San Diego, CA


imageSan Diego is great place to visit, even just for the weekend. You can lounge on the beach, explore the amusement parks, or hit up the nightlife. It honestly has it all. For a Los Angeleno, it’s about a 2.5-hour drive south. Be sure to skip rush hour or you will be stuck in that parking lot also known as the 405 and 5 freeways.

Sunsets worthy of a Top Gun movie moment await. Back in 2014, I stayed at the Wyndham San Diego Bayside near downtown San Diego. Recently renovated, this hotel is very affordable and conveniently located on N. Harbor Drive. Rooms are spacious with modern touches. You can expect the weekend rate to be roughly $140 per night. Plus, there is so much to see only steps from the hotel, such as the U.S.S. Midway.

The U.S.S. Midway aircraft carrier was in service from 1945 to 1992 and became open to the public in 2004. You will have the opportunity to see exhibits, flight simulations, and even climb into an aircraft. After touring the museum, you can dine in their cafe and visit their gift shop.image

Only a few more steps away is Seaport Village. Seaport Village was also recently refurbished and this coastline village includes shops, restaurants, and cafes. This is an easy spot to pick up San Diego gear and trinkets.

For daytime adventures, check out the San Diego Zoo or Balboa Park. The zoo has been around since 1931 and has helped to rehab a variety of endangered species. I am such a sucker for animals and this zoo is fairly expansive. This is one of the cleanest and most well-kept zoos I have visited. Balboa Park, literally a stone’s throw from the zoo, is a nice cultural experience. The Japanese Friendship Garden is serene and beautiful. Take a stroll and enjoy the gorgeous blooms. Balboa Park also has a wonderful botanical exhibit as well as various imagemuseums. We stopped at The Prado at Balboa Park for a bite and weren’t disappointed. With the Spanish-Renaissance style of architecture around the park, it is easy to feel like you are in a European city. I highly recommend that you stop here and wander.

For a nice dinner after a day of touring, Ruth’s Chris is located immediately adjacent to the Wyndham. A convenient way to get a fantastic steak. If you want something more hip and fresh, I suggest checking out Cucina Urbana. Located on Laurel Street, they have great Italian cuisine with an industrial flare. Some local friends of mine suggested this restaurant which also sports a nice wine shop. Word to the wise, even if you buy a bottle in their shop, there is still a corkage fee. I felt a little burned by that one, but the wine was fantastic and the food was even more so. Make a reservation ahead of time because they imageget packed.

If nightlife is what you are after, check out the Gaslamp Quarter, just east of Seaport Village. This is where you will find cocktail lounges, fine art galleries, night clubs, and lively bars. You can have a colorful evening eating artisanal foods and later dancing the night away. If you are traveling with the family, you can hit up the Hard Rock Cafe and check out the historic walking tours. There is also plenty of shopping opportunities in the Gaslamp.

If you want more of a resort experience, I recently stayed at The Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa. Located on East Mission Bay Drive, The Hilton is a few miles north of the bustling downtown and boasts a lovely shoreline locale. This place is a true retreat. You can rent bikes and wander the cycling trails, rent jet skis and hit the waves, or just take a romantic stroll on the beach after the yummy breakfast buffet. Poolside cabanas and a kids club make The Hilton a destination for the whole family. This resort experience starts at approximately $219 per night on the weekends.
Very close to The Hilton, almost walking distance, is Seaworld. This park includes a wide variety of majestic sea life as well as a few fun rides. I loved Manta the roller coaster and Atlantis, one of their water rides with a pretty good drop. Aside from the rides and exhibits, there are also dolphin/whale shows and a small Sesame Street themed area for the kiddos.

imageNow if you are looking for the ultimate resort experience, you may want to consider staying at Paradise Point. Paradise Point is on the western side of Mission Bay, facing that beautiful blue ocean. Bungalows, lagoons, and tropical plants everywhere make this resort feel like you are in the middle of Hawaii. Some friends of mine got married here and had a beautiful wedding on the water’s edge. I really felt detached from the busy work life I left behind. Costing roughly $270 per weekend night and up, this locale is ideal as a special romantic getaway. It was gorgeous. Only downside to the tropical atmosphere, were all the tropical bugs. Still gorgeous and inviting.

For both of the resort locations, keep in mind that there are resort fees that will add about $50 per day to your bill. Parking fees are also in about the $30 range. That said, if you need a weekend where you truly escape, these two spots are a great fit. Regardless of where you stay, San Diego has so much to offer. You are bound to find something that takes off like Maverick in a fighter jet.

Lightning


imageMother Nature is amazing. I have always been fascinated by lightning and my annual trip to Southern Utah this year didn’t disappoint. There was visible lightning practically every day. The summer monsoon weather brought in rain and hail which resulted in flash floods and a plethora of lightning shows.

Lightning is the result of rain and ice dancing inside a thundercloud. Their movement creates an electrical charge. The positive charges hang out at the top of the cloud while the negative charges hang out at the base. When there is an imbalance in the charges, the negative charges “look” for a positive charge with which to connect. That positive charge may be a building, a tree, or even a person.

When the negative charge becomes very strong, it starts incrementally reaching down ( a “stepped leader”) and a positive charge below starts reaching up (a “streamer”). When the two charges are within 150 feet of each other, they connect creating a channel of electricity about the width of a thumb. The transfer of electricity between the charges is lightning. Because it transfers millions of volts of electricity, the air around it expands and vibrates, creating thunder.

It happens so quickly (within 1-2 microseconds) that the naked eye cannot clearly see the positive charge reaching up to meet the negative. Lightning is most exciting when it reaches down, but it also strikes within the cloud and between clouds.image

Cruise ships often have a lightning rod so that the negative charge has a safe place to connect with, leaving passengers off of mother nature’s radar. When you are vacationing in a place where lightning is a-glowing, it’s best to stay indoors during the storm. If you are on the road, stay in your car and let your vehicle (and it’s rubber tires) protect you. Otherwise, humans are an easy conduit for electricity.

According to National Geographic, approximately 2,000 people die from being struck by lightning every year. Those who do survive often have long term physical weakness or memory loss. While the likelihood of being struck is low, I prefer to stay indoors when the imageweather is rough. Wait for that gorgeous sunset after the clouds clear.

Photos were provided by my good friend and photographer, Brian Knott, of Forget Me Knott Photography. Brian lives in Southern California and travels around the globe to get the best shots. Aside from amazing landscapes, Brian also photographs special events, most recently working with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Check out more of his work at http://www.forgetmeknottphotography.com. You can also see his latest adventures on the Forget Me Knott Photography Facebook page. If you are ever at the Zion National Park Visitor Center, you can also pick up prints and magnets of his work. (His photos are some of their best sellers!)

Las Vegas, Nevada


imageI heart Las Vegas. A lot. I spent a ridiculous amount of time there in my twenties. I remember most of it. I am not much of a gambler, but I love the shows, the food, and the shenanigans. Plus, like Vegas, I really come alive at night. There is something special about the energy there. The lights, the dancing, the drinks – it’s an adult playground. You forget your troubles and that your job is waiting for you when you get back. You also forget the value of a dollar. Every luxury brand and expensive restaurant is waiting to empty your wallet. It can feel like a temporary dream.

I first stayed at The Riviera, which was just demolished to make way for a convention center expansion. The Riviera was vintage. Built in the mid-50’s, it was one of the original hotels. Musty carpet with seasoned dealers and an old school Elvis rockin’ out on a cheesy stage. It was a little questionable, but I dug its ratty charm. I liked to think that the energy of the Rat Pack was still in the air. Movie stars and mobsters enjoyed this once-glamorous desert hideaway. It was also nice because the dealers were friendly. This wasn’t their first deck of cards and they didn’t mind giving you tips. The house still won, but we felt better about it. I am glad I got to enjoy that space before it only became a memory. (Check out Martin Scorsese’s movie Casino, if youimage need a refresher).

I have also stayed at the old Holiday Inn (not there anymore), the Paris, MGM, Mandalay Bay, and my absolute favorite, The Mirage. Paris was lovely. I was there for a work conference and the sweet guy at the front desk upgraded me to a large corner room with a perfect view of the Bellagio fountain. I was very young wearing a low-cut top and a big smile. The Paris Hotel is classy and I am a fan of their Mon Ami Gabi restaurant. Wine and Quiche Lorraine make me happy.

MGM is great – both the hotel proper and the suites behind. I have gazed at their lion habitat a few times and enjoyed their spicy little show, The Crazy Horse. Dirty, but not too much. Mandalay Bay is a good choice, but a bit far. I had my bachelorette weekend here many moons ago.

imageThe Mirage, though, is my home away from home. I love their rooms, the steakhouse – Stack – is fantastic, I love the Secret Garden, the Beatles’ Love, and the nightclubs are pretty fun but not overcrowded. The Secret Garden is a mini-zoo out back behind the pool. It’s larger than you think with tigers, elephants, and a whole dolphin habitat. The lobby has a beautiful tropical atrium that feels lush and exotic. The volcano outside still erupts at night. Concierge never disappoints. If you want to get into a happening club like Tao (Venetian) or Mirage’s own 1 OAK, they make it happen. There is nothing more fabulous than walking to the front of the line and telling the doorman you are on the list.

If you love to shop, The Mirage is right next door to Caesar’s Forumimage Shops. They have high-end stores like Louis Vuitton and mid-priced like Fossil (my go-to for travel crossbody bags, by the way). There is a free show all the way in the back near The Cheesecake Factory called The Fall of Atlantis. The animatronic gods of fire and ice battle it out for domination. You can also grab a good bite at the shops – Carmine’s has a very yummy Italian menu served family style.

Like the Atlantis show at Caesar’s, there are many free shows in Vegas. Treasure Island has an outdoor dance show on their pirate ship, The Bellagio still has its massive fountain show (gorgeous at night), and the aforementioned volcano eruption at The Mirage. Also, several of the hotels have lobby gardens worth the stroll. This includes The Bellagio and The Wynn to name a couple.

imageCirque de Soleil has made quite the stamp on Vegas. I have seen Mystere at Treasure Island, KA at MGM, and the Beatles’ LOVE at The Mirage. KA really blew my mind. I also saw Le Reve, not technically Cirque, but in same genre. Le Reve was awesome. Pick seats behind the splash zone. For a great mix of comedy and magic, I recommend Penn and Teller at the Rio.

For those of you coming to Vegas with a family, I recently stayed at The Hilton Grand Vacations on Las Vegas Boulevard. It is not far from The Riviera’s old stomping grounds. The rooms are spacious, there is no casino, I didn’t smell a single whiff of smoke, and there is a great pool for the kiddos to splash around. It’s walking distance to The Wynn so we were not short of sophisticated socializing. We had a kitchen and a full fridge so we could easily stock up and feed our traveling toddler. I loved how low key it was. You could head out for adult time on the strip, while your little one is safely watched by a friend in a quiet suite.

Both The Hilton and The Mirage are reasonably priced hotels with rooms starting at or slightly below $100 per night. Once there, always imagehave guest services set you up with tickets for shows and attractions, it’s usually cheaper than at the box office. I have flown to Vegas on JetBlue out of Long Beach and you can catch some pretty good rates, but I usually drive up the I-15. Nothing like packing your car with food and booze to last you through a rowdy weekend. Cheers, travel friends!

Club 33, Remodeled


imageI had the pleasure of visiting Disneyland’s Club 33 back in 2013. It was on my bucket list and a friend of mine – through his connections – got us in the door. I thought, “Finally!” And then they remodeled. By the time I wrote about it, my experience was already outdated.

Luckily, I scored another invite. Same connections, new celebration.

Originally, you entered an unassuming door marked 33, just next to The Blue Bayou. It took you into a very small red foyer, then up the stairs to a corridor. It was a tight, dark space with not much room to spare. It added to the mystery, but it wasn’t what I considered grand.

imageNow you enter a larger doorway several feet away from The Blue Bayou. If you are on your way to the train station, the entrance is still on the left but just before you get to the rear caricature stand. It is a single blue-gray door with ornate side panels and a beautiful fixed glass window above. It leads you to an outdoor courtyard that looks like the elegant patio of a French Quarter mansion.

The sweeping staircase takes you to the real entrance on the second floor. Beautiful glass double doors and decorative tile work act as your welcome mat. There is now a spacious, brightly lit foyer with a chandelier dripping above. It is clear that Club 33 now has its grandimage entrance.

The dining room is the same. Dimly lit with high ceilings and dark wood paneling, the space is beautifully elite. The table settings continue to look regal and the gold detailing glows in the soft lighting. The menu boasts Lobster Rockefeller, Beef Tartare, veal sweetbreads, and petit angus Filet Mignon. The chef, as before, served an amuse bouche and sorbet was served between courses.

The expansion of the kitchen engulfed the old Trophy room and the hallway bar is also gone. The bathrooms are now opposite the new foyer. They are larger than the previous restrooms and more elaborate. There is indeed a place to rest with an inviting chaise lounge and nearby vanity – I almost took a load off, but didn’t want to ignore my friends. Very serene with that feeling of old money.

imageThe new wine lounge is dark and intriguing, but sadly is a members-only experience. Two of our dinner mates attempted to enter – both were kindly asked to exit. From afar, it appears there are large chairs for slow, relaxed sipping.

While I was impressed by the upgrades, one not-so-small detail disappointed: the price. At over $100 per person for the “basic” five-course meal, I nearly choked reading the menu. Wine pairing is available for an additional $35 per person. There were more meal options before with varying costs. In total, I believe our first meal at 33 cost about $150. This round was just shy ofimage $300 after a glass of wine each and the tip. Like my first visit, the food was great but it didn’t blow my mind. Our dinner party of six agreed that Steakhouse 55 still wins as best meal in the Anaheim resort.

Overall, the club maintains its 19th Century Crescent City inspiration, as Lillian and Walt had originally directed. The color blue still dominates the venue and there are ornate details throughout the spaces. You will find “33” above the doorways, in glass, embedded in imagebeautiful mosaics, and even designed into the carpets. The famous harpsichord remains and the old animatronic vulture from the Trophy Room hangs out by the foyer door. He used to delight visitors with poignant comments and if you wait long enough, he still occasionally speaks up.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to see this exclusive club in its latest design. Given its high-end price and my not-so-special status, I suspect I won’t be dining here again any time soon. As one who loves the whimsy of Disney, Club 33 still remains a major highlight in my travel life.

The 2015 Utah Shakespeare Festival


imageIt was my annual trip of desert and drama. Fresh air and follies. Mountains and monologues. Okay, you get the idea. The Utah Shakespeare Festival is well underway and I made my regular pilgrimage to the theater-loving Cedar City in late July. The weather was perfect. Normally, our joke is that it’s a “dry heat”, making the high temps more bearable. But this time, it was in the 80’s with a cool breeze. It was downright lovely. If visiting Southern Utah is on your list, now is a great time.

When it comes to entertainment, I lean towards the comedies. Thus, my two picks were Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas and The Taming of the Shrew by the Bard himself. Charley’s is performed in theimage Randall L. Jones Theatre and the evening performances of Taming are in the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Both include love, false identity, and plenty of highjinks. Charley’s was directed by one of my festival favorites, David Ivers, and Taming was directed by festival vet, Fred C. Adams. Michael Doherty steals the show as the pal who pretends to be Charley’s Aunt after the real aunt sends word that she can’t make it. In England during the 1890’s, it was improper for young lovers to meet without a chaperone. The “aunt” is key to the lovers meeting. Melinda Pfundstein and Brian Vaughn are spicy as the shrew and her tamer. It is especially sweet since these two are married off stage, making their chemistry all imagethe more palpable. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them spar. As most already know, the older sister is the tough cookie that the opportunistic suitor must crack in order for the younger sister to happily wed.

Year after year, I am struck but how sharp these casts are – if they miss a step, it would be hard for the average viewer to tell. The choreography is spot on and I was particularly pleased with the detailed set pieces. Rumor has it that the June previews revealed that the Charley’s set was tough to shift between acts – a whole 30 minutes to change backdrops. A few tweaks made for a more efficient change over and by the time I saw the show, there imagewas no trace of struggle.

With the construction of the new theater and arts complex adjacent to the Randall happening now, this will be the last season in the Adams. After 38 years, I am bummed to say goodbye, but happy to see this festival thrive and expand. The summer season ends on September 5th, but the fall season runs until October 31st. See http://www.bard.org for all the great details. Check out my other article on Southern Utah for the long list of things to do that will make your trip all the more fantastic – https://siteswithstacey.com/2015/05/02/southern-utah/

London, Again


DSCN0008 (2)My first trip to London was a marathon. I traveled with a group and we all collectively felt that we had to see as much as possible. The changing of the guard at Buckingham, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Piccadilly Circus. We took the “Tube” and zig-zagged from here to there, stopping for a pint at pubs and zooming off. By day three, I was exhausted, achey, and not enjoying much of anything. I vowed that my second trip would be vastly different.

Perhaps because I am older, I no longer adhere to the thinking that if I never come back here I have to do it ALL. It’s like eating the whole buffet and throwing up afterwards. Not worth it. So this time, we were just going to wander. And we picked a hotel centrally located that we could easily explore the local haunts on foot.

We stayed at Club Quarters, Trafalgar Square at 8 Northumberland Avenue. I will cut to the chase and say I highly recommend staying here. Perfect location, pricing was reasonable (about 200 U.S. Dollars), the room was small but efficiently designed, and the bed was possibly the most comfortable hotel bed in which I have ever slept. Seriously. On the same block was a 24-hour Tesco. When you don’t want to pay for room service, fake it! We stocked up on pastries, nuts,20130614_222453 and whole fruit for our room. The hotel provided unlimited coffee and tea in the hallway refreshment closet – take as much as you want. We were set!

Because we arrived in the evening, we grabbed a late night bite at Garfunkel’s below the hotel. Garfunkel’s is like TGI Fridays in the States. You will see them sprinkled throughout London. Across the way was a rowdy pub and we stopped in for a quick pint.

The next morning we woke to the sound of a large band playing in the distance. After our Tesco treats, we hit the streets. It was the Trooping of the Colour celebration, honoring Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. This is a military event where the Queen ceremoniously inspects the troops and they carry their colours, another word for flags. It was a short walk to Buckingham Palace to see the event unfold. The crowds were gathering to see the royals, who towards the end of the ceremony, waved from the palace balcony as Royal Air Force planes zoomed ahead. Beautiful trails of color, DSCN0038 (2)puffed behind each aircraft. The light sprinkles didn’t stop the fun and after all the hoopla, Prince Charles drove by with a kind wave.

St. James Park was covered in foot traffic and we wandered right with them, enjoying the scene. As we moseyed, the sprinkles turned to drops which turned into sheets of rain. We scurried under a large tree, my husband stole a kiss, and then we headed to Churchill War Rooms where there was an overhead canopy. This was the moment we vaguely remembered that an umbrella was provided in our hotel room. Others were gathered here as well, some for the museum itself. Soaked by England’s famous weather, we vowed to carry it with us from this point forward. When it lightened, we made a run for it back to the hotel for a quick change.

Nighttime is my favorite time. Anywhere. About 15 minutes down the road, was Piccadilly Circus in the City of Westminster which lead us to the West End. This is Central London’s entertainment district. It is also where Broadway meets the British. Shows like Wicked and The Lion King make their way here. And just like New York, the theater crowds dress up, dine, and drink. Here you will also find the casinos lit up and bouncin’. The energy is fun and if you dive in, it’s a jolly good time.DSCN0044 (2)

A friend recommended Jamie’s Italian for dinner, so we headed there on Upper St Martin’s Lane in Covet Garden. This is one of many eateries by chef Jamie Oliver. The place was packed – apparently, everyone else had the same idea. Luckily, a quiet wine bar off the rear walk street gave us respite while we waited for our table. Once our table was ready – a mere 20 minutes or so – we were surprised to see that the restaurant had a complete underground level also filled with patrons. Jamie’s did not disappoint. Romantically lit, we ate a decadent truffle risotto and a flavorful bolognese. We were full and happy. I highly recommend you enjoy a meal here. Cost was roughly 60 U.S. Dollars. If you take in a show afterwards, your evening is complete. Our walk back to the hotel was lively with rowdy Brits – who were very friendly – emptying out of the bars.

20130615_135615Other daytime sights within walking distance are the aforementioned Churchill War Rooms, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. James Theatre, and Big Ben. The London Eye is just across the River Thames as well. As you already know, everything is very accessible via the Underground, however, I suggest being picky about your must see spots so you don’t run out of steam. For me, this trip was more about “being” in London and less about “doing” in London. Throughout our trip, we walked several blocks and bounced in and out of stores. Taking a break here and there for a drink and a biscuit. Sometimes it’s important to take in the quiet moments. I know I will never forget that time when when my husband kissed me in the pouring rain in St. James Park. I had a large scarf that we used as makeshift cover. Now go find your spot to “be” in the rain.

Helpful links:

http://www.clubquartershotels.com

http://www.royal.gov.uk

http://www.jamieoliver.com

Disneyland: A Landscape Tour


imageOne of the first things you see when you enter the gates is Mickey’s happy face comprised of over three thousand flowers. The iconic symbol welcomes you into a magical world and hints at the fun you will discover. The petals are completely changed nine times a year based upon seasons and celebrations. Of course, the flowers are maintained regularly so everything about Mickey’s face smiles. This landscape feature and so many others help to create the Disney experience. At the urging of my pal, Dave (fellow City Planner and mentor), I participated in the Cultivating the Magic Tour at Disneyland. Here is what we experienced.

We were given headsets and personalized name tags. You have to book ahead to hold your spot and the cost was $49 per person. Discounts apply for annual passholders. There were about eight of us led by two guides. Our tour began at 9am on a Saturday morning and lasted approximately two hours.

Naturally, we started on Main Street. As many regulars know, the architecture decreases in the imagedistance, creating a forced perspective. In other words, the street looks longer than it appears. To match this unusual scale, the trees are kept to a specific height. When they outgrow their allowable height, they are redistributed elsewhere and a smaller tree is planted in its place. At the end of Main Street is the central plaza or “the hub”. This is where you see Walt holding Mickey’s little hand. This space is framed by Trumpet Trees to compliment the colors of the castle in the view beyond.

Next, we entered Adevntureland where the foliage is designed to look like the area was just discovered, not manicured. Thus, you will find large trees with wide leaves, dense greenery, and exotic-looking plants. Our guides took us on the Jungle Cruise (when you pay for a tour, you skip the lines) to further show how the plants enhance the wild atmosphere. The tall eucalyptus trees along the back of the ride are original to the farming land and were used to protect the local crops. Walt wished to keep them and while the Jungle Cruise was meant for another location in the park, he knew they would serve best along this future expedition.

In New Orleans Square, the aura of death swirls in the air. Yes, we visited the Haunted Mansion. Weeping plants adorn the graveyard to imply a forgotten landscape. You will find a distinct lack of flowers except for Calla Lilies, the official funeral flower. Another smaller example of a foreboding design is at the Snow White’s Scary Adventures ride. We ventured through Frontierland and headed to imageFantasyland next. Dark trees line the view where the Evil Queen peeks down at the crowds below. The rest of Fantasyland includes happy, bright flowers to reflect a childlike glee. The 50th Anniversary rose boasting a beautiful coral-like color can be found next to the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.

Nearby, Storybook Land Canal Boats give you an excellent view of the tiny vignettes created for each Disney classic. Utilizing potting and bonsai tricks, plantings are maintained at a very small scale to match the itty bitty castles and homes to your favorite characters. Like the Main Street trees, if the plants outgrow the required scale, they are replaced and planted elsewhere. Just outside of the iconic It’s a Small World are 16 topiaries shaped to a variety of whimsical creatures. Because it can take years to fill the frame of the desired shape, there are several topiaries growing behind the scenes for a quick switch when the time comes.image

Lastly, we rounded off our morning in Tomorrowland. Walt believed that the future of mankind depended upon a sustainable landscape. Therefore, you will find that the plants in Tomorrowland are edible. Fruit trees, herbs, and other such useful plantings line the various walkways and attractions. The artichokes – one of my favorites – were just about to bloom.

As a special thank you, each tour guest was given a commemorative pin with a pack of seeds. I thoroughly enjoyed this tour. The tour guides were friendly, knowledgable, and you just can’t beat the setting. They showed us some neat corners that one might normally overlook. There were other great tips and secrets, but I can’t give them all away. See for yourself and take a Disney tour one day.

Big shout out to Dave and his lovely wife, Mina, for coordinating our tour – thank you! Check out https://disneyland.disney.go.com/events-tours/ to see the full menu of unique tours and call (714) 781-8687 to book your adventure.