Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Life is too short ...

We had the delightful pleasure this past week of joining some friends for "a little" wine tasting out in beautiful Napa Valley. (Actually, that's not right.  There was 'A LOT' of wine tasting done!)

I have been in California numerous times but never ONCE visited a winery while there.  
Silly me!!  This girl really enjoys her wine.

Although the vineyards were just beginning to fill in with their spring growth, 
the  hills and valleys were lush and the mustard flowers were in full bloom.

Our friends, who know wines much better than us, put together an awesome itinerary.  We stayed in Yountville, a few miles up the road from Napa.  It was a great choice being central for most of our travels and much quieter than Napa itself.   I'd like to say that the villa above was where we stayed, but alas, it was not.  That was the Patland Estate Vineyards, high up in the hills with a beautiful Tuscan landscape.  It felt like we were in Italy.

Each day we visited three wineries, all scheduled private appointments. 

For the winies, who know their wines, here are some of the vineyards we visited: 
Joseph Phelps, O'Shaughessey, Jarvis, Lava One, Chappellet, Chateau Montelena, and Patland.

We got to see some incredible wine cellars
in all shapes and sizes.

Our visit included the famous Chateau Montelena who won the white wine section of the historic 'Judgement of Paris' wine competition in 1976.  They surprisingly beat out the French and other California wines and a bottle of the 1973 Chardonnay vintage resides in the Smithsonian.

(Oh my ...  serious stuff out here in Napa!)

The chateau was quite fun to photograph 
as well as the reflecting pond surrounding it.

 Our last tasting was unlike all the others.  
Our guide at Chappellet walked us among the vineyards 
as we tasted the wines while he shared the history of the place.

It was fascinating to see the different variety of vines
and the whys and ways of
their vining.

 Growing a vineyard really is an art.
I always had the romantic vision of owning a vineyard some day
and making wine.
But that notion has been put to bed after
seeing all that goes into making a bottle of wine.

Best I just keep drinking it.

It was a wonderful time with friends,
made even better with 
some great wines!

But ....
now I really understand what
they mean by 
'life is too short to drink bad wine'!
I need a larger wine budget.

Friday, March 28, 2014

No place like home

Once upon a time there was a little red haired girl who left her home to travel around the world.  She flew in big and small airplanes, rode in cars on the wrong side of the road, and ate food
she did not know.
She was very happy.

 But now and then she thought about
her friends back home 
and wondered if they thought about her.

 Days and months passed
and although she continued to be happy

 she began to dream of the time
when she would once again return
to her home.

 One day as she was walking along a wooded path,
a friendly hawk swooped down and began to speak to her (with a French accent!).
"Silly girl!  Why do you visit all these countries
when you have the very same beauty in your own back yard?"

Aside from the fact that she was shocked that the hawk could speak with a French accent, 
she gathered her wits about her and exclaimed, "Excuse me?"

"Yes, I have been observing you 'oohing' and 'aahing' beautiful sights, 
but don't you remember the beautiful sights you have in your own back yard?"
With a tilt of her head, the little red haired girl said, 
"Well, yes, I do remember.  Like the northern pines and their reflections 
bouncing amid the shoreline waters."

"Oh, and the lighthouses!  How I love their twinkling search light."

"And I do so love the boats, especially at sunset, when golden light plays on their decks. "

"Oh, Mr. Hawk, you are so right," said the little red haired girl with a loud sigh.
"I didn't need to leave my own backyard to see such beauty.
It was there all along!"

The Hawk leaned down closer to the little red haired girl and whispered, "I overheard a scarecrow once telling of a story where this little girl was lost in some land called Oz and was so missing her home that a Wizard told her that if she clicked her shoes 3 times and repeated ' There's no place like home, there's no place like home,'  that she would somehow be transported home."

The little red haired girl looked down at her blue tennis shoes and said, "Really?"

The Hawk said, "Yep, that's what I heard.  You might give it a try.
But now, I must be off.  There's a lion in distress.  Something about a mouse.

With a broad swoop of his wings, the hawk took flight.  
The little red haired girl thought about what he had said.  
She had seen many beautiful sights 
but she did long to return home.   

And before the hawk was fully out of view,
the little red haired girl closed her eyes and tapped her blue tennis shoes and said, 
"There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
There's no place like ..... "

It was just that fast that she found herself once again in her
own backyard!

Happy to have returned home, the little red haired girl never ever wanted to leave again.

Well, at least for a while anyway!

(P.S.  We had some wonderful travel experiences over the last 6 months, 
but it has also been wonderful to spend some time here in beautiful Maine.  
Even in the winter, which was when all of these images were taken.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Singapore, the world's fastest growing wealth hub

Leaving the Thai Islands and then visiting Singapore was like stepping out of the tornado-riddled Kansas into the Land of Oz.  Whereas Thailand was chaotic, Singapore was orderly.

Upon arriving in Singapore, one of the safest cities in the world, I was quickly struck with its manicured freeways, graffiti-free trains, non-existent traffic jams and lovely green spaces .... such a tidy and orderly society but one of strict social controls.

Singapore has the world's highest percentage of millionaires.  

Long ago it rejected the idea of a welfare system, putting the responsibility on the individual to save for the future, rely on their families, and not expect a handout from the government ... unless you hit rock bottom.  It is a country with little acute poverty. There are programs which aid low-income students, destitute families and unassisted elderly.  There is no unemployment for those laid off, instead they are placed in other jobs or training programs. Singapore is very adverse to idleness!

The country and people fascinated me.  Its society is so different from my own.  Here in America, for example, car ownership is done with ease.  In Singapore, they have made auto ownership quite challenging and expensive, in order to limit traffic congestion and smog.  In addition to the cost of the car and fees attached, the price of a car can range anywhere from $100,000-$300,000.  In addition, one has to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement to drive the car with only a certain number being allocated each month.  It's cost:  in excess of $80,000 and good for only 10 years.   Ouch!

It has been the country's ideals for every citizen to obtain the 5-C's ...  car, condo, credit card, cash, and country club membership.  But there seems to be a shift occurring with the younger generation to change the country's vision a bit and embrace more socially conscious endeavors.

Healthcare is free at government sites.  Private clinics charge very little.  I had the opportunity to experience their healthcare system first hand.  I seemed to have twisted my ankle and the swelling refused to subside so we decided to go to a clinic to make sure no fractures.   My total bill:  Doctor Visit-$10; Meds-$17; x-ray-$45.  $75 total!!!  Amazing.  Here in the states the x-ray alone would have been several hundred dollars!

There were many sites we never got to see but what we did see, wowed us.  
The downtown was clean and sharp and new.

We stayed a couple of nights in the historic Clarke Quay area downtown 
along the Singapore River.  
It was filled with restaurants, shopping, music and entertainment.  
It was quite colorful and lively.

A number of years ago, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (below) was built (with a casino, which is primarily for tourists, because gambling is discouraged for Singaporeans).  It is quite extraordinary with its ship shape viewing platform on top.  It's the worlds most expensive stand alone casino property in the world.

Since we could never afford to stay there, 
I wasn't able to get you a photo of their infinity pool on top.  
Like .... I would've got close to the edge.  Not!
But then, that's what telephoto lens are for.

Just to understand its grandeur, the image below gives you some perspective of its size to Singapore's downtown.   

We thoroughly enjoyed the bay surrounding the hotel.  Gardens by the Bay is an urban outdoor recreation space that includes some amazing conservatories and outdoor space.  Below are some images of our evening visit to the Supertrees Grove, which were tree-like structures that are the homes for exotic plants and flowers.

I added the below image just to give you a size of these structures 
in conjunction with the people. Can you even see the people?

The elevated walkways provide a breathtaking view 
of the gardens as well as downtown Singapore.

But what ended up being really spectacular was the light show
as the evening came upon us.
People brought blankets to lay upon the grass to gaze up
at these tree structures as they pulsed with varying lights
of the music.

On another evening, 
we watched the Marina Bay Sands Hotel laser light show 
from our restaurant on the river.  
It too was spectacular.  

By the way, do you see that ferris wheel to the left in the image below?  That's the Singapore Flyer.  It's the world's tallest operational ferris wheel.  It takes about an hour to make the total trip around.  Each car is air-conditioned and holds up to 28 people.  I was told that people will book a car for dinners or parties.

And last but not least, we had to make the trek to the Raffles Hotel's Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was invented and where literati patrons frequented over the decades, including Hemingway, Maugham, Kipling and is the place where Joseph Conrad came up with the idea of Lord Jim.  It still exudes a flavor of 'colonial opulence'.

Take a close look at that drink.  At $25, I sipped it very slowly!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Thailand beach surprise

As I promised in my previous post, we had a big surprise while visiting the Thai Islands.  Our son from Utah, Alex, and his girlfriend, Sam, planned to meet up with us for several days while we were staying in Ao Nang, Krabi.  But that wasn't the surprise.  Alex had been to Krabi before and thought what better time than to come over again while we were there.

Alex and Sam stayed over in Railay, only accessible by boat, which was a short ride for us from Ao Nang.  Railay is surrounded by a warm sea, lush jungle and limestone cliffs.  Perfect for the adventurous, like Alex and Sam.

Of course, there are others who would prefer just to chill out 
and have a wonderful Thai massage.....

.... or hang around reading ....

.... or sleeping .....

or like this kitty ....

watch what others come here to do, 
from all around the world

... rock climb ...

But rock climbing wasn't what Alex came to do.  Alex had other plans.  

As an experienced BASE jumper, he planned to do several jumps on this visit, as he had on other visits.  If you are not familiar with BASE jumping, it is an extreme sport of jumping from fixed objects with a parachute. The name BASE is derived from the fixed objects that are jumped from:  buildings, antennas, spans (like a bridge) and earth (like cliffs). 

One has be in great shape to endure the climbs 
up the backside of these cliffs.  
It took Alex about 3 hours to climb through jungle and sharp, knife-life rock 
to reach his jumping off point.

And he lands ....

The jump was awesome to watch,
but even more awesome was what happened
after he landed!

He got down on one knee in front of Sam and said:
"I thought I'd take the plunge and ask you to marry me."

Well .....  you can see what her response was!

It was wonderful to share such a memorable moment
with family.

Congratulations Alex & Sam.
Looking forward to your Utah wedding in March 2015!

A side note:  One must be alert when packing one's parachute.  You never know when some Thailand kitty may try to rearrange your lines!  Might not make for a pleasant landing!