Temecula Valley: SoCal’s Undiscovered Wine Country

Temecula Valley: SoCal’s Undiscovered Wine Country

While Napa Valley tends to steal California’s vino spotlight, there’s another California wine country you need to put on your travel bucket list: Temecula Valley.

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Sitting just about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, Temecula Valley is home to dozens of under-the-radar wineries that offer all the vineyard tours and wine tastings you could ask for, minus the pretension.

And for first-time wine country visitors like Mike and myself, it’s nice to feel like you’re in a safe space when you ask the inevitable silly wine question.

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Last month, we were guests of Callaway Winery while I was on assignment. It’s said their 1974 white riesling, served to Queen Elizabeth II during a luncheon in New York City, was the only wine to ever prompt the Queen to ask for a second glass. So, it was safe to assume the bar was going to be quite high for this winery! Overall, we were pleasantly surprised with this laid-back and intimate winery in the heart of Temecula Valley wine country.

The Winery

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Rows and rows of various wine grapes surround you as you drive up to Callaway Winery. It’s a quiet estate, and it’s easy to see why so many choose to get married here: hills filled with lush vines, hawks soaring overhead and an ever-present light breeze blowing through the tranquil air.

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Tours run about an hour, taking you through the impressive cellars and the rustic barrel room, which practically begs to host a wine-themed wedding. Along the way, you’ll get to taste chardonnays and cabernets drawn directly from the fermentation tanks, developing your palette for finished and unfinished wines.

The Food

If you’re coming to Callaway (and I highly recommend you do), you need to get yourself to Meritage’s patio. This onsite restaurant overlooks Callaway’s rolling vineyards through glass enclosures. And the menu is impressive. Farm fresh fare like a roasted half-chicken with market vegetables or pear and goat cheese salad are all listed on the menu with the perfect wine pairing, making it easy for the novices like us to not completely ruin our meal with the wrong wine.

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The absolute must-try is the Ceviche Mixto. I’ve had my share of Mexican-style ceviches (and I’m a big, big fan) but this Peruvian-inspired dish is one that General Manager Jozef Juck says is a crowd-favorite. Generous chunks of tuna are served with octopus, clams, wild shrimp and blue crab, all marinated in a citrus juice that “cooks” the seafood. Paired with their house made chips, the ceviche here is a winner.

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Chef Mike Henry creates daily specials, too, so be sure to look for the blackboard on the wall. If the black cod (also known as butterfish) happens to be on the day’s menu, go for it. Buttery and light, you won’t be disappointed – or too full to enjoy the wines.

The Wine

What I love about Callaway’s tasting room is the options: you can go automatic or full-service. They have a wall of self-serve tasting machines where you can buy a preloaded card and have at that dozens of wines – or, you can opt for that personal service at the bar. Tastings run $10 for 4 or $15 for 6 of your choice.

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Mike and I are complete opposites when it comes to wine. He loves heavy reds that pack a punch, I’m a sucker for sweet dessert wines. But Callaway had plenty to please us both. And here’s where I would really recommend tasting at the bar, especially if you’re a first-timer: your server can design a progressive tasting menu for you based on your tastes, helping you to better enjoy the wines and their subtleties. While Mike was ready for a heavy red from the get-go, our guide was able to design a tasting flight of various reds that helped him build up to that big heavy finish – and boy, did he enjoy it.

If you fall in love with Callaway’s wines (and really, it wouldn’t be surprising), you can become a wine club member and have bottles shipped to your door each month. But one of the neatest perks of membership? If you’re within driving distance, you can come to Callaway and enjoy the member’s-only lounge, which offers nearly 360-degree views of Temecula Valley. Gorgeous for sunsets with a glass of wine in hand.

Callaway Winery is one of my faves in Temecula Valley for romance or a laid-back girls’ weekend. What about you? Have you visited Temecula’s Wine Country?

Avoiding Tourist-Targeted Crime in the “Safest” Cities in the World

Avoiding Tourist-Targeted Crime in the “Safest” Cities in the World

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For nearly two years, we lived in what we thought was one of the safest cities in the world: Seoul, South Korea. Mike never thought twice about keeping his wallet in his back pocket. I never worried if I accidentally left my purse unzipped on the subway. In fact, I once even left my wallet in the back of a cab and had it returned to me several weeks later.

Walking the streets at night alone as a woman never bothered me – or Mike, admittedly the worrywart of our travel duo. The city was simply…safe. Petty crimes just weren’t something to worry about in Seoul, we thought.

We weren’t the only ones who thought this city was above petty crimes, either. TripAdvisor rated Seoul the 8th safest city in the world, and the U.S. Department of State classifies the country’s crime rate as “low.”

So, it came as a great irony when Mike was pick-pocketed two weeks before we left the country.

In our months leading up to leaving Seoul, we were selling two years worth of stuff to incoming teachers who, we knew, could certainly use a few gently used home goods. One by one, we said goodbye to books, clothes, our champ of a toaster oven and the rice cooker that baked our birthday cakes, casseroles and homemade yogurt.

We left our bikes for last, since Mike especially loved riding his bike around town and down by the Han River.

When it finally came time to sell his bike, he arranged to meet another expat at our neighborhood subway station. He waited for about half an hour outside the station for the buyer, who was running late. And all the while, Mike didn’t realize the three college-aged men hanging around a staircase outside the subway station were keeping an eye on him.

And when Mike finally met the buyer and exchanged the bike for 70,000 won (roughly $60 USD), he didn’t realize he’d become a target.

Sure enough, the three boys flanked him, one accidentally bumping into him.

“Oh, sorry!” he exclaimed, patting Mike on the back with an overly friendly smile. The other two asked him if he was okay, a stellar performance that fooled Marco for just long enough.

But as Mike started walking the few blocks back to our house, it finally clicked.

And as he slipped a hand into his now-empty back pocket, he’d realized he’d just been pick pocketed.

In what we thought was a city above petty crime.

We walked the streets in disbelief for hours that night, checking every bar and pool hall in hopes of finding the thieves blowing their newfound cash on rounds of maekju (beer) and billiards.

But we’d been had.

The fact is, we had become too comfortable. Too trusting in a city where we believed crime was nonexistent.

But let me tell you, safe city or not, crime can happen anywhere. Even the most romantic sites in Paris! Take it from us.

Here are a few tips for avoiding tourist-targeted crime in so-called “safe cities”:

1. Never Say Never

We thought crime could never happen to us in Seoul. After all, it’s one of the safest cities in the world and in this Confucian society, one of the worst things you can do is bring shame upon your family. We got comfortable – and we paid the price.

Whether you’re in a seedy neighborhood or surrounded by locals wearing suits that cost more than six months rent, never think it couldn’t happen to you. That was us – and it did.

2. Keep a Healthy Dose of Skepticism

No, you don’t need to go into all-out paranoid mode, but I’ll tell you this: If Mike had been a little more skeptical of the guys hanging around a little too long at the subway station and their friendly, “So sorry I bumped into you,” he may have been able to see their ulterior motives in time to catch them in the act or avoid them all together. Even in one of the world’s safest cities,

3. Avoid Flashing the Cash…

…or any other valuables, for that matter. Removing a large wad of bills or your fancy travel tech puts you right in an opportunist’s crosshairs. And that’s exactly what happened to Mike: The thieves saw him exchange his bike for a large wad of bills, and bam! They had a target.

All this being said, I still consider Seoul one of the safest cities in the world. The fact is, every city has its opportunists. But after two years of absolutely safe living, this one rare incident isn’t changing our view on Seoul. I’m not in any rush to start tucking my cash in my shoes and I still feel perfectly comfortable walking through the city alone at night.

We’re just learned the hard way that no city is above crime.

Have you ever experienced petty crime in a so-called safe city? What tips do you have to avoid being a target?

Sak Yant: Getting a Traditional Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Sak Yant: Getting a Traditional Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Before we ever made it to Thailand, I knew I wanted a sak yant.

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I can’t remember exactly how I found out about these traditional Buddhist tattoos, but once I did, I was on a mission.

sak yant is a traditional Buddhist tattoo applied by tapping a needle on a bamboo stick (or even a sharpened piece of bamboo) to set the ink under the skin.

These tattoos are like amulets for protection, good luck, strength…the list of attributes goes on. There are so many designs, but the basics include the nine spires (gao yord) and five lines (ha taew).

You can get a sak yant tattoo applied by the traditional tapping technique at many tattoo shops around Bangkok, but I wanted to have mine applied by an ajarn. At a tattoo parlor, you can get whatever you want, wherever you want. With an ajarn, placement and design of your tattoo depend on, well, you. They say ajarns will not apply these tattoos to anyone and that the ajarnmust deem you worthy before he will tattoo you. They also say an ajarn will not apply a tattoo that’s wrong for you, so to speak.

I can’t speak for how true that is, as it seems there are those who would be willing to do these tattoos to any farang for a quick buck, but I like to believe this is, by and large, truth.

I decided to visit Ajarn Thoy at Wat Tong Nai for my sak yant. One of the main factors in my decision was that he applies sak yant to women, which not all will do.

It was a sticky February day when we arrived at Wat Tong Nai. There was a crowd outside Ajarn Thoy’s studio, as the room had not yet been open. The crowd was almost entirely Thai women. As the anticipation built, we were finally let into the room to sit Indian-style on the floor in wait. One by one, Ajarn Thoy’s assistants plucked us one by one to receive our sak yant.

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I was nervous about the entire process, especially considering he applies the tattoo blindly (note the mask in the photo) and the inevitable risks for disease (though that turned out to be a non-issue in my case). And, of course, I was nervous to find out whether or not Ajarn Thoy would bless me with a sak yant.

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I had one other tattoo experience before receiving this sak yant. It was a very small tattoo on my right shoulder blade. Let me tell ya, the tattoo with the needle and gun hurt way more than this experience with Ajarn Thoy. This wasn’t pain, exactly. I could feel the point ripping into my skin, no doubt, but it was a very organic, almost transcendent experience.

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After the sak yant is applied, it must be blessed. The shot above is of the blessing.

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This is my ha taew just after it was applied and blessed. Note the raised, irritated skin and drops of blood.

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Another interesting note is that not all ha taews will read the same. Each Ajarn writes his own blessings, so the scripts will be unique based on where you received your sak yant.

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This was the next day. I’ve never seen a tattoo heal so quickly. The swelling and redness were completely gone by morning, and the sak yant never peeled.

Have you ever received a traditional tattoo on your travels?