Archive for the Travel Category


We spent the first week of our summer vacation in Sitges, a beach town just south of Barcelona. We rented a large condo with our friends, the Koetters. 

The condo (Residencia La Granja) was on Vilanova about four blocks north of the beach, an easy an pretty walk. The condo had a central pool, and, after a start, WiFi, which meant we could use Skype and Truphone to call home and research trips.

Sitges is a fairly large town with an old neighborhood with an old church at one end, and a newer town stretching west from there. For the first several days we were in town, we didn’t realize just how much there was in town – it wasn’t until our last day that we found the doner kabob shop.

After a few meals at local places that we happened upon (including two pizza places on the street at the beach that were fine, but nothing special) we decided to try to do some research and eat at less touristy and more compelling restaurants. Our Cadogan guide led us to La Masia, which was a complete mistake (and the guide was therefore left at the condo, and was pretty much never re-opened). To compound the problems with the restaurant, we used our Garmin, that we loaded with maps of Europe, to find the place. It led us in exactly the wrong direction, right to downtown Sitges, instead of the relatively easy walk the other way down Vilanova to the restaurant. In any event, the sausage tree was pretty unusual and did have some good meats hanging from it, but from there, everything was mediocre, or even bad. The place was only populated with English-speaking tourists, and it was only about 10% full at that. We agreed that it may be a tour bus stop. So, clearly, don’t waste your time here. Avoid La Masia!

More research on Sitges led us this website of restaurants in Sitges, with a little commentary.

That helped a bit, and it did lead us to Izarra, near the top of Carrer del Taco on Carrer Major. This is a fairly typical tapas bar with a pretty large selection for such a small place. The specials were 3.50€ which made those items a steal. We ordered all four (only got three) and the pimientos de padron and the patatas con cabrales were great. The other memorable items were, especially, the rice dish (sort of like paella, but with mushrooms and meats) and a great lentil and potato stew with sausage. That one was my favorite. The Mediterranean salad was also very good – I think it had the local Cabra cheese on it, which is a bit like Boucheron to me, with a chalky part and a creamy edge before the rind.


The other good restaurant we ate at was El Rato de Carreta around the corner from Izarra on Carreta. This was more or a typical restaurant and they had a speciality of ‘cocos’ which seem to basically be take-offs on the idea of the Pan Amb Tomaquet that you can get everywhere in Catalunya (and that’s usually a really solid way to start a meal). The cocos here had other toppings – mine had eggplant, onion confit, and roasted tomatoes, in three sections, divided by anchovies. This restaurant also had good salads – mine had Cabra, again. Leo had a rich, meaty lasagna, and Christina had an eggplant dish with cheese that was just too much food, but also good. I will say that, as is often the case here, the service was pretty slow, but nice and accurate. The one guy who likely owns the place is the waiter for the whole restaurant, and once it gets full, that’s the end. When we left, at about 10:30, there was a line out the door. Of course, we could have left 45 minutes earlier and made space for these people (and money for the guy) with a little more attentiveness, but that’s just not the way it works in Europe, so it seems. It almost makes me like the way we have tips in America – at least there’s some reward for efficiency, and it aligns the interests of the waitstaff with that of the owners and customers.

The other restaurant where we ate once, and the Koetters, twice, is Bar Panchito. It’s a Mexican place, just south of the traffic circle in the middle of town. It’s fairly quick, actually pretty tasty, and not at all accurate in its descriptions. If you have any knowledge of Mexican or CalMex food names, just ignore them for purposes of ordering here.

Trips outside Sitges

Twice, we went into Barcelona. Once was by slow train, and once by car, which, having given the Garmin GPS another shot, was really pretty easy. Even parking wasn’t too bad, and I’d do it again by car considering the experience.

We ate lunch at Cacao Sampaka, the chocolate store and cafe that we went to last trip and found stunning. This time, it was less so, maybe due to the sour attitude of our server. That really put a damper on things. But the chocolate was good – both what we ate there, and what we brought with us for later snacks. The chocolate covered orange rinds are really the best.

From there we walked around to see some Gaudi houses include Casa Battlo and Casa Mila (La Perdera) and some other notable architectural buildings, then to the church.

The first time we went to the Sagrada Familia which is just amazing. I hope I’m alive to see it when it’s finished. We saw it a few years ago, and I can’t really tell at all what’s different, but it’s really just stunning. This trip, I was especially taken with the angular art on the front of the church, outside, but a local, living artist, whose name I forget.

Next trip into Barcelona we planned out a bit more and Klara found us a great tapas restaurant on Chowhound. We had all wanted to go to Cal Pep, but they’re closed for the month, so we went to Paco Meralgo. This is in a totally different part of town, but with the metro and the easy parking, we all met up there easily and got to our reserved table. Quick note: if you’ve got nine people, or even fewer, make reservations at these places when you can. They seem happy to help, and I think that without this reservation, we wouldn’t have had a chance at a table for all of us. 

It was hard to order the wrong thing here, but top picks included the steak tartare, the padron peppers, the razor clams, and, maybe the raw sea snails. I didn’t expect those to be raw, so that was a new one for me, but they were really tasty, and had that great chewy texture, and they were a little chilled. As Joe noted, dipping almost anything in drawn butter with garlic helps, and it didn’t hurt these one bit. The tuna carpaccio that was so highlighted on Chowhound was nothing special (but then, coming from LA, it’s hard to get raw fish that impresses) and even the desserts were great – I liked the french toast the most, and thought the Catalan cream (basically, creme brulee, but a bit more rustic) and homemade cheese were great also. Others like the cork in mocha sauce that didn’t really do it for me.

That day we also went to Parc Guell (incredible – hallucinatory) and the Miro museum (which I like, but I found better the first time). We hit the Boqueria for a bit, then ate back in Sitges.

We also went on a trip to Montserrat. This is on a crazy geological formation that you see rising up from miles and miles away. Eventually, after what seems like lots of back and forth driving, you wind up to the site of the monastery and town, high up in the jagged peaks. Most of the church is relatively new, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in the early 1800s. But the sculpture of the virgin from the 9th century is still there, healing people. We took a hike up to the highest peak. The place reminds me of Ayers Rock since it’s just totally alone out in the countryside, with nothing even remotely similar around.

Staying in Oakhurst at Chateau du Sureau

We don’t usually stay at such nice hotels, but it’s my wife’s birthday weekend, and we’re picking up the kid from camp, and the next-nicest hotel in town is the Best Western, so we thought we’d splurge. Just so you don’t think we’re crazy, we did spend the first night at the Best Western Yosemite Gateway for a quarter the price – and it was totally fine.

But this place is really pretty wonderful. It’s called Chateau du Sureau and also Erna’s Elderberry House. Erna has developed this hillside into, first, a restaurant, then hotel, then added a private villa, then a spa. It’s so different from anything else up here – just worlds apart.

The resort (maybe a strong word for a ten room hotel) started to be developed in 1984 – probably there was little in Oakhurst at the time, and it certainly wasn’t the strip-mall mountain community it was today. I picture this place having once been a mountain hideaway. Then the town grew closer and closer . . . but the hillside is private and gorgeous.

Breakfast table set for us outsideour breakfast table

We have a wonderful room, comfortable, well-appointed, with amazing beds, and, maybe best of all, no TV. There is a stereo, even with an iPod/iPhone doc, but that’s it in terms of entertainment. There’s a nice pool, although it actually got a bit crowded since it has only four lounge chairs. But the real key is the service.

From the moment you pull up, the staff is there to assist, and not in a stuffy way, but in a friendly way. For me, someone who isn’t really accustomed to fancy service, they made me feel comfortable from the first minute. They knew our names, offered us drinks and snacks, took care of the car and the luggage, etc. 

The restaurant was pretty extraordinary. For Los Angeles, this would be a high-end restaurant. For this area, this is a gem. The restaurant is in the style of something like Chez Panisse. There’s really no selecting what you get, except in the cases of dietary restrictions and kids. Many dishes actually contain elderberry reductions. Turns out, elderberries are actually native to the area, so that’s why Erna chose them to be the theme of the restaurant and hotel. They taste good too.

In trying to figure out why I found the Chateau du Sureau to be so comfortable, I think part of it is the great attitude – friendly, there to help, but not over-formal – and part is the all-inclusiveness. I’ll never forget another splurge-trip to Bacara above Santa Barbara, where every step I took entailed some extra charge, and the bill was itemized like from the grocery store. Not the case here. Pretty much everything is included, even the gratuities.

So, in the end, if you’re in this part of the state, and you’re looking for a nice break, I highly recommend the Chateau. Or if you’re looking for a nice getaway, it’s about the right distance from LA or San Francisco also.

3G iPhone: Will I use other GPS?

Here’s a list of the GPS receivers I currently have and use:

  • Garmin Forerunner 205: Great running watch, with current readouts, plus I download info from runs into my Mac. Then I keep a history on my Mac and get full stats.
  • In car navigation (x2 – my car and my wife’s both have it). This costs almost $2K per car, and, frankly, it’s not amazing. The screens are big, but I doubt I’d get it in my next car.
  • Garmin Nuvi: Shared purchase, we trade it around for use on trips.

But I also have an iPhone, and I’m likely to get a new iPhone 2.0 like the rest of the six million users out there. So, since it’ll have real GPS, with Google Maps, no less (the best, to me), will I use these others? It seems that their functionality should all be easy to replicate on the iPhone, maybe with some App Store intervention.

The running functionality should be a snap. The only issue is the display – I can’t really wear the iPhone on my wrist to get current info. So maybe it’ll be good (I’ll check my situation less often) or maybe I’ll get an armstrap – this is all assuming someone writes a running app.

The car functionality should be easily replicable with the iPhone. It’ll probably even be better.

The Nuvi does have some unique features, like the ability to set points of interest for trips. But, again, I’m guessing someone (maybe Garmin?) will build that into an iPhone app.

My guess is, the rest of the GPS world just got dealt a sizable blow here.

We were up at Tenaya Lodge near the south entrance to Yosemite this weekend. The area around the place is beautiful, but some architect made some really bad decisions at this place.

Essentially, unless you book very, very early, this is the only place around that will have rooms available. There’s a reason for this: it’s pretty expensive, and not that nice.

The setting is a hill in the mountains, totally denuded of trees (in a very, very dense forest). The building takes no awareness of the land into account – no views, no tucked-in parts, nothing. Just a big building surrounded by parking lots.

I could complain forever, but I should say that for $320 a night, you’d expect a room to be ready for you during normal check-in times (it wasn’t), or that the staff would be nice about it (they told us to go walk around and come back to see when our room would be ready). You’d also expect not to be nickle-and-dimed for things like WiFi ($9.95 per device, not room, so be careful on your iPhone) and games ($6.95/hour for the Lodgenet nonsense on the CRT TV). But, strangely, valet parking is free.

The indoor pool was totally sterile (really just plain ugly), and at the outdoor pool you have to withstand blaring Muzak. It’s really, really loud.

Anyway, the one saving grace was a great running trail. I found it by running south on the highway and ducking in the next road below the place, but there’s also a road out the backside of Tenaya that gets you there. Most signs highlight the horseback riding a mile down – if you see that, you’re in the right place. It’s a dirt road that goes, I think, 13 miles. I didn’t go all the way down. But it’s rolling, and gorgeous, so if you’re looking for a run in those parts, it’s a good place to hit.

I just got back from Astro Camp in Idyllwild, California. I went as a chaperone on a class trip with my kids.

Everything you’ve heard about the food is true. Many had warned me, so I came prepared. I won’t harp on it too much except to say that you should get to the salad bar fast. Since the main courses are essentially inedible, you need to get to the very busy salad bar before you end up with lettuce in a soup of cold water and the dregs of the vegetables. Also, at breakfast, the fruit is at the salad bar station, and being largely untouched by the ‘cooks,’ it’s very popular and goes fast.

OK, now that that’s past I’ll move on to the great features of Astro Camp, namely, the classes.

As far as I understand the process, the school selects the classes or segments that the students will participate in during their stay. So I’m really not sure what else is out there, but I’ll give a rundown of what we did. As usual, our school’s amazing teachers really picked interesting, engaging activities for the students.

Soda Bottle Rocket Launch – Using a two liter bottle as the main body, we learned how to build on a nose cone out of clay, and cardboard fins. This activity was in part just a lot of fun, but was also a lesson in several aspects of physics and motion including how heavier objects move slower with the same amount of force and gravity (with calculations to determine the height of the rockets). In addition, this activity gave the more artistic kids a chance to build based on more unique ideas.

Zip Line – Really, all fun. 700 feet of zip line here. I was expecting some physics lesson, but it was just for sheer fun. Maybe there was a little bit of overcoming acrophobia on the platform, but otherwise, it was a blast.

Catwalk – Like the zip line in that it wasn’t about a science lesson, but this one took more nerve than the zip line. It also delivered a bigger sense of accomplishment to the kids. It’s amazing how a completely safe, controlled environment like this can still frighten. I didn’t get a chance to walk it (we ran out of time) but I was definitely a bit scared just looking up there. Some kids scrambled up and practically ran across. Others needed a little convincing and some couldn’t bring themselves to do it. But for those who needed convincing, they were ecstatic and full of pride when it was over.

Gases Class – A great lesson in physics from college, with all the good experiments in one class. We ate frozen potato chips from a liquid nitrogen bath, exploded hydrogen, imploded cans, and used vacuums to do crazy things to marshmallows and shaving cream. Oh – and the frozen balloon was completely surprising. This was a quick overview of the properties of gases in a way that challenge your imagination. Most of the kids will clearly need some more explanation of these events, although our excellent teacher Dave did have a way of describing the salient points with concision.

Beyond those classes, there was an underwater class demonstrating cooperation and non-verbal communication. There was a rock wall climb that relied on trivia facts for access. And there was a night hike complete with time at telescopes trained on amazing views. I’ll never forget the way I saw Saturn that night!

Lunch in Telluride

I wrote first about our trip to Telluride, then about dinner in Telluride, and for my final post about the trip, here’s the skinny on lunch.

La Tapatia – The taco truck in town, about four blocks up Colorado from Oak, near the Ace Hardware. Living in LA, I get pretty good Mexican food, but this place is really, really solid. Everything I had, I’d recommend. Great for lunch if the weather is decent. We even got a whole mess of burritos for the plane ride home. The chicken is a stew, the veggies are full of real veggies, and the fish is freshly fried. Good stuff.

Fat Alley BBQ – Totally walkable from the ski runs, even in ski boots. It’s just a little up Oak Street from the bottom of the gondola and Chair 8. Great ribs and fries, but be sure to get the pulled pork sandwich. It’s huge, and it comes with cole slaw on it, plus a side (I went with the black beans and spinach, which I also enjoyed). My wife doesn’t eat meat, but even she did well there thanks to their supply of side orders.

Las Montañas – With no research at all (unlike me – I’m usually pretty good about digging around for restaurants when I travel, which, I guess, is why I write posts like this) we happened upon this place, just walking down Colorado. It was a good find. The chef here knows his stuff, and the place has a good vibe. We got an appetizer plate with queso fundido with chorizo (great), crab stuffed peppers (supposed to be spicy, and totally mild, but OK anyway) and I forget what the third item was, so it can’t have been that remarkable. The fundido was the star, along with my posole. Also, great chips and salsas. Can’t comment on the margaritas – as badly as I wanted one, I was skiing more that day and it didn’t seem prudent.

Some final restaurant notes are that if you need to eat lunch in Mountain Village, you should head to 9545 (gourmet-ish food in relatively small portions) or to Poachers (decent bar food – greasy and edible). Neither is as good as town, but they’re fine. Stay far, far away from the Crazy Elk pizza place. Tracks is OK, but just very mediocre. Coffee is pretty decent at the Telluride Coffee Company up there, and in town, the Steaming Bean makes good java, with a good attitude.

When I wrote about dinner restaurants in Telluride, I forgot one place. I shall now rectify that mistake.

La Marmotte – I’m thinking that I probably forgot about this place because the food really wasn’t too memorable. But I sure remembered it when I looked at my credit card bill – it was the most expensive restaurant we ate at in Telluride (although probably close to Allred’s). This is a French restaurant with a prix fixeé menu. I think the initial cost was $40, which seems reasonable, until you start with the supplements. All in all, the food was fine, although I really can’t recommend the fish dishes. Uniformly, at our table, the meat and foul dishes were far better than the fish, as lackluster as they actually were. I would also say that the desserts were pretty unimpressive. But they do have a good wine list, and they do have Chimay, so all was not lost.

More about Telluride – The Food! (Dinner)

If you read the other post, you’ll know that I spent a week in Telluride with eight members of my family. As with any trip, one of the most important aspects is the food. I’m a little amazed to say, the food in Telluride is outstanding. Like any tourist destination, there are some serious traps in there, but if you avoid the potholes, you’ll eat really well.

On the first night, we asked the concierge where to go for dinner. What’s with these guys? Do they get payoffs from the least interesting, most expensive restaurants around? Why are they never reliable? Why are the places they recommend so sterile? So the guy (who was later driving the shuttle bus) recommended La Piazza which was nothing to write home about (you get the vibe about how lame this place is from their contrived website). Just to give you a hint of the tenor of the place, I asked for a Dolcetto on the wine list. “Sorry, sir, we’re out of that one. We do have this one” with a point to a wine far, far down the list. I asked for another wine, between the two, and was answered with a grin, “Ah, no, that is out also. Again, we do have this one.” First night of the vaca, so I took it. So much for that place, and the concierge. I hope he got his cut from the wine choice. I probably should make sure they didn’t rip him off too.

OK – our fault – concierges are useless, at least anyplace where you speak the language. To prove it, the food we’ve had since then has been truly exceptional. Not just on a vacation-in-a-small-town-in-Colorado way, but in a real, world-class way. Maybe not the French Laundry, but really comfortable, delicious, innovative food served in great surroundings with easy, friendly service.

CosmopolitanIn the Columbia hotel, in the town. Inspired American food (maybe really Californian food) with a big reliance on the meat of the West, but also with flown in seafood. I had three lobster corndogs that were great. We’re going back for seconds.

Second trip: the beignets were amazing! Lemony and light – really ideal! Funny enough, we had those at the next place too . . .


221 South OakProbably the best of the trip, and we consider than an honor given the other meals. In an old house in town, with a separate menu full of veggie options, there was no bad place on the table. Again, really great service (how do these places get good waiters in a seasonal vacation town?) paired with delicious food made for a memorable evening.

The Beignets at 221 South Oak

The Beignets at 221 South Oak

Allred’sThis place is on the mountain, at the gondola stop between town and Mountain Village. We’d heard it was good, with great views, from many people. We figured we’d get great views with overpriced food. The views were, in fact, great. You see across the valley, with the town below. It’s breathtaking. If the food were bad and overpriced, it would still be worth going, and I don’t really care about views. But the restaurant was a gorgeous building itself, and food, while maybe more towards the hotel dining room style, was really worth the expense, even without the views. It seems touristy until you go, but it’s worth it, no question.

Honga’sStrange to eat in a Thai/Japanese/Fusion place high up in the mountains, but we got over it pretty quickly once we tried the food. The lamb, especially, was delicious – really more middle eastern than Asian, but great. The bbq pork was also a winner, as were the fish dishes. The panang tofu, which I usually really like, wasn’t so hot there. But overall, this place is fantastic, and it’s on a totally different wavelength than the other places in town.

So those are the restaurants for dinner. Lunch is coming soon.

A Week In Telluride

A week’s a long time, and a lot happens. But here’s what you need to know, where you need to eat (broken off into a different post now), and what you should avoid. Most importantly, I’m giving you the lay of the land – something I really didn’t understand until I arrived, and something which would likely change the way I organize a trip here next time.

Telluride is really two distinct areas: the old city of Telluride, and the newer area up on the hill called Mountain Village. The two are linked by free gondola (amazingly well designed and run), by roads, and by ski slopes. Beyond that, they’re two different worlds.


(Skiing down Telluride trail into the town)

So we stayed in the Mountain Village. Mountain Village is really a company town, like many of the big ski resorts these days. One company seems to own or at least develop the whole thing (you’ll get to know their logo with the mining pickaxe pretty quickly), but stays pretty low-key and licenses out the concessions to multiple vendors to keep the place from feeling too homogeneous. I’m not a big fan of these planned developments.

Our place is in Mountain Lodge, which is ski-out (so we can hit the slopes a few steps from our front door, and return to the condo just as easily). They offer a van/shuttle service around the village. And they have a concierge and a pool, etc. For skiing, this is great. For everything else, we really had to spend time getting down to the town, which we did almost every night for dinner, and most days for lunch and other commerce also.


(our cabin in Mountain Village)

The skiing is really pretty excellent. The skiing that is centered on Mountain Village is the beginner and intermediate terrain. It basically feeds down into one main area (the bottom of lift 4 and the top of lift 1) that has several restaurants (pretty uniformly bad – ski food like burgers and low-end draft beer) and a few sporting goods stores. That’s also where the gondola to town ends, and the second gondola starts.

The second gondola goes to the grocery store and everything at the other end of Mountain Village. The grocery store is really the star of the area. But it’s strange: if they recognize the need for good, gourmet food up there, why is it only available in the grocery, and not for lunch or dinner? Maybe this is to keep the town in the loop? I doubt it, frankly, but the town is pretty wonderful.

The town, down at 8750 feet (Mountain Village is at about 9500 and the lifts take you up beyond 12,000 feet) is a real charm. It’s basically an old western mining town, that’s been updated maybe once in the ’60s (it feels very Berkeley there) and then again in the late ’90s (gourmet food, high end clothes boutiques, and the ubiquitous real estate storefronts).


Through all of that, the town maintains both a sense of community, and great commerce. It’s like the little town that caters to the big town person. You can stroll down Colorado (the city’s main street) and get a good latte, some baked goods, a Stetson, and a new fishing rod. And the views are fantastic – from almost everywhere in town, you just look up and see the untouched or barely-touched mountains surrounding you.


In the end, there’s no question that for the skiing aspect of the trip, Mountain Village is the more convenient place to stay. If you do, try to stay in the village itself, where you can walk to the two gondolas. But for the rest of the trip (food and lazing around a comfortable small town) the town of Telluride is where you want to be. For me, I think next time I’ll stay in town and avoid the company-town feel of the new condos up in the Mountain Village.

Be sure to read all about the food in Telluride coming soon in another blog post!

Update: Dinner Restaurants in Telluride is now up. Lunch is coming soon.