Fight For Your Right: Get AirHelp

Let’s start this off with a little gratitude: Flying is a thrill. It’s a helluva privilege. And it’s a truly unbelievable thing—something we have to remind ourselves of constantly as we sit in that (hopefully) sanitized fabric seat, our knees screaming for an inch of movement, and our eyes shifting continually over to that hot coffee placed precariously on that flimsy tray. Really, the ultimate goal when flying is to try not to think of that industrially made bird your trapped in as a strange, stale, claustrophobic purgatory between departure and destination. No, this plane is doing something downright miraculous. (Louie C.K. expresses this in a far funnier way.)

But this doesn’t mean airlines should have free reign to take advantage of said miracle. Yes, their #1 priority damn well better be safety. And, yes, travelers expect there to be delays, cancellations, and unforeseen circumstances when dealing with big chunks of manmade metal navigating the stratosphere. When these annoyances inevitably arise, we remind ourselves that patience is a virtue—and so are overpriced airport bars. Complaints—and maybe even a resolution to never use that damn airline again—are aired, and that’s usually the end of it. Because many of us don’t realize we’re legally entitled to more.

Can’t complain with bubbly on the plane…

But we are! And I found this out after dealing with multiple delays, a cancellation, and some truly apathetic customer service from Air Canada. In my quest for some type of compensation after being in airport limbo for three-plus days, I stumbled upon a start-up called AirHelp. In a nutshell, they took on the legal legwork and I was rewarded with a check to the tune of nearly half the price of my international ticket. Here’s the deal, summed up by TechCrunch:

“For a delayed, canceled or overbooked flight in Europe, you can get up to $800 per flight. In the U.S., you could end up with $1,300 for an overbooked flight. That’s why airlines will fight you very hard not to give you your money back. According to AirHelp, only 0.1 percent of eligible passengers get their compensation.”

On AirHelp’s homepage, this is their promise: “If you’ve been on a delayed or cancelled flight or been denied boarding within the last three years you could be entitled up to $800 from the airline.” And, from my experience, they come through. Working with AirHelp was such a seamless and smooth process that I had to spread the love here. Sure, they take a hefty 25% cut, but it was far better than what Air Canada had offered me, which was nothing but a meal ticket (a measly $10) that didn’t even cover a full breakfast at the Toronto Airport.

Departures Board at Athens Airport

Departures Board at Athens Airport

Even after writing a lengthy email to Air Canada’s customer service intricately describing our bad experience—which included a cancellation on a flight from Athens to Toronto; a lengthy, hot bus ride to a hotel straight out of Caddyshack; limited communication as to when the next flight would be available; another three-hour delay once that flight was available; an overnight stay at the Toronto airport; and a whole lot of bad attitudes from every Air Canada employee we crossed—they only offered an apology, but not before saying this:

“While we make every effort to operate our flights as scheduled, regretfully, delays and cancellations occur sometimes. Most passengers will accept the inconvenience and understand that their safe travel must always be our first priority.”

That last sentence—that’s a problem. People quietly (and frustratingly) accept it because they’ve been made to think there are no other options other than accepting a crappy, half-paid airport meal. But as any elementary social studies class will teach, a broken system doesn’t change without a few squeaky wheels to raise attention and demand something better and fairer. Now, if those squeaky wheels happen to be attached to an airplane, by all means, airlines, delay that flight and fix them—and then have a Plan B. Otherwise, you’re legally obligated to pay up, and services like AirHelp are there to make sure of it.

PhotoPhile Preview: Tulum, Mexico

Here are two photos from the Mayan Riviera to get you excited for Tulum, Mexico!!

Handstand Steph showing off her skills. More on Handstand Steph: https://twitter.com/handstandsteph

Handstand Steph showing off her skills. More on Handstand Steph: https://twitter.com/handstandsteph

Climbing the pyramid of Chac Mool at Coba near Tulum, Mexico.

Climbing the pyramid of Chac Mool at Coba near Tulum, Mexico.

The beautiful beaches of Tulum along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico.

The beautiful beaches of Tulum along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico.

San Francisco’s Best Running Trails

Trail on Baker Beach at Battery Chamberlin

Trail on Baker Beach at Battery Chamberlin

From hippies to techies, love-ins to hack-a-thons, the culture of San Francisco has certainly changed throughout the decades. But one thing has remained the same: the city’s awe-inspiring natural beauty. There’s eye candy surrounding nearly every nook and cranny of San Francisco, whether you’re up for taking a jog through Nob Hill, the Marina, Pacific Heights, the Presidio, even the FiDi and the Mission. It’s truly the greatest motivation to get your butt outside and moving. So, here, I’ve cobbled together a few of the city’s best urban jogging routes that will take you through breathtaking sites, streets, sidewalks, paths, natural green areas, boardwalks, and beaches. No gym membership necessary, however a word of caution: It’s always critical to watch where you’re walking/running in this city, as you may end up stepping on a stinky surprise from either dog or human… Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Running the Macchiarini stairs to Coit Tower.

Running the Macchiarini stairs to Coit Tower.

We’ll begin at our own neighborhood, with what we’ve dubbed, “The Russian-Nob Circuit,” developed and created by HandstandSteph with consultation by JCrew.

The Russian-Nob Circuit:

Rough Mileage: 0.6 miles one way, to the point you reach the Green Street stairs on the left side of Taylor Street.
Level of Difficulty –
Moderate-Difficult depending on how many hills you do and how fast you go.
Extra Challenge:
Make it a 6-, 8-, or 10-hill workout that spans Nob Hill and Russian Hill (see below for more details).

Steph conquering the Broadway stairs on the 'Russian Nob" Circuit.

Steph conquering the Broadway stairs on the ‘Russian Nob” Circuit.

A- Begin at Pine and Taylor, which is a block down the hill from Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill. Run up and down the Taylor Hill twice, preferably from the wider left hand side, where the Masonic Center stands. Proceed north up Taylor, running toward Broadway. (Optional: Note the beauty of Grace Cathedral and, if you’re feeling extra energetic, jog up the steps past the maze, exit the Cathedral grounds on Sacramento, then head down to rejoin Taylor Street.) B- Make a left turn at Broadway and run up the hill. At the top, admire the awesome view of North Beach, the Transamerica building, and the Bay Bridge.(Optional: Run the Broadway steps twice, once on each side, for an extra kick in the butt.) Turn left and continue upward (with another big hill) on Taylor. C- At the top, and to the right, you’ll come across Ina Coolbrith Park between Green Street and Broadway. This hidden gem has a beautiful and winding staircase leading to Chinatown then North Beach. Run up and down these stairs a couple times. If you’re feeling strong, continue on Taylor until you reach the Green Street steps to the left. D- Go straight up the narrow, steep staircase, which connects to Green Street. I recommend doing these steps hard at least once or even twice before heading to Jones Street and making your way back to Pine Street.

The Steps of Ina Coolbrith Park on the Russian Nob Circuit.

The Steps of Ina Coolbrith Park on the Russian Nob Circuit.

Recommended Pit Stop: Once finishing the Green Street steps, run about three blocks to Hyde Street. Take a left and continue on Hyde until you get to California Street (there are a few extra hills here to add to that workout!). Reward yourself with a treat or cup of Stumptown coffee at Flour and Co., located at 1030 Hyde Street.

The Lyon Street Steps of the Presidio:                                                        

Rough Mileage: Nearly 300 steps.
Level of Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult, depending on your speed and frequency.

Looking down from the Lyon Street Stairs.

Looking down from the Lyon Street Stairs.

A- Begin at Broadway and Lyon, at the top of the stairs. I usually start from the top of the hill and walk down to prepare the ascent up the majestic Lyon Street steps. On weekends and sunny days, prepare for tourists and locals with cameras, because the view is vast and regal. On the way down the stairs note the Palace of the Fine Arts and the wondrous blue hues of the Bay ahead, as well as the lush, green Presidio to the left. B- Prepare for 288 steps, broken up into a few different staircases. From the bottom, the first half is steeper than the second half, so don’t lose hope! From there, at Vallejo, the steps get wider and are broken up into a few sections, which are flanked by elegant landscaping. At the top, you’ve reached one of the wealthiest streets on the West Coast (home to the Levi family and more) — congrats.

Steph at the bottom of the Lyon Street steps.

Steph at the bottom of the Lyon Street steps.

Extra Challenge: For a more comprehensive workout, add some push-ups and crunches at the top, then head back down and repeat until your legs shake uncontrollably. Be sure to stretch (particularly the calves and the derrière) once finished, as this stairway workout is guaranteed to hurt at least a day or two.

Coit Tower Run

Rough Mileage: 0.40 miles from bottom to top of the Filbert Steps
Level of Difficulty:
Easy-Moderate, depending on where you begin

Peter Macchiarini stairs leading to Coit Tower.

Peter Macchiarini stairs leading to Coit Tower.

A- You can either start at Kearny and Broadway (to get in some more mileage) or Filbert and Columbus, where you’ll run to the start of the Coit Tower path. Starting at Kearny and Broadway will lead you to the Macchiarini stairs. Here, you’ll encounter fewer people, but will have to contend with two steep hills, with uneven steps to add to the fun. Be careful of scattered trash and people stopping on the steps. If you begin at Filbert and Columbus, you’ll experience a gradual incline until you hit the Filbert Steps.B- Once you’ve reached the steps and path leading to Coit Tower you’ll see more people angling for pictures and admiring the awesome views of Downtown SF, including landmarks like the Transamerica building, North Beach and the Embarcadero. Take the stairs to the main trail leading to Coit or divert off-trail and on to the dirt for incredible views of North Beach and beyond. You’ll reach Coit Tower within 5-10 minutes. If you’re looking for a quick workout with moderate ease, this is your best urban workout.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

The Embarcadero Waterfront Route

Rough Mileage: From approximately 1.5 to over 2 miles.
Level of Difficulty: Easy-Moderate, depending on speed.

The ultimate run through the “concrete jungle,” the Embarcadero path is ideal and very convenient for even those coming from outside the city. Depending where you begin — good starting points include the Ferry Building, AT&T Park, or Fisherman’s Wharf — you’ll see many of San Francisco’s leading attractions. There are typically many local runners that take this path, helping to motivate any beginner runner. If that’s not motivation enough, breezy views of Coit Tower, the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, Alcatraz, and more will leave your senses overwhelmed.

Tip: Run early or later in the day to avoid higher foot-traffic times.

Coastal Trail Battery Path                                                           

Rough Mileage: 3.2 miles
Level of Difficulty: Moderate-Tricky, due to trail conditions

In awe of the Golden Gate Bridge along the Coastal Battery Trail.

In awe of the Golden Gate Bridge along the Coastal Battery Trail.

This is a very scenic and, thus, very popular trail with its sweeping bay and ocean views. Start at Battery Chamberlin on Baker Beach, or overlooking Baker Beach on the dirt path along Lincoln Avenue. The main appeal of this trail is the breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Along the way, you’ll pass numerous artifacts of military history — generations of coastal defenses line the Coastal Trail between Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. The batteries along this portion of the Coastal Trail generally predate the great wars of the 20th century — Batteries East and West were erected just after the Civil War. From these forts to Nike missile sites, San Francisco’s seacoast is evidence of how the art of war and defense has evolved over the decades.

Steph checks out the numerous batteries along the Coastal Trail Battery Path.

Steph checks out the numerous batteries along the Coastal Trail Battery Path.

Tip: This is a true running trail, so beware of loose dirt, uneven ground, and rocky areas.

More Great Workout Zones in SF:

  1. Golden Gate Park: This large, lush park is littered with trails — like the ones circling Stow Lake and going up Strawberry Hills — and even offers a well-maintained track for sprinters and stair-runners at Kezar Stadium.

    Steph handstanding near Lovers Lane among one of many Presidio paths and trails.

    Steph handstanding near Lovers Lane among one of many Presidio paths and trails.

  2. Bernal Hill: This Outer Mission park/nature area has it all: trails, views, and elevation. There are various starting points here to get to the main trail, which circles the hill and rewards you with spectacular views of the city. You’ll be sharing the trail with lots of neighborhood residents and dog-walkers.

    Your SF trail/workout warriors in the Presidio.

    Your SF trail/workout warriors in the Presidio.

  3. The Presidio: One of the more underrated neighborhoods in the city, the Presidio boasts numerous scenic trails (including the Coastal Trail Battery Path mentioned above) that snake through lush sections of forest and along the coast. This is a great resource for specific trail information: http://www.presidio.gov/explore/trails/Pages/default.aspx

San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs

A look at the bridge from Marshall's Beach

Climbing rocks to catch a glimpse of the great Golden Gate from Marshall’s Beach

This October marked my 10th anniversary in San Francisco. Yes, I’ve seen this city change dramatically, and, yes, it has become grossly expensive. The streets are a messy dichotomy of new construction and rotting feces. Beloved spots are hastily transforming into faceless condos, while too many of its people miss out on its quirks and quaintness because they’re staring down at a screen. But enough has been bitched about regarding growing economic disparity, greedy landlords, corporate takeovers, Zuckerberg and Google buses, “bro”-grammers and millenials swooping into a city whose history they don’t give one damn about it. I’m not here to add to that circular conversation, or romanticize San Francisco’s more culturally stimulating “better times,” or to yell at these kids to get off my lawn (I’m just an expat from the Midwest, after all).

Bird's Eye View of San Francisco

Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco

This little piece here is simply a reflection and a humble tribute to the city that’s informed much of who I am today, even if I don’t recognize some of its initial charm anymore — just as I probably wouldn’t recognize much of my younger self, a green, young college grad moving west with flowers in hair and tie-dyed dreams in head. I took to moving to the place that inspired the Beats and the Summer of Love with equal parts youthful curiosity and good old-fashioned culture shock. I played “Grace” to my best gay friend and new roommate’s “Will,” as any good single young woman would do in the rainbow-lined utopia of San Francisco.

Idyllic hilltop view of the Coit Tower, at Taylor and Vallejo Streets (Ina Coolbrith Park).

Idyllic hilltop view of the Coit Tower, at Taylor and Vallejo Streets (Ina Coolbrith Park).

It was 2004 and I thought nothing of Google, but I did have an AOL account (still use it too!). The Giants played at “Pac Bell Park,” a bus ride was $1.25 (now it’s a whole dollar more), the Mission had the perfect amount of grit and dive bars for a twentysomething making $10 an hour to thrive (pretty sure that’s no longer possible), and owning a car was incredibly rare (complaints about traffic and parking are now, unfortunately, abundant). My first experience at The Independent was viewing a local film about living along Divisadero Street. My first time at the Warfield was alone, after navigating a hasty walk through the Tenderloin and managing to score a face-value ticket for a sold-out show. I worked in SOMA, where eating establishments were limited, and ghosts of the dot.com boom hid in the shadows, waiting for the next bubble to distend. It was a fairly quintessential post-grad urban life, in which I learned to walk the streets confidently, make connections naturally, and hustle just enough to live as comfortably as one can in the living room of a shared junior one-bedroom apartment.

An old, dilapidated church makes way for another new condo complex at 1601 Larkin

An old, dilapidated church makes way for another new condo complex at 1601 Larkin

Fast forward a decade and I feel a bit more, let’s say, uneasy in this city, or at least frustrated — as most of us are — with its moneyed metamorphosis. I don’t believe there’s any one enemy to point to regarding this city’s extreme and quick gentrification and, well, suburbanization. I do believe, however, that this is a strikingly beautiful city, one that’s often been the site of incredible inspiration and change, and one that’s always attracted dreamers and schemers who have had the power (and $$$) to transform its quaint 7×7 limits in a few fell swoops of a golden wand. As one of those dreamers who despise those schemers, I’m still truly grateful to have been able to call San Francisco home. It’s been 10 whole years in this oft-romanticized city and still nothing can stop that great Golden Gate from taking my breath away.

To celebrate each year, I present 10 local spots, which I’ve counted on throughout the years to satiate my palate for great music, food, wine, or to simply get a killer workout that never fails to reward with a spectacular view.

1. Baker & Marshall’s Beach: Not only do these beaches allow for an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge (and a few bare butts, too), there’s also a fantastic trail that links the two beaches, as well as the daunting “sand ladder” that leads you down to Baker Beach. This is one of my favorite spots for a photo op and a kick-butt workout.

2. The Independent, NoPa: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad show here. Some highlights: A friend getting kicked out after heckling Anton from Brian Jonestown Massacre; a Green Day “secret show”; interviewing the xx backstage; Clinic in their medical masks, Four Tet, Tricky, Band of Horses, so many more… Bottom of the Hill is a close second as far as awesome, small live music spots.

Handstand Tribute to the Bridge

Handstand Tribute to the Bridge

3. Darwin Café, SoMa: A quaint restaurant/café tucked in an alley in SoMa, Darwin Café never seems to fail with its selection of succulent salads and sandwiches that uniquely blend high-quality, nutritious, and seasonal ingredients. Their kale salad is an easy go-to, so are there relatively cheap baguette sandwiches (just $5.50), but with an ever-evolving menu (they switch it out every two weeks), I’m here at least once a week trying out a new lunch option.

4. The Barrel Room, TenderNob: An unassuming wine spot in another alley — this one off Taylor Street, halfway between touristy Union Square and the gritty Tenderloin — the Barrel Room was previously the home of the Hidden Vine (now in a much bigger space in the FiDi). From the alleyway, you have to carefully descend some rickety, carpeted stairs before landing underground in what feels like an effortlessly stately, wine-swilling grandfather’s living room. I prefer the small, dark nooks for intimate convos, which go well with a regional wine flight and the artichoke flatbread.

Contemplating life in SF from the soon-to-be-defunct Empress of China

Contemplating life in SF from the soon-to-be-defunct Empress of China, a kitschy restaurant/cocktail bar overlooking Chinatown and downtown.

5. The Fillmore, Western Addition: No so-called music fan can go long in San Francisco without going to this vaunted venue, where the poster of the night can sometimes outdo the show itself. There’s an inexplicable energy to the place, as ghosts of musical icons past haunt the hallways, whose walls are perfectly tiled in priceless psychedelic paraphernalia promoting badass shows through the decades, from The Grateful Dead to Pink Floyd to Spiritualized (one of my finest memories here). Worth the price of admission just to gawk at the posters and feel the lingering vibrations of one of America’s most important rock venues.

6. Golden Gate Park: This was where I would religiously spend my early mornings, four days a week, as a bootcamper with Koi Fitness. There are so many hidden trails and gems in this vast green patch that covers the western center of the city, from the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences to Strawberry Hill and Stow Lake to the Conservatory of Flowers, the roaming bison, and the Dutch Windmill. There always seems to be new nooks and crannies to uncover here.

Alcatraz innocently glows from afar

Alcatraz innocently glows from afar

7. Amoeba Records, Upper Haight: Another iconic spot for music junkies, this is where I purchased my first piece of vinyl. See, I grew up on cassettes and CDs, but when I was young I’d sneak down to the basement in my parents’ house and listen to my dad’s old Beatles records obsessively — this is really when my love for music sprouted. So, when I finally got my own record player years later, my first stop was here. Intimidated as hell by the street kids outside and the music dorks and snobs inside this beast, I went straight for Abbey Road first, as boring and cliché as that may be — I’m sorry, but a record collection without a Beatles album is suspect.

8. Broadway-Columbus-Kearny Triangle, North Beach: This has become a favorite weekend afternoon spot for Julian and I to sip on Four Barrel coffee from Reveille Coffee Co., while catching rays on the adjacent outdoor benches that overlook the iconic copper-green Sentinel Building occupied by Francis Ford Coppola’s film studio. For a bite, we’ll head just across the street to The Station SF, which serves a mean avocado-veggie toast combo, and then head back on Columbus to Brioche Bakery, which serves local French chef Alexandre Trouan’s L’Artisan Gourmet Parisian Macarons, a perfectly packaged two-bite sweet. After filling up, we’ll dash into Urban Sidewalk, a cozy clothing boutique featuring local and independent designers at reasonable prices, and then cross the street to the historic City Lights Bookstore for a whiff of Beat history and some especially great staff picks.

Transamerica Building, Downtown SF

Transamerica Building, between near North Beach and the FiDi

9. Grand View Park, Inner Sunset: While I initially dreaded heading to this spot as part of one of my bootcamp’s hardest uphill running workouts (start from the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and you’ll understand), it was always a delight to get to the top of this thing and take in some spectacular 360 views, from the ocean to the Bay Bridge (as long as the fog had somewhat dissipated).

10. Darbar Restaurant, Polk Gulch/Nob Hill: A hole-in-the-wall next to a lingerie shop on Polk Street, this Indian/Pakistani spot was where I had my first try of Indian food some 10 years ago (the naan sold me immediately), and it’s now become a neighborhood standby for Julian and me. The service and ambiance are little to be desired, but the tongue-tingling spices, fluffy cheese naan, and affordable prices (under $30 for a filling meal for two) keep us coming back regularly. An alternate cheap eat can be found at Nob Hill haunt Fresh Brew Coffee, where you can find one of the city’s best banh mi sandwiches for under $5.

101 Music in North Beach

101 Music in North Beach

Lastly… though music is a sadly fading scene in San Francisco (check out Exit Music: Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco. Can the City’s Legendary Scene Survive? for an excellent report on this from SF Weekly’s Ian S. Port), it still defines a lot of why I was attracted to this city and how I’ve enjoyed my days here. So, without further ado, here’s San Francisco in 20 Songs:

Otis Redding, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”
Girls, “Life in San Francisco”
Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
The Animals, “San Franciscan Nights”
Grateful Dead, “Truckin'”
Janis Joplin & The Big Brother Holding Company, “Summertime”
Rogue Wave, “California”
Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Anemone”
Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”
Chris Isaak, “San Francisco Days”
Foxygen, “San Francisco”
Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”
Faith No More, “Epic”
Flipper, “Sex Bomb”
Primus, “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers”
Arctic Monkeys, “Fake Tales of San Francisco”
The Dodos, “Fools”
The Fresh & Onlys, “Drugs”
Thee Oh Sees, “The Dream”

PhotoPhiles Volume IV: The Crete Edition

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Handstand Steph saluting the Libyan Sea from the caves above Matala Beach in Southern Crete

Words by: Stephanie Benson  |  Photos by: JCrew and HandstandSteph

PhotoPhiles is a recurring feature spotlighting some of our favorite photos taken on and off the road. In this fourth edition, we welcome you to the mystical Greek island of Crete, home to Zeus, the Minoans, and yes, even Zach Galifianakis. Greece’s biggest island encapsulates a dichotomy of unspoiled beauty and rugged living. This is the island for beach-bumming (and bum-sunning—lots of nudist beaches for those so inclined). Our favorite beach areas were in and near the small Southern town of Matala, where the secluded Red Beach requires a good 30-minute rocky hike, and where Kommos Beach offers a long stretch of sand and some incredible views for watching the sun melt into the Libyan Sea. For a real adventure, take the long, narrow, switchback-filled road from Kissamos or Chania to the spectacular Elafonisi Beach, where you’ll be transported to French Polynesia with its crystal-clear aquamarine waters lapping serenely against soft, white (sometimes even pinkish) sand. Note: This is a hot tourist spot, so the swarms of people can take away from the postcard-worthy splendor.

Beyond the beaches, are more terrifyingly twisty roads that snake through tiny villages, olive groves, and fascinating archaeological sites. Meanwhile, Crete’s biggest cities—Heraklion, Rethymno, and Chania—offer more urban adventuring. Stay tuned for more words on Crete in an upcoming post. For now, just take in the virtual view…

Matala Beach

Matala Beach, dotted with necessary sunshades, sits below the famed caves

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The Tree of Life—hippie style—greeting you to the lovely beach town of Matala

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Matala Beach, in perfect symmetry

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In love with Matala Beach’s half-heart-shaped curves

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JCrew climbing great heights among the caves in Matala

A cacti-eye view from Phaistos, one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization. It was inhabited from the Neolithic period to the 15th century B.C.

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JCrew exploring the ruins of Phaistos. Unlike the more popular Knossos, this is a mostly untouched site that has not been restored.

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Athena, aka Handstand Steph, setting down fort at Phaistos.

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Cretan culinary delights: feta + olives, dakos salad, and fresh dolmas.

The beauty of Crete

At Kommos Beach, watching the great big solar bulb dissolve into the Libyan Sea.

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The drive-thru, Cretan style. Get your raki, wine and olive oil for just one euro while passing through in Mires.

Beautiful Crete

Handstand Steph walking on water on the jaw-dropping Elafonisi Beach, a slice of a tropical paradise with every hue of blue represented.

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Handstand Steph windswept at Falassarna Beach

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JCrew enjoying the best gyro ever in a tiny eatery in the middle of Rethymno

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The regal splendor of Chania

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Steph at the Turkish Mosque Yiali Tzami at the Venetian Harbour in Chania.

Chania’s chapel of Agios Nikolaos, aka St. Niklaus Church, was once a mosque.

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Steph enjoying the sun and downtown views from the balcony at the stylish Galaxy Hotel in Iraklio.

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The Vrontisiou Monastery on the south slope of the Psiloritis Mountain, which sits a little to the northwest of the town of Zaros.

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Why did the sheep cross the road?

 

PhotoPhiles Volume III: The Santorini Edition

The beauty of Santorini!

Pristine whites against breathtaking blues on the majestic island of Santorini.

PhotoPhiles is a recurring feature spotlighting some of our favorite photos taken on and off the road. In this third edition, we welcome you to the fantastical Greek island of Santorini, well-known to many as one of the most stunning and romantic places on Earth. Only with divine destruction could such surreal beauty emerge. The small island’s literal earth-shattering origins are a constant reminder as one walks, scoots, or ATVs along the jagged edges of the caldera. No, pictures don’t even come close to doing this land justice, but we’re willing to at least give it a try…

Handstand Steph ventures to the edge of paradise along the Fira-Oia path. We hiked through Firà, Firostefáni and Imerovígli, tracing the caldera and taking in incredible views every step of the way.

Cafe view in Oia had JCrew in disbelief and bliss.

JCrew enjoys a mighty cup of brew, a perfect complement to Oia’s ridiculous views.

This is where the 9km walk really turns into a hike, with near desert-like conditions. Bring water!

A thin slice of land topped with cream and sandwiched between endless serenity.

Red Beach, Santorini Salute!

JCrew shows his respect for the blazing beauty of Santorini’s Red Beach.

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No, this isn’t a funky cottage with amazing style — it’s part of a church near Red Beach in Akrotiri.

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Handstand Steph salutes the windmill and shows off her skills on the steps leading to Amoudi Bay

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Classic Santorini, sunhat and all.

Sanotrini as it is today comes from a volcanic eruption.

A constant reminder of Santorini’s volcanic roots is forever burned into the ground.

The style of Santorini

Little white boxes stacked atop the vibrant town of Fira.

Sanotini Garbage collection!

Garbage collection, Oia-style. The donkey was not as amused as we were…

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Bruiser, aka our ATV rental, posing in front of Aghios Artemios Traditional Houses, a cave hotel showcasing Cycladic architecture. The church, the only on the island with a light blue dome, dates back to the 15th century.

 

Coffee: The New San Francisco Treat

Coffee is a way of life for us here at Battle Mountain. Many a night, Julian and I lie awake, excited for the morning when we can savor a wonderful cup of joe. But it’s not just simply the thought of the steam warming the face or the bold, earthy liquid flowing through the digestive tract, warming the heart and awakening the mind. And it’s not about the caffeine… not always, at least. It’s the whole cafe experience that goes with this morning ritual, from ordering it (even from the crankiest and snobbiest of baristas) to taking that first comforting sip. Here, we attempt to give you a practical and thorough guide to San Francisco’s most famous coffee brands, spots, and trends. The city’s coffee scene has quickly grown in just under the last decade, especially since the launch of local favorites like Blue Bottle and Ritual back in 2005.

Below, Julian covers 10 local coffees. He evaluates each brand by flavor, body, and acidity. As the scene continues to blossom, this is by no means a comprehensive guide, but a trusty snapshot into the great variety of coffee options available in the City by the Bay. Battle Mountain are based around the Russian Hill and TenderNob neighborhoods, so first up is our nearby pick for the ultimate coffee snob experience: Contraband Cafe. —HandstandSteph

Coffee! Coffee!

Contraband Coffee Bar on Larkin Street in Russian Hill

Contraband Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.2   Acidity: 8   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 6 
Contraband is on the forefront of coffee in the Bay Area, serving beans from Latin America to New Guinea to Yemen — not typically your standard fare. Contraband makes coffee a science, even employing a precision coffee brewing contraption called the Blossom, designed by a former Apple designer/NASA engineer, which specifically calibrates for a “more nuanced” cup of coffee that offers less astringency and bitterness, and more sweetness — be prepared to pay a pretty penny for this selection, though. Overall, Contraband serves quality coffee that is acidic and generally strong. To our taste buds, though, the beans seems “over-roasted” because of the complex and wild nature of their selection. I give Contraband a 7.2, an above-average score that also takes into consideration price and presentation.

Chromatic Coffee at Iron and Steam Pop-up Bar on Polk Street.

Chromatic Coffee at Iron and Steam Pop-up Bar on Polk Street in Lower Nob Hill

Chromatic Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.0   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9 
We stumbled across Iron & Steam Espresso Bar and were dazzled by the 60-year-old Gaggia lever machine, pictured above. Chromatic Coffee, based in San Jose, is the bean of choice at Iron & Steam, which specializes in espressos and potent Americanos. Chromatic coffee sticks to the back of your throat and penetrates your digestive system in a powerful way. The taste and flavor are very strong with bold hints of cacao bean — it’s almost as if you’re drinking rich, raw hot chocolate. Amanda, the Barista at Iron & Steam, informed us of how the tiger mottling effect comes from the crema, the thin and dark golden-brown layer atop the espresso shot. This crema contains emulsified oils, created from the machine’s high pressure, which disperses gases within the liquid. Much of the shot’s aromatic and nuanced flavors is pronounced in the crema. Overall, I was impressed with Chromatic Coffee and their devotion to unique singe-serve coffees from ethically sourced beans. It may be worth a visit to Santa Clara to check out their home base.

Ritual

Ritual Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission

Ritual Coffee | Overall Rating: 8   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 7.7
Another popular Bay Area brand, Ritual defines coffee as a “delicious, sweet, and complex fruit.” Ritual’s coffee has bite and is generally on the more bitter and acidic side of the coffee spectrum. Ritual uses fair trade beans from Latin America and Africa, where they work intimately with their coffee bean producers. Ritual prides itself on craftsmanship by utilizing a Hario V60 pour-over station to exquisite effect. I’m generally a classic dark roast guy, but I appreciate the way Ritual specializes in light roasted single origin coffee beans and also features “seasonal” espresso beans. The Ritual espresso or macchiato has an expressive and covertly nutty quality that perks you up with the right amount of acidity, flavor, and body. Ritual were one of the pioneers of the artisan coffee movement in SF, and their passion and social consciousness has contributed much to their success..

Sight Glass Cafe in SOMA, San Francisco

Sightglass Cafe on 7th Street in SOMA

Sightglass Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.5   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9
Sightglass has carved its own space in a more desolate part of SOMA. If you like Blue Bottle (mentioned below), you’ll probably love Sightglass. The cafe’s grand industrial space is wonderful and ideal for working. I usually opt for the Colombian coffee called Finca Las Florestales that they describe as having “sweet flavors of grape juice, mango, and guava … complemented by a syrupy body and pluot-like acidity.” This acidity is what gives the coffee its brightness and, more significantly, its liveliness. Sightglass also offers beans from Latin America and Africa. The acidity and berry notes are the major components to Sightglass’ specialty light roast, so as a fan of darker roasts I typically prefer a bolder brew.

Blue Bottle | Overall Rating: 7.9   Acidity: 8.7   Flavor: 7.3   Aftertaste: 7.6
Blue Bottle has become an institution in the Bay Area. The company originated in Oakland, Calif., where its founder was sick of ubiquitous “grande eggnog lattes and double skim pumpkin-pie macchiatos.” The name is inspired by Central Europe’s first coffee house (The Blue Bottle) — an awesome story; read here. It’s important to note that Blue Bottle serves beans that’ve been roasted within the last 48 hours. The coffee is strong and vibrant and the body is nice and full, with a clean yet acidic finish. As referenced above, their signature light roast has potent berry notes that may turn off fans of darker roasts. Still, Blue Bottle continues to grow, even expanding to New York. Overall, their coffee is worth the typically cheaper price tag, especially for those craving more acidic and fruity tones.

Paramo Coffee

Paramo Coffee in Embarcadero

Paramo Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.6   Acidity: 6.5   Flavor: 9.3   Aftertaste: 8.3
We found this lovely cafe on a walk back from Justin Herman Plaza, in an alley near 4 Embarcadero and the Hyatt, with open outdoor seating and great people watching. One of the newer coffees of the area, Paramo was founded by Robert Myers, one of the founders of Highwire Coffee Roasters (mentioned below) and Modern Coffee in the East Bay, and Gabriel Boscana, a former buyer at Sightglass Coffee. I met barista Nicole, who explained the founders’ mission to offer a more balanced and less acidic cup of coffee over the trendier brews of the area, like Blue Bottle. Interestingly, acidity isn’t about the pH, but the disagreeable flavors that crop up from compounds produced through bad roasting, lousy brewing, and overheld coffee. I had the “Shadowplay” java coffee, which was creamy, bold, and full of body. Paramo features five single-origin coffees that all represent a different flavor profile. This is definitely a place for dark roast fans, and a great addition to the local coffee scene.

Four Barrel Cafe in the Mission loves playing records especially classic rock.

Four Barrel Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission shows off an impressive vinyl collection

Four Barrel | Overall Rating: 8.7   Acidity: 7.0   Flavor: 9.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Four Barrel’s home in the Mission is complete with roasters, vintage machines, and even turntables. Coffee and records go well together — and Four Barrel’s vintage ambiance goes well with their old-fashioned roasting methods. The cafe offers no Wi-Fi, which means tables are thankfully free of Macs. This is definitely a place to enjoy a great cup of coffee over a good conversation. A Four Barrel cup of coffee is clean, sweet, and complex, with just the right amount of acidity. Four Barrel has a diverse selection of beans that span the globe; I’m partial to the Latin American varieties. They pride themselves on having an “artisan” approach. As it says on their site, “We hold our roasters’ dedication to the constantly changing variable of coffee in high regard.” This means they’re coffee is always smooth, bold, and goes down easy.

Highwire Coffee at Craftsman and Wolves.

Highwire Coffee at Craftsman and Wolves on Valencia Street in the Mission

Highwire Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.2   Acidity: 5.8   Flavor: 8.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Highwire Coffee is based in Oakland, however it is available at Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission area of San Francisco. Highwire Roasters proclaims to “love the guts in a cup of fully developed coffee” and “the subtleties that speak to its place of origin.” The core espresso blend I had was full of body, smooth, and perhaps the least acidic coffee I’ve ever had in the Bay Area. Highwire offers darker roasts that are more akin to a typical cup of coffee found in many European countries. However, their philosophy is that light, medium, and dark roasts are all delicious in their own special way. Still, their blends are typically more balanced and less acidic than those favored among the “third wave coffee” scene, led by Blue Bottle and others. Highwire is also available in Oakland at Nido and Hive, the Place to Bee.

Philz at Van Ness, San Francisco

Philz Coffee on Van Ness Avenue near Civic Center

Philz Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.1  Acidity: 6.5   Flavor: 6.7   Aftertaste: 5.7
Philz has also become quite an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area. They pride themselves on their artisanal and high quality coffees, and the unique experience of ordering the coffee itself. While you typically pay first for coffee at most cafes, Philz has reversed the process. At Philz, the experience is friendlier and funkier than many of its contemporaries. The coffee is made to order, and the menu can be quite intimidating for newbies, especially with wacky names like Jacobs Wonderbar. You can request a roast, flavor, and sweetness that is exactly to your liking. But a major drawback here is that they don’t offer espresso — a purist coffee lover’s delight. Still, Philz has mastered the art of the fresh pour-over coffee. They feature several different blends, from light to medium to dark roasted, and even offer multiple decaf options, along with flavors like mint mojito. What makes Philz unique is that you can carefully craft and tweak your coffee until you’re 100% satisfied — which often just seems to be more of a headache after the already overwhelming ordering process.

Bicycle Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.8   Acidity: 7    Flavor: 8.9    Aftertaste: 8
Bicycle Coffee, based in Oakland, is readily available throughout the Bay Area, especially at funkier alternatives like Revolution Cafe in the Mission and Another Cafe near Nob Hill. Bicycle Coffee, whose beans come mainly from Central America, is dependably smooth. To a newbie, it may seem moderately strong since some medium roasts can be bitter. However, the beans vary seasonally and every cup of coffee depends on your barista, too. The round, oak notes and caramel hints dominate in a typical cup of Bicycle coffee, a reliable morning pick-me-up.

With those 10 options, I feel lucky to live in such a vibrant and happening town for coffee, especially since this scene has only come about in the last decade. And I’m happy to see a recent return to more dark roast coffees in the area. It’s important to note that the darker the brew, the higher the coffee is in beneficial phytonutrients, which not only help in the carmelization process but also increase antioxidant activity. All that said, in the end, all we desire is a fine, reliable cup of coffee to start our day. Fortunately, San Francisco offers a plethora of choices. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I will review international brands, featuring powerhouses like Nespresso and Illy.

Tahiti’s Tantalizing Treasures, Pt. 1

Tahiti is France’s most majestic of mistresses. It only needs to sit there prettily, titillating with its simplicity, its shocking blues, its serene waters, its verdant ground split and dotted along the South Pacific in 118 brilliant pieces. This is a land where even the fish seem to jump so close to the shoreline as to get a glimpse of its beauty. Even the word “Tahiti” sounds wickedly exotic to the English tongue.

The Moorea palm lean above crystal-clear aquamarine waters

The palms bow down to the breathtaking crystal-clear waters of Moorea.

But is there substance behind this breathtaking paramour? Is it all a façade dressed up in little grass shacks and perfectly tilted palms, an ugly reality all wrapped tidily in aquamarine lagoons? Like many precious islands around the globe, there is a dark history here, but while the native Polynesians of Tahiti certainly face an identity crisis — an unfortunate byproduct of any territory fallen victim to colonization — they remain (to our eyes, at least) peaceful and patient, with a puckish sense of humor, too. They’re easy-going but not lazily so. “Sustainable living,” meanwhile, is simply just living in Tahiti — it’s surviving off the land, respecting it, and thriving with it. It’s combining just-caught fish with milk from just-plucked coconuts and turning it into one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures (aka poisson cru).

Fresh "coco" by the beach

Fresh “coco” by the beach

That said, the French influence inevitably looms, not just in the language spoken, but in the tiny details, too — like locals bicycling down a busy street with a half-dozen freshly baked baguettes nimbly placed in hand, or a can of foie gras innocently placed in the refrigerated section of the supermarche. Ask a French person and they will say, “This is France.” To us, it was simply the paradise a postcard has no right trying to sum up.

Tahitian Sunset

Tahitian Sunset

GETTING THERE / ACCOMMODATION:
The flight to Tahiti is really kind of frightening, in an existential sort of way — this is the case when flying over any large body of water, but the Pacific is an especially terrifying beast. It makes you truly want to smack lips with any tiny speck of solid ground you just so happen to land on in the middle of it all. Those who only go so far as Hawaii (from the U.S.) are missing out on another extra three hours of airtime — and, honey, is it worth it. Eight hours after wheels up in L.A., half asleep and tripping down the stairs of the great jumbo-jet, the sun’s rage will quickly slap you right across the face. You are, after all, just south of the equator — the sun’s most favorite residence. A lei made of fresh flowers and herbs soon graces your neck and the buzz of excitement starts to simmer down to an ecstatic calm. Tahiti — she grabs you right from the get-go.

Hangin' Loose in Moorea

Hangin’ Loose in Moorea

Our shuttle took us to Le Meridien — a resort roughly 30 minutes from French Polynesia’s capital city of Papeete — where we would be staying for the next five nights. (Had we not found an amazing Travelzoo deal that included both flight and hotel, we may have opted for one of the pensions that dot the island — a great choice for budget-minded travelers.) We were greeted by the hotel’s lush grounds and expansive lobby, which offers you a sweet peek of what lies ahead — a grand sand-bottomed pool and, even further out, those renowned bungalows sitting so cutely atop a glistening lagoon. Our receptionist was friendly and efficient (Tino, in particular was helpful during our entire stay), and though we were too early to check in to our room, we were welcome to lounge by the pool and reclaim any valuable sleep lost on the flight.

Beach Daze at Le Meridien

Beach Daze at Le Meridien

Our garden-view room was big and spacious, with a large bathroom and a tub fit for a Tahitian king. But it’s Le Meridien’s beachfront location that is its main allure. The beach may be small, but it’s the near 80-degree water you’d rather be sprawled out in anyway.  [PRO TIP: Water shoes are essential for any beach in Tahiti, in order to avoid being stabbed by coral or getting stung by the infamous “stone fish,” which can land you in the hospital.]

Navigating around bungalows, coral, and multi-colored fish

Navigating around bungalows, coral, and multi-colored fish

If you have an exceptionally fat pocketbook, splurge for a bungalow. We only got a tour of one, but milked that as long as we could…

Le Meridien Beach & Bungalows

Le Meridien’s beach & bungalows

Stay tuned for Pt. 2, which will discuss the food (lots of baguettes!, fresh seafood, and the only affordable dinner on the island: the “roulottes,” or food trucks), a day-trip around Tahiti, and a visit to the unspoiled neighboring island of Moorea.

 

Rethinking Ukraine

On the heels of change and rapid-fire revolution in Crimea, I’ve recently been thinking about a trip I took to Ukraine back in 2011. I was mostly in Odessa, located on the Black Sea near Crimea, the spot currently causing frustration among the U.S. government, which is bringing back a sense of “Cold War” tension. The situation there has me looking back at my experience in the country in a different light.

Staring down Lenin at a beautifully adorned park in Arcadia near the Black Sea.

Staring down Lenin at a beautifully adorned park in Arcadia near the Black Sea.

Ukraine — from its architecture to its food to its dialects — was how I imagined Russia to be. Traveling with a friend, who was able to speak conversational Russian to most of the locals probably made this seem even more plausible. Together, we saw Lenin memorials and Soviet-era symbols and met amicable Russians; but even the locals we met spoke Russian, claiming that the Ukrainian and Russian languages were similar enough. With the current political controversy, I wanted to research more about the Ukrainian/Russian connection. The media’s portrayal of Russia’s recent reclamation of Crimea makes the move seem somewhat out of the blue, aggressive, and imperialistic. But looking at this situation objectively, you have to go quite a ways back: Kiev, the modern capital of Ukraine, is often referred to as a mother of Russian Cities, in other words, the founding place of Russian civilization. And while the land has seen many conflicts over the centuries, the country of Ukraine as we know it today has only been independent since 1991. That’s only a little over two decades, and during my visit there, I could definitely see and feel how inextricably linked it still was to Russia.
Odessa Waterfront

Strength in powerful babies at the Odessa seafront.

But as I write this, it’s the Ukrainian people who are stuck in the middle of this crisis, who are being used by each influencing side. There are even rumors that both sides may be funding militias and promoting instability. The Ukrainians I got to know were generally stoic and reserved — well, aside from the night I made the mistake of asking for additional cheese on a pasta dish at Odessa’s Club and got charged almost $25 for it and was escorted to the nearest ATM! Still, overall, I felt safe there, which makes it even harder for me to believe this is the same region where a violent revolution has recently taken place.

My time in Ukraine was filled with fun memories, so I wanted to show a more peaceful side to this wonderful country. Here are a few pictures from the trip:

Pink

More stunning architectural beauty!

The Lada

Posing with the Russian Lada, the mythical and infamous symbol of past Soviet-era cars.

Stern

Stern and stark memorials to yesteryear.

Gothic

Exquisite Gothic architecture decked out with gargoyles.

CCCP

A colorful shirt, glamorizing the Soviet days, boldly on display in another main street store. (Pre-2014)

Fancy cars on a tree lined street in Odessa.

Fancy cars on a tree lined street in Odessa.

Badges galore!

Soviet-era pins and badges near one of the main tourist streets in Odessa.

Trip Daze: Calistoga’s Mud, Wine, and Good Times

A diorama of Calistoga's heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

A diorama of Calistoga’s heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Ok, I admit that my knowledge of the town of Calistoga pretty much stopped at its sparkling mineral water line — a favorite purchase for a refreshing gas station treat. And though I’ve driven through the Napa Valley town on numerous occasions — always noting “Dr. Wilkinson’s Mud Baths” and other signs touting spa bliss — other wine locales in the area had managed to always lure me away. So when researching a quick weekend trip from San Francisco, Julian and I had decided to bypass the more populated Sonoma and Napa and try out Calistoga, home to hot springs, vineyards, and old tourist destinations (or traps depending on how much of a geological nerd you may be) like the Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser of California (okay, that’s definitely a trap with its sad petting zoo as its best attempt to entice the kiddies).

ACCOMMODATION:

The Sunburst Calistoga
We had come across a new hotel, the Sunburst Calistoga. Its sleek yet retro décor — and, better yet, its promise of mineral water pools — made it a favorable accommodation choice. (Not to mention the Living Social deal I found just a few days after our initial Internet discovery of the place.) Turns out the Sunburst advertised discounted prices across every major deal site — including Groupon and Travelzoo — so we arrived at the motel-like structure on the edge of town to a fully packed house. This meant service was slow and the pools crowded (so much for a relaxing dip in the mineral pools — which smelled more of chlorine than anything else). The Sunburst could benefit from a tighter pool policy (don’t allow outsiders, for example), another employee at the front desk during peak times, and a more robust and fresh breakfast spread). But overall the rooms were comfortable, and the brightly colored, ’50s-hinting décor cute and functional. The location was ideal, and the price was right — especially for Napa Valley — at just $130 a night. A stay during the week may be your best bet here.

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

MUST-DO’s:

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Down the road just a few blocks from the Sunburst is Calistoga’s main drag, dotted with olive oil shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and cafes. We recommend stopping by the Visitors Center at 1133 Washington Street to get discounts on attractions like wineries and hot springs, and great advice from the helpful staff. Our best find here was a 2 for 1 tasting coupon at the spacious and serene Tamber Bey Vineyards — one of the highlights of our trip. Their fairly new location (relocated from St. Helena late in 2013) is set amongst an expansive 22-acre equestrian paradise. Grabbing a sunny seat outside means you’ll find yourself flanked by horse stables, but even if you’re not the equine type (me, not so much), this never distracts from the tasting experience, which they make truly comfortable here. Splurge and get the cookie and wine pairings (it’s worth the extra $10). The cookies are made by a grad from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and expertly paired with the wine selections.

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Now, of course, no trip to Calistoga is without a little pampering. We chose Golden Haven Hot Springs because of their great deal on a couple’s mud bath and free use of their mineral pools (at $64/person). Golden Haven follows the “traditional” mud bath process, and the place feels a bit haunted by miners and hippies past, but that only adds to the mystical experience. As newbie mud bathers we were a bit hesitant climbing into the tubs, especially when told the bottoms’ll burn ya! But once comfortably settled in the mix of mud, clay, and Calistoga hot spring water, it’s like floating on a heated quilt full of tiny, densely packed beads massaging your every crevice. Your body won’t sink, but your mind pleasantly will. After about 15 minutes, you shower off, slip into your private mineral hot tub, and then get escorted to a softly lit room where you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and encouraged to take your mind to far-off lands.

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Once that mud-high fades, one last stop in town should be at the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It’s a charming little spot dedicated to one of the more fascinating personalities of Gold Rush times: pioneer, promoter, entrepreneur, and California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Just seeing the timeline of this guy’s life is worth the $3 donation. I’m shocked there hasn’t already been a Hollywood movie depicting his life of Mormonism, multiple marriages, deadly shoot-outs, lucrative investments, and eventually bankruptcy. The museum is named after Ben Sharpsteen, an animator for Walt Disney, and so you’ll also find a good stock of Disney memorabilia.

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Lastly…
While Calistoga may not have the same luster it did when Brannan opened his original Calistoga Hot Springs Resort some 150 years ago, it still has a rustic kind of charm without the hoity-toity Napa pretensions. Strangest thing, though: I didn’t come across one bottle of Calistoga water…

*BONUS FEATURE*
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS in ST. HELENA

The Model Bakery
Less than 10 miles southeast of Calistoga is the decidedly chicer town of St. Helena. Here, the dining options are aplenty and a little more varied than in Calistoga. There’s a good cluster of restaurants, cafes, olive oil shops, and boutiques along and around Main Street, so it’s best to park and take a stroll around the ‘hood. Food must-stops include the Model Bakery, whose claim to fame is their fluffy, hearty English muffins — and I can vouch that you’ll think twice about ever getting a package of Thomas’ after biting into one of Model’s. And though the wealth of pastries, breads, cakes, and pies, will have you more than salivating, they also offer sandwiches and salads packed with fresh, seasonal veggies to offset any sugary indulgent.

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
For dinner, I highly recommend the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen. The owners here are from Nepal and offer a wide assortment of traditional Nepali and Indian dishes. The service was impeccable — gracious and efficient — but the food is what really left a lasting impression. It’s a delicate balance bringing together the rich spices of this type of cuisine; when done best, the flavors lie waiting under your tongue, slowly colliding, until your taste buds pop with delight — and we happily experienced that here. The naan bread (you can also get with basil or cilantro) was optimally soft on the inside, crispy on the out. The Saag Paneer was rich and creamy, and the Tandoori Tikka chicken breast was tender and spiced just right with the peppers and onions — both go well with a glass of prosecco. All of that was plenty for two people. Full and satisfied, a belly-easing mint tea was our perfect nightcap.