The Getty Center, Los Angeles

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The Getty Center was high on my list of things to visit while in Los Angeles, but not because of the art. There are a few Van Goghs and Monets worth a glance, but the real draw is the Richard Meier-designed space. An efficient tram takes you up a steep hill, and you exit to a space of serenity, dotted with quirky sculptures and native plants.

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Wait for everyone from your tram walk up the stairs, leaving you with a brief moment of quiet. You have about 5 minutes to take people-free photos before the next tram arrives.

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The views of Los Angeles all the way to downtown are lovely, and the cactus garden is a nice distraction from the ever-present layer of smog.

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I was surprised to see a sculpture of a man on a horse that I had seen for the first time just a few months ago in Venice, Italy at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Peggy’s version of the Angel of the Citadel has a screw-in “member” that she could remove when more conservative guests would visit. The horse’s silly smile really makes me laugh.

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The garden area provides a playful burst of color amidst the monochromatic architecture.

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All of that walking and stair climbing and picture taking might make you want to take a break in one of the inviting seating areas. Maybe find one that has a view of Los Angeles and cool off with an iced tea, like I did!

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Have you visited the Getty Center? I would like to see it during golden hour as the sun begins to set. The stone buildings must glow as if lit from within!

Luxury on a Dude Ranch: Exploring Contrasts at The Alisal

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On my first trip to The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (oh yes, there will be many more), I experienced the type of vacation I didn’t think existed anymore. Think the Dirty Dancing Kellerman Resort meets Santa Barbara, with a dash of horses. It has an old school feel with all of the modern comforts.

Tucked behind the town of Solvang about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, Alisal’s grounds are fully embedded in the local nature. In springtime, the fields burst with yellow mustard flowers up to your ears, literally. Cantering through them off-trail on a is a memory that will not fade for a long time. The Santa Ynez mountains are known for wineries, and the hills remind me a little bit of parts of Italy.

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The ranch casually, yet luxuriously meets every vacation need with spa, fitness center, two golf course and large pool, but I was there for the horses (though the pool was very useful in cooling off between the morning and afternoon trail rides!).

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The attentive wranglers handle every riding need, pairing you up with a horse to match your skill level and personality. Having very little riding experience outside of an arena, I was tentative at first, especially about cantering on trails, and the wranglers not only picked great horses for my rides, but also checked on me often during the rides to make sure I felt comfortable. This personal attention helped me to feel confident on the trails and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from being immersed in nature on horseback.

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The wranglers make the horse-rider pairings the day before your ride so they can have your horse saddled up for you when it’s time to ride. You walk up to the board to confirm which horse you are riding, then the wranglers retrieve your horse from where it is tied up, help you mount, and organize you into groups of about 4 to 7. You will always get to ride with your friends if you are going on the same level of ride. I have no idea how they keep this all straight with so many people at so many different levels, but they accomplish it effortlessly.

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After a warm-up trail ride at intermediate level, which involves only walking and trotting, I was ready for an advanced ride, where you canter in spots, allowing your group to go a bit further and see a bit more in the 1.5 hour ride. My first advanced ride took us to the top of this hill overlooking Solvang and Buellton below. Perfect spot for a water break and picture taking!

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Some of my favorite trails go around the lake, which also offers fishing and boating activities. We encountered so much wildlife on our lake rides – there is a bald eagle nest high up in one of the trees, and we saw not only the adult eagles, but also to babies still in the nest unable to fly! We saw baby deer that still had their spots, and of course the beautiful black and white Alisal cows.

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The best ride of all was the breakfast ride. This happens only a couple per week and it is a must. You can ride a horse out to the historic Adobe Camp, or opt for the hay wagon. Beginners take off first since it takes longer for them to get there at a walking pace, then the trotting intermediate group, then our cantering advanced group, and finally the hay wagon, and we all arrive at the Adobe at around the same time for a cowboy breakfast (if cowboys had chefs making custom omelettes and logo embossed pancakes). Over the best pancakes in history, fresh fruit and coffee, we sat at picnic tables making new friends, while being serenaded with music and cowboy poetry. It was on the breakfast ride that I got to ride the much-loved, often-requested, rarely-available Paint horse named Parker, and like every other person who has the pleasure of riding him, I wanted to bring him home as a souvenir.

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Did I forget to mention the petting farm? Miniature horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and friendly roosters. I could hug and squeeze them all day!

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There are so many things that make this place special, but the most memorable for me are: the effortless luxury that makes you feel cared for in a relaxed way; the gourmet food made from local ingredients (breakfast and dinner are included in the rate); and the best bunch of trail horses you will ever encounter, probably anywhere. People travel from all over the U.S. to enjoy the unique Alisal experience, so I feel very lucky that it is just a 5 hour drive from my house, and I plan to make it an annual adventure! Until next time…

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Once (at least) in a Lifetime: Carnival in Venice, Italy

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For some reason, the magical little city of Venice, Italy has been in my daydreams lately. And then, I came across this article from the Huffington Post about the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime, and guess which city came in #1? Venice, of course! I have not seen anywhere near all 50 on the list, but of the many I have visited, Venice makes the top of my list, as well. I would add that visiting Venice during the annual Carnival festival makes the experience even more special.

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Something about seeing people in elaborate, colorful costumes with expressionless masks against the backdrop of Venetian architecture and canals is just a vision unmatched by anything else.

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The vibe when walking the streets of Venice at any time of year is mystical and romantic, and then Carnival adds on an extra layer of fun and revelry. You don’t know what surprise awaits you when you turn the corner.

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Back alleys are suddenly transformed into scenes from a movie.

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Venice during Carnival feels like a party all day, all night. People in costumes pose and preen near all of the well-known sights during the day, while at night they walk in droves toward one of the many galas around town.

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It’s not too early to start thinking about planning your trip to Venice during Carnival next year!

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Have you been to Carnival in Venice? Or experienced any Carnival festivals around the world? Rio is on my wish list, and I hear Tobago does it up big, too!

3 Things to Do in Oceanside, California

If you live in Southern California, you have probably sat in traffic driving through the Oceanside / Camp Pendleton area many times, but chances are, you may have not explored what it has to offer once you exit the highway. Here are 3 things that are worth exiting the highway for.

 

1. Walk down Oceanside Pier and meet the famous brown pelican named Charlie

Oceanside’s Pier is by far its most well known attraction, and as far as piers go, it has a lot to see. First, you have to meet “Charlie the Brown Pelican” and his friends. You can feed them anchovies or just observe them against the backdrop of Oceanside beach, like I did.

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20140628-20140628-IMG_0102The waves are perfect for surfing on both sides of the pier – the south side for beginners and the north side for more experienced surfers. I can’t think of many other places where people surf so close to the pier so you get a unique vantage point when watching them catch waves directly below you.

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The beach will be packed on a summer weekend, but parking is easy and free just a block from the beach, or you can park right at the beach for a small fee. I was pleasantly surprised by the easy access to the beach and pier.

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2. Visit the Mission and the Oldest Pepper Tree in California

I’d love to see all of the twenty-one Spanish missions in California. They are spread evenly from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, about 30 miles apart, or a day’s journey by horseback. Tradition says the priests sprinkled the routes between missions with mustard seed so the paths were blooming in bright yellow. Follow the yellow bloom road!

The mixture of Spanish and Moorish style architecture at Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia makes me feel transported to Spain or Morocco.

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Say hi to the oldest pepper tree in California in the garden area – it’s nicely framed by a brick archway so you can’t miss it.

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3. Explore the Harbor

There’s something about a lighthouse that makes a scene so much more picturesque. The Oceanside Harbor has a beautiful lighthouse amidst the busy marina. With many shops and restaurants, and the best latte I’ve had since Italy (at the Nautical Bean), I will be back here again and again. Like at the pier area, parking was easy and free, which adds to the overall pleasant experience of visiting Oceanside!

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Stay in a Historic Home in Kyoto

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While visiting Kyoto, the former capital of Japan steeped in rich history, why not enhance your experience by staying in a historic house that is nearly 100 years old? Bairin-an (“Plum Grove”) is one of three units within a large machiya (wooden traditional townhouse) called Kyo Machiya Miyabi that was renovated to include modern facilities for added comfort, and is available for short-term rental.

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The design was completed by a renowned Kyoto-based architect, Geoffrey P. Moussas, who specializes in historic preservation of machiya. I really appreciated all of the original wood in the home, scarred by decades of every day use. Typical of a machiya, Bairin-An has an interior private garden and interesting interior features such as sliding windows made of paper between living spaces.

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Bairin-An is located in the famous Gion district of Kyoto where you can still see geisha walking in full kimono gear and white make-up, if you are lucky! Its location makes it an ideal home base for travelers, a short walk to Kyoto’s bustling business district, but on a quiet residential street that makes you feel like a local resident. It is within walking distance of many famous temples, including Kiyomizu Temple, a designated World Cultural Heritage site and a first stop for many visiting Kyoto.

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I especially enjoyed burrowing in the comfortable futon bed after a long day of sightseeing (if you’ve ever slept on a good futon, you know there’s no sleep quite like it!), then waking up and having a cup of green tea while looking out over the private garden.

Do you seek out places with character and history over a modern hotel?

A wedding and a funeral in Japan

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Rites and rituals are fascinating parts of a culture, and I got to experience an abundance of them in Tokyo all in one day. The overcast Sunday began with my grandmother’s funeral. There are numerous ceremonies for the deceased in Buddhism, starting with a wake and cremation ceremony, followed by multiple memorial ceremonies, but this was one of the most significant ceremonies which takes place 49 days after the death (in Buddhism, 49 days is the estimated time it takes a spirit to be reborn). During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest chants from a sutra, then members of the family stand one at a time at the altar to offer incense to the deceased.

Following the ceremony, our grandmother’s urn was placed in the family grave located on the temple grounds. After a catered lunch of traditional Japanese food at the dining area of the temple, guests were given a parting gift (in the photo above, you can see us carrying gifts into the temple that will be given to guests) as a thank you for condolence money given to the family. Indeed it is a gift-giving culture, and gifts are as much a part of daily life as part of major rituals.

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Later that day, I got to witness the wedding of my sister’s friend in the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Harajuku, Tokyo. The bride wore a traditional white wedding kimono called a “shiromuku” and I think she looked so beautiful!

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Traditional wedding ceremonies take place inside the shrine and are only for close family members, but friends and the general public can observe the procession from different parts of the shrine, complete with the ubiquitous red paper umbrella. If you visit Meiji Jingu during the weekend, you will likely see several wedding processions.

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Many couples these days opt for a Western style wedding in a church or wedding hall, rather than the traditional ceremony, because the Western ceremony is more romantic and informal, and leaves room for personalization. No matter what style of wedding, guests are expected to give cash in a special decorative envelope (usually around $300 or more), and as a thank you for the gift money, the marrying couple gives guests a catalog that they can choose their gift from – things like ceramics, travel accessories, and food items. How smart to allow the guests to select their own gift! I may have to adopt this idea in some way.

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Whether you are able to witness a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu or not, the shrine and the long tree-lined walkway to the shrine are impressive, not to mention a welcome diversion from the bustle and sensory overload of Harajuku just outside the shrine grounds.

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Insider tip:

Keep an eye on the guards in the shrine as they begin to direct foot traffic away from aisles just before a wedding procession comes through, and be one of the first to pick a vantage point right along the path before the crowds form to get the best view!

 

Have you experienced a wedding or funeral in another culture that was very different from your own?

 

 

 

3 Unexpectedly Fun Things To Do in Scotland

It’s not hard to enjoy Scotland – there are castles everywhere, and of course those adorable sheep prancing on rolling green hills. But sometimes the best memories are made without direction from any guidebook, or even offering up that picturesque scenery so many of us long to capture. Here are three unexpectedly, surprisingly fun things to do in Scotland:

 

1. Watch Border Collies herd sheep

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Leault Farm in Kincraig is a working sheep farm that offers a herding demonstration a couple times per day. Neil, the man in charge (with a Scottish accent so thick I had to squint to understand even half of what he said) introduces his team of Border Collies, allows his herd of sheep to disperse across a large field, and then issues a series of whistled commands to the dogs to strategically herd them all back to us. Each dog has its own whistle call so Neil can direct them one at a time to run, crouch, crawl, and pop back up at the right moment to move the herd.

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We were lucky to visit when he had 3 puppies just beginning to learn to integrate with the working pack, and we saw how the herding instinct is so powerful that even without any training, the puppies knew how to crouch down and crawl toward the sheep so as not to scare them into running off.

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When a dog was not working at that point in the demo, they would come sit on the rocks with us in the audience, but they never took their eyes off the action. At one point, when the dogs seemed to be losing control over the herd, two of the experienced dogs bolted from their places next to us out to the field to assist their rookie brothers, even without being directed by Neil.

The demonstration is just for our viewing pleasure, but the place is actually a working farm where the sheep live and graze in peace for most of the year, except at shearing time, when the dogs are used to herd them in for their “haircuts.” After the demo, you get to bottle feed sheep and lambs. If you’re an animal lover like me, this place is heaven on Scottish soil.

Insider Tips:

  • The farm is hard to find so leave plenty of time to let GPS take you miles past the turn-off, then back again.
  • Catch the first demonstration and Neil will let you stay to watch the second immediately after for no extra charge.

 

2. Sit in a pub, order treacle and date pudding, and listen to the Scottish accent

20130819-_DSC5193A big part of traveling to a different country for me is to sit and absorb my surroundings – the sounds, the gestures, the accents. It helps me to feel grounded when I start to feel dizzy from all of the newness. One of my favorite memories of Scotland was sitting in a pub in the town of Inverness after a long day of chasing castles, listening to the especially thick Scottish accent in this area from a few groups of people nearby. That’s when I fell in love with that accent. And treacle and date pudding? Just the most intense explosion of flavor in dessert form.

Insider Tip:

Mums in Edinburgh has the best treacle and date pudding

 

3. Walk underneath the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

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The Real Mary King’s Close is a subterranean alley located directly under the Royal Mile that was the hub of Edinburgh between the 17th and 19th centuries. Eventually, the area was paved over to effectively “start fresh” with wider streets for better circulation and better quality of life, but much of the alleys and homes exist in their original conditions. Today you can explore these tenement alleys frozen in time on tours led by costumed guides who take on the character of a person who lived in the close centuries ago. You get a genuine feel of the claustrophobic conditions people lived in that also led to the spread of plagues and other desperate conditions. [Photo above is of the Royal Mile, as photos are not allowed on the tour]

Insider tip:

There are other underground / ghost tours heavily marketed in the area, but if you only have time for one, this one is the best because it has a richer story with more intact living spaces.

 

Have you gone to a place that was unexpectedly fun or memorable? I’d love to hear about it!

 

Adamson House – A Hidden Treasure of Malibu

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Situated on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Malibu Pier, it’s not exactly hiding, but Adamson House is often skipped by the usual Malibu weekend visitor. Combined with its architectural and natural beauty beyond comprehension, it’s exactly the type of place I love to visit and love even more to share.

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From its front courtyard outlined in roses and bougainvillea to its tiled fountains and luscious lime trees at the back, it is a fairy tale castle, Spanish Colonial Revival style. The interior (accessible by guided tour only, and where photos are not allowed) is full of custom tile created locally, which, aside from the spectacular views of the ocean and hills, was the most memorable part of the house tour. One room had tiles painted to look like a Persian rug, which I thought was pretty genius since tile is much easier to clean than a fancy rug!

Also fascinating was that the home had all original furniture and appliances, including a seriously flawed early dishwasher, which ran water straight through it while spinning the dishes in a circle. How many glasses do you think they broke in that contraption?

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From the back lawn, you are left without any question as to why the family chose this location to build their fairy tale villa. Imagine it a hundred years ago without being able to see a single building, but even today, it makes sense. Even the most picturesque lifeguard tower (featured in the movie “Gigi”) and Surfrider Beach are perfectly framed by the house’s landscaping!

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The home is part of the National Register of Historic Places, and can be rented out for events. My only wish is that you could stay overnight and wake up to this view out of your bedroom window.

If Edward Scissorhands Lived in San Diego

If I had scissors for hands, I would definitely be creating bunnies and dinosaurs out of bushes, no question. What would motivate a person with *hands* for hands to do this, however, I would love to know. This work of art that requires consistent upkeep is really someone’s front yard.

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It would be fun to go with a few people who know cartoons really well and try to name all of the characters  you can recognize in this one-of-a-kind garden. Harper’s Topiary Garden is in San Diego’s Mission Hills neighborhood. If you run into the owners, ask them what inspired them to create such an enchanting garden, and then thank them for sharing their whimsy with everyone. They seem like people I’d like to have over for tea and macaroons!

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Address: 3549 Union St. (between Upas St. & Vine St.), San Diego, CA 92103

 

 

 

Experience Mexico Without Leaving Los Angeles – Calle Olvera

Walking through Calle Olvera in downtown Los Angeles is as close to walking through a market in the heart of Mexico as you can get in the U.S. without packing your passport. The tiled street is flanked by shops, restaurants, and historic buildings, with stalls down the center, all celebrating Mexican culture.

This area is supposedly the birth place of Los Angeles, and it also appears to be the resting place of every color of the rainbow. You see so many colors and textures at once that it’s quite overwhelming at first. Everything catches your eye – the bins of candies, the shoes lined up on the wall, colorful dresses hanging, and those creepy leather masks.

Take your time and wander through the stalls, and you will find some treasures that you might not be able to resist taking home. Particularly beautiful were they children’s dresses in the brightest colors, and I was happy to find a striped cotton blanket I had been looking for to use as a beach blanket. There was no bargaining, but prices were decent.

If you’re lucky, you might even happen upon a mariachi band strumming guitars and singing while strolling through the calle. Being serenaded while shopping in a marketplace of color explosions completed the sensory overload that is Calle Olvera.