Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer at the California Central Coast: Get Your Tan On!

Kayaking in Ventura Harbor
Say summer and you automatically think about being outside. Who stays indoors except for cranky people and vampires? The California Central Coast is prime outdoor territory for summer fun as this stretch of coastline from Ventura to Monterey is ripe with plenty to do. From tide-pooling, surfing, hiking and biking, to a romantic stroll as the Pacific tickles your feet, here are some suggestions to get out, get some sun and uncover the coast!

My wife over looking Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island
Perhaps the best playground for outdoor fun is to visit the Channel Islands National Park ( These islands, just off the coast of Santa Barbara, are great day trips and get you back to pristine California as it was hundreds of years ago. Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Rosa islands are best accessed from Ventura Harbor. All three islands have indigenous plants and animals, such as and the smallest fox you’ve ever seen, the Channel Islands Fox, and over 140 other species found no where else on earth. You can camp overnight, or spend a day or half-day roaming the place on moderate hikes with a trained naturalist. Island Packers is the official concessionaire and they do a great job of getting people to and from the islands. WATCH my 2 Minute Travel video shot on Santa Cruz Island here:

Guided kayaking tours of the Channel Islands by folks like Blue Sky Wilderness ( gets you up close to the volcanic rock and sea caves on the islands, including Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world, located at Santa Cruz Island. Picnic on the island and explore parts few people have walked on. Though the waters are cooler, you can also snorkel off all three islands and immerse yourself near the kelp forests. You’ll spot the California State Fish, the Garibaldi, see sheepshead, and other cool sea life. Or if you dive, the islands are great spots to scuba. I usually dive around Anacapa and the backside of Santa Cruz. There are sea lions, dolphins, crabs and everything else under the sea. Use the Peace Boat ( my favorite dive boat, which departs from Ventura Harbor. They are professional and best of all, after a long day of diving you can warm up in their on-board hot tub while eating ice cream! Of course, you can always kayak within the confines of any of the harbors, like Ventura, Santa Barbara and Monterey for a more sedate experience.

The Channel Island Fox
Aside from the Channel Islands, here are other great Summer suggestions:

The bike trails that hug the Central Coast are inspiring. The Waterfront in Santa Barbara is one of the best. You can rent a bike or surrey and leisurely follow the ocean down to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, which passes the Santa Barbara Zoo, beach volleyball nets and languid palm trees. It’s flat, fun and you won’t break much of a sweat. In San Luis Obispo, the best spot for hiking, walking and biking is Montaña de Oro Park: 8,000 acres of coastal bluffs and coves to mountainous shrub-covered hills to lush valley’s of dense eucalyptus groves. It’s beautiful and truly a gem on the Central Coast. (  


Carmel City Beach
The white sand beach at Carmel City Beach is immensely popular and within walking distance of downtown Carmel ( The views north are to Pebble Beach, and south you can see Point Lobos, another great hiking park. Walk, bring the dog and relax, then head back to Carmel for lunch, or wine tasting in Carmel Valley. Leadbetter Beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara because it has a large grassy area with picnic tables, some shade, restroom facilities and outdoor grills. Plus you’re a short drive to State Street, Santa Barbara's main drag for shopping, outdoor dining and the SB vibe. Moonstone Beach in Cambria has long been popular due its more rugged coastline and handicap accessible boardwalk which runs the length of the low bluffs. There is also beach access, restaurants are close by, and restroom facilities are located at both ends of the beach. Plus you can find, yes, moonstones. You might also see otters.

My whale watching boat leaving Morro Bay
Whale watching in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Morro Bay can be an awesome experience and these spots have reasonably good chances of getting pretty close to humpback and blue whales. There are numerous boats to take you around, either by sail, on a catamaran or on a traditional fishing boat. Having seen whales up close, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. Of course, no one can promise you a whale sighting, but if nothing else, you’re floating on the Pacific, and that ain’t too bad!

Or, if you’re the more adventurous type, the Bella Monterey Bay ( is a great sailing boat which holds only 6 people and tours the bay and shoreline of Monterey. This is not for the faint of heart as this baby sails, which means it can get choppy on the open ocean and you will have to gingerly navigate your way around the vessel, depending on the wind, but you’ll have a blast.

Renting a surry along Santa Barbara's coastline
On Board Nautical in Morro Bay ( is for those who just need a relaxing ride on the water without spilling their cocktail. Chef-prepared foods and live entertainment on this classic 1960s yacht means you can kick back as you cruise inside Morro Bay gently and slowly, staying within the confines of the protected bay. For other great information about the Central Coast, check out all 4 of my travel books, in paperack and as a download on Kindle:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Spirits of Ventura: Tequila, Beer, and Lemons, Oh My!

No, this isn’t a ghost story, unless beer and tequila frightens you. This is liquid satisfaction in downtown Ventura. Located 60 miles north of Los Angeles, Ventura has long been like that middle child in every family – ignored and left behind in favor of the flamboyant kid, namely Santa Barbara. But Ventura is rapidly changing; there is a laid back vibe, easy beach access, strong arts community, and the culinary scene is taking off. But what’s really getting attention is our friend, alcohol.

Anacapa Brewing Company
Wine is booming with nearly 15 wineries from Oxnard to Ojai. But wine gets the lion’s share of attention already, so it’s time to uncover other sweet juices of joy. Micro-breweries are ubiquitous along the Central Coast, but currently in downtown Ventura there is only one: Anacapa Brewing Company. Housed in a 130 year-old building, the narrow interior is bookended by exposed brick walls. Owner Danny Saldana offers five brews on tap, and new brews coming on line all the time. You can only buy them here, or bring in your growler for a fill-up. Their hops come from Yakima, Washington, and their malts from Canada. The result is finely balanced beers; everything from porters and hoppy double IPAs to lighter lagers. They also have a large food menu and are located right on Main Street. ( 

Dr. Adolfo Murillo

Mules haul out the agave
What does a local optometrist do when his family ranch in Mexico is up for grabs? Since the ranch was located in Jalisco, Mexico, Dr. Adolfo Murillo planted blue agave in order to produce tequila. All tequila must come from the state of Jalisco otherwise it ain’t recognized as tequila. His organic approach to the barren and difficult ranch land has resulted in better quality agave, stronger, and healthier. Adolfo has shared his organic protocol with other farmers in Mexico, regardless of the crop, and currently there are farmers growing organic in multiple states. You can find his Tequila Alquimia in restaurants and bars in Ventura. His is one of only three or four of the 1,150 different labels of tequila in the world to be certified organic by the USDA. There is the blanco, reposada, añejo, and Extra Añejo, aged six years. These are smooth tequilas, beautifully made and they make excellent margaritas. Adolfo’s recipe defies the conventional approach: One part tequila (he prefers the blanco over an aged version), one part fresh lime juice, ½ part orange juice, and ½ part agave nectar. That’s it, no need for triple sec or Grand Marnier. And the result is a fresh, crisp flavor with the fruit and tequila being balanced. Or have them at room temperature, as these are sipping tequila’s, not shooters. Does organic really matter in a tequila? Well, consider this: the average growing cycle of blue agave is 7-10 years; that’s nearly a decade an agave plant can soak up chemicals, toxins and pesticides. With Tequila Alquimia, there are no chemicals in the ground to begin with. So there. (

James Carling
Ventura is also home to vast citrus orchards, specifically lemons. So if you’re of Italian descent limoncello is customary back home along the Amalfi Coast. If you’re the husband/wife team James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling, you bring Italy to California. They had been making their limoncello at home for 10 years and were eventually persuaded to move into commercial production. Ventura Limoncello has scored tremendous medals and awards at spirits competitions, even beating itself in one competition. So what is limoncello? Just the best damn lemon liqueur you’ll ever taste. Lemon peel, neutral spirits, sugar and water. There ya go. But the simplicity of ingredients should not belie the quality. James doesn’t use vodka as he believes that vodkas give the liqueur a harsher taste. Only the top layer of the lemon skin is peeled, all by hand, then it’s infused in large glass jars (metal containers leave an aftertaste) with the neutral spirits. In addition to their original version, they produce a crema, one made with milk, and an orange-cello made with blood oranges. Smooth, viscous and addictive, you need to find this when you’re in the area at local restaurants and bars, and take a bottle home with you. Leave it in the freezer and pour it directly into your glass. ( 
Lemon rinds in neutral spirits, relaxing.

All these diverse liquid refreshments can be found by simply walking Main Street in downtown Ventura, and these family-owned businesses deserve your attention, not just because they offer a local flavor to your visit, but because these are excellent beverages. For more information about Ventura/Ojai including the wines and restaurants, shopping and outdoor activities, check out my Moon travel book, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast. Salud!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Flowers, Fauna & Fun: Lotusland - A Day in Montecito

Lotusland is 37 acres of the best manicured and lovingly tended to gardens you will probably ever see. Last privately owned by Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer in the 1920s, she routinely arranged her vast collection of plants into bold color schemes and unusual shapes. For over four decades she tinkered with her gardens, shaping, creating and recreating them to suit her wishes. But the estate was made for this. The first owner had a commercial nursery on the land in the 1880s. After Walska’s death in 1984 her estate, Lotusland, so named because of the lotus flowers on the property, became a non-profit. It is one thing to visit a botanical garden, but it is another to wander through a magnificent wonderland of plants, trees and gardens.

From the moonscape barrenness of the cactus gardens, to the topiary garden and their array of animals, to the serenity of the Japanese garden, to the olive allee and formal English-styled gardens, and across the great lawn, Lotusland is that rare stop where you feel you could stay forever. In fact, one of the staff gardeners has been there for over 30 years. It is truly an awe-inspiring place. It can get brisk as many parts are so heavily wooded that you can’t see the sun. The wide walking paths easily accommodate wheelchairs and there is no elevation gain. If you love botany, horticulture, or like me you don’t know much about either but you love plants, Lotusland is a treat. Bring your camera and comfortable shoes.

This is a public garden operating in a residential neighborhood, therefore reservations are mandatory. Lotusland is located at 695 Ashley Road in Montecito, 805/969-9990, Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday between mid-February and mid-November only. Admission is $25, adults; $10 children age 5 to 18 and the tours last two hours.

If you do the 10 a.m. tour, when you’re done it will be lunch time. Close by in Montecito, a five minute drive away, is what is known as the Upper Village, less crowded than Coast Village Road in the lower village and there are several eateries close by. For sandwiches and salads, sweets and such, the Pierre Lafond Montecito Market, (516 San Ysidro Rd., Montecito, 805/565-1504, open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.) gives you great options to eat there, or take away. The Prosciutto and Basil Flatbread is wonderful, and their Farm Cake is terrific. They also have a coffee bar, small produce area as well as cookbooks, olive oils, chocolates and even a few wines. Or head down to trendy Coast Village Road, where there is plenty of shopping and restaurants, and try the excellent (though pricy) turkey meatballs at Trattoria Mollie (1250 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 805/565-9381, open for lunch and dinner, closed Mondays), made uber-famous when a local resident by the name of Oprah Winfrey, plastered the meatball recipe on her TV show. From there it’s a two minute drive to Butterfly Beach for a walk on the dog friendly sand.

As it’s probably nearing later afternoon, the Four Seasons Biltmore is right there for a glass of local wine, so you can sip while you stare out to the Channel Islands and watch the sun languidly sink into the Pacific. Not a bad way to spend the day.