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Sedona: Where Nature Calls and Culture Buffs Find Paradise

July 6, 2018 at 1:12 am

On one hand you’ve got your nature and adrenalin junkies. And on the other, you have your art and culture mavens. Deciding where to go to satisfy cravings of the two extremes is easy:  Sedona, Arizona.  The red rock mountains and cliffs jumpstart inspiration for paintings and sculptures, and they define the southwestern culture along with iconic trading posts and historic architecture.  A journey fulfills a dream trip on that Bucket List leaving a satisfying impression.

When you arrive on that undulating ribbon of road known as Highway 179, what sneaks up on you are the giant mountains so aflame in red and orange you feel physically hot. As the sun lowers, fellow tourists race to capture photos of the rocks intensifying with color with every second ticking away.

near Bellrock

  It’s no surprise Sedona is a hiking mecca.  Even if you shudder at the thought of wearing hiking boots, the allure of these sandstone landscapes beckon you to explore the nooks and crannies where the early Navajo and Yavapai called home.  You will want to witness Sedona’s miraculous formations for yourself – namely Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, the Snoopy rock, the battleship, the coffee pot, among others.

  To start, head to the Sedona Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. The staff is well versed in recommending trails of various difficulty levels.  Popular ones include the not-for-the-faint-of-heart Cathedral Rock trail with dramatic views and the easy-to-do, one-mile Boynton Vista Trail hike.

near Bellrock

And while you can trek all day on foot and love it, you can encounter Sedona’s red dirt a different way. Via jeep. That’s when a professional 4×4 driver takes over the steering wheel and sends your pulse quickening and hair standing on end. Adventure guides at Pink Jeep Tours guarantee thrilling off-road journeys on bumpy, uncharted paths.  If you are still unfazed, join a hot air balloon ride with Northern Lights Balloon Expeditions.  Imagine floating above ancient red pinnacles and spires that reduce to a pin head the higher you go.

  Back on land, exercise your eyeballs perusing collections in art venues such as the Lanning Gallery for fine art and the Sedona Arts Center for local works where you can also take classes.  Meander the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, an outdoor plaza with boutiques and all things handmade and Southwestern.

  Also classic to Sedona are Native American trading posts. Need a lucky rabbit’s foot, mountain lion jawbones, or a pair of antlers?  Poke around Clear Creek Trading where you can snap up gemstones, unusual ornaments, and all sorts of quirky affordable trinkets.

  A must see in Sedona is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a modern church painstakingly embedded onto a rock face. Every local knows where it is. Surrounded by jagged mountains, the structure was completed back in 1955. This beacon of hope represents one of the most hailed destinations in Sedona. The idea for the architectural landmark came to artist Marguerite Brundswig Staude when she saw an image of a cross superimposed on the Empire State Building.  Later on, she knew this exact location in Sedona was ideal for the church after she spied nearby rock formations that resembled a pair of praying nuns and another set of rocks that looked like the Madonna and the Christ child.  When you visit, go early. Parking fills up quickly.

  No one can leave Sedona without sampling Southwestern treats, so leave your prejudices at home and let your taste buds run free. For cactus tacos, head to Oaxaca Restaurant. Find the ultimate prickly pear margarita at the Enchantment Resort. And if you have always wanted to try rattlesnake meatballs and buffalo skewers, look no further than the Cowboy Club Grille and Spirits.

  So go ahead and conquer that steep rock and scarf up those chili cactus fries.  The happy intersection of nature, art, culture, and cuisine makes Sedona a storied destination memorable and approachable for everyone.

If you are interested in visiting Sedona, please check-out our Sedona Vacation Package and start planning your next getaway!

Airport vortex

 Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Dallas Morning News, and many other publications. She is also the founder of www.bayareafamilytravel.com, a website for families who love adventure.

Sonoma Roars Back with Activities and Open Arms

November 3, 2017 at 9:28 pm


Sonoma vineyard

There was a raging inferno in Sonoma County last month as the world’s eyes were transfixed on the national news. But travelers should imagine another scenario now that the fires have been contained. Picture open tasting rooms with friendly wine attendants ready for conversation. Swimming pools and spas filled with tourists. Savory, tantalizing aromas emanating from the kitchens of Sonoma’s top restaurants.

Reflecting on the past few weeks, Sonoma officials are embracing visitors once again, and they remain grateful for those who helped save the community. “We are forever indebted to the heroes who fought these fires and kept our wineries and small businesses safe, and so many of our historic buildings intact and undamaged,” says Jonny Westom, executive director of Experience Sonoma Valley. “I, along with all of the businesses in the Valley, are eager to roll out a friendly wine country welcome to tourists near and far with the assurance that they will enjoy a wonderful vacation with us.”

In light of all that has happened, Sonoma as a fall getaway still provides guests a relaxing respite. In addition, folks who want to help Sonoma get back on financial track can do so by paying a weekend visit. You can explore more than 50 miles of Pacific coastline that forms Sonoma County’s western border.

Where else can visitors go and do? Emotions will probably run high on Saturday, November 18 when the city celebrates with an annual lighting ceremony at the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza. More than 150,000 holiday lights will light up the historic site at dusk. Marking the start of the festive season, the plaza will glow every night with more than 150,000 sparkling lights, strung across all eight acres along California’s largest historic plaza.

During your weekend pass to Sonoma, you can pay homage to the many wineries that are now open. It’s good to know that, thankfully, none of Sonoma Valley’s one hundred-plus wineries were destroyed. Today, tasting rooms are open for pouring ust as they have been before.

And since Sonoma Valley is entering shoulder season, you can nab great hotel rates and go to restaurants without much wait at all. You can find a variety of deals during this bonus time. Book a $150 Romance Package at the Kelley & Young Wine Garden Inn in Cloverdale. For other special offers, see www.sonomacounty.com/deals.

You can also bring your family and meet the furry friends who were saved at Santa Rosa’s Safari West. There’s so much more in Sonoma Valley for adults and families than meets the eye. There are lush hiking trails across 13,000 acres of state and regional parks, historic architecture peppered throughout the region, downtown shopping areas, spas and geothermal springs, and plenty of quaint towns such as Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma.

Culture mavens can also have their ears, eyes, and appetites tickled on December 2. At the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, SVMA will once again present Pairings for the Senses. Folks will come together to enjoy featured exhibitions, poetry, and a sampling of regional cuisine. Tickets at www.svma.org run $35 for members and $40 for the general public.

When you want a curated itinerary so you don’t have to think about the details, the tourism bureau has several listed on its website aimed at different types of travelers and interests. See www.sonomacounty.com/activities/trip-itineraries.

“We invite you to come see us,” encourages Tim Zahner, interim CEO of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. “Come help us recover from the recent wildfires by allowing us to delight you with world-class hospitality, awe-inspiring views, and sensory experiences unlike any other. It’s what we do best.”

If you need assistance planning your Sonoma vacation, check out California Tours Sonoma and Napa Vacation packages. (Note to readers: California Tours will be donating ten percent towards supporting the needs of first responders to the Napa fire).

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Dallas Morning News, and many other publications. She is also the founder of www.bayareafamilytravel.com, a website for families who love adventure.

Napa Valley is Back

November 3, 2017 at 9:21 pm

Autumn Napa vineyard


Return and Support the Community, say officials

The blaze that lit Napa Valley on Sunday, October 15 at 10 p.m. sparked national headlines.   Media coverage of the conflagration was so widespread and exaggerated that many believed that all of Northern California was being consumed. What many outside Napa failed to realize was that the actual tourist corridor, namely the valley floor, where many of the wineries, spas, and hotels stand were largely unscathed. Stresses Napa resident Monty J. Sander, “The fires were in the mountain ridges. The floor of the Valley had no damage at all.” According to Napa officials, the fire ravaged the eastern and western hills, and fortunately, only a few businesses were singed and burned.

Now with the flames contained, there’s no better time than now to come, says Sander, “Visitors are definitely returning,” he observes. “Hotels are receiving bookings, and locals are getting out in big numbers to support the restaurants and businesses. A lot of people are pretty thankful at the moment.”

In an act of solidarity, this week Napa Valley mayors and government officials rode the iconic Napa Wine Train together to announce that the Napa Valley is reopened for business. According to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism bureau, “Currently only four wineries have reported being closed due to fire damage,” says Angela Jackson, spokesperson for Visit Napa Valley. “The majority of more than 400 wineries were open and hosting guests just days after the fires started. Additionally, all restaurants, tours and activities are welcoming guests.”

This is a time where a visitor’s dollar counts more than ever, Sanders adds.   Tourists will do well to frequent the wineries and attractions without too many crowds and participate in a slice of recent history. To encourage people to come, many local businesses are donating a portion of their proceeds towards fire relief. Indian Springs Calistoga and Napa Valley Lodge will be donating $10 a night per reservation to https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/napafirerelief  for all reservations made by November 9 for stay dates from now through November 30.

Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch and Solage , operating on schedule, are providing complimentary nights that encourage guests to linger as well as resort credit for spa treatments and restaurant meals. “Every stay helps heal the valley,” say Auberge officials. In fact, Auberge will match funds to the Napa Valley Community fund when guests make their own donations.

Other hoteliers are providing specials and discounts to attract visitors. At the Napa River Inn, the boutique property is offering a fourth night free after three paid consecutive nights when bookings occur November through February.

Hospitality vendors from various industries are also hosting benefit events together. The Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa is partnering with the Von Strasser Family of Wines and Brian Arden Wines to put on an outdoor movie night on Thursday, November 2nd at 5:30pm to benefit the Napa Valley Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund. A full 100% of each $30 ticket and proceeds from wine sales will be donated to help families and businesses affected by the wildfires.

Museums in the area are flinging doors wide and posting events as scheduled. In November in Yountville which was previously blocked during the fire, the Napa Valley Museum will be hosting the world premiere of “France is a Feast,” a photo journey following the famous cooking celebrity, Julia Child and her husband Paul. The rarely seen black and white photos were taken by Paul between 1948 and 1954.

Restaurants are welcoming visitors and planning celebrations. In fact, La Toque, a Michelin-starred winner, will continue to wow guests with its 20th annual Thanksgiving feast featuring a turkey and the trimmings, and its famous Chef Ken’s famous turkey sandwich leftovers as a parting gift for each diner.

The city itself is going to celebrate the holidays with fervor. Napa’s 55th Annual Christmas Parade, is slated for Saturday, Nov. 25 at 5 p.m. As in year’s past, locals will decorate parade entries, including cars, horses and even children, with festive lights. Santa Claus will be in the “Big Chair on the Riverfront” to hear Christmas wishes.

The celebrations this November and December will have an added dimension of significance after all that has happened. “We are humbled by the incredible dedication we have seen from the emergency service response teams who continue to work to keep everyone safe,” remarks Clay Gregory, president & CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “The outpouring of support from around the world has been heartwarming to everyone in our community, and the spirit of collaboration to rebuild and reopen is remarkable. Our thoughts remain with those impacted by these wildfires, including the more than 13,000 people whose jobs are supported by the Napa Valley tourism industry,” adds Gregory.

If you need assistance planning your vacation, check out California Tours Napa Vacation packages. (Note to readers: California Tours will be donating ten percent towards supporting the needs of first responders to the Napa fire).


Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Dallas Morning News, and many other publications. She is also the founder of www.bayareafamilytravel.com, a website for families who love adventure.

New York City Art : Hop Into the Mix

September 26, 2017 at 9:23 pm


As one of the world’s great art centers, New York City has everything from old masters and renowned museums to storefront upstarts and ephemeral surprises. It’s the place to get a refresh on the artwork you love, and to be stimulated by the new and completely unexpected.

Start with NYC Hop-on Hop-off Pass, an included benefit that will bring you near your choice of 30+ museums throughout the City and beyond, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), the Guggenheim (guggenheim.org), Whitney Museum of American Art (whitney.org), and the Museum of Modern Art (moma.org).

The Museum Mile (https://www.ny.com/museums/mile.html) is a lovely area along Fifth Avenue and Central Park that’s filled with museums and other fine arts institutions. At the northern end, El Museo del Barrio (elmuseo.org) celebrates the art and artifacts of Caribbean and Latin American cultures.

Through October 29, 2017, the New York Botanical Garden (nybg.org), north of Manhattan in the Bronx, features a magical garden exhibition of glass works by Dale Chihuly (https://www.nybg.org/event/chihuly-2/). Even if you arrive after the exhibit has closed, there’s still much to enjoy at one of the world’s largest botanical gardens and gorgeous Victorian-era National Historic Landmark.

If fresh art is on your radar, you’ll find galleries galore in Chelsea and Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan. The Drawing Center (drawingcenter.org) exhibits historical and contemporary drawings. White Columns (whitecolumns.org) is an alternative exhibit space devoted to rising stars. MoMA PS1 (momaps1.org) on Long Island extends MoMA’s commitment to emerging artists.

Who says art is solely a visual experience? Explore the art of scent at Aedes Perfumery (aedes.com), an intimate shop in the West Village carrying an intriguing line of fragrances.

Resources I: New York City’s own website provides a complete list of city museums and links at https://www.ny.com/museums/all.museums.html, including links to Free Night and Suggested Contribution museums at https://www.ny.com/museums/free.html.

Resources II: Cultural goings on around town are listed and reliably reviewed at the New Yorker (newyorker.com/culture), the New York Times (nytimes.com/section/arts), New York Magazine (nymag.com/arts/art/) and The Village Voice (villagevoice.com/culture/art/).

Keep your eyes open as you stroll New York City and environs, because you never know when you’ll stumble upon great work. Keith Haring painted on empty subway signs and Jean-Michel Basquiat on the walls of broken-down buildings, and the creations of both NYC artists came to be loved by the world. Some creators working now also look to make something meaningful out of what others might pass by unawares…so do be open to the unexpected in artful New York City – on your California Tours vacation!