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An Interview with Tour Guide Rick Spear – San Francisco’s Wine Country

Rick Spear is an experienced tour guide based in San Francisco who specializes in private tours of destinations such as Monterey, Yosemite, Wine Country and of course San Francisco. He is an avid traveler himself and has visited six continents and lived on five of them. In this interview, we have asked him to share some of his extensive knowledge about the Napa and Sonoma Valley Wine Region located an hour north of San Francisco. 

How did you get started as a tour guide?

I used to work for the federal government, managing children and refugee programs, but on the side I also lead tours as a docent with the National Park Service. In 2002 I wanted to make a career change, and since I so enjoyed leading the walking tours for the Park Service and I’ve always loved travelling, I decided tour guiding would be good. I’ve been a full time tour guide since 2003, and I get to meet people from all over the world, from every US State, and every continent except Antarctica—since the penguins never join my tours!

Do you have any interesting stories from any of your tours?

A couple booked a private wine country tour with me, and then a few days later the guy called me up and asked if there was anywhere nice to propose while on the tour. I suggested a very beautiful winery called Quintessa, at the top of a hill overlooking the vineyards. I called the winery and arranged it, and after the tour and tasting he told his soon-to-be-fiancee that he wanted to take another picture at the top of the hill—she came back down with a ring.

What are your favorite wineries in Napa and Sonoma?

I usually tell people I don’t have a favorite winery. Different wineries work for different people. If you like white wine, I won’t take you to a winery specializing in cabernet. If you like palatial estates, I won’t take you to a “garage” winery.

For me, wine tasting is not so much about the wine as it is about the experience. Pretty much everybody up there has good wine, but not everyone can offer good experiences. I prefer family owned vineyards. I visit Trefethen a lot, because they have nice, friendly staff, a beautiful building, and a good variety of wine including a good selection of both white and red wines. I like Domaine Carneros, because you can just sit out on their terrace overlooking their rolling vineyards while sipping some bubbly. For a really over-the-top experience, you can’t beat Hall Rutherford Winery—they have very special, very high-end wine, and the winery is on the property where the Halls live, which is unbelievable and just spectacularly beautiful.

What’s the difference between Napa and Sonoma?

Napa has more ego and more pretense. You find palaces in Napa, whereas you don’t find that as much in Sonoma. Napa is about cabernet, and when land sells for $225,000 per acre they need to sell their wines for a lot. If you want to have a gourmet meal at lunch, Napa is the place to go.

Sonoma is more laid back, and is also much bigger. There is Sonoma Valley, but also there is Carneros, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley. So those different regions have different specialties. Russian River has good chardonnay, and there’s great Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley. These areas are actually my favorite parts of Wine Country, because they have mostly family wineries, and are not as crowded—it’s not winery after winery.

Where is the best place for gourmet dining in Wine Country?

If you have the patience to get a reservation, everybody wants to go to the French Laundry—that is, everybody who wants to spend $290 per person for dinner not including wine. But it’s extremely difficult to get a reservation. I know of two tricks for getting in—one, is to stay up there and have the concierge book it for you—they often have more luck. Another trick is to go with ten people and get the private dining room.

I really like Auberge de Soleil in Napa. The food is phenomenal, and the view is the best. Go when it’s light out—for lunch or dinner in the summer.

For casual dining in Napa, Mustard’s is great for American food—they have the best onion rings ever. There’s also Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, the Farmstead up in St. Helena, and for Italian casual you have Bistro Don Giovanni. If you can’t get into French Laundry but you want ultra-gourmet, try Cyrus in Healdsburg. It’s easier to get into, and you won’t have to mortgage your house!

In Healdsburg, I like Willi’s Seafood, Zin, and Bistro Ralph. In Sonoma, Sunflower Caffé is great for sandwiches and salads, with nice fresh good food, and you can sit out back in the garden. The Girl + the Fig has really good French influenced Californian food.

What are some good activities for families in Wine Country?

I usually tell families with kids to rethink it. Napa and Sonoma are not very kid friendly. But if you do want to bring your kids, you can do olive oil tasting. The best place is Round Pond Olive Mill in Rutherford. They have a 90 minute tour of the mill along with a tasting of oil and vinegar paired with bread.

The most kid-friendly wineries are Sterling, which has a gondola or cable car that you ride up to the winery, and Castello di Amorosa because it’s basically a big castle. Over in Sonoma there is the Charles Schulz Museum, but you have to be a really big fan of the Peanuts cartoon to enjoy that. You can also visit Muir Woods in the morning and then Napa and Sonoma in the afternoon.

Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your visit to Wine Country?

Keep it reasonable. I get people who call me saying they want to do 7 wineries in a day. This isn’t the death march of wine tasting! Have fun, avoid Saturdays when it’s most crowded, and keep it reasonably paced so that you actually enjoy it! Try to include one or two wineries that are only open by appointment, because that means the crowds are limited. But also don’t make too many appointments, because you want to be flexible and not have to constantly be checking your watch. If you have done one winery tour—ever in your life—you are set. How many identical barrels of wine do you want to see? So I recommend doing one winery tour and just doing a tasting everywhere else.


To book a private tour of Wine Country with Rick, check out California Tours’ San Francisco and Wine Country packages and then contact us with your dates of travel!

For more information on Napa and Sonoma visit and If you plan to be in Napa Valley to ring in 2012, take a look at suggestions for your midnight glass from The Cork Board!


Big Island Action Great for Big, Big Fun

Big Island, now referred to as Hawaii Island, stands proudly as the largest one in the chain of its tropical sisters. It’s 4,028 square miles, just a few miles shy of  infamous Los Angeles county. And while the Southern California region is home to 9.8 million Angelenos, Hawaii Island caters to less than 200,000 residents.

For visitors or malihini, that means there’s plenty of elbow room and leg room to explore around this vast landscape. There are a myriad of eco-climates here: tropical to arid and everything in between. In fact, those who want to trek to Mauna Kea peak should put on their Arctic parka. When you venture to the highest point in all the state, you will probably find snow at 13,800 feet above sea level.

Hence, when planning a trip, Big Island is sure to appease every type of adventurer, from hard core athletes to exotic foodies looking for that next level up in unique gastronomic finds.

The first thing you’ll notice when you drive from the Kona International Airport are vast slabs of black volcanic rock that seem to appear everywhere. Instead of dirt, cooled lava rock is the stuff that houses and commercial properties are built upon.

And there’s another noticeable difference. Since I live near San Francisco, the urban landscape is rife with spray painted graffiti on the building walls and freeway ramps.  On Hawaii Island, people are insistent on placing their names and various greetings on the volcanic landscape by lining up white coral rocks to say, “Aloha,” or “Keep it sacred.”   Some folks try their artistic flair by creating smiley faces or other drawings.

If you are staying for a week, you have to experience at least five of these landmark activities so you can be the life of the party when you return home to your friends and family.

1. Hike a volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. With more than 150 miles of trails, you will be entranced by the epic smoking crater, dense vegetation, and a blacker than black, walk-in lava tube. Start at the visitors’ center that is well staffed with knowledgeable rangers and volunteers to get your bearings.  The park offers a vast array of programs, so if you don’t feel like hiking, you can enjoy cultural music, storytelling, and easy strolls around the park. See for details.

2. Sail at sea to spot your own dolphin or whale. A plethora of fishing companies and charter boat tours will offer a close up look at the humpbacks and dolphins on the Pacific waters.  And, if you can muster up the courage, opt to go snorkeling for sea turtles, exotic fishes, and more. Experienced outfitters such as Hawaii Ocean Sports will take you on a romantic champagne sunset sail or any number of water activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling or whale watching. It’s newest offering is the Dolphin Crystal Cove Snorkel Adventure that features a snorkel excursion aboard a luxury catamaran complete with a marine naturalist as well as that all important, delicious breakfast buffet.

3. Hit the town of Hilo, for a close up look at a quintessential small Hawaiian town. Sure it has its share of tourist shops, but this town boasts a down home farmer’s market on Sundays where you can taste an array of homemade Hawaiian bakery treats as well as purchase a tropical floral arrangement for $5 to enjoy during your stay.

4. Ride on horseback at Parker Ranch. This historical cattle ranch is the home of the Hawaiian cowboy or the ka’ aina o ka paniolo. And if you are so inclined, you can also call to reserve your space for big game hunting. You can hunt for pig, goats, boar, cattle, and wild birds, depending on the season.

5. Indulge in Hawaiian specialty fare.  Be it at a food festival, a farm, or local restaurant your taste buds must dive in because food is the crowning diamond of Hawaiian culture. Don’t go home without trying kona coffee, saimen, spam sushi, grass fed beef and more. Events such as the Taste of the Hawaiian Range, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival,  Kona Chocolate Festival, Big Island Festival are but a few of the most intriguing public parties you’ll ever experience. Bring back treats such as chocolate covered shortbread cookies from Big Island Candies or organic coffee from Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation.

Need more info? See to get a sense of what is happening when, plus where to shop, stay, and play. Check out California Tours’ Hawaii Packages and book your flight and hotel today! Aloha!

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning travel journalist who has trekked the world. As founder of, she is passionate about helping people step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to try new things and visit new places. Her work can be found in National Geographic Books, Sunset Magazine, and many others. 


Los Angeles Activity Tips from a Pasadena Native

Elaine Coger is a tour guide based in Los Angeles who has spent most of her life living in Pasadena. She has worked with California Tours for many years, specializing in Las Vegas and San Francisco tours, as well as local Los Angeles area tours.

Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena

I grew up in Pasadena. There were quite a few of us, because my great grandfather had 4 wives and 10 children—that meant that I had a lot of aunts and uncles, and needless to say a lot of cousins.

A year after I graduated high school, I got married. My husband and I started a business making photography equipment for professional photographers in our garage. One of our first customers was Disneyland. We worked with one of the photographers there who took photos outside of the Matterhorn ride. Disneyland gave us the promotion that sent our business skyrocketing—it grew so fast that we could hardly keep up with it. Finally after several years, we decided to sell our company. We became the subsidiary of a camera equipment company in Minneapolis, with my husband as the president. Our company became one of the largest photography equipment companies in the US.

Pasadena City Hall

After we sold the company, I decided that I would go back to school and take tour guide classes. It was at the school for tour guides that I got reacquainted with my sense of humor. In earlier years I used to give trivia skits at high school youth camps. While at the tour guide school, I would give my talks and people started laughing, and sometimes they would clap. That was when I knew I was headed in the right direction. I love interacting with people, I love making a tour come alive with our exciting history, and most of all I could be myself.

I graduated from the school in 1998 and did local work for about 8 years. Then I started branching out to Southern California, and learning about the rest of California, New York and Washington DC. A personal goal is to know everything there is to know about California and Los Angeles in particular—past and present.

Having grown up and lived my whole life in the Eastern part of Los Angeles, I have some suggestions of fun events and activities that most tourists don’t hear about.

  1. Heritage Square Museum – This is a living history museum of homes that were once built in Pasadena and Los Angeles. These Victorian homes range in time from the Civil War to the early 20th century. They have special events during the year and regular tours during the month. Coming up is the Annual Holiday Lamplight Celebration on the first weekend of December.
  2. Pasadena Float Barns – I love to watch volunteers decorate the floats for the Rose Parade. I used to take my kids and their friends to help glue the flowers on the floats.
  3. The Huntington Library – Located in the Huntington Gardens, this is a great place to see art, have some tea, and see the filming location of a lot of films. It’s free on the first Thursday of every month.
  4. Forneris Farms Corn Maze – Open between October 1 and 31 in Granada Hills. Everyone who enters the labyrinth gets a score card to see if they can find the “corny” signs hidden throughout the 4 acre maze. If you can find them all you may win a raffle prize.
  5. Pasadena Holiday Home Look In Tour – this fundraiser for the Pasadena Symphony gives you an opportunity to see the homes of wealthy people in Pasadena and San Marino. I have done this tour for over 30 years. We have gone through the home of the couple that creates the dance routines for the Princess Cruise Ships, and the home of the president of University of Southern California. It takes place in the first week of December.
  6. Fillmore Movie Trains – The majority of these train cars came from the property departments of MGM, Paramound and 20th Century Fox. These studios and others now rent these trains to make their films. You can visit during the daytime and they also have a Saturday night mystery dinner theater along with seasonal events.
  7. The Annual Colonial America Experience – The American Revolutionary era comes alive at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on the first Saturday in April. They have a town square, military camp, 18th century games, and crafts. This event is free, but there is a fee for the museum.
  8. Last Remaining Seats – Los Angeles Conservancy – Every May through July the Conservancy shows old films in the old incredibly beautiful theater palaces on Broadway Boulevard in downtown LA. This has become a highlight for me every summer, and I have been going for over 25 years.
  9. El Capitan Theater in Hollywood – This theater premiers Disney films every month, and along with these films they often have a live stage performance before the film.

Downtown Los Angeles surrounded by mountains

More resources to help you plan your trip to Los Angeles:

Los Angeles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau:

California Tours Los Angeles vacation packages

A Little Adrift blog post about falling in love with Los Angeles

California Tours blog post about a perfect day spent in Los Angeles

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A Hawaiian Getaway – Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu and Maui

Are you looking for sun and fun adventure during the winter season? Load up on family fun without unloading your wallet! First time visitors to Hawaii and their families will want to keep this travel list handy for free and nearly free things to see and do on the islands of Maui and Oahu, Hawaii.

Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority – Tor Johnson

Free and Nearly Free Activities in Maui


1.   Tide pooling – A wonderful early evening activity – don’t forget to bring your camera, as the spectacular sunsets are free, as well!  There are several protected tide pool areas around the island of Maui, including the Wailea area near Ulua Beach.  Take a flashlight and water shoes and prepare to find anemone, brittle stars, crabs, eels, sea cucumbers, shrimp and maybe even a baby octopus!

2.   Hiking – Maui is blessed with many hiking trails that run the gamut from highly advanced to easy, family-friendly strolls.  A favorite hike through Ko’olau Forest Reserve starts in a bamboo forest and over the course of a few miles, you’ll find yourself crawling over rocks, crossing streams and swinging from vines.

Hawaii Sunset3.   Take in a sunset – Sunset viewing is a time of gathering with family (ohana) and friends (hoaloha) to toast the close of a day. Maui’s colorful sunsets are best viewed from the south side of the island, including parks such as Kamaole III.  Residents and visitors gather on the grassy knoll and watch for the infamous green flash!

4.   First Friday – As part of the revitalization of Wailuku Town, First Friday, held the first Friday of each month, is a street festival with live music, a beer garden, local crafts and food. The banana lumpia is not to be missed!

5.   Eco-adventures – Voluntourism, as it’s been coined, offers not only free fun for the family but a sense of fulfillment and a greater understanding of the island.  Visitors may work as a farm hand on an organic farm in Kula, collect invasive species at the top of a volcano, or assist in reconstructing an ancient fishpond. You won’t get paid for your work, but the memories are priceless. For more information, check out

Hawaii Snorkeling6.   Snorkeling and scuba diving activities right off Maui’s shores – this counts as FREE only if you happen to have the equipment. However, I think it’s good to note that you don’t have to pay a lot of money for a boat dive when shore dives are easily accessible.

7.   Whale watching during the season (December- March) – the Maalaea area is best for viewing whales. They have pullouts for whale watching along Honoapiilani Road.

8.   Hookipa Lookout – It’s free to watch top windsurfers, surfers, and kiteboarders take on strong winds/waves.  (Near Mama’s Fish House)

9.   The Boo Boo Zoo – or East Maui Animal Refuge – you have to call in advance and they ask for donations but it’s free. The Boo Boo Zoo is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals.

10.   Some resorts offer Outrigger Canoe paddling – such as Fairmont Kea Lani and Four Seasons Maui –  free for guests. Makena Beach Resort charges $30 for 1 hour excursions.


Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu


Oahu is an affordable, family-friendly tropical destination with hundreds of exciting things to do, see and experience for FREE or for less than $10 per person. Visit Oahu and discover the energizing sights, sounds, art, culture, history, nature, and adventure of the island.

Photo by Polynesian Cultural Center


1.   Visit the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa on any Friday to experience its weekly Aloha Friday” Polynesian show featuring Tahitian drummers, hula dancers, lei making, and music.

2.   Stop in at the lei stands that line Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown and see firsthand how these intricate lei are created.

3.   On the first Friday of every month, art galleries in downtown Honolulu open their doors from 5-9 p.m. at no charge. This event is popular with art enthusiasts of all ages.

4.   Walk the booths at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet for affordable made-in-Hawai‘i souvenirs on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m.-3 p.m.

5.   Enjoy locally-grown produce and meats, fragrant flowers and tasty treats at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

6.   Watch the fireworks explode on Friday evenings in remembrance and celebration of King Kalakaua’s Jubilee at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Photo by Oahu Visitors Bureau

7.   Drive to the North Shore for Matsumoto’s famous shave ice, a Kua Aina hamburger and garlic shrimp from a roadside shrimp truck.

8.   View the work of local artisans at the Art on the Zoo Fence along the fence of the Honolulu Zoo.

9.   Visit Ward Warehouse for free hula lessons on Thursdays, country line dance classes on Tuesdays and live Hawaiian music every first Sunday of the month. While there, check out Ward Centers’ locally-owned boutiques for affordable Hawaii souvenirs.

10.   Meet Hawaii’s local fishermen at the early morning Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38, where the fresh catch is displayed and auctioned off to island chefs and merchants daily at 5 a.m.

Hawaii Sunset

For more information:

Maui Visitors Bureau – Information on sights, activities, events, accommodations and more.
Oahu Visitors Bureau – Information on how to plan your trip to Honolulu and the island of Oahu.
California Tours Hawaii Vacation Packages – California Tours can arrange flights and hotel accommodations in Honolulu and Maui, as well as the Big Island!

About the Author:

Nancy Brown is a lover of all things travel-related.  She has combined her passion for travel with her professional writing career. Aside from writing for California Tours, Nancy has her own travel blog, and writes the “What a Trip” newspaper column for the Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun, a publication of Media News Group.  She is the Lodging Editor for and the on-line Travel Editor for Diablo magazine.  Horse lovers will find her on the Writing Horseback blog.

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Above the 86th Floor — The Empire State Building

California Tours - Empire State BuildingYears before I lived in New York City and worked at the Empire State Building, I was a new tourist, navigating the overwhelming streets for the first time, my head continuously tilted back to take in the towering view above me.

My first stop in the city was the top of the Empire State Building. My mom and I got up early to be at the front of the line for the ear-popping ride up 86 floors. Immortalized in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the classic art deco icon stands so tall, you can walk past it on the street level without noticing. But from far away, it is a beacon, marking midtown and standing as a reminder of New York’s grand past when tall buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Center, were shaping New York’s skyline. In New England towns, it’s the church steeples that stick up above the rooftops and connect a town to its past – in New York, it’s the radio spire of the Empire State Building.

Now I work in the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, and the platform at the top is one of my favorite corners of the city where I frequently take visiting friends and relatives. It is on this level that you can go outside into the New York breeze above pigeon level and water towers and skyscrapers. The entire city is stretched out to the horizon and up into the sky. The old-fashioned view finders stand at the corners, witnesses to how many people must have gazed out over the city, trying to spot the distant figure of the Statue of Liberty.

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

Yellow dots of taxis fill the narrow streets below. You can pick out the bridges to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and point out rooftop swimming pools and restaurants. Central Park is a patch of green against the city gray; the curve of Madison Square Garden peeks around 34th St.; 30 Rockefeller Center stretches high; the top of the Chrysler building gleams. And through the buildings, just a flicker of Times Square lights flash. You can see how the skyline dips lower between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the tall buildings of downtown. At night, the lights spread for miles. In the winter, tiny moving figures glide across the skating rinks in Bryant Park and Central Park.

Tourists from around the world gather to pick out their favorite sites in Manhattan, or to see the sites for the first time – from over 86 stories up.

This is not quite the top, though. Another small, old-fashioned elevator goes into the needle. An elevator operator pulls the gate shut and takes visitors up 16 stories, answering questions if there are any. One kind operator even held my friend’s hand as she braved her way to the top, although she was terrified of heights.

The needle is smaller, enclosed, and quieter. I find it to be the most peaceful place in the city. You duck around steel beams to get a 360 degree view out the windows of the city spread below. The taxis are even smaller, the harbor even further. It is truly the highest spot you can go in the city – and the swirl of the streets is that much farther away.

California Tours - Empire State Building

The Empire State Building by day

I found a postcard of the Empire State Building from my grandfather to his father in 1936, describing in his yellowed cursive being above the clouds after the fog rolled in and covered the “wonderful view.” I imagine the view from the Empire State Building has changed dramatically since he was there – buildings have risen and some have fallen. But the Empire State Building itself seems to never change.

I often leave work late, through the quiet, polished lobby where men are buffing the floors and shining the classic adornments. They are prepping the building for another day, keeping it fresh for the next batch of new faces to pass through the halls.

Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.

California Tours offers customizable vacation packages to New York. For more information, please visit New York Vacation Packages by California Tours.

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My Perfect Day in LA

People seem to either love Los Angeles or hate it, and in the past I’ve always been a bit overwhelmed by the seemingly endless snarls of freeways that run through it and the blonde, beachy beauties that inhabit it. But a recent weekend spent in Los Angeles visiting family revealed to me some of the highlights of living there: a beautiful beach, endless sunshine, great shopping … and food trucks!

Beach Day

My perfect Los Angeles day began as my boyfriend and I met up with my cousin and her 18-month-old baby for a trip to Santa Monica Beach. The white sands stretched out before us as we trekked along, looking for the perfect spot.  The beach was fairly empty since for Los Angeles the 75 degrees was a little chilly. I kept Baby Lila entertained by hauling buckets of seawater back to our picnic spot so that we could play in the wet sand together, methodically creating and destroying drip castles. Finally, I could resist no longer–the warm waves of Southern California’s Pacific Ocean called to me and I spent nearly an hour bodysurfing and splashing in the water.

Next, finished with the beach, we took a long walk from Santa Monica Beach to Venice Beach, one of the most popular and scenic walks in Los Angeles. Though we were on foot (or in a stroller, in Lila’s case), many people whizzed by on roller blades or bicycles as we made our way along a concrete path lining the beach. Our arrival in Venice Beach was marked by stands hawking Bob Marley t-shirts and henna tattoos, beachfront shops selling surf-wear and plenty of ice cream places.

We briefly explored the beautiful canals that give Venice its name, and then shopped our way back to where the car was parked in Santa Monica, ambling along Main Street and stopping in boutiques and quirky art stores. In between purchasing a pack of Big Lebowski playing cards at a toy store and trying on summer dresses at a boutique, we happened upon what must have been a budding reality TV star. She beamed at the camera following her around as she pranced down the street; later we saw her happily eating a cupcake for the (presumed) viewers at home. What an LA experience!

A Night Out in Los Angeles

After a day in the sun, we were pretty drained, but we cleaned ourselves up, put on appropriately trendy outfits and headed out to Elysian Park for Los Angeles’ popular Outdoor Cinema Food Fest. Food trucks serving unique, gourmet food have grown in popularity around the US, even snagging their own reality TV show, but they were born in Los Angeles. This festival was a great way to experience Los Angeles: we got to try Los Angeles’ own multicultural culinary invention, Korean tacos, and we got to see a classic movie, LA Confidential, projected onto an outdoor screen with the skyline of downtown LA in the background.

Though full from all the food truck goodies, and tired out from a full day of fun, we had to make one last stop before heading home. We cruised by a few late-night Pasadena taco trucks before deciding on the one with the longest line. After a few tongue, brain and chorizo tacos scarfed down in a dark parking lot, we were ready to call it a night, but we resolved to return someday soon to Los Angeles for more fun!


Visit Los Angeles:

A weekend in Los Angeles is difficult without access to a car. If you don’t want to rent a car while you’re there, you can join tours that will transport you to all the famous sightseeing spots. California Tours offers a 3-day tour to Los Angeles from San Francisco that visits Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Santa Barbara and more. If you’d rather go on your own, staying in Universal City or Anaheim is a great choice for travelers with children, as these locations are walking distance from two great theme parks. The Los Angeles airport area is the most budget friendly while still being centrally located, whereas staying in Santa Monica can get pricey.

For more on loving L.A., check out Fall in love (or at least like) with Los Angeles on A Little Adrift!

NYC- Exploring Outside the City

By Jessica Festa

For those visiting New York City, Manhattan is a must. That being said, there is a lot to explore just outside of the city, especially in the neighboring boroughs. From experimental art to NYC’s largest recreation area to mountain hiking, you’ll find it all within two hours of the city. To help you plan a memorable itinerary, here are some top day trip suggestions.

 1. Bushwick, Brooklyn

bushwick street art

Bushwick Street Art

This jaunt will be one of the easiest on the list, as Bushwick is just 15 minutes from lower Manhattan via the L, J and M trains. Bushwick is one of Brooklyn’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods, and while still gritty on the exterior there is a lot to see and explore, especially in terms of the arts, food and drink. Start by exploring the modern art galleries around the Morgan L stop, like English Kills, ArtHelixBrooklyn Fire Proof, Fuchs Projects , and Norte Maar. You can then head to the intersection of Troutman and Wycoff to wander the open air street art galleries, full of colorful murals. An avant-garde show at the Bushwick Starr  is a must, as is a drink and draw class at The Living Gallery. When you get hungry, savor farm-to-table fare at one of the many great Bushwick restaurants, like 983 – Bushwick’s Living Room, which also features local artwork and Mason Jar craft cocktails; Tutu’s, with its urban farm feel; and Roberta’s, known for their creative Neapolitan-style pizzas, communal atmosphere, and fun workshops and events.

 2. Astoria, Queens

Also not far from the city is Astoria, Queens, about 20 minutes by train from Times Square and home to a rich mix of cultures as well as a new crowd of creative types. Along with world-class institutions like The Museum of the Moving Image, the al fresco Socrates Sculpture Garden and The Noguchi Museum, dedicated to the works of Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, you’ll find modern artsy cafes like Monika’s Cafe Bar and Cávo. For some natural beauty, Astoria Park encompasses 60 acres of running paths, tennis, bocce and skateboarding courts, East River views and NYC’s oldest and largest pool. One of the best times to visit Astoria is during weekend brunch, where you’ll typically find less expensive options that are just as good as what’s in Manhattan. Some recommendations include Queen’s Comfort (order the spicy homemade Mexican waffle), DiWine ($15 prix-fixe + $14 for unlimited booze) and SugarFreak (their Creole- and Cajun-influenced menu is something you won’t find anywhere else).

 3. Pelham Bay Park, The Bronx

What’s amazing is how few people know about this place — which is NYC’s largest recreation area, three times larger than even Central Park! With 2,766 acres of fun activities like playing sports, visiting the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, bird-watching, bocce, fishing, hiking, kayaking, cycling, strolling through colorful gardens  — even horseback riding and lounging on the beautiful Orchard Beach — it’s worth the hour-and-a-half jaunt from Times Square or the 30-minute car ride.

A quick 15-minute taxi ride away from Pelham Bay Park is the must-see New York Botanical Garden, home to beautiful themed gardens, ambient strolls, educational workshops and flora-related exhibitions. Tip: Don’t miss their Native Plant Garden, a great way to immerse yourself in NYC’s natural culture.


 (Photo by June Marie)

4. Long Island Wine Country

Take the Long Island Railroad or Hampton Jitney to Mattituck — both about two hours — or book a wine tour with a company like North Form Wine Tours  or Long Island Wine Tours and head to Long Island’s North Fork Wine Trail. Here, you’ll be immersed in endless rows of grape vines, farm stands, pie shops and antique stores. It’s an idyllic country getaway that’s surprisingly close to Manhattan, that many visitors tend to miss (but you shouldn’t!). The island’s moderate maritime climate, glacial soils and abundance of sun allows for a wide array of varietals from around the world to prosper, like Chardonnay and Merlot (the two most popular), Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Semillion, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and many more.

Some highly recommended wineries include Martha Clara Vineyards, where you’ll also find art gallery barns, live music on weekends and regular weekly events, Bedell Cellars , known for making some of the region’s top reds, and Pindar Vineyards, the region’s largest producer and the most popular of Long Island’s 45+ wineries, with live music and social atmosphere. If you want to spend the night, Sannino Bella Vita Vineyard offers tastings in a 1900s barn as well as bed and breakfast accommodation.

 5. Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain is an easy day trip from Manhattan, about an hour and 40 minutes by Short Line Bus or an hour by car. Here, you’ll be able to hike a variety of trails of varying intensities — including six miles of the famous Appalachian Trail — as well as go fishing, row boating, swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing, a zoo, picnicking, sports fields, barbecuing and much more. One of the most popular trails is to the Perkins Memorial Tower on top of Bear Mountain, which offers a free-to-enter museum talking about the history of the park as well as 360-degree views of Bear Mountain State Park and beyond. On a clear day you can even see New York City! The hike is moderate-difficult — there are some steep sections — and takes about two-to-three hours round-trip.


Bear Mountain State Park

Expert tip: Want to make the most of your time in NYC? Check out these amazing New York vacation packages  including specials for teachers and students!

Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture  as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey . She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana. When not on the road, you’ll find her in Brooklyn dancing in warehouses, riding her bike and exploring the local food and drink scene. You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter , and Instagram .


NYC Food Experiences

NYC Food Experiences

By Jessica Festa

One of the best ways to explore a new destination is through the palate. For those traveling to New York City, you’ll have no limit to the number of food-focused activities you can partake in. From ambient aerial dining to learning to make your own pizza, here is a guide to NYC’s top food experiences.

Expert tip: Want to make the most of your tip in NYC? Check out these amazing New York student vacation packages , including specials for teachers and students!

1. Head to a rooftop

Is there anything more ambient than dining on a rooftop? Luckily, New York City has plenty. One recommendation is Upstairs at the Kimberly, where farm-to-fork tapas (the spiced duck cigars with pomegranate dipping sauce are amazing!) and craft cocktails are paired with front-row views of the Chrysler Building, its spires especially beautiful at night when illuminated. Another great option is the Gallow Green , which sits on top of the quirky McKittrick Hotel, a warehouse-turned-live theater for the interactive Sleep No More performance. In the rooftop eatery overlooking Manhattan’s West Side, strings of bare bulbs, pebble garden floors and weathered wooden tables create a whimsical ambience, while punch bowls, glazed quail skewers, mini pork pies and elderflower cheesecake satisfy the palate.

2. Take a cooking class

Taking a cooking class in NYC is not only fun, it can help you really appreciate your food. While there are myriad of courses to choose from, it’s best to go with a class that reflects the local culture. During a pizza-making class with Pizza A Casa you’ll learn to make your own dough all the way to topping your creation, baking it and eating. Another yummy class is an Artisan Pretzel course with the Institute of Culinary Education, where you’ll leave understanding how to make delicious giant soft pretzels from scratch, complete with sweet and savory toppings and dipping sauces. While not a cooking class, per say, a Foraging Tour with “Wildman” Steve Brill  educates you how to put together truly local meals using the bounty of NYC parks.

3. Savor the best of NYC pizza

New York City is littered with 99 cent pizza shops and storefronts claiming to be “New York’s Best Pizza.” While I’m not saying these venues are bad, you should spend your money savoring pizza only from the top NYC shops. One local favorite is Artichoke Basille’s Pizza , known for hearty pizza wedges topped with everything from olive oil and fresh basil to crab sauce to spinach artichoke dip — not to mention beer and wine at their Chelsea location. If you like Sicilian pies, take the train into Brooklyn and visit L&B Spumoni Gardens , renowned for their square slices topped with tangy tomato sauce atop fresh mozzarella (and homemade spumoni). And at Tavola  in Hell’s Kitchen, Chef and Owner Nicola Accardi draws from his travels through Italy and serves out-of-this-world pizzas cooked to perfection in a 7,000-pound wood burning double oven made from Vesuvio volcanic clay. Yum!

4. Explore desserts in the West Village

Those with a sweet tooth should head to Manhattan’s West Village, home to NYC’s best sweeteries. Like cupcakes? Choose between Sweet Revenge, which specializes in pairing made-from-scratch cupcakes (think peanut butter cake stuffed with ganache and topped with peanut butter fudge) with wine and beer, or Molly’s Cupcakes  where you can make your own treat or choose from the decadent display case before sitting at one of the their courter swings or playing a board game from their expansive selection. If it’s gelato you’re after, Popbar serves artisanal gelato made fresh each day and dipped in sweet sauces before being coated in toppings. There’s also Grom , an Italian gelato company sourcing only the best ingredients, like organic stone fruits from Piedmont and lemons from Sicily. And at Ayza Wine & Chocolate Bar  one can indulge their cocoa craving with a selection of chocolate martinis, fondue, a chocolate fountain, dessert pizza, truffles, molten cake and more.

5. Go farm-to-fork

One way to get a true taste of local culture is through a farm-to-fork restaurant serving dishes crafted from locally-sourced ingredients. If you head to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and walk down Bedford Avenue and its surrounds, you’ll find almost nothing but, with sustainable eateries like Wild, Allswell , Traif  and Brooklyn Oenology , a New York winery also serving local nibbles. In Manhattan, don’t miss ABC Kitchen , where ingredients are not only locally and humanely sourced, but healthy and free of any chemicals or hormones. The grilled bread topped with house-made ricotta and fig compote, and the fried organic chicken with collard greens are both menu standouts.

Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture  as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey . She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.  You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram.

NYC on a Budget

By Jessica Festa


(Photo by Erik Drost)

While NYC is known for being pricey, it doesn’t have to be. All you need are a few insider tips and you’ll enjoy the best of the Big Apple on a budget. From free tours to complimentary nibbles, here are some top tips for New York on a budget, as told by a local.

1. Opt for free experiences

It’s a myth that everything in NYC costs a fortune. In fact, the city is full of complimentary experiences to enjoy. Wander lush and fun-filled grounds like Central and Prospect Parks, head to Bryant Park to learn juggling or take a yoga class, wander the inspiring Socrates Sculpture Park, see a show at Upright Citizens Brigade ($0-$10), take a free class at the New York Public Library, and keep your eyes peeled for free tastings at wine shops like Astor Wines & Spirits and Big Tree Bottles.

A number of world class museums offer donation-only based entry, like the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, National Museum of the American Indian and the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. If a museum isn’t free, check their website to see if they offer any special free days or evenings, as many do.4487307969_35184152e4_z

 (Photo by Tassilo von Parseval)

2. Skip the taxi

Depending where you need to go, you’ll often be able to reach a destination quicker when taking the subway, as you’ll skip the street traffic. Although NYC’s extensive transport map appears similar to a scary alien creature when you first look at it, it’s actually simple to understand — and can take you literally anywhere you need to go. The easiest way to navigate the subway is with an app like Embark  or HopStop, which both tell you exactly what you need to do to get from Point A to Point B. If you don’t have a smartphone, HopStop provides subway directions through its website.

3. Complimentary walking tours that rock

When planning a budget-friendly trip to NYC, don’t just book the first excursion that shows up in a Google search. First, check the offerings of Free Tours by Foot . This sightseeing company works on a tips-only basis, so the  walking excursions themselves are no charge. You’ll just need to make a reservation to reserve your spot. To show you just how varied their tour offerings are, some options include Ghosts of Greenwich Village, Gramercy Thrift and Vintage Shopping Day, Central Park, Brooklyn Graffiti And Street Art, and Harlem Food, to name a few.

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(Photo by Phil Roeder.)

 4. Use tools for hotel savings

Accommodation is often the most expensive part of an NYC stay. Save money by downloading apps and using tools designed just for that. For example, Hotel Tonight   allows you to save on unsold hotel rooms up to seven days before your trip. Moreover, Tingo  is a travel booking website that offers price drop refunds, meaning if your hotel room becomes cheaper after you book you’ll get the difference back. And with Priceline you can bid on hotel rooms — although you’ll only know the class of the hotel before you pay — and often score business and luxury class hotels for 50% or more off. You can also use tools like Groupon  and LivingSocial to find discounted hotels and travel packages — not to mention attractions and restaurants — typically offered at more than half off the original price.


hotel room via Jessica Festa

(Photo by Jessica Festa)

5. Find happy hours serving free food

Happy hour is a great time to score discounted food and drinks. Not only that, but at select venues in NYC you can also get free food, often with the purchase of a drink. While Agozar!  offers free tapas between 5 and 8pm, The Watering Hole  serves a free buffet between 5:30pm to 6:30pm on weekdays. Head to restaurants like Crocodile Lounge, Alligator Lounge  and Charleston  and you’ll be savoring your very own personal pizza pie. Do some research to see where you can stretch those dining dollars even farther with complimentary bites.


USA Student Tour can help you plan your next New York vacation! Check out these amazing New York vacation packages from USA Student Tour, including specials for teachers and students!

Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey.  Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.  You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram.




The Deep South is home to America’s music

It’s argued that the nation’s music began in the Mississippi River corridor, with jazz emerging from New Orleans and the blues migrating from the Delta into the streets of Memphis where it found its own and evolved into rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues and soul. In the rural areas another sound emerged, immigrated from the Old World and evolving as well into bluegrass, rockabilly and country.

Almost all of these distinct American styles can trace their ancestry to the Deep South.

In New Orleans, slaves and later freed African Americans congregated in Congo Square, playing drums and dancing. Their indigenous music would merge with church hymns, spirituals and classical instruments in an exciting new sound called jazz. Views differentiate on who started the lively new music, but most likely it was Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, who recorded the first jazz record and Jelly Roll Morton, who proclaimed, “It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I myself happen to be the inventor in the year 1902.”

Jazz music - saxophone player

Jazz music – saxophone player

Jazz migrated northward with bands like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and the sound filtrated to the East Coast and became a national and now international sensation.

About the same time African Americans were performing a style of music taken from the cotton fields of the Mississippi River Delta, hard luck stories and hopes sung while working. W.C. Handy heard this rhythmic sound while passing through and published a song based on his recollection. He would later become the “Father of the Blues,” publishing many more like it.

As people began demanding more “blues,” talent from the Mississippi Delta began pouring into Memphis and Chicago to earn money performing. Memphis’s Beale Street was the heart of the Southern action, and soon the place where record producers would start capturing this unique sound on vinyl.

Whether the blues originated distinctly in Mississippi is arguable, but as Steve Cheseborough writes in “Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues,” “Mississippians have always made up a large proportion of all blues singers and an overwhelming proportion of the finest blues singers.”

Ground Zero Blues Club - Photo Credit Chere Coen

Ground Zero Blues Club – Photo Credit Chere Coen

Today, New Orleans continues to celebrate its jazz heritage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and all types of jazz performed live in venues throughout the city. Pick up Cheseborough’s guide and visit the dozens of blues markers, museums and blues juke joints throughout Mississippi, such as B.B. King’s Museum and Ground Zero Blues Club. There are several of these well-developed markers outside of Mississippi as well, including Graceland, home to Elvis Presley; Ferriday, La., home to Jerry Lee Lewis; and several on and near Beale Street in Memphis.

Speaking of King Elvis, the most popular pop star in American history was born in Tupelo, Miss., earning his fame at the Louisiana Hayride radio show in Shreveport and recording his first hit at Sun Studios in Memphis, both of which are open for tours. Of course all fans will want to visit his Memphis home, Graceland, with its mansion, auto museum, private planes and special exhibits.

Sun Studio in Memphis - Photo Credit Chere Coen

Sun Studios in Memphis – Photo Credit Chere Coen

Visitors who take in the Smithsonian’s Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis will receive an interactive history of the many cultural elements leading to the formation of blues, rock, soul, rhythm and blues and country.

Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Photo Credit Chere Coen

Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Photo Credit Chere Coen

As Americans embraced rock ’n’ roll and country, however, a town east of Memphis began recording this widely popular new sound. Many people know Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for its inclusion in the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The small town is the site of numerous studios where recording rock greats performed — The Osmonds, Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Candi Stanton, Ottis Redding, and the list goes on and on. Visitors can tour FAME Studios and others and stand in the spot where Aretha Franklin recorded “I Never Loved a Man” or Rod Stewart sang “Tonight’s the Night.”

As with all Southern travel, everything relates to food, and nothing tastes better listening to America’s music than Deep South cooking.

Of course, Nashville is the heart of the nation’s country music industry, but a little too far north to be considered Deep South. And that’s the topic of another blog. Stay tuned.

If you are interested in visiting the southern states, check out our New Orleans Vacation Package and Nashville & Memphis Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at

Lafayette — Heart of Cajun Country & so much more

Lafayette, the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana, has been buzzing for several years now. Known for its vibrant Cajun and zydeco music, the town’s musicians have garnered international nods and raked up a few Grammys. Its culinary scene, once strictly a Cajun food mecca, has expanded and evolved, one of the reasons Lafayette was named “Best for Food” by Rand McNally’s 2011 “Best of the Road” contest and the 2012 “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.

Boiled crawfish with corn - a favorite Cajun dish

Boiled crawfish with corn – a favorite Cajun dish

The Lafayette Utilities System installed a citywide fiber optics service that’s been making headlines everywhere, attracting national companies and film professionals — Harry Potter’s 3-D effects were created here. And this past year Lafayette was named best in job growth and low unemployment and one of 20 finalists in the Mayor’s Challenge by Blumberg Philanthropies, picked from more than 300 cities nationwide.

Ask people who live in Lafayette, however, and they’ll tell you it’s the people who make it so special. Lafayette is rich in culture, history, food and fun and all of that stems from its residents. Here people work hard but at the end of the day love to eat good food, listen to great music and dance the night away. Or as they say in Cajun Country, “pass a good time” or “laissez les bon temps roullez” or “let the good times roll.”

So if you’re headed to Lafayette, be sure and bring your dance shoes. On any given night live music can be found in a variety of styles at a host of music venues, from roots rock at the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House to traditional Cajun and zydeco at restaurants with dance floors, such as Randol’s. There’s even a week of music classes, jam sessions and culinary instruction at the annual spring Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, for those who want to learn everything there is to know about Cajun and Creole culture — and join in the fun.

Blue Moon Saloon - credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Blue Moon Saloon – credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Every spring and fall Lafayette is home to world-renown festivals and free concert series are held in “parcs” in downtown Lafayette. Festival International de Louisiane takes over downtown streets with several stages of music, arts and crafts and of course that delectable cuisine on the last weekend of April. It’s one of the world’s largest free outdoor music events, bringing in musicians from all over the Francophone world. In October, Festivals Acadiens et Crèoles offers both traditional and modern Cajun and zydeco music on several stages in Girard Park, along with Louisiana crafts, food and cultural lectures. Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations range from the family-friendly parades and balls in town to the unique rural Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations, where participants ride horseback begging for ingredients to a gumbo. The annual courirs hail back to medieval times.

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

Lafayette’s historic sites explain area history of Cajun and Creole settlers, who created an American heritage like no other. Visitors may stroll back in time at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, and the historic Acadian Village. Both sites offer live music and special events year-round.

Attractions include the Zoo of Acadiana, the Children’s Museum of Acadiana, the Lafayette Science Museum and plenty of outdoors activities, from hunting and fishing to biking along established trails and canoeing and kayaking in nearby bayous and Lake Martin. There are several state parks nearby, including Lake Fausse Point, the Louisiana Arboretum, Chicot State Park and St. Martinville’s Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. All are fun destinations for those touring or sightseeing.

Louisiana Bayou - Lake Martin

Louisiana Bayou – Lake Martin

And because the Cajun culture is still vibrant in Lafayette and surrounding areas, it’s possible to hear French being spoken. There are weekly French tables throughout “Acadiana” where people gather for conversation and community and visitors are always welcome. And for those who want to bring their instruments, there are numerous jam sessions held monthly in the area as well, from the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk to regular sessions at the Scott Welcome Center. Age is never a consideration, not is the ability to sing in French.

Lafayette lies about two hours west of New Orleans and just south of Interstate 10. Known as “coastal South,” the weather is often hot and humid in the summer but fall and spring are gorgeous times to visit, with flowers blooming for months. Winters are practically non-existent. Because it’s almost a subtropical zone, rain showers are likely throughout most of the year, sometimes violent. Be prepared for sunshine one minute and thunderclaps the next.

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at