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Travel Feature

Overlooked California Gems

You could visit California a thousand times and still miss many of its charms.

What is notable about Napa, Pismo Beach, and Ojai is that they are places which California residents like to escape to for long weekends.Napa Valley
       
Located about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, Napa Valley is renown of course for its wine and wineries. While famous brands as Mondavi and Sutter Home draw a lot of visitors, lesser known wineries often have more beautiful grounds and are more generous in their sampling policies. The Chateau Montelena, in the town Calistoga, has their offices and wine tasting center in a 17th century European-style castle. On the other end of the Napa Valley, is the Artesa Winery whose spectacular grounds and panoramic view are unparalleled.
       
There aren’t any wineries in the downtown Napa itself but its numerous parks, boutiques, and walking path along the Napa River make it a very charming town. Located in the heart of the city is the Napa River Inn which back in the 19th century was a sugar mill. The pet-friendly Napa River Inn is a member of the National Historic Hotel register and is located two blocks from the Napa Valley Wine Train station. The Wine Train is a great way to enjoy a gourmet meal and sample some of the area’s wines while enjoying a three-hour excursion through Napa County.
       
Pismo Beach was a desired vacation destination for Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. “Pismo Beach and all the clams you can eat!” said an ecstatic Bugs before realizing that he “made a wrong turn in Albuquerque” and that he and Daffy were nowhere near the central California beach town in a famous Warner Bros. cartoon.
        
This beach town is a popular vacation spot for middle class residents who live in inland sections of the Golden State. It is also an ideal rest midway spot for those driving down scenic US 1 from San Francisco to LA. Pismo Beach is also a mere 20-minute ride to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
        
While there are no longer many clams here, there are a lot of sea food restaurants and inexpensive oceanfront lodging properties as the Cottage Inn whose friendly staff welcomes you and your pets.
        
Traveling farther south in California is the town of Ojai that is located in the foothills of Topa Topa Mountains and whose pink sunsets over those mountains are even more beautiful than those over the Pacific that you can observe from any of the state’s beaches at dusk.
        
Ojai has more public tennis courts than any other town in California and such legends as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Douglaston’s own John McEnroe played at the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament when they were starting out. The tournament is held at the end of April every year and is sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association, the governing body in charge of the US Open in Flushing Meadows which gets underway in a couple of weeks.
        
Ojai has become a second home to such entertainers as Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, Larry Hagman, and rock legend Dave Mason who are drawn to the small town that is free of paparazzi and gawkers. They also enjoy the artistic vibe of the city that is home to many painters and sculptors.
        
A fun way to see the city is to ride on the town’s mass transit system, the Ojai Trolley, which will take you all over for fifty cents. The trolley stops by Suzanne’s Cuisine, a top-notch restaurant that serves seafood from the Pacific at reasonable prices, as well as by the Lavender Inn, a charming bed and breakfast that will also welcome your cats and canines as guests.    
       
After working your way down California, you might as well head down to San Diego which is far cooler than New York in the summer and far warmer than it in the winter. You can’t go wrong with its picturesque beaches and family attractions as Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park.

There is no shortage of lodging here and my top choices are the elegant but not stuffy Grande Colonial located in the village of La Jolla one block from the Pacific, and the Hyatt Regency at Aventine, located just off I-5, which has a resort feel with its Olympic pool and its proximity to the city’s best restaurants.
      
For more information log onto: www.visitcalifornia.com

The Chateau Montelena    

the Artesa Winery

The Hearst Castle in San Simeon

Napa River Inn                            

Suzanne’s Cuisine

the Lavender Inn

the Hyatt Regency at Aventine

Grande Colonial

South Africa is An Aphrodisiac for Lovers

South Africa is for lovers. And I don't just mean the two-legged kind. Everywhere we went it was though there was this aphrodisiac-like mist in the air. Beginning with the LeopardMarula tree, which, legend has it, bears fruit with magical powers to heal matters of the heart.

South Africans sometimes refer to it as "The Marriage Tree." Thousands of elephant can't seem to live without it, quite often knocking down barbed-wire, electric fences just to get to it, that's how powerful the juices of this libido-enhancing fruit seem to be.

So why not bottle it? Of course! Yes, there's even a liquor promoting its legend, Amarula, a product that reminded us of Baileys but with the warm edge of a spirit. Brown-Forman brought us down to experience it first-hand. Amarula is the second-best-selling cream liqueur in the world and available in 150 countries. But, as the Marula tree only grows in sub-equatorial Africa, it is a noteworthy find. At first, we paid no attention to its lore. But as each day progressed, one incident after another made us believers. But never in a million years did we expect to see such a strong sensual side to a country all on one 10-day trip. But we did.

Everything in South Africa spells sensual; from a glass of red wine to the Marula fruit to Amarula on-the-rocks to Capetown's Amalfi-like coast to sexual safaris where the animals were fornicating quicker than you could put a quarter into a slot to watch a porn video at your local Downtown strip joint.

Even South African Airways [SAA] lit the fire to our aphrodysia with their  Premium Class. Five-star restaurant quality care, both in cuisine and in hospitable service, it was an experience that rocked the senses. Smiling faces everywhere, our dinner began with slices of tuna sushi followed by a rack of lamb, porcini mushroom ravioli, and a bottle of Meerlust Pinot Noir to wash it down...  It was some of the best food we ever ate on an airline.

On the ground, we started our sensual journey at the Melrose Arch Hotel in Johannesburg to regain our traveling legs, so-to-speak. A modern hotel with a hip fashion sense, it was the perfect place to recharge our batteries in preparation of our safari adventure. Below we found a myriad of restaurants where we delighted ourselves in a few glasses of red South African wine from Durbonville Hills, and partook in eating the Biltong dried meat delicacy. An aphrodisiac buzz set in, a combination of jet-lag and the potent fruit of the vine -- but we resisted in favor of a good night's sleep, turning in at an early hour. But it didn't come easy.

Upon returning to our rooms, we quickly discovered that even the hotel was affected by the hint of aphrodisia in the air. Looking to watch a movie to help us sleep, we soon discovered each room had a DVD collection that included free porn! Okay, South Africa is hot. Red hot. But we were ready for it!

Most of us have a conception of what a safari game drive might be like. Years of watching National Geographic specials and numerous TV shows, like "Safari!," have put this glamorous image of adventure and danger into our conciousness. But even our safari ranger, Murray, who was our guide at our first safari camp, Kirkman's, would express his astonishment at the sightings we were about to see over the first 48 hours.

Ngala, meaning ‘lion’ in Shangaan, was the first private safari reserve to be incorporated in the world-famous Kruger National Park – the largest wildlife sanctuary in South Africa. With exclusive traversing rights over 14 700 hectares (36 323 acres) of Kruger's game-rich wilderness, the Ngala Game Reserve offers an extraordinary African wildlife safari experience. occupies 36,500 acres of the nearly five million acres that make up Kruger National Park.

Kirkman's Camp and Ngala Game Reserve are owned by Conservation Corporation Africa and operated in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund South Africa and South African National Parks.

Kirkman's Camp overlooks the Sand River. This South African game lodge has spectacular views of the unspoilt wilderness as far as the eye can see. Sometimes called Kirkman's Kamp. this historic and famous camp which was originally built in the early 1920’s. It was named in honour of W. Harry Kirkman, one of South Africa ’s foremost conservationists, who began his illustrious career as a ranger in Toulon in 1927.

The colonial atmosphere of Kirkman's Camp, with its gracious style and luxury, has been retained. One steps back in time upon entering the old homestead, which now serves as the recreational hub of the camp. The large lounge, decorated in 1920 style, leads through double French doors onto rolling lawns that provide a velvety contrast to the wild and tumbling bush surrounding the camp.

Afro-dysia continued to sustain its effect even in the bush. It seemed like mating season in the 50 km area of the Sabi Sans Game Reserve, where Kirkman's Camp resides. Astoundingly, in our first three game drives, we were surrounded by the Big Five -- rhinos, elephant, cape buffaloes, leopard and lions -- all which we saw fornicating at one point or another.

One of the rarest animal to spot on any game drive is the leopard. To see more than one at a time is considered an event in the bush. But to see a male and a female having sex, to capture it on film and then to watch them walk just a 100 yards away to munch on a freshly killed impala hanging from a Marula tree, well, to those who know, it's practically a miracle sighting. Forget that even our ranger, Murray, had never seen something like this.

National Geographic spent three years tracking a male and female leopard to capture them mating on film. We wake up at the crack of dawn, have a coffee, take a casual ride in our Range Rover and catch this rarity by happenstance.

Oh yeah, and did I mention minutes after this sighting we came across another female leopard with her two baby cubs? Incredible.

Soon after, we would soon see the startling sight of cape buffalo mating on a nearby riverbank, two of the largest animals we'd ever seen "doing it."

There would be elephants in "must," a term used to describe the males when they go into heat, who, we were told, can be quite dangerous during this period as they can become extremely aggressive without warning.

Female and male baboons doing the mating dance, screaming at one another, the females butt swollen red, which indicates they, too, are ready to mate. All the commotion they would make would not soon be forgotten.

Rhinos, who when they mate march in a circle to mark their "spot," so-to-speak, would also be on the prowl. Like dinosaurs from a bygone era, it was almost surreal to see these animals behaving amorously.

"For the record, animal-tracking is unpredictable," Ranger Murray explained to us. "They move around a lot. This is not a zoo. So to see all these animals and to see the kind of sightings we saw, is truly remarkable. Even I've never seen leopards mating. And I've been doing this for years."

On our final game drive, we made our way through the bush, with a big orange sun setting in the distance as we returned to our luxurious rooms at Ngala. As the sun finally disappeared behind the magical Marula trees, we couldn't help but notice the emerging moonlight washing along the landscape. Within a pale blue tint, there were elephants and giraffes in silhouette dotting the horizon line, the distant roar of lions and the squeal of hyenas permeating the cool night air, and even the smaller creatures of the bush, the lowly crickets, could be heard screaming for attention, seemingly the loudest of them all.

Our safari experience left us with a new-found respect for nature, an awakening and an awareness of the environment as well as a few new ideas on lovemaking. Without a doubt, we will never be able to look at these amazing animals the same way again. Seriously, though, to experience these wonders in their own habitat, uninhibited and free, was awe-inspiring. And to see nature and life in motion, in its rawest form, made us think of our own existence on this Earth and just how precious life truly is.

Third Governor’s Island Art Fair Offers Rustic Diversion

Locals to the New York City metro area, and art aficionados who want a quick ‘cruise’ and a refreshing walk around the rustic lanes and pathways of Governor’s Island, will find much to marvel at and even smile over at The 4heads Collective's devised Governor’s Island Art Fair.

Governor's Island Art Fair

 Founded by Nicole Laemmle, Jack Robinson, Ernie Sandidge, Antony Zito, The 4heads commandeer and beautify unused spaces and develop these unique environments for exhibition, installation and performances so that artists from all over the world can make good use of under-utilized areas. Formed in early 2008 this New York-based arts crew's mission is to forge new opportunities for the growing community of artists in New York and beyond. 

A short 10-minute ferry ride — free! — from the ferry slip at the very tip-end of Manhattan, the quirky and engrossing art fair runs annually -- now in it's 3rd season -- Saturdays and Sundays which started September 4th, 2010, and runs through the 26th, 11 am - 6 pm.
 
Although the island is just about 600 seconds away by the very pleasant ferry, once you alight from the ferry with skateboard, bike or feet, you feel enveloped in a past era, perhaps the late 1950s.
 
Stately brick homes and more rickety, shingled two-story or three-story structures greet you. Dotted around the lush green swards and gentle berms are sculptures in bronze, steel, wood and alabaster. Many of the small wooden homes in slight disrepair invite passers-by inside to view the many installations that occupy a room each — many in photography, gesso, oils, charcoal, waxy paper, light and wool — as well as weirder art materials and substances best left unexplored in a family medium. (Hair? Fingernails? Gunk? Who knows?)
 
Outside the windows, skiffs and larger ships sail, ferries pass every half hour, and parents and children in helmets  pedal by in a mini-vacation that interferes with no cars or traffic — there are none on these pathways, though there are little pedestrian toot-toot trains seating about 16 or so; it is all easy on the pocketbook. Just walking about scenery-drinking is delightful, all by itself.
 
On one gentle hill, a huge trapeze, and accompanying nets below, is set up, so even the out-of-shape can climb the ladder and, fully harnessed, swing out and do amazing and gasp-inducing feats of derring-do, heads-over-heels and lifts and whatever the acrobat-in-harness decides he or she can dare. There are professionals at top and on the ground to hold the ropes and guide the novice for the exhilarating experience. Even the heavyset tried it, in our viewing.
 
My companion joked that, just outside the perimeter of the catch-all netting, there should be a table set up with lawyers, just in case.
 
For the hungry, many bring picnic baskets. Al fresco eaters without foresight or baskets can purchase ice cream and snack foods here and there about the grounds.
 
Grab a chum or a family member or two and skip over to the Battery Park ferry slip. There seems to be no downside to the experience, unless you forget your visor and sunscreen.
 
Closing party is 26th September going til 5 pm.

For more info and a list of artists go to: http://www.4heads.org

Go to Gozo, Not Just for The Euphony of its Name

It's not much to look at on the map, a smudge about a fourth of the size of the not-over-impressive island-state of Malta, midway in the Mediterranean Sea between the Atlantic Mgarr_Ix-XiniOcean and the Middle East, between Europe's drawers and Africa's haircut.
 
But the island of Gozo is a land distant from its downwind neighbors -- with not an Islamic veil anywhere. It abounds with genial British customs, despite the dazzling strangeness of the Latinate spellings of its clearly Semitic-sounding Maltese place names and words.

Some include: Zejtun (from the Hebrew, some-think-Arabic zeyit, olive). Shemeshia (obvious to a first-grade Hebrew speaker, to the sun, shemesh). San Lawrenz. Zebbug. Xewkija. Mgarr. Victoria/Rabat, a dual name for a mixed history and schizophrenic decision point. 

The carved stone ''azure window'' sentinel at the inland sea of windswept Dweirja Bay. Neolithic cave dwellings and mystery leavings near Kercem. Prehistoric temples probably older than any standing structures anywhere on the globe. Burial mounds, cart ruts and dolmen at Ta' Cenc.
 
Three islands large in history of conquest and reconquest... an even smaller smidge in the Mediterranean called Comino, chummily parenthesized by larger Gozo on the Northwest, and big, big sis Malta to the Southeast.
 
But it's a lush, green island, thanks to the blue clay that sponges in the water and yields it back slowly.

 It's an island with as rich a tapestry of history as its big sister, Malta, a little over a half-hour by massive ferry away. It offers cathedrals ornate beyond your expectations, immaculate streets swept absolutely clean by wind and insinuating rains with not a trace of cardboard or rubbish or littering anywhere.

And it has a UNESCO world heritage site that embarrasses the student of history for not knowing these temples in near-pristine deshabille containing hints of a tribal and community worship from as long ago as 1,000 years before Stonehenge, 2,500 years before the Sphinx and the Pyramids. And you thought Israel was the bee's knees for archeology?
 
Not a whole lot is known specifically about the particulars, but here are clover-leaf form temples, side by side, that hint at fertility and fecundity issues, that show evidences of some type of rituals, ash burial 1,000 years after the first temple had been abandoned, side by side 20 meters from the second. Figurines with amplitudes of breasts, hips and legs, without heads, but with fashionable pleats on a skirt-like garment above zaftig balloony legs tell some marvelous story that still awaits the devices of the future to connect and narrate into some cohesive whole.
 
Fishing villages absent any attitude, blessedly no kiosks or peddlers pestering the hiker intent on history or romantic panoramic sweeps of majesty. No bother at all, unlike the souks of the countries just a plane hop to the south. From today's local daily Times, there is a headline blazoning that trucks are destroying Gozo, with as many as 20 per hour trundling noisily across the fair isle, imagine. A whole 20 trucks per hour destroying the peace and tranquility.
 
No Jews, apparently, live on Gozo: We asked many times. Of churches and Christian signs, there are many, but no synagogues, no ancient ruins of synagogues, no preparations for bar mitzvahs or circumcision celebrations. Perhaps I did not ask the right people. It has been a truism that almost every civilization has its [infinitesimal] percentage of Jews, clinging to the barnacled underside, quietly going about its tiptoeing life.

But no, I am informed with asperity--none here. After the endless skeins of mosques in North Africa jutting up with their now-automated muezzins from the endless march of serried, militant olive tree fields, also a piquant absence of mosques, too. The Knights of Malta, the Knights of St. John, literally held the fort here against the onrushing historic map-drench of Islam.
 
Grottoes. Ravines. Dizzying island clefts that are evidences of the tectonic plates mashing imperceptibly between the African plate and the Atlantic plate. Three millimeters per year is added to one side, and 3 subtracted or subsumed, from the other. Plants hanging onto the sides of ravishing ochre cliffs a green surprise: Here are not just rockface hangers-on, but capers we might, if we harvest carefully, eat with our breakfasts or relish with our entree.

White-caps smacking the rocky shores, eroded stone fields to clamber over and marvel at--how the whorls of nature surprise; how the wind and rain pummel the shapes into an endless ongoing fascination. Hills and verdant dales. Tiny narrow winding streets in ochre and sandstone, from the high airplane air, appearing a chunky melange of beige and ecru pudding--until one lights on the island and sees first-hand how gorgeous, how variegated, how homogeneous with differences this gem-like spit of land in the cerulean and turquoise ocean is.

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