Friday, December 12, 2014

Pops' Travel Guide, IL Gioiello Winery and Morse Wines



I would like to tell you about a new find in the California Foothill Winery Region. On Thanksgiving my son brought over a bottle of Montepulciano - Il Gioiello - 2010 that he had picked up the week before on a wine trip to the Amador County foothill wineries. I have been drinking Montepulciano wines from Italy for years and would put this up against any of those. 

The following week I had planed on picking up my wine club shipments from 3 other wineries in the area so I decided to also go to  Il Gioiello. I usually stay in the area around Shenandoah and Steiner Roads and not the Fiddletown area so I was seeing something new. If you are driving from Plymouth like I was, you would stay straight instead of turning left on Shenandoah Road and on the other end of Fiddletown you will see signs directing you to the winery. 

For those of you not familiar with the area the foothill region is just east of Sacramento less than an hour away. The area spans El Dorado, Amador and just recently Placer counties. It is less crowded than Napa/Sonoma with excellent wines and great scenery. Most wineries have no charge for tasting which you won't find in Napa/Sonoma.

After tasting their wines I joined their wine club which is a testament in itself. I prefer red wines, mostly Italian style, and was impressed with both the red and white varietals. 

If you are in the Sacramento area for the many events that happen there throughout the year why not plan a day to visit the many wineries in the region. If you are in the region I would recommend checking out Il Gioiello  . 

I took this from their website to tell you about their winery. 

Robert Morse, the founder of MORSE WINES, purchased the estate property in 1999.  His desire was to create a place where lovers of fine wine could find exceptional values in wines that best express the terroir of our region. He selected varietals that would thrive in the region, and which therefore had the best potential for producing world class wines.

Our picturesque, serene property is located near the border of Amador and El Dorado Counties.  It is at approximately a 2300 foot elevation, with groves of pine trees as well as ancient oaks.   





Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pops' Travel Guide, My Top 8 Places To Go You May Never Have Heard Of (1 - 4)



In my travels I have been to a lot of places around the world and some are places that I had never heard of before. When thinking of a destination these might not be on your list but if you really want an adventure to some of the most scenic and unusual places on earth check these out. 

1. Langkawi, Malaysia



Langkawi Island is located on the northern tip of Malaysia close to the border with Thailand. Malaysia built up the island to be a tourist destination. It never really caught on. Not because of the experience, I think it wasn't marketed right. Anyway, it’s to the traveler's advantage that find this gem. If you are looking for a place to relax that also has outdoor activities, wildlife and a nightlife this is the destination for you.

The water is warm and the beaches have sand so fine that it reminds me of powdered sugar. You can go sailing around the islands or you can have someone drop you off on an island for the day where you have the entire island to yourself. There is a tram that takes you to the top of a mountain and a sky bridge with incredible views.  Wildlife is abundant with the eagles the island was named after. You will also find wild monkeys and flying lemurs. Until you get used to the flying lemurs they will scare the hell out of you at night when they fly above your head. There are a lot of monkeys and they can be aggressive if they think you have food. You’ll also see all kinds of reptiles and insects. 


One more thing: The entire island is duty free.

Hotels are scattered around the main island along the coast. The hotels come in all price ranges from the local brands to chains like Sheraton and Four Seasons. I have stayed at the Sheraton and a local hotel called the Holiday Villa Resort. The Holiday Villa Resort is a beautiful local hotel with a huge pool and swim up bar. It also sits on the largest beach on the island. Offshore there is a view of some of the smaller islands. The Sheraton is more secluded and sits on many acres. The resort is spread out among rolling hills and they have shuttles to take you around the resort. They have 3 options for dining and all 3 have views of the Andaman Sea. The Captains Grill has a beautiful outdoor seating area. (I haven’t stayed at the Four Seasons but check out the pictures on their website.)

There are beautiful beaches all around the island. Most of the hotels will have their own beach. Panta Cenang is a very long beach with sand like powdered sugar. You can rent jet skis or go parasailing. The Holiday Villa Resort is on this beach.


There is wildlife almost everywhere you go. Monkeys are everywhere and sometimes travel in what they call monkey gangs. They are not afraid of humans and if they think you have food will get pretty close. Be careful as they are wild. You can see the flying lemurs gliding from tree to tree. If you are not prepared they may startle you as they are pretty big. Lizards, eagles, and big insects are also found. The vegetation is very beautiful. Take time to enjoy the scenery.
Also, from the Sheraton you can watch the boats go out in the evening. The stop not too far out and fish for tiger prawns. You can see them at night as they have a light on board. These boats are small and usually have one person on board.
Other activities include diving, snorkeling, sunset cruises, tennis, bicycle riding, hiking, scooter rentals, fishing, shopping.

I have been there from Penang so I’ll comment on that. From Penang you can take a ferry directly to Langkawi. The trip takes about 3 hours. You can also fly from Penang or from other locations. Air Asia, Silk Air are some of the airlines. I know you can also fly directly from Singapore. Since I have been traveling to Malaysia for over 16 years I am used to driving. Remember you are driving on the other side of the road due to the British influence so driving may not be for everyone. Anyway, I drive from Penang to Kedah. The highways in Malaysia are very well maintained and the scenery is beautiful. From Kedah I take the ferry and the ferry ride is less than an hour. For those of you with the means, Langkawi has a beautiful yacht harbor.



I would say there are 2 options. It is very easy to find a taxi that will take you anywhere on the island. To drive all around the island takes about 1.5 hours. It’s not that big. The other option is more adventurous. If you are ok with driving on the other side of the road you can rent a car. The driving may not be the most adventurous part. When you get off the ferry you will be hit up for both taxis and rental cars. The car rental office could be in a building or just a table under a small tent in a field. The cars in either case leave a lot to be desired. Some are rusted out. And you’re lucky if you have more gas than you need to get to the closet petrol station. The good thing is the price matches the quality of the cars and you can get one real cheap. I would choose that option so you can drive around the island. Even if you are unsure about driving there is very little traffic and it would be a good place to practice for that trip to Ireland or England and you want to drive.  
 This is one of my favorite places on earth.








2. Penang, Malaysia



I have been traveling to Penang, Malaysia for 16 years having first been sent there for work for a 1 month stint. I went there with a team of people and was delegated the driver as I was the only one brave enough to drive on the other side of the road. After that trip I will not go without renting a car and driving myself, although getting around by taxi is certainly an option. It also prepared me for driving in other countries such as Ireland and England. 
I had no idea what to expect but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Malaysia and all that it has to offer. Malaysia is a multi-cultural country; Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian. Everyone lives in harmony. The world has a lot to learn from what I saw in Malaysia. The biggest benefit of so many cultures is that there is always a festival or holiday. I have been there during Ramadan, Diwali, Chinese New Year, and Christmas. The people are friendly and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The food is incredible, especially the seafood. With so many cultures you can have just about kind or food you can imagine. I have been to a traditional Muslim restaurant where I ate with my hand, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and even German, Brazilian BBQ and American. If you go to the malls you can find a Chili’s and TGIF if you want but I would recommend the local food. I even found an old chain that went out of business in my home town, Sacramento, Victoria Station.


If you are into history as I am you won’t be disappointed. The English have a strong presence here. Penang was half way between India and China and that is how the many cultures made it to the island. You will see temples, masques and churches. Some of my favorites are Kek Lok Si temple (I bought a tile for the new pagoda being built), the Snake Temple and the Reclining Buddha (largest in Southeast Asia). There is also Fort Cornwallis, The WWII Museum, Penang Hill and the E&O Hotel (Eastern & Oriental). You will see the British influence in the architecture; homes, the turf club and hotels.
Other sites are the Botanical Gardens where you will see monkey gangs, Ferringhi Beach with the night market, Georgetown, and the Penang Bridge.   

The island has an abundance of hotel options depending on what you want. The Ferringhi Beach area 
has many hotels lining the beach. There is a newer Hard Rock Hotel and a Holiday Inn along with many local brands. I usually stay at he Hotel Equatorial which is located closer to the bridge and the duty free zone in which I work. It is on a hill with an 18 hole golf course and country club. In the city center there are many options including the historic E&O Hotel. 

For shopping there are large malls like Gurney Plaza and the Queensbay Mall but I would recommend checking out the night markets to get the local flavor.

Don't be afraid to explore.







3. Zhuhai, China



If you have never been to China then Zhuhai is not the place to start. You would be better off going to Beijing, Xian or Shanghai. If you have already been to the tourist destinations and want to see mainland China and how people live, then I would suggest Zhuhai. 

After flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong I took a ferry from Hong Kong to Zhuhai. At the airport in Hong Kong there is a very modern transit rail that runs every ten minutes to the central Hong Kong station. From there you can take a quick taxi to the ferry terminal. From there, the ferries run quite often to many destinations in the Pearl River Delta on the mainland of China. One popular destination is Macau for the gambling. I wrote about Macau in a previous post. I choose to take the ferry to Zhuhai. The ferries are inexpensive and I would recommend a VIP ticket. With that you get a room, most of the time to yourself but sometimes there may be someone in the room with you. You also get water, and snacks. After the long flight to Hong Kong it is a welcome chance to relax and enjoy the fifty-five minute ride to the mainland. The view of the Hong Kong harbor is also worth it. You don’t have to fly into Hong Kong. You can begin your journey from any city in China by flying there direct.
Arriving in Zhuhai you will need to go through customs and immigration. They will check your passport and visa but it is pretty painless and only takes a few minutes to get through. The first thing you should do is take a taxi to your hotel. In Zhuhai I would recommend the Holiday Inn in the Jida district. It is a high rise hotel with all the things you would expect in a hotel back home. Jida has a lot of shopping and restaurants. You have had a very busy day traveling from the United States so get to the hotel, relax and get something to eat in the hotel. Language will not be an issue in most international hotels and the staff is very helpful and friendly.
Zhuhai is on the Chinese mainland on the border with Macau and about an hour from Guangzhou. It is in the Pearl River Delta what was once Canton. Zhuhai is considered to be on the Chinese Rivera. Although it is not well known by international tourists it is a place where many expats work and live. Because of that there are international stores and restaurants. There are tourist attractions, shopping, beaches and nightlife.
The Jida district has the largest shopping mall in Zhuhai. There you will be able to buy designer apparel. The Gongbei Underground Market is under the border between Zhuhai and Macau. It is a huge shopping complex but beware that most everything is a knock-off. There are also international stores throughout Zhuhai such as Carrefour, Vangard and Jusco.
The New Yuan Ming Palace is a replica based on the original Yuanmingyuan Garden in Beijing; it is an imitation garden comprising eighteen of the original forty sights. The delicate Chinese palaces, buildings, and pavilions show the imperial architecture of the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) and classical garden layout of south China. The Western architecture in the west part of the New Yuanming Palace manifests classic European style. Pops highly recommends it.




Cross the border into Macau. As Hong Kong was under British rule, Macau was under Portuguese control until just recently. You will be able to see the Portuguese influence in the architecture. There is also the gambling, largest gambling area in the world. It is larger than Las Vegas.


The Meixi Archways tourist area consists of four parts: three exquisite granite archways built in the Qing Dynasty; the former residence of Chen Fang, an outstanding overseas Chinese and first Chinese consul in Hawaii in the late Qing Dynasty; the personal garden of Chen; the Chen's family graveyard.


The Fisher Girl is a statue sitting in the harbor in Zhuhai. The legend of the Fisher Girl is very similar to that of the Little Mermaid. The park close to the statue is also a great place to hang out and maybe fly a kite. You can purchase one there.




Zhuhai International Raceway is China’s first motor sports track. It was designed with Formula One in mind.
Pops would recommend going to Bar Street. Bar Street is lined with restaurants and bars with all kinds of food and live entertainment. Also, with the high expat population you will be able to find any kind of food including German, Italian, Japanese, and American. If you have an urge for American fast-food there are McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Burger King and Pizza Huts throughout the city. From my experience I found the most popular fast-food chain in China to be KFC. 
Lovers Road is a promenade along the coastline. It offers a beautiful view of Macau at night. There is also street entertainment along the walk.









4. Zhangjiajie, China

If you are thinking of a destination off the beaten track then this is the place to see. I would never have thought of going here if not for a recommendation from a Chinese friend of mine. Not only is it unknown to most people it is also a journey to get there. 

In 2011, I made the trek to Zhangjiajie by flying into Hong Kong, taking the ferry to Zhuhai, a train to Guangzhou, a bullet train (speeds of almost 200 mph) to Changsha and another train to Zhangjiajie. On the trains you’ll see beautiful scenery, interesting people and a live infomercial or two (the trains will make up another blog). Once you get there the city of Zhangjiajie is very small, clean and remote. I stayed at a beautiful Accor Hotel with a European staff that was very friendly. There were 3 restaurants (western, Chinese, coffee shop), a nice pool and the rooms were spacious and modern. The taxi ride to the main gate of the park was 5 minutes. 

Do you know where the inspiration for the planet in Avatar came from with the floating mountains and tall pillars? The inspiration came from a national park in the Hunan province in China, Zhangjiajie.


They put this up for the film Avatar.







In 1982 it was recognized as China's first national forest park with an area of 4,810 ha (11,900 acres). Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is part of a much larger 397.5 km2 (153.5 sq mi) Wulingyuan Scenic Area. In 1992, Wulingyuan was officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was then approved by the Ministry of Land and Resources as Zhangjiajie Sandstone Peak Forest National Geopark (3,600 km2 (1,400 sq mi)) in 2001. In 2004, Zhangjiajie Geopark was listed as a UNESCO Global Geopark.


This formation is called Fairie Presenting Flowers


This is one of the formations used in the film


The most notable geographic features of the park are the pillar-like formations that are seen throughout the park. They are the result of many years of erosion. The weather is moist year round, and as a result, the foliage is very dense. Much of the erosion which forms these pillars is the result of expanding ice in the winter and the plants which grow on them. These formations are a distinct hallmark of Chinese landscape, and can be found in many ancient Chinese paintings.

One of the park's quartz-sandstone pillars, the 3,544-foot (1,080 m) Southern Sky Column, had been officially renamed "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain" in honor of the film in January 2010. According to park officials, photographs from Zhangjiajie inspired the floating Hallelujah Mountains seen in the film. The film's director and production designers said that they drew inspiration for the floating rocks from mountains from around the world, including those in the Hunan province.


This is a fossil of a sea tortoise


This the elevator that took us back down. We had ridden a tram on the way up. The elevator is bolted to the side of the cliff.


One note: Zhangjiajie is a national park and is very rugged so if you are unable to hike or are afraid of heights, maybe this isn't the trip for you.    


If this is what you are looking for then I would highly recommend it. There are many sections of the park. I rode a gondola to the top and took free buses from section to section. At the end I rode a glass elevator bolted to the side of a cliff that took us to the floor. Also, there are lakes, rivers and caves to explore. I would have to say it was one of the most beautiful places I have been to. For more information here are a few links.


The Red Bull team in Zhangjiajie with a must see video:  



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pops' Travel Guide, ATV Tour in Jaco, Costa Rica



If you are in Jaco, Costa Rica and have the time I would suggest an ATV tour. Jaco is on the Pacific side of Costa Rica about in the center of the coast. I tried several different tour operators. All offered a great tour with each one taking you on different terrain.






The tours I went on started in Jaco and headed inland. Some go high into the mountains and one stayed on mostly flat terrain but crossed several streams. Most end up at a waterfall and believe me, by the time you get there you are ready to jump into the pool at the bottom of the falls. I enjoyed every tour I went on.



One of the unexpected sites was as you head inland you pass many small villages that I had no idea were there. Some of the villages had a bull fighting arena. The roads back there are a combination of paved and dirt roads with mud holes, rivers and jungle.






You can book any length of tour but I would suggest either the three of four hour tour. They both give you time at the waterfall to relax in the water before heading back. The mountain tour ends up at a small outdoor cafe for food and drinks and they also have a tarzan swing if you want to try that. The flatter tour with more river crossings has several bars in the villages where you can stop and get a beer.










Since you will have a lot of tour operators to choose from I would look around and pick the right one for you. You don't have to go far. Along the main street are many places to get information. Also, I've talked to families that also took their teenage children and they had a blast.







One thing to note, you are crossing rivers and going through mud holes. Wear clothes and shoes you don't mind getting dirty. The tours are also very dusty. I would bring a bandanna. You can also buy one from the tour operator. You'll need it.





Bring water and a camera and enjoy.

I plan on going again when I am in Jaco in January 2015.