Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Frightfully Good Fun

October 30, 2015

Who doesn’t love a good scare?  Halloween is this weekend and in every city across America, haunted houses are opening up offering some frightfully good fun.


Decades ago, I “worked” in a haunted house with a friend of mine who was in charge of a “room”.  Boo76_004His theater group got a percentage of the profits in exchange for hosting a room.  I got recruited to lay in the coffin and “look dead” – that’s what friends are for.  This haunted house was sponsored by the local Jaycees, a community organization.  The Jaycees host a haunted house in many communities as do the Shriners.  In fact, in Seattle, the Shriners boast the only “haunted golf course“.  Local radio stations are also big sponsors of haunted houses.  Listen and you could even win passes!  The weekend before Halloween, Salt River Fields was the site of  “Spooktacular” – a balloon glow in a field where kids could trick-or-treat between hot air balloons!


In larger markets, there are companies who set up elaborate haunted houses such as “13th Floor”, the one I recently visited in Phoenix.  AMAZING!  Great, elaborate sets and agile ghouls who manage to get ever so close to you without ever touching you and then magically slip away.


Several tips for finding a great haunted house:

  1. Be sure the house fits the attendees.  There are some venues which are more family-friendly than others.  Visit the website or Facebook page for the prospective haunt and see what they say as well as what others who have already visited say.
  3. Really young children are perhaps better suited for a corn maze or other less scary options.
  4. Opt for the VIP or shortened line option if you can.  Lines – especially on Halloween weekend – can get frightfully LONG.  If you spend a little more, you can usually jump the line.

zinsOf course you can always stay home and hand out candy.  If you do, consider having a few bottles of themed wine on hand and some small plastic cups for the adults who are accompanying the children on the neighborhood trek.  7 Deadly Zins is my personal favorite and what we will be pouring if you ring our doorbell.





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Staycation! Tourist in your own town

October 27, 2015

When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of disposable income.  kansas-city-missouri-downtown_at_twighlightWe certainly didn’t have money for camps or family summer vacations.  That doesn’t mean I had a boring childhood – quite the opposite.  One year McDonald’s gave out a cartoon type map of Kansas City showing both local landmarks and of course, their restaurants.  My mom took that map and used it as a “Tour KC Guide” and each week we went on an outing.  Again, we didn’t have the funds to “eat out” – even at McDonald’s – each week so she packed picnic lunches for us.  What a great time we had and what wonderful memories!

McDonald'sYou can do the same thing even without the help of a McDonald’s map!  Before you say “I’ve already done everything there is to do in this town” you may want to think about it.  Likely there are new museums, galleries or attractions that have opened.  Others I suspect it has been a LONG TIME since you visited.  Maybe it’s time to go back to the aquarium, the science center or Northwest Trek.  Do you have a friend who moved to your town in the past few years?  Invite them along.

 It’s always fun to play tour guide.


Great WheelMy Seattle list includes riding the Great Wheel, the giant Ferris wheel on the waterfront in downtown Seattle.  The harbor seals have a new home at the Seattle Aquarium I might have to check out.  Northwest Trek has added a zip line and I do love zip lines.  I’ve never made it to Wolf Haven but it interests me – anything with animals interests me.  Which makes me wonder,  what might be new at Woodland Park Zoo.  Fall is a great time to visit a zoo or wildlife sanctuary where the animals are more active in the cooler temperatures.  There’s also the Chihuly Garden and Glass which I got a glimpse of as we rode the elevator up to the Space Needle for a special dinner.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

When you don’t have to factor in the cost of transportation and accommodations, a vacation gets much more affordable making a “Staycation” an attractive idea.

There are lots of great memories to be made right in your own backyard.  With a little internet research and a spirit of adventure you can make this a year to remember no matter what your budget.

Step Back into the Old West

October 20, 2015

In N.Scottsdale to go to the theater?  Grab a bite before the show at Saddle Bronc Grill.


The bar has better atmosphere than the restaurant and they even have live entertainment.

The tooled leather high top tables and bar stools give the place and old west feel…if there were tvs in the old west.  And you gotta love a bathroom door handle that’s a 6 shooter!


Order up a drink and some “rattlesnake eggs”.  That’s their name for the fried potato and cheese balls.  The green chilies give them just the right amount of heat and there’s enough for the table to share.


The menu features meatloaf, ribs, steak, chicken – many entrees are even offered in 1/2 size portions.  There’s something for everyone, even the pickiest of eaters.  Yes, it is family friendly but please parents – eat with your kids in the restaurant portion and leave the bar for the adults!


Be sure to splurge the extra  $2 for the “Martini Potatoes” and leave room for dessert because the brownie is homemade!

Check Groupon before you go, you may be able to save some $$ but be sure to tip on the full smount, the service we received certainly deserved it!

A nice find and worth a return visit!

Black is the New Black

October 14, 2015

I’m a huge consumer of entertainment in all forms and fashions.  Sometimes the best entertainment is right in your own home – on television!  Like many Americans, my husband and I have become “binge watchers”.  It all started with 24, the first all consuming,addictive television show that turned not only us, but all of our friends into television watching zombies.  It was not unusual for us – or someone in our circle – to spend an entire weekend in our sweats binging on Jack Bauer.  My husband did a fabulous homage parody of 24 that you can watch on YouTube.

There have been others over the years such as Downton Abbey, The Last Ship and Strike Back where we had to watch “just one more episode.”  In the olden days (better known as a few years ago) we waited for a season of a favorite show to be available on DVD.  Even though that meant we were always a season behind we could take a DVD with us and watch wherever we might happen to be.  We weren’t even aware of the actual day of the week our favorite programs aired on because we didn’t watch that way.  Then Amazon Prime and now our Amazon Fire Stick gave us that same portability without the season delay.

orphan-blackSo what are we “binging” on right now?  Orphan Black.  How did I not know about this show sooner?  It’s a Canadian show produced by BBC America and it’s AMAZING!  It’s billed as a “science fiction” show but don’t let that put you off.  It’s not aliens and other planets type of sci-fi – rather it’s science based fiction.  Without giving anything away that isn’t in the promo material, the main character, Sarah, sees a woman commit suicide and the woman looks just like her!  An attempt to steal the now dead woman’s identity leads Sarah to learn she is a clone.  (See, human clones are currently science based fiction – or so we’re told…).

The show has millions of loyal fans known as #CloneClub.  They even had devotees show up at the San Diego Comic Con in costume as their favorite of the clones and the cast did a panel taking questions!  Okay, we’re not ready to dress up as our favorite clone but hey, Halloween is coming…OrphanBlackFans

So what do we love about the show?  Sure, the story is unique, compelling and continually surprising.  The cast “works” and that’s a big part of the magic.  But perhaps our favorite part of the “magic” is the flawless performance by Tatiana Maslany who plays Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena and Rachel.  (She portrayed Beth but since she’s the one who committed suicide in the first episode, most of what we learn about Beth is from other characters, same with “the German”.)  Both my husband and I are fascinated by the technical masterpiece that is Orphan Black.

Sure, we’ve all seen bits in movie or television where one performer plays two roles and body doubles are used to allow both characters to appear in the same scene…but what about FIVE?!?  It’s more than just that, each of the clones has a very unique personality to comes through in everything from speech to gestures big and small.  Everything from the way they stand, walk, move – even roll their eyes – is unique to that character and utterly believeable!  They are all so distinct that you never get confused as to which clone you are watching.

Part of that comes down to the unique talents of Tatiana Maslany but also to the behind the scenes coaches.  John Nelles is the genius who helps her nail all those different accents.  Other tidbits that have added to our fascination with the “magic” of Orphan Black:

  • Tatiana created a playlist for each of the characters to help her get into the unique personalities
  • A continuity team keeps her from mixing up the characters. For instance, if she’s doing a scene that has both Alison and Sarah in it and she’s playing Alison, if the script tells her to roll her eyes, they make sure it’s an ‘Alison’ eye roll and not a ‘Sarah’ eye roll.

Need more reasons to watch?  The first TWO seasons are FREE on Amazon Prime.  I understand it’s also on Netflix if that’s your vehicle of choice.  We’re currently through the first two seasons and part of the third.  Yes, we’re thrilled season 4 is in production but there’s no way it will be available fast enough to supply our next fix….

Out of the Blue

October 7, 2015

The FIRST EVER “Cruise for Wildlife” fundraiser for Liberty Wildlife took place Saturday night on a stunning houseboat on Lake Pleasant.  Nautically dressed Scottsdale residents (just less than 60) were treated to a very memorable evening!

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

Start with the houseboat “Out of the Blue”–  It’s fabulous!  Elegant, gorgeous and comfortable for your family or a group.  You don’t have to wait for a special event, you can rent this gem for your friends and family. What a great vacation option!  Plenty of space, a lake in the desert for swimming and water sports – a perfect formula for great memories.  Getting married?  Why not have your special day aboard this special vessel?  Company events? Charity events such as the one I attended?  Reward your staff or raise funds in style!

Then cruise miles of hidden canyons and the scenic shoreline of Lake Pleasant on a perfect desert evening.  The beauty doesn’t end when the sun goes down – look up.  Yes, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  Stargazing away from the light pollution of the city and have some wishes handy, look – there’s a shooting star!

But this special evening was a fundraising event for Liberty Wildlife.  If you live in the Phoenix area and don’t know Liberty Wildlife, you should!  This wonderful organization rescues injured, imprinted or orphaned birds and other native wildlife (yes, even snakes and Gila monsters) with an eye to releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild.  Megan Mosby was on hand to share information about the great work done by Liberty Wildlife as was Carol, the volunteer coordinator and of course,  handlers for “Aurora”.  20151003_183706_resized

John, Sunny & Aurora

John, Sunny & Aurora

How about getting up close and personal with Aurora, one of Liberty Wildlife’s resident bald eagles!?!  We’ve all seen pictures, eagles on television or movies but nothing prepares you for the size and majesty of standing next to one of our national treasures!   Even though she’s not a “night owl”,  Aurora seemed happy to stay up late and sail with us for the evening.

The food was plentiful and delicious – from wraps to shrimp to hummus and roasted veggies.  Great wine, beer and cocktails too.  A nice sweet treat to end the evening?  Personalized cookies!

Please, please, please make this an annual event!  But if you missed it and are interested, there are other wildlife events throughout the year open to the public and you can access the calendar here.  Stay connected to Liberty Wildlife as they prepare to move to their new facility next spring.  Once there they will be open to the public – something you’ll surely not want to miss!

Oasis in the Desert

October 6, 2015

After 2 weeks of lackluster dining experiences, we met my sister and her husband at Paul Martin’s American Grill (6186 North Scottsdale Rd) Scottsdale, Arizona.  In all my years of dining in the desert, this was my first visit to Paul Martin’s but it will certainly NOT be my last!

Heather - Server Extraordinaire!

Heather – Server Extraordinaire!

It started with our server, Heather.  What a joy!  It has become all too rare to find wait staff who take pride in their jobs and who love providing killer customer experiences.  Remember the old song for Burger King “Hold the ketchup, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way”?  Well that should be Heather’s theme song because she is unflappable.  Whatever we asked for she delivered with a wink and a smile!

We came in during happy hour which here extends from 3:00 until 8:00pm daily and started with cocktails.  A mojito or skinny margarita for only $5.00?!?  Who could say no to that?  Lots of great food options on the happy hour menu as well.

Butcher Board + Ribs

Butcher Board + Ribs

A butcher board with meats and cheeses including a truffle drizzled salami!  Chicken skewers were tasty and a generous portion – 3 skewers for only $5.00!  The ribs were a bit pricey ($9) but delicious and an appropriate appetizer or small meal serving.  I think I just got spoiled by all the awesome $5 options!

We could have easily made a meal of the great happy hour offerings but then my husband would have missed out on the delicous skirt steak.  When my sister and her hubby said they were going to split the pork chop dinner, it was delivered to the table already split onto two plates!

Be sure to leave room for dessert and may I recommend the apple crisp?  The homemade bourbon vanilla ice cream on top was a nice touch and the crisp was large enough to share.

Matt of Matchbook Wines

Matt of Matchbook Wines

As if great food, an incredible server and an attentive Manager (Eric) weren’t enough to make this a memorable evening, Matchbook wines was set up offering free tastings of 3 of their wines.  The Chardonnay and the Tempranillo were amazing!  Too bad the Tempranillo isn’t available in our local AJ’s.  If you don’t know Matchbook wines, they are sure to become a new favorite.  The brothers had a fascination with fire as youths and were always burning part of the family farm.  Today the nod to their pyromania shows in the name of some of their wines such as the Arsonist Chardonnay.

All in all, a night worth repeating again very, very soon!



Lions and Tigers and Bears…Oh My!

October 2, 2015

I’ve always had a thing for animals.  Not just the domestic types, but the big “I could eat you if I wanted” type.  So when I had the chance to do the private training course at Hollywood Animals, I couldn’t resist!


Hollywood Animals, located in Santa Clarita, California provides big cats to the movie, television and advertising business.




If you saw the movie, Evan Almighty with Steve Carell, the 2 lions, 2 tigers, 2 spotted leopards and the hyena from that movie were all cast from Hollywood Animals.

These animals travel all over the world to work with actors and models so they need to be socialized – continually exposed to a variety of people and comfortable performing in different environments.

The animal training course is not just about petting tigers or hugging bears (though you do get the chance to do that – eventually).

Bear Hug

Bear Hug

Five days a week you work a typical 8-10 hour day that starts with prepping food for each of the dozens of animals on property.  Imagine handling and weighing approximately 10 pounds of raw meat each day for each big cat.  This is not a job for the squeemish! In addition to the food, you also have to cube some of the meat into 2″-3″ chunks to use as treats when training.

Then there are enclosures to clean.  Cats are moved from one part of the spacious enclosures to another and locked off so you can rake, sweep, rinse and clean their living space.  Yes, it’s a lot of work and physically demanding, but the reward – if you find a whisker during your cleaning, you get to keep it!  I have one of Flynn’s affixed to the mat framing a photo of him that hangs on the wall in our home.

Flynn, my blue-eyed beau!

Flynn, my blue-eyed beau!

Safety is always stressed.  NEVER turn your back on a big cat.  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER.  Even though the animals at Hollywood Animals are specifically raised from cubs and are at least 5th generation born in captivity, they are still large, potentially dangerous animals.  Even if not intending harm, if a big cat were to pouce on you like your domestic cat is known to do when playing – it could hurt!  When a trainer is inside the enclosure with an animal, another person is at the entrance with a fire extinguisher to provide distraction if needed.  These simple, but carefully followed guides along with the wonderful care the animals all receive is likely why they have not had an incident requiring even a band-aid in all their decades in business.

Animals are trained using a positive reinforcement method.  Treats for good performance, not unlike what works best with humans.  That little bamboo stick in my hand is just to point and direct the animal – it wouldn’t serve as much of a defense weapon!

The bears in particular have a sweet tooth and will do just about anything for a marshmellow – even take it from my mouth!


Bear “Kiss”

They call it a “bear kiss” because bears pick up their food with their tongues and bring it into their mouths to chew. Warning!  Don’t try this at home or on your next camping trip, but hold a marshmellow in your teeth and stands still…then be ready to need to wash your face!  He’s not “foaming at the mouth”, that’s melted marshmellows…we’ve been “kissing” awhile!

My weeks at Hollywood Animals were some of the most fun and educational I’ve ever spent.  If I were to live in the LA area, I would sign on as a volunteer and spend at least a day or two a week working with my animal friends.

They also offer a weekend course at times so perhaps YOU might want to check it out for yourself!

Eat Like a Local

October 1, 2015

Getting ready to visit another city?  Groupon and Living Social are great ways to take advantage of deals in your destination city.  Using either your computer or the phone app, change the location using the zip code of where you are staying.  You can search for restaurant or activity deals to stretch your travel budget.

Groupon is a little more user friendly by letting you show the deals on a map rather than just a list but the few minutes of research you need to do using either is more than made up for by the bargains you’ll find.  The app makes it so you don’t have to print out anything so you can even grab a deal on your way out the door!

Here in Scottsdale, I’ve so far taken advantage of deals at:

Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill – Fashion Square Mall location
We went for Happy Hour and tried a number of their food offerings including Pulled Pork Sliders, Bacon Cheddar Potato Cakes, Sauteed Brussell Sprouts Pretzeland the Oven baked hot pretzel with beer cheese dip.  Off the Seasonal Menu I had the Pan Seared Shishito Peppers – a favorite of mine.  The table agreed that everything was great EXCEPT the hot pretzel which was dry and the ale cheese dip that looked unappealing and lacked flavor.  The manager was quick to take it off our bill though and even gave us coupons for a free appetizer when we return – and yes, we will!

Bink’s Kitchen + Bar – 6107 N Scottsdale Rd.
Bink'sWith all the accolades Chef Binkley has received we had high expectations and were disappointed.  The food certainly tasted fine, but both the Baby Beets Ceviche and the Heirloom Tomatoes were such tiny portions – certainly not worth their $9 and $11 price tags respectively.  It almost felt as though they were running low in the kitchen and we got what was left – certainly neither item matched pictures on the web of those dishes.  The Gazpacho and Fried Shishito Peppers were more appropriately sized to their prices and the Moroccan Fried Chicken was the hit of the table.  Part of our disappointment was in the extremely slow service.  We were there on a Tuesday night early – hardly the middle of a busy weekend evening and the food took an exceptionally long time to get to the table.  When we inquired with our server, he acted as though we had personally insulted him!


Rosati’s Pizza – N. Scottsdale -10989 E Dynamite Blvd
We love pizza.  Just not THIS pizza.  I try to say something positive in every review but in this case, I can’t.  We ordered the “Double Dough”, a medium thicknessCholula crust with a hand-rolled edge.  The dough is the foundation of every great pizza and this dough was just bland.  It had no flavor what so ever!  The sauce was okay and the toppings (Pepperoni, Bacon, Black Olives and Fresh Tomato slices) were equally bland.  To add insult to injury – it took forever!  We looked surprised when another table that had been seated at least 30 minutes after us received their pizza first and the customer explained they had phoned in their order 15-20 minutes before they arrived!  Yes, it took nearly an hour to get a marginal pizza.  Thank goodness we had ordered the fried zucchini to tide us over!  We took most of the pizza home with us and using heavy doses of Cholula Hot Sauce we were able to make it more edible.

One of the great things about getting a deal, it takes some of the sting out of the lackluster experiences whether it is small portions, bland food, slow service or all of the above!

Desert Authors Lunch

November 15, 2013

Kathy Reichs at the podium

Every November, typically the first or second Saturday, some of your favorite authors can be found at the Arizona Biltmore in Scottsdale.  The Annual Authors Luncheon is now in its 23rd year raising money for kidney patient services ranging from transplants to medications or dialysis transportation.  The Arizona Women’s Board continues the tradition started by Erma Bombeck by inviting a handful of MAJOR authors to speak at the event.  A local bookstore sets up shop in the lobby so you can buy the latest book and the authors are available both before and after the luncheon to personalize and sign your books.  What great holiday gifts!


Wally Lamb signing books

This year’s all-star line up of authors included:  Delia Ephron, Linda Fairstein, Wally Lamb, Kathy Reichs (Bones TV show) and Lisa Scottoine.  Last year Brad Thor was a crowd favorite.  Past years have included some of my other favorites such as Susan Issacs, Anthony Horowitz, John Sandford, Gregory Maguire (Wicked author), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books)  and countless more.  With rare exception, the authors are gracious and happy to chat or even pose for photos while signing your books.


Brad Thor & Sunny Kobe Cook aka “Travel Queen”

If you spend some time in the Phoenix area to escape the weather where you live, why not sign up to be on the mailing list for this great event?  What better way to spend a Saturday in November than decked out with 1000 ladies (and a few men) in the ballroom of the Biltmore listening to some of your favorite authors talking about their new book, the writing process, how they got started writing and much more?!?  My sister and I go every year.   As we listen to the authors share their stories, we make a list of people on our holiday list who would enjoy each person’s book and a chunk of our holiday shopping is done by the end of the day. Even if you don’t see your favorite author on the list for next year, I guarantee you will have a NEW favorite by the end of the luncheon! 


Ladies at the luncheon

Hard to imagine having so much fun AND helping to support a great cause.  Hope to see you there next year.

Only in America

October 4, 2013

As faithful readers you know I have traveled extensively both domestically and internationally.   If you don’t regularly travel beyond our shores, there are a few things that will surprise you.

Free refills.  At virtually every US restaurant, non-alcoholic beverages are bottomless. Unless it comes in a bottle such as gourmet sodas, refills are free. Soft drinks, iced tea and coffee-all free refills.

Even at Starbucks I can drink my Venti iced tea and get a refill for only fifty cents.

Unless you are in an all-inclusive resort, this is not true elsewhere. A soft drink or iced tea – if they even know what that is – typically costs about $4 or $5 PER GLASS.
When traveling internationally, I try to limit myself to 2 glasses if tea per meal to avoid sticker shock when the check comes!

The other place travelers often find themselves homesick is the bathroom. Other parts of the world have not caught up with what we consider standard. I’m always thrilled when I find a familiar toilet! Even those with Western style plumbing fixtures often have attendants who hand out 3 squares of toilet paper in exchange for some local coins.

In the Far East I left the table during dinner at an upscale restaurant to use the restroom. I hadn’t brought my purse because I was not expecting to need to “tip” in the toilet. Upon seeing I had no coins, the attendant hissed and kicked at me!

Even your hotel bathroom may not be what you have come to expect. Hair dryers are still mounted to the walls and are boxes with a vacuum cleaner style hose and are about as strong as the air escaping from a balloon.

Showers still don’t always have curtains or other means of keeping the water inside the shower area. One 4 star European hotel had a 12″ wide piece of glass attached to the wall the shower head was on. No door that closed to join it, no curtain either. Of course this did nothing to contain the water so we used countless towels to absorb the flood.

Slowly but surely American style showers are finding their way into more and more international hotels, but if you are in villages, small towns or lesser developed countries – don’t say I didn’t warn you!

All that being said, there is a world of great food, culture and adventure out there to experience. Just don’t be surprised when you sit down to lunch at a US airport while changing planes on your way home and you find yourself saying “Ahhhh” when the waiter automatically refills your freshly brewed iced tea – for FREE!

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