard dining area; it was incredible. The tasting dinner had our entire group of epicurean explorers saying, “Wow!” From the unique food parings and overall presentation to the taste, each dish had a distinct look and flavoring. I tried dishes I never would have ordered on my own, such as pork butt porridge, which I shockingly loved. I strongly recommend dining here, and I especially suggest looking into the tastings they have planned during epicure.sb.

Saying wow didn’t stop at dinner. Strolling down State Street, we approached what appeared to be a normal storefront. However, once down a flight of stairs we entered a breathtaking, magical setting. Salt offers rooms for salt-infused body treatments and two caves used to host private events. Our group was invited to kick back and watch a film while sipping champagne and indulging in truffles in this candlelit hideaway. Be sure to check out the spa specials and date night events going on at the caves during epicure.sb.

After a great night sleep at the beachfront Hotel Oceana, we took off on a kayak tour with Channel Islands Outfitters. Our tour guide, Garrett Kababik, led us through an informative and exhilarating excursion. During epicure.sb, Channel Island Outfitters is offering a Lobster and Seafood Explore Tour. Available all month long, this unique package offers an hour-long kayak tour accompanied by a seafood and lobster lunch or dinner at Endless Summer Bar Café. There is a minimum of 4 persons required per reservation, and the price includes the kayak tour and gift certificates toward any lobster or seafood meal available at the restaurant.

Our epicure.sb preview continued with a farm trip and cooking demo/dinner at The Lark. While visiting a farm in nearby Goleta, we learned about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farming from Jack Motter of Ellwood Canyon Farms, a supplier for Harvest Distributors. The goal of CSA farming is to build a farm people can connect with and give the community the opportunity to know their farmers and know where and how their food is grown.

Back at the ever-so-trendy Lark restaurant, chef Jason Paluska demonstrated some techniques when preparing a Lark featured salad. (Who knew the beets should be placed under the lettuce in a beet salad?) The Lark’s epicure.sb offering is “Become Chef for a Day” on October 8 and 22. The Lark will offer two exclusive farm-to-table-style cooking classes led by chef Paluska. This is a full immersion class working directly with the Lark’s culinary team to experience what it’s like to be a chef for a day. From handpicking ingredients at the local farm to preparing and enjoying a fabulous meal paired with wine, participants will learn insider techniques and take home their own apron and recipe booklet.

We couldn’t pass up dining at the Lark after witnessing first-hand what goes on in the kitchen. There is such an interesting menu with items such as caramelized cauliflower gratin with gruyere, preserved lemon, chili flakes, and bacon breadcrumbs; grilled peach-glazed pork belly sliders with whole grain aioli, pickled red onion, arugula, and brioche; and half-roasted chicken with brown butter polenta, spinach, charred figs, and shallots. Every dish we sampled was more incredible than the last—including the herbed popcorn they serve in lieu of bread for the table.

Our very full day had to end with a nightcap at the beautiful Les Marchands Wine Bar.

Based on my preview of epicure.sb, a trip to Santa Barbara this October should be on your must-do list. Bravo to Visit Santa Barbara for creating epicure.sb and giving locals and visitors a chance to sample so many different elements of Santa Barbara with unique experiences and special pricing.

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My Type of Aspen Dining: The Bar Menu

Whether you are on a budget, traveling alone, or just not in the mood for a big meal, I have two words for you: bar menu.

Almost all restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, offer a wide selection of choices on their bar menus—and for a lot less than their dining room menus. Personally, I love I was able to dine at my favorite restaurants, not spend a fortune, and keep it casual. Below are the best of my bar menu finds, grouped into categories, with some highlighted dish recommendations and pricing.

For Sexiness and People Watching:

Cache Cache

This bar area reeks of sultriness and can be quite the scene. Chef Chris Lanterʼs tempura spring onions with lovage aioli ($12); macaroni and cheese with house-made pasta, truffle oil, and ricotta crust ($10); and Berkshire pork tenderloin ($20) were all outstanding.

Casa Tua

The cozy back patio serves a fantastic bar menu and seems to be quite the place to see and be seen. Dine on chef Andrea Menichettiʼs beets and arugula salad with walnuts and goat cheese ($12) and spaghetti with rock shrimp, lemon zest, mint, and zucchini ($15). Save room for the mini tiramisu in a glass ($6); it is a must.

Kenichi

You might have to wait until next summer to sample this bar menu, but it will be well worth it. From tuna tacos with crème fraîche ($12) to albacore tataki with cucumber and tomato salad ($16), this is the perfect menu for a light meal.

Steak House No. 316

The plush, red velvet décor against brick walls really makes this Aspen steakhouse sexy. The tuna tartar was served with a green peppercorn crème fraîche and basil pesto ($19); it was the best I have had in Aspen. The steak and eggs ($17)—not something I would typically order—was outstanding.

For a Laid-Back Establishment:

Jimmyʼs

This restaurant and bar will forever be a favorite to both locals and visitors. The vibe is super casual and the food is consistently great. The crab cake ($17) and baby lamb chops ($16) win my vote on the bar menu.

Ute City Grill

Whether sitting on a sidewalk love seat or inside at the bar, you will be impressed with the Manchego-stuffed shrimp ($12) and the signature dish: elk meatloaf ($16).

For Incredible Views that Wow:

Pine Creek Cookhouse

The view from Pine Creek Cookhouse—11 miles from downtown Aspen—will take your breath away. From 2:30 to 5 p.m., the cookhouse serves its patio menu. The “Butcher, Cheese, Farmer” selection ($24) and the smoked trout with cucumber, beets, horseradish, and capers ($16) were my favorite. Chef Chris Keating, who has a huge passion for both cooking and the outdoors, prepares the dishes.

Ajax Tavern

At the base of Ajax Mountain is the perfect après-summer or winter location. Grab an early dinner of bulgur and kale salad with cashews, cucumber yogurt, and feta ($12); smoked lamb ribs with honey lavender glaze ($10); and seared prawns with garlic scape relish and lemon oil ($13). Chef Matthew OʼNeill shines with these dishes.

St Regis Hotel

The setting itself is worth every penny—simply stunning. Sit in the lobby lounge or on the outside patio and snack on fried pickles ($11) and a mushroom pizza ($17). Don’t forget the peach Bellini ($15); it is so good.

For Casual Elegance:

Wild Fig

I loved the ambience and bar menu. Share the cavatelli, potato, and ricotta gnocchi with spicy sausage and basil in a pink tomato sauce ($15) and the burrata with prosciutto, fresh figs, mint, arugula, and grilled ciabatta topped with fig balsamic dressing ($16) and both your taste buds and your wallet will be in heaven.

Pinons

The $35 bar menu prix fix at Pinons is quite a deal. The potato gnocchi with braised duck and root vegetables in a port wine reduction was light and melted in my mouth. The sesame-crusted sea bass was served with flavorful coconut rice, and to end, an old-fashioned fruit cobbler.

Brexi

This French-style bistro offers one of the most diverse bar menus in Aspen. The Caesar salad ($10) and mussel and clams in herb-chardonnay broth ($13) were the perfect light dinner combo. I couldn’t pass up tasting the raclette baked potato ($9), which did not disappoint.

Syzygyy

Tucked away underground, a cozy bar area exists. Start with a burrata and heirloom tomato salad ($16), followed by lemon fettuccine with lamb Bolognese sauce ($26). This bar spot is perfect for a little peace and quiet.

And When in Snowmass:

Artisan

Nestled in the Stonebridge Inn lies the Artisan. The middle bar is the perfect place to grab a bite and still enjoy the views of outside. The Palisade pear salad ($11) was refreshing, and it was followed by crispy gnocchi with wild arugula, black truffles, and shaved Parmesan ($12), a melt-in-your-mouth flavoring. The five-spice ribs with tamarind orange barbecue scallion ($13) was prepared perfectly and left me wanting more.

Vue at The Westin Hotel

Chef Jaime served up impressively fun, simple, and very tasty menu items in the lobby lounge, from perfect tempura asparagus and green beans ($8) to the honey-glazed chicken bites ($9). Four can easily share the “Mammoth Burger” ($29), served with tobacco onions, super bacon, green chili, and a four-cheese fiesta, along with roasted Parmesan fries. Don’t forget to try some of the unique cocktails on the bar menu; all were fabulous.

Note: Menus in Aspen/Snowmass can be seasonal. Call ahead to find out if bar menus are only served during specific hours. Happy dining!

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Dining in Nevis: The Not-to-be-Missed Restaurants

Foodie (noun): A person who spends a keen amount of attention and energy on knowing the ingredients of food and the proper preparation of food and finds great enjoyment in top-notch ingredients and exemplary preparation.

I’ve gasped at the exquisite presentation of a dish. I’ve closed my eyes and savored the flavor of a fine wine. I’ve taken a first bite and had the taste utterly consume me, and I’ve walked into a restaurant, looked around, and sighed, declaring the ambience “magical.”

So am I a “foodie”? HELL YES. However I am NOT a dining snob. I seek out hole-in-the-wall joints and mom-and-pop restaurants. I get a charge in finding an “off-the-beaten-path” eatery. I crave and appreciate new food experiences as one does a hobby.

With that said, on a recent trip to Nevis, a rustic Caribbean island in the West Indies, I was extremely impressed by a few of the dining experiences I had. If I were in a position to bestow food awards, the following would have made my list:

The RI Award for “I’m in Awe” goes to…

Hermitage

The Wednesday night West Indies feast is both stunning and distinctly home cooking at its best. The chefs at Hermitage come from nearby villages, and the herbs and spices come from the garden. Local farmers bring their produce directly to the hotel, and the fish is delivered daily fresh from the sea. The ladies in the kitchen take great pride in their talent and have created a few dishes known on Nevis as Hermitage specialties.

The owner of Hermitage, Richie Lupinacci, invites all guests into the living room area and, one by one, he describes what each dish is and how it was prepared. The alfresco dining patio is simple yet elegant with the surrounding trees and exterior lit up with twinkle lights.

Two additional offerings worthy of mention are the coconut French toast (OMG!), which was thick yet super fluffy and smothered in lightly toasted coconut, and the rum punch. I tasted rum punch ALL OVER the island, and by far this one was the best. It is a 350-year-old recipe consisting of only fresh, mountain citrus and local rum made in a special batch each morning.

The RI Award for “Exotic Ambience, Impressive Wine List, and Food That Had Me Saying Mmm After Each Bite” goes to...

Coconut Grove

Set on the most beautiful beach in Nevis this Balinese-themed restaurant makes for a truly exotic setting.

The evening began by the chef sending out an amuse bouche, which was equally impressive in both presentation and taste.

Chef Stephen Smith, whose specialty is a fusion of exotic French cuisine, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America as well as a registered dietitian. He is a master in the kitchen and knows how to artfully prepare and serve all of the incredible dishes we had. The homemade fettuccini with fresh pine nut pesto literally melted in my mouth, and the evening’s special was a flame-grilled, local, line-caught fish brushed with Herbes de Provence and served with a jardinière of local veggies; it was also quite spectacular.

Coconut Grove has the only award winning wine cellar on the island, with a fine selection of world-class wines. Gary Colt, who is the owner of this restaurant, is also a master sommelier and will enchant you as you stroll in the cellar choosing your wine. Kudos to the restaurant for receiving the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator Magazine in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The RI Award for “Super Casual Beachfront Drinking and Eating” goes to...

Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill

Famous for the “Killer Bee” drink (it supposedly stings; I survived one), Sunshine’s is a great, casual place to just hang out, get some sun, drink, and have a bite. Diners sit in couches under a canopy or at a table in the sand. I tried both the conch fritters and sautéed conch and found they were some of the best I have ever had. The fritters were all conch—little filler accompanied by a great dipping sauce—and the sautéed conch was delicately done with just the perfect amount of seasoning. If you’re lucky, Sunshine himself will be there to tell you some crazy stories. (He was rolling out of bed at around 2:30 p.m. the day we were there; too many Killer Bees the night before apparently….)

The RI Award for “Off the Beaten Path with Artsy Ambience AND Fab Food” goes to...

Bananas Restaurant

This find is hidden away high above Charlestown and is surrounded by more than an acre of lush, tropical gardens. It’s an old-style Caribbean house with wallaba shingles, island stone floors, and a wraparound, rustic, galvanized porch. Eclectic touches such as antique toys, old skis, riding boots, and a collection of antique hats add an air of eccentricity and informality to the place.

The porch serves as the main dining area and overlooks the gardens, with the Caribbean Sea in the background. Steps lead down into the garden with several areas for dining alfresco. The food was outstanding, and if you stay late enough the staff (and patrons) start singing and dancing.

Additional RI Awards worth mentioning:

“Stunning Private Dining Room” – Mill Privée at Hotel Montpelier

The restaurant hosts a seven-course tasting dinner in its spectacular private dining room.

“Unique Experience” – The Dine n' Dive program at Four Seasons Resort Nevis

Fishing is one thing, but diving for your dinner with the chef is another. The Dine n' Dive program at Four Seasons Resort Nevis gives guests the opportunity to dine on lobster caught during an unforgettable excursion out at sea.

In true Caribbean style all the restaurants were island-casual with an elegant flair and VERY reasonably priced. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the dining experiences I had in Nevis and, once I lose all the weight I surely gained, you can bet I’ll be going back for seconds!

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Nevis Under-the-Radar Places to Stay on this Caribbean Island

When you really need to get away from it all, the island of Nevis in the West Indies should be at the top of your list. I was there to experience different styles of accommodations the rustic Caribbean island offers. A few had some unique elements or distinctive touches that made them special.

The experience began by flying into St. Kitts, which is a three-hour flight from Miami. After a 20-minute drive on unpaved, bumpy roads and a 15-minute water taxi, I arrived in Nevis.

My heart began to sink as my driver traveled farther and farther away from the crystal-clear water. It was apparent I was not going to be staying anywhere oceanfront, which is ALWAYS my first choice. As he started the ascent up a winding hill, I had to laugh out loud as about a dozen monkeys blocked our way by playing in the street. They finally jumped up into the mango trees above to let us pass, and that’s when I saw the first location where I would be staying.

My first thought, as kooky as it may sound, when I saw the reception cottage at The Hermitage was, what a great place for fairies or a hobbit to live. The place had the appearance of a miniature gingerbread house. As I was escorted to my cottage I looked around and saw a few of the other 15 guest cottages scattered throughout the garden grounds. The surroundings give the feeling of being in an enchanted village, almost lost in time, as you are tucked away in a rainforest on the side of the mountain.

My cottage was simple, an understated living room and a cute outdoor sitting room. My bedroom was incredibly romantic looking, with a four-post canopy bed surrounded by white netting and fresh flowers placed both on the bedside table and lain upon the pillow. It was like stepping into a romance novel.

I realized I had stopped yearning for an oceanfront room; this property offered me a secluded, charming mountain experience and became the perfect spot for my writing. The Hermitage’s main house is where the bar is located and where all the outdoor dining takes place. It is decorated with antiques and offers peacefulness with a sense of calm that comes from more than 350 years of history.

The Lupinaccis, who own the plantation inn, are keen fans of traditional St. Kitts and Nevis vernacular architecture, and some of the cottages on-site were actually moved from other locations in Nevis and restored at Hermitage.

You will find Richie Lupinacci—who has taken over running the charming Nevis property from his parents—walking around the grounds or joining guests in the Great Room, offering a killer rum punch (the best I’ve had), and sharing stories about the island and the history of Hermitage. His warmth and hospitality are authentic and make for an extra special stay.

Rates at the Hermitage range from $150 to $850 per night based on type of cottage and season.

The Montpelier Plantation and Beach Hotel, part of the Relais & Châteaux collection, has 15 beautifully decorated private cottages on property. Its ecological policy is top notch and includes growing its own organic herbs, having restaurant remains saved and collected by local farmers to feed their animals, and having two cisterns to collect rainwater to use in the laundry and the gardens.

The pool area is very chic, with couches in gray and pink hues sitting above the lounge chairs. The hotel is especially known for the incredible dining experience it offers. The intimate, candle-lit Mill Privée is a 300-year-old sugar mill converted into the only restaurant of its kind in the world. The original mill is completely intact, and the well trodden floor and hand-cut round stonewall is spectacularly atmospheric.

Rates at the Montpelier Plantation and Beach Hotel range from $200 to $1245 per night depending on type of cottage and season.

My breath was literally taken away as we approached a property named Goldenrock Inn. The hotel was bought and restored through the eyes and talents of artists Helen and Brice Marden.

The stone steps leading up to the main landing elicit a grand feeling, and the usage of stone is continued throughout the property, met with accents of red furnishings. The bar area and indoor common space sit within a stone castle setting and are very eclectic in their décor.

The 11 guest cottages offer extreme privacy with spectacular sea views toward the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Redonda, and Montserrat. Guests can wander through the many paths of the tropical gardens or plunge into the freshwater pool. Goldenrock Inn is an escape—a place to relax and be inspired.

Rates at Goldenrock Inn range from $180 to $395 per night depending on type of cottage and season.

After the three mountain hotels it was time to head down and experience a few oceanfront properties.

Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is set on 30 acres of land. Intimate and relaxing, it is the Caribbean’s only historical plantation inn on the beach. Thirty-six lemon-hued cottages, all with traditional Nevisian white pyramid roofs, are spread out over a huge lawn on the palm-filled property. The elegant yet casual cottages offer a mix of old world charm with modern-day conveniences.

The private beach offers amenities including a beach bar and dining area and pool that sits above the ocean. Whether having high tea in the historical main house living room or a tropical drink in a hammock, the tranquility and service this property offers is what makes it such a memorable stay.

Rates at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club range from $399 to $1082 per night depending on type of cottage and season.

If you want to try something different from a hotel or cottage, then Zenith Nevis is for you. Zenith is a new, luxurious, modernized beachfront home. It is nestled in a quiet cove with stunning views of the rugged St. Kitts peninsula and rainforest-clad Nevis peak. The house is stylishly elegant, fit for a cosmopolitan clientele desiring the ultimate in pampered service. Zenith is the first of 30 homes being built to offer full sale and fractional ownership opportunities.

Rates at Zenith Nevis range from $400 to $1500 per night for a rental and $1.8 million for a purchase/$400,000 per fractional.

Last but surely not least, for the traveler who prefers to stay at a property that has an outstanding reputation worldwide, the Four Seasons is for you and will continue to impress. Whether you choose to stay in a luxurious room, fabulous villa, or one of the incredible Four Seasons estates, all offer the luxury that goes along with the Four Seasons name. The property hosts the only golf course on the island, as well as a luxury spa, tennis courts, water activities, children’s programs, and a variety of restaurants.

Rates at the Four Seasons vary depending on season and type of room/villa.

No matter where you stay in Nevis you are bound to fall in love with this rustic island on which old Caribbean charm still exists.

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Tell Me Once More, Where and What are the Gulf Islands?

“Where ARE the Gulf Islands?” seemed to be a common question when I told my friends where I was heading. I knew I’d be visiting places named Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda, and Gasparilla, but I admit I didn’t have any idea where they were—and I though I knew Florida well.

So, here it goes: Florida Geography 101

On the southwest side of Florida (the Gulf Coast) located halfway between Tampa and Naples are Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands. This area hosts a collection of nine coastal communities surrounding the state's second largest harbor. The area includes Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Englewood, as well as the Gulf Islands of Manasota Key; the Knight, Don Pedro, and Little Gasparilla Islands; and Gasparilla Island. Many people refer to Gasparilla as Boca Grande because that is the primary city on the island.

Each area and island has its own look and feel to it. To get a better feel for the area I set out on a bike ride to the Boca Grande Lighthouse.  As I rode over the Port Charlotte Bridge I was instantly transported to a similar view as the one when heading to Long Beach Island, New Jersey. I continued to ride, winding up on a road shaded by old Banyan trees and felt as if I was in Old Key West.

I rode to the beach, and with all the sand dunes and tall sea grass at the entry point it resembled Amagansette, Long Island. The homes on the islands, whether harbor-front or not, ranged from tiny bungalows to plantation style to contemporary—and would fit right in with a Bermuda landscape.

There isn’t a lot going on in Port Charlotte, Gasparilla, or Punta Gorda but there are enough things to do to stay busy. Kayaking is one of the most popular activities and after a day spent with Phoenix Rising Kayak Tours, I could see why.

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Chris, our tour guide, led us down the Shell Creek River, which was very jungle-like and incredibly tranquil. Thankfully, before we set out, he informed us alligator-mating season had just begun and explained what we should and shouldn’t do if one happened to come across us.

Lucky us, we wound up spotting quite a few gators. I even became the “spotter,” which was exciting searching them out as I paddled in front of Chris. Every time I spotted one, I do admit my heart started racing and some fear took over. I mean, how could you not imagine your kayak flipping over and becoming their next meal?

Speaking of meals … the best part of the Gulf Islands? Seafood, seafood, and more seafood. For a seafood lover like me, that is heaven.

The three must-visit restaurants include:

Farlow’s

Farlow’s offers tropical casual dining with a fantastic menu comprised of a long list of daily seafood specials. I had a hard time choosing so I left it up to the chef. What was brought out to me was a coconut and macadamia nut-crusted Chilean sea bass topped with a strawberry and peach rum glaze. It was cooked perfectly, and the sauce was an ideal pairing. After dinner, I was peer pressured to get the ice cream key lime pie (just one bite), and it did not disappoint at all.

Village Fish Market

My favorite! The Village Fish Market prides itself on being a New England fish house, and boy did it nail it. I started with fried clams (not strips, but whole bellies—the coating was super light, and the clams themselves were cooked to perfection). Being the lobster roll aficionado I think I am, I had to order the lobster roll. All I can say is, bravo! I closed my eyes and could easily have been at a top roadside Maine clam bar. It was perfect—huge chunks of lobster, very little mayo, and the perfect bun. Dessert? Yes! Grape Nuts custard is a must-have if you have any room left. The owners, Nick and Sue Randall, who come from London, are always there to sit with their guests and tell their tale of how they came to be the owners of this amazing Gulf Island restaurant. (In addition, they offer a huge gluten free and healthy eats menu AND rumor has it they are currently working on a secret recipe for a gluten-free coating for their fried dishes.)

Peace River Seafood

Peace River Seafood is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall crab shack kind of place, with old wooden tables and a few beer choices. The menu is small, but it caters to those who LOVE crabs. The all-you-can-eat blue crabs ($20) and stone crabs (which came pre-cracked) were the big hit. The servers cover the table in newspaper, bring out a few rolls of paper towels and mallets, place a huge crab-filled basket down, and then it’s every man for himself. The busboy stopped by to give a personal lesson on his technique in cracking open blue crabs and getting the most meat; after a few tries we all became pros. The crabs were super meaty and the perfect consistency. We made a giant mess, but darn it was fun and tasty!

No dessert tonight as I ate more than my fill of crabs so back to the hotel it was. I stayed at the Boca Grande, an 18-room boutique hotel on Gasparilla Island. The décor is simple and would make Tommy Bahama smile due to the green and yellow bamboo wall coverings and, of course, the bamboo ceiling fan.

On the last day of my trip it rained so I spent a little time walking through Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda. This waterfront village sits on a marina and, in addition to the 35 boutiques and restaurants, the second level has vacation villas to rent at extremely affordable rates. The marina offers various fishing and sightseeing boat trips and has a 111-boat-slip yacht basin.

After shopping, the rain seemed to come to a lull so we took our chances and hopped aboard Smoke and Roses , Southwest Florida’s largest private sailing catamaran, which is owned and operated by Dan and Agnes Long.

Seasoned sailors, Dan and Agnes left their careers as a fireman and flower arranger, respectively, to start this Port Charlotte-based charter business. Whether it’s a one-day sail or a weeklong charter to the Keys or the Caribbean, they offer it all. Even though we were sailing on a rainy, windy day our hosts kept our attention with exciting sailing stories and even made us hot chocolate to stay warm.

What I took away from my visit (other than a few gained pounds, and a lesson in Florida geography) was the enjoyment of an “off the radar” destination that really is all about taking beach strolls, dining at little mom-and-pop seafood restaurants, and staying in homey beach bungalows. There is nothing showy about Port Charlotte and the surrounding area, and the residents truly take pride in the ambience the islands have sustained and the lifestyle both vacationing and living there offers.

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To Ski or Not To Ski at the Apres Ski Cocktail Classic in Aspen

If it wasn’t enough for Aspen, Colorado, to offer amazing landscapes, incredible dining, activities to keep even the most easily distracted person busy, mountain trails that cater to every level of skier or hiker, and a social scene that doesn’t quit, the destination has now added another reason to plan a springtime trip. Introducing the Après Ski Cocktail Classic

This inaugural event was held March 14 to 17 to celebrate the union of Après Ski culture with the craft of cocktailing. Events were primarily held in Snowmass at the new Westin property. The Classic brought together mixologists, brand ambassadors, chefs, spirits aficionados, and both locals and visitors as attendees, who were more than willing to sample and learn about cocktails slopeside.

My experience began with the seminar, "Fondue and Champagne," a combination that even in thought makes my mouth water.

Executive chef Jim Butchart of the Aspen Skiing Company Mountain Division demonstrated step by step how to make the perfect cheese fondue, while master sommelier Sabato Sagaria of the Little Nell paired the fondue with three champagnes: Pierre Gimmonet, Vilmart e Cie, and L. Aubry Fils. The Pierre Gimmonet was a light, crisp, very bright-styled champagne and served as a great aperitif and palate cleanser; the apple used for dipping in the fondue highlighted it. The Vilmart e Cie, a full-bodied Rosé was almost like red burgundy with bubbles. It worked wonderfully with the earthy meatiness of the roasted mushrooms. Finally the L. Aubry Fils was a more angular expression of Rosé but paired nicely with the chef’s quick-pickled vegetables.

Sabato encouraged us all to go out of our comfort zone when buying Champagne and explained how the acid in the bubbly is the perfect accompaniment to enhance the flavor of fondue: "A Zamboni on the palette."

After finishing my bubbly and fondue I headed to the Après Classic’s Grand Tasting Room. Upon entering, I had a flashback to the scene in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" when the doors swing open and inside is a magical land of candy; instead, this was a magical land of vodkas, tequilas, whiskeys, rums, and every other kind of spirit you can imagine!

With my glass in hand, I moved from table to table and was handed a sampling of whatever concoction that was created. From flavored mojitos to vanilla spiced rum ’nog to orange splash tequila, it just kept pouring.

I woke up Saturday with a tiny hangover and therefore headed straight to the Wake up Smart Smoothie Bar and Hydration Station, strategically set up next to the Barista Prima Coffeehouse Bar.

After a strong espresso, I headed to the "Riedel Spirit Tasting" seminar. The chief executive officer of Riedel, Maximilian Riedel, led us through four different tasting comparisons each of tequila, cognac, and malt scotch.

Riedel explained in order to showcase a beverage in its finest form, Riedel glasses are crafted to enhance aromas and taste components. The specific shape and size of the glass creates a balanced interaction between fruit, minerality, and acidity while de-emphasizing the evidence of alcohol. When all these elements are in place the glass becomes the "loudspeaker," transmitting the message of the beverage to the human senses. I was amazed to truly taste and smell the difference in all three spirits. I know anytime I can sit in on a seminar hosted by Maximilian Riedel, I will. It is a true talent to be able to passionately describe the tastes and smells of spirits in such a sensual way.

The next three lectures/samplings I attended were really just a lot of fun:

"Haut Hot Chocolate" hosted by executive chef Ronnie Sanchez featured a few variations, including hot chocolate for churros, Mayan hot chocolate, white night hot chocolate, and Peruvian velvet. All were incredibly decadent and presented so beautifully—and most importantly came with take home recipes!

Then it was right to "The Punch Bowl" hosted by the charismatic Charlotte Volsey, who taught us how to make retro and hip punches. The one fact she made very clear was to always add nutmeg to any punch; it is a key ingredient.

The last seminar I attended was "Hot Toddies 101." The ever-so-charming celebrity mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin demonstrated how to make a killer hot toddy, as well as my favorite, Glogg (a Scandinavian classic). Once again we all sampled his creations, and it became very obvious how he earned his title—the drinks were outstanding!

Before the event day ended I popped into the VIP Exclusive Private Reserve "Vintage Ski" room, which featured some rare and hard-to-find spirits poured by sommelier David Johnson. I sadly had to decline the temptation to try a few very aged scotches, as I had an important dinner that evening and was determined to go, not pass out!

Sunday was the culmination of the classic and featured a bar crawl in downtown Aspen. Seven of Aspen’s top-tier watering holes were vying for the best Original Après Ski cocktail concoction, and I was determined to hit all seven: Terrace Bar at The Nell ("Ginger and Mary Ann"), The J-Bar (Italian daiquiri), Justice Snow’s Restaurant & Bar ("Flying Punchman"), The Red Onion (Melon Berry Spritzer), Sky Hotel’s 39 Degrees ("Irish Stinger"), Limelight ("Stormy Patty"), and Jimmy’s ("Kiss Me I’m Irish").

And the winner is … Jimmy’s! To make the winning cocktail combine muddled fresh ginger, 2 oz Tullamore Dew, 1 1/2 oz fresh pineapple juice, 1/4 oz Benedictine liquor, 1/2 oz Amaro Montenegro, a dash of Bittermens Tiki bitters, and a dash of Angostura bitters. Shake all ingredients and double strain into a coupe glass then mist with Del Maguey Chichicapa.

I hit Jimmy’s last and with perfect timing as Steve Olson and Jimmy Yeager were hosting an in-depth seminar about mezcal, with a tasting of 12 artisanal mezcals from Del Maguey, the gold standard of mezcals. These men are so knowledgeable and passionate about mezcal they could turn anyone into a tequila fan!

The Après Cocktail Classic was a fabulous alternative to a ski day or days. With 1,600 attendees—and only in its first year—this event is destined to keep growing.

I continued my vacation with a stay at the Mountain House Lodge in Aspen. What a surprising delight this hidden gem was. Tucked away just a few short blocks from the center of Aspen, it has 26 rooms that are all very homey and incredibly affordable.

Other than my first few days of excessive cocktailing, my days in Aspen included a mix of activities, including an Independence Pass walk/hike. To get there, continue on Route 82 out of Aspen and stop two miles down. You can park at the barriers since just beyond is a wide, snowy, paved road on which to walk, cross country ski, or snowmobile. The scenery from the pass is spectacular.

I also dined at Pine Creek Cookhouse. Only via snowshoe, cross-country skiing, or a horse-drawn sleigh ride can you gain access to this rustic cabin restaurant. You feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere with breathtaking views. Drive about 30 minutes from downtown Aspen to a tiny shack where you can rent snowshoes or skis; with a trail map in hand you are set on your way up to Pine Creek. Make sure to make a reservation for lunch or dinner. You can even choose to hike up there and ride a horse-drawn sleigh back.

Finally, it was a powder snow day, and I had to choose a mountain on which to ski: Aspen, Buttermilk, Snowmass, or Highlands. Given that Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro - the famous lunch/après eatery - is on the Highlands Mountain, I chose that one. Holy party, Batman! It was mayhem with dancing on tables and music blasting; it does not get much crazier anywhere than this place. The food was great, views cant be beat, and although it is a tiny establishment—with seating inside and out - it makes for the quintessential ski day event.

My last activity was fly-fishing, which is not just a summer sport. Hire a guide from any of Aspen’s fly-fishing shops and head out to the Roaring Fork River. Dress warm, though, since it’s definitely chilly!

I always have a hard time with choosing where to dine when I visit Aspen, and typically return to the same spots each time. This visit I decided to branch out and try two new ones.

The legendary Hotel Jerome, which is now managed by the Auberge Group, was completely renovated and now features Prospect, a fine dining restaurant and The Living Room, a relaxing and funky spot for small plates and cocktails.

The dining experience at Prospect blew me away; kudos to executive chef Rob Zack!

I started with a beet salad with persimmon, faro, arugula, lemon, thyme, and pistachios; there was a perfect combination in every bite, and the dish was beautifully displayed.

The next course was my favorite, the raviolo with spinach, egg yolk, ricotta di bufala, and black truffle. I have to explain: One large but ever so light raviolo was in the center of the plate. When I cut into it, an egg yolk oozed out with pieces of ricotta and spinach. The sauce was drizzled over and around it was so light and just melted in your mouth. My guest and I couldn’t stop saying "mmmmmm" with each bite.

For my main course, I ordered the bone-in Berkshire pork loin with dried figs, gnocchi, cipollini, long beans, and green peppercorns. Again, the presentation was beautiful, and it was perfectly prepared.

Dessert … yes, I had to indulge in one of pastry chef Aleece Gallagher’s creations. I opted for the coconut cream pie with white chocolate shavings and caramelized bananas in a light pineapple rum sauce; it was sheer decadence.

Accompanying this truly sumptuous meal was a phenomenal bottle of wine, which master sommelier Jill Zimorski helped us pick out. She curates her wine list based on Aspen’s manifestation as a foodie destination. I could have spent a few hours listening to her talk about the wine choices, but I finally went with a Pinot noir, a 2010 Confero from Aberrant Cellars.

By the way, when making a reservation at Prospect ask to sit at table 51 - it’s the best table in the house.

For a casual dining option I was told about the lounge at Limelight Hotel. The lobby lounge and restaurant serves incredibly unique and gourmet pizzas and salads. I tried both the bresaola and Gorgonzola pizza with roasted tomatoes, drunken figs, and caramelized onions and the kale pizza with lemon ricotta, mozzarella, and wild mushrooms. Both were delicious.

I was disappointed I didn’t get to try Element 47, the fine dining restaurant in the Little Nell Hotel, which was renovated this past year. The décor includes natural elements such as stone, sumptuous wood, blackened steel, and rich, leather seating. The focal point of the menu is Colorado agriculture, drawing from local produce and livestock as well as sustainable seafood from both east and west coasts. Next time!

I did however sit in the Nell lounge area (during what is always a packed and great people watching Après Ski spot), and snacked on two items prepared at Element. The creamy burrata, macerated dried fruits, pistachios, and toasted baguette and yellowfin tuna served with grilled pita, edamame, cucumber, and chic peas were both perfect and just a sampling of what the restaurant offers.

If you are looking for a reason to visit Aspen, the 2014 Après Ski Cocktail Classic is among the many points to sway you. Just make sure you bring enough Advil to cure a hangover and come ready to party!

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