Most people think of the best places to vacation in Italy as the famous cities of Florence, Venice, or Rome. However, let me pass along to you a second-class city that rates as a first-rate destination that you might find more enjoyable than all those famous destinations.  Located in the Tuscany region, it is in prime wine country, and fairly easy to get to.  We flew in to Pisa and took the dedicated train to the downtown train station where a local train took us to Lucca.  You can also fly into Florence, Milan or Venice and get to Lucca by bus or train although that will take about 2-3 hours.

Lucca is a very old city founded by Etruscans over two thousand years ago, then became a Roman colony in 180 BC.  Here is the link to Wikipedia for you to find out more.  It was a major city throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Notably, the city was never conquered and still has its Renaissance-era walls surrounding the old city.  They have done a great job of preserving the old architecture from that era and you will see almost no modern buildings there.  The city is full of very nice modern restaurants and shops but all contained within the narrow streets and facades of a quaint bygone time.  The ancient river still runs through the town in a canal with fountains that the locals still use.

Free concert from the local music school

A couple of shots from the ramparts.  The walls make a great running route if you feel like getting some exercise.

We stayed at an AirBnB which was very reasonably priced.  There are no major hotels within the old city although they can be found in the larger city of Lucca.

I likes the categories of the pizza!

As you would expect, great food is plentiful in Lucca.  The pizza shown was only 5 Euro and the four scoops of gelato was only another 5.  Much cheaper than the main tourist areas of Italy.

Did I mention they have wine here?  Lots of wine, very, very good wine.  We happened to be here when they had a wine tasting event to demonstrate all the new wines that had been bottled last fall.  It was called the Gandi Cru Della Costa Toscana and is held the first week of May every year.  There were over 140 wineries here and it was all you could taste for 25 Euros. Even tasting and spitting left us pretty tipsy after so many wines.  Here are labels from my favorites if you ever see them in a store.

So give Lucca try if you want a great vacation spot in Italy that is off the beaten path.  You’ll probably save some money too.



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We had an adventurous day in both tasting wines and eating.  Our day started with wine tasting along Foxen Canyon.  We had gotten the tip about the Fess Parker Winery from the hotel and started tasting there at 11.  That might seem a little early for wine tasting to many people, but we were far from alone.  There were at least a dozen others at every tasting room we went to.  Foxen Canyon is not quite Napa Valley, but it is the best concentration of wineries in the region.  There are over a dozen located on this one country road.  Here is a link that lists all the wineries on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

The Fess Parker is probably the biggest since the name is so well known.

The interior has two large wine tasting bars and a large gift shop where you can by the book on the legend himself..

The back area had a band going and was a great area to eat or hang out while tasting.

And of course, you can buy a Coon Skin Cap

Further down the road we stopped at the Zaca Mesa Winery.  Tastings were $15, but we got $10 off with a $50 total purchase so that’s not a bad deal.


Photo courtesy of

The tasting room was packed.  The Foxen Valley wineries seem to attract a lot of Bachelorette Parties and we ran into one at almost every stop.  This made it kind of crowded, but the staff saw us and cleared a spot at the bar.

Yours truly with a couple bottles of their wine and a jar of Apricot Habanero Jelly.  Might sound weird, but it’s pretty good.  It is always fun discovering the non-wine unique items you can find when wine tasting.

One last winery is Andrew Murray, which is actually the first winery you will run into on the Foxen Canyon road.  They have a new tasting room and we really liked a varietal that we were unfamiliar with, Grenache.  They explained that it is usually used as a blending wine, but we liked it on its own.

Photos courtesy of

I could write more, but the best thing is to make a trip yourself to check out this lesser known wine tasting region of California.


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Now to the main event.  For the last several year, the wife and I have visited California in the winter in order to have fun sightseeing and stocking up our wine reserve – and accumulating miles on Alaska Airlines to maintain our dual status (stati?).  Our Northern California adventures have been documented here and here.  Alaska is probably the best airline to take for wine tasting since they will give you free baggage on a case of wine when flying from 29 airports.

Wine (Mileage Plan™ members only) – one protectively packaged case of wine when traveling on flights from the following airports, within the United States: Burbank (BUR), Fresno (FAT), Los Angeles (LAX), Monterey (MRY), Oakland (OAK), Orange County (SNA), Ontario (ONT), Palm Springs (PSP), Sacramento (SMF), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), San Luis Obispo (SBP), Santa Barbara (SBA), Sonoma (STS), Boise (BOI), Lewiston (LWS), Eugene (EUG), Medford (MFR), Portland (PDX), Redmond (RDM), Bellingham (BLI), Pasco (PSC), Pullman (PUW), Seattle (SEA), Spokane (GEG), Walla Walla (ALW), Wenatchee (EAT), and Yakima (YKM).

Starting out from the Fess Parker Hotel, the adventure started right across the street with probably the long art festival I have ever seen.  Right along the beachfront street, artist line up to sell their wares every Sunday.  The truth is that we totally lucked out as we had no idea about this interesting festival.

The show ends at the pier.  Right across from the pier, you cross the street and can find wine tasting rooms in and around the back streets.  These are all tasting rooms for wineries that are too far off the beaten path to expect you to go visit their location so they bring their wine in town.  The first stop that caught my eye was Corks ‘n Crowns that offered cupcake tasting on Sundays as well as wine.  Sunday really seems to be the day to do things in Santa Barbara!

I am not sure who decided that wine and cupcakes go together.  Individually they were both good, but a sip of wine after a sugary cupcake did not do it for me.

There were so many tasting rooms, we just selected a few to try.

Our favorite wines came from the Santa Barbara Winery.  They included a glass with their wine tasting which the others did not.  They had the best selection of white wines and had a great Late Harvest Riesling for only $10 if you are into dessert wines.  All were good and the average cost for a tasting was $15.  Here is a pro tip: you can pay for only one tasting but share it.  This limits your outlay and keeps you from having a “little too much” if you are going to be driving later.

One other place I want to specifically call out is the Area 51 Winery.  Namely because we found a great lunch here in the form of a Charcuteire plate for only $16 which includes meat and cheese.  A really good place to have lunch while you are wine tasting and ensure you have something in your stomach while you are getting all that alcohol.

Lastly, if you do need a break and want a nice walk.  Go back to the main road and take a walk down the pier.  Very nice out there and several places to eat.  You also get some spectacular views of the Santa Barbara Coast from there.



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Lots of people want to escape the winter blues and California is a great place to do it.  The wife and I tried going to Sonoma Valley for wine tasting the last two years.  The first year was fantastic with 72 degree weather and sun the whole weekend, but last year, as many of you know, it basically rained all winter in California.  We decide to try something slightly different this year.  Based upon the recommendation of a wine-hobbyist friend, we tried going to Santa Barbara and the surrounding area for a three-day weekend.

Grabbing a great fare was too easy with Alaska Airlines.  We got a round trip BWI-LAX for $240 RT.  This route is still not heavily traveled and that’s a pretty typical price for the first quarter of the year.  Note that BWI-SAN is similarly cheap.  It’s doubly cheap for an MVP Gold (or Gold 75K like my wife) as I got almost 10,000 AS miles since AS still awards miles on distance, not revenue and doubles them for Gold (my wife got a 125% bonus).  Blogging wisdom values AS miles at 2.0 cents each, which means that I got back about $200 in value and my wife did even better.

So off to L.A. we went.  First stopping at The Club in BWI that I recently reviewed here.  We were upgraded to Frist days ahead of the flight due to the low passenger count.  Traveling in AS style, we reached L.A. by noon and picked up our rental car at Hertz for the roughly two hour drive to Santa Barbara.  I should mention that the Hertz rental for the weekend was free due to point acquired from work travels.  Bloggers don’t often talk about getting points from rental cars, but they do pay off.  I still had to pay $26 in taxes, but saved about $250 by using Hertz points.  Never let a point go to waste!

The weather at LAX was only 59 degrees, but that felt great to someone coming from D.C. Changed into a polo shirt when we got the car and started the beautiful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).  I should mention that I grew up in L.A. so I knew the terrain like the back of my hand and was thrilled to be back in L.A. even if only for a long weekend.  PCH is a beautiful drive.  Sure it is a little crowded, but once past Malibu, that really thins out and it is a beautiful four lane highway right along the Pacific Coast.  Can’t ask for better than that.

Lot’s of little beach towns characterize the landscape between the coastal mountains and the ocean as you drive up PCH.  Beautiful views and feel free to pull out and stop to take some pics or just admire the view.  Just be careful merging back on to PCH as everyone pretty much goes 70!

Past the iconic peak in the photo of the left and PCH turns inward towards Oxnard where it joins up with Hwy 101.  Less beautiful there, but still nice as you pass through the various mid-sized cities, such as Ventura.  We didn’t stop there, but my parents used to take us there on vacation and there is a lot of nice things to see and do there.  For us, it was on to Santa Barbara and the Fess Parker Hotel.  More on that tomorrow.



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Sorry for the long break gang, having a bust life gets in the way of blogging all the time.

Finishing up on our trip to Budapest today.  If you missed the previous posts, they are here, here, and here.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in a Catholic nation and thus “spectacular” does not even begin to describe it.  Now, it is not to be compared to St. Peter’s in Rome, but unlike that great place, you can get up close and personal with St. Stephen’s.

It lies a mere two blocks from the Ritz-Carlton and Deak Square.  Although the back end is right on one of the main streets in Budapest, the right way to approach it is from the St. Stephen’s Square at its entrance.

From the entrance you can either go into the basilica itself or be more adventurous and climb the stairs to the observation deck that surrounds the dome.  There is also an elevator for those who can’t take the stairs. Both require a small admission price of 2-3 Euros.

Starting with the basilica part first, it is really stupendous.  Please keep in mind that this is a functioning church so be quiet and don’t expect to wander around wherever you want to go.  There was a wedding going on when we arrived.  My wife, who is Catholic, really was impressed by the venue.

Now to climb the stairs!  It is a pretty fair workout to climb about six floors of winding staircase up the top level of the basilica.  At this level they have some of the ancient artwork displayed.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, we were still not at the observation deck.  We climbed another 3-4 floors of stairs, but there is an elevator.  Note that even with the elevator, you still have to climb one last floor to reach the deck.  Climbing through here, you are actually between the inner dome which was in the picture from inside the church and the outer dome which is seen from outside.  Pretty cool to see this as an engineer.  My wife was not impressed and got pretty scared looking down.  Be warned!

Finally, we reach the observation deck surrounding the dome and the views up here cannot be beat!  The first photo shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the second the square in from of St. Stephen’s.  I should note the there are plenty of nice restaurants to eat in down there after this arduous climb.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is definitely one of the best things we experienced in Budapest and I recommend you put it on your must do list.




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Continuing on from yesterday’s post.  The Buda Castle grounds are very extensive and offer some spectacular vantage points for great photos.  The original castle was built around 1000 AD and barely withstood the Mongol invasion a couple of hundred years later.  Along came the Renaissance and the enlightened King of the time, Matthias Corvinus, built a Renaissance style palace along with substantial art on the site of the castle.  Unfortunately, during the Turkish occupation of Hungary (1541-1686), the palace was not occupied and used as an ammunition dump.  This blew up and destroyed the original castle.  The castle was rebuilt by Maria Teresa in the 18th Century and again after WW2.  You can see the various layers of the original structures if you look closely.

See the buttress in the center of the photo?  You can go out on that and take spectacular photos up and down the Danube.

There is also a tower at the far end and if you go down, the entrance to the museum.

After you finish with Buda Castle, you can explore the rest of the Castle Hill which contains some Government buildings being renovated to be the Prime Minister’s offices and a quaint little town where we had the best gelato of our trip, sorry didn’t get the name.

Here is a map that give you an idea of the layout of Castle Hill.

Then you reach the Matthias Cathedral (remember him?) which is really spectacular and was renovated in the early 20th Century.

We were lucky and arrived when they had a booksellers event along with live music playing.

In back of the cathedral is the Fishermen’s Bastion.  Constructed over 100 years ago, it is so named because that part of the wall was defended by fishermen during the Mongol invasion.  It is really beautiful both from the cathedral side and from the bottom of the hill.  This is a good place to walk down if you decide you want to go back to town.

There was even a little renaissance festival going on.  They certainly fit in with the surroundings!

That wraps up Castle Hill which should be considered a “must see” to anyone visiting Budapest.  I’ll leave you with an old picture of what Castle Hill looked like a few hundreds years ago.


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On our first full day in Budapest it was time to get out and see both Buda and Pest.  Yeah, just like Minneapolis-St.Paul, Budapest is actually two cities on either side of the Danube that they eventually combined with one name.

Whenever we travel to a big city for the first time, we like to take one of those double decker bus tours.  They give you a chance to see parts of the place that you would otherwise never even know about, plus they are filled with interesting facts about the history of the city.  Fortunate for us we got a prime spot on the top, but under the partial roof so I didn’t need to worry about sunburn – my wife doesn’t have that problem!  The tour was a reasonable $32/person for a 48 hour hop-on, hop-off pass.

After the tour, we had a good idea where to go afterward – to see the Buda Castle of course!  The best news is that it is a pleasant walk of about a mile from our hotel.  The Ritz is only about 4 blocks from the Danube.  Most other major chain hotels are located right along the Danube so this guide will work if you are staying at the Marriott, Sofitel, etc. on the Pest side of the Danube.  From the building shown, to the left is the Four Seasons and across the street to the right is the Sofitel.  From any of the hotels, you will reach this square by the river.  Take a right and you can walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge.

The bridge was a nice walk, but fairly crowded for the narrow walkway.  Kind of hard to stop and take photos except at several vantage points built into the bridge.  The Chain Bridge was built in the 1800’s but destroyed during World War Two and then re-built in the 1950s.

Coming to the other side of the bridge, you can see Buda Castle on the ridge overlooking the Danube.  You can take the long road around to get to the top, but have more fun taking the Funicular!

The Funicular is only about $3 and cheaper if you buy the round trip.  Although it was also reconstructed after the war, but it really feels like it was built in the 1800’s and you can picture people riding this as a “modern wonder”.

Now we reached the plaza at the top of the hill with Buda Castle to our left and Government offices to the right.  We didn’t tour the castle, but just touring the grounds overlooking the Danube was really spectacular.

I know this post is getting a little long so I will cut it here and continue adventures on Castle Hill tomorrow…

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The wife and I finally got away for a real vacation and spent four great days in Budapest.  I already wrote about staying at the Ritz-Carlton which was really nice.  Quite by accident, we found the Ritz to be a prime location in the center of the old downtown which made for an ideal base to operate out of for seeing Buda and Pest.

The Ritz is right off of one of the main plazas called Deak Ferenc, named after a famous Hungarian hero.  The major shopping area is along Deak Ferenc Street.  You can also access the tour buses here and subway.

Look for the Double “M” around town to find the Metro (subway).  Didn’t try it, but it certainly was popular.

You can even rent a bike if you want some exercise.  My wife claims that she forgot how to ride a bike – so much for that old saying.

Here is Deak Ferenc Street.  Notice the outdoor extension of the restaurant.

You see that all over Budapest and it is really wonderful considering the weather was about 78 (~25C) every day.  I feel like this city would be totally different in the winter without all the outdoor activities.

Speaking of which, a short trip down the street and it opens up to a whole plaza surrounded by restaurants, stores, and tourist traps like Hard Rock Café.

Dinner at one of the restaurants around the square was pretty good.  I can’t say that prices were cheap, but they weren’t expensive either.  And more importantly, it tasted really good!

More adventures tomorrow…


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Continuing on from yesterday’s post.

Sapphire Hill Winery in Healdsburg was a great value.  It was $30 for a wine tasting for two, but there was a food pairing for each of the five wines and we got an extra three samples of wine and an extra sample of food so this really turned into a good lunch for the two of us.  Nice location in town alongside several other tasting rooms.

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Fogline was a rural winery right outside one of the vineyards they harvest from in Fulton.  This is a 9 year old start up that is just really getting going.  The facility is very industrial, but the wine, not the surroundings, is the important part.  This was the Groupon that was only $12 for a wine tasting for two AND a $10 credit for a bottle of wine.  Can’t beat that kind of deal!


Deerfield Ranch Winery was a little hard to find in the Kenwood area since it is a little ways off the Sonoma Highway, but totally worth visiting.  It is a winery in a cave!

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Talking to the staff, the owner decided to build an extensive cave network in the hills in order to save on refrigeration costs which normally are part of any wine storage in California.  It also was a pretty cool atmosphere to relax and taste wine in.

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Next was the Ty Caton Winery, also in Kenwood although in a much easier to find location along with several other wine tasting rooms.  Lot’s of good reds!

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Lastly, we visited the Karah Winery which was in the Petaluma Gap (hills between Petaluma and Santa Rosa).  The location was a little hard to get to, but had a great view once you located it.  The entire tasting room was literally surrounded by the vineyard and a tasting room with beautiful views of the whole county.  Got a free bottle of wine as part of the wine tasting.

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Regardless of the weather this year, this was a fun time for us and I suggest you give it a try too.  You can go next door to the more famous Napa Valley, but I found that pretty much all the deals were in the Sonoma Valley.  Give it a shot and let us know what you think.

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The wife and I had a great time a couple of years ago wine tasting by flying into Sonoma, CA (STS) via Alaska Airlines.  It was great getting out of the D.C. cold and into 72 degrees and sunny California weather.  So we decided to try it again this year.  Unfortunately, as most of you know, Mother Nature has decided to end the drought in California and then some!  Oh, well, we could still enjoy wine even if it was cloudy.  This flight was actually on Alaska Air’s subsidiary Horizon Air.  One great deal for this airline is a beer or wine in economy – so you can start the tasting early!


STS is a really small airport, but served by Alaska from both LAX and SEA.  Bonus is that you get to count a case of wine as free luggage flying out!

Last time we did this, I used the VISA Signature benefit of free wine tastings at a bunch of wineries to save money.  Previously, the deal varied at each winery, so some were real bargains, others not so much.  Now they have standardized the benefit as a Buy-One-Get-One offer so basically 50% off.  Note that this now extends to VISA Infinite which did not exist two years ago.

So I knew we could take that option, but I tried something new by looking at what I could find on Groupon.  I found way better deals such as a wine tasting for $12 for two with a  $10 credit towards purchasing a bottle.  Another difference was that the VISA benefit was generally the larger wineries, while the Groupon was for smaller or out of the way locations.  This turned out to be much better and almost every place we visited, we would not have found on our own.  Not to mention we got great value from most of the places.  Most of the tastings were supposed to be for a sample of five wines, but almost all the locations gave us more than that – one place we actually got eight!

Here are quick reviews on the ones we visited.  Didn’t have a bad experience at any of them, so give them a shot if you are out in Northern California.

Mutt Lynch – In Windsor, a modern town only ten minutes north of the airport.  The interesting thing about this place was that it was a wine and chocolate pairing.  Five wines and five chocolate samples added an interesting dimension to the normal tasting routine.  They don’t make the chocolate, but it is from Healdsburg about 30 minutes north of there.  As you may guess from the name, dogs are very welcome here.

Family Wineries – In the Dry Creek area of Healdsburg.  This location is one of those where they have consolidated about five different tasting rooms together if you just want to do a lot of tasting and not a lot of driving.  $7 for a tasting was pretty cheap.

Simi Winery – This location will fool you as it is right in the city, but it is not just a tasting room but the whole winery right in town.  You can get a tour here, but only at 11 and 2 each day.  Tastings were good and they uniquely have a Late Harvest Chardonnay which I have never seen anywhere else.  Beautiful location.

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That’s the winery behind all these redwoods.


I’ll finish the other reviews tomorrow, so stay tuned.




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The International Market was an institution of Waikiki for many, many years.  Originally developed by Donn Beach who created the Don the Beachcomber chain of restaurants, in the 1940s.  With its iconic Banyan Tree around which the second story restaurant was built, it contained cheap hula shows and trinkets for the visitors to Waikiki and became a “must stop” to thousands of visitors.  By the 2000’s, the restaurant had closed and it was mostly the place to acquire cheap Asian-made trinkets, fast food, and clothing.  It was still interesting to poke around and we really liked going to Hula Dog whenever we were down there, but it REALLY needed a makeover.  That happened with the purchase of the property which saw all the tenants kicked out in 2013 and the whole property gutted and rebuilt.  It took a while but the wait looks to be worthwhile.

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They smartly included an “anchor store” in the form of Sax Fifth Avenue which is all the way in the back along Kuhio which means you need to go through the whole mall to reach it and see everything along the way – smart!

The first thing that you will notice when entering is the iconic banyan tree.  You will immediately notice the homage they have made to Don the Beachcomber by constructing a little room amongst the tree branches.  Inside your will find the history of the International Market and Donn Beach.  Really interesting.

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The area around the circle surrounding the tree contains interesting photos and narratives about the history of the International Market.  They have a photo booth thing set up to record oral histories of anyone who wants to contribute their stories of the International Market over the last 70 years.

The International Market is essential a three story outdoor mall.  The first two floors are upscale shops and the entire third floor is all restaurants.

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They’ve done a great job of integrating the trees and nature into the structures.  The rocking chairs look over a large open green in the back part of the mall.  This is where you used to be able to catch a cheap hula or magic show.  They have incorporated the stage, although there was nothing going on when we were there.  Lot’s of kids playing in the fountain and open green space.  A good place to park the husband and kids while you get some shopping done ladies.

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The shops are all very nice and places to keep your wife out of, especially Sax Fifth in the back.

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The third floor is full of very nice, but fairly affordable restaurants.

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So this really is the latest and greatest attraction in Waikiki.  Check it out next time you are there and report back if you see something great.



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