California Dreaming: A Beach Vacation in Oceanside

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Imagine a place where the average daytime temperature is usually in the 70s. The sun almost always shines after a little morning fog lifts from a long stretch of white sand beach. You must be dreaming of summertime in California, which always earns its name of the Golden State.

San Diego’s North Shore is anchored by the smaller city of Oceanside, a classic beach city with that casual vibe that makes California so special. As someone born and raised in southern California, I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of the California beach experience. I love Oceanside for its lack of pretension and a lower cost than some better-known spots.

When vacationing at the beach, I always want to stay right on the ocean, but the sound of the surf can cost a bundle and the price can be prohibitive. We have twice chosen to rent a condo at Northcoast Village, a 550 unit development which is right on the beach and offers affordable prices, particularly if you rent on the non-beachfront side. It’s a nice complex with great swimming pools, barbeque areas and even a koi pond. There can be small drawbacks. For example, the last unit we rented had so many plastic flower arrangements and fake plants that we had to gather them all into one of the bedroom closets in order to accommodate our luggage. But that’s really the worst problem we’ve had to face.

A very short walk from the condo is the very kitschy Oceanside Harbor, a faux Cape Cod-style collection of restaurants and specialty stores. Sitting outside at the Nautical Bean and watching the boats go in and out of the marina with a steaming latte is a great way to start the day. Our favorite place for breakfast, The Beach Break Café, recently closed, but its sister restaurant of the same name is still open a few miles away. This is also the place to rent all kinds of water sports gear including paddleboards, kayaks, and sailboats. For lunch, my husband likes to duck into the Harbor Fish and Chips for a plate of nicely battered cod and crunchy French fries.

The main attraction of a beach vacation is, of course, the beach. Oceanside has a lovely wide beach with lots of sand to park you chair and towel. The surf can be rough, but the surfers really love that. I tried surfing once, but it wasn’t something I think I’ll repeat.

A short walk up the beach and you arrive at the Oceanside Pier and the heart of the city. The pier was first built in 1888 and was refurbished for the sixth time almost 100 years later. It’s one of the longest wooden piers in the west. I’ve never fished off the pier, but lots of folks seem to love spending hours and hours waiting for a bite. No need for a license, just grab your rod and reel (if you have one!).

As the day grew longer, we walked to the end of the pier for an adult beverage at Ruby’s, a ’50s-style diner.

If you want a lovely more formal dining experience, just one town over in Cardiff by the Sea are several beachfront restaurants. A new favorite is the Pacific Coast Grill. I loved my fish tacos, while my husband enjoyed the lobster version. The Chart House is right next door, an old stand-by. It’s part of chain of wonderful restaurants, and this one is as lovely as many of the others I’ve visited. Floor to celling windows make you feel like you are right on the beach—but without the sand.

If you want a break from the beach, San Diego County also offers a world-class zoo and even Legoland for the younger set. Enjoy your own California dream on a sunny beach this summer.

I’d love to hear your best summer vacation ideas. Email me at ali@indulgenttraveler.com. Check out all my beach stories at www.indulgenttraveler.com

Advice for a Day at the Beach

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

At the first glimpse of sunny skies, with temperatures predicted to soar to the low 80s, it was time to head to South Haven for our first summertime lakeshore day.

It took awhile to gather all of the necessary elements — beach chairs, beach towels, a Frisbee, a trashy novel and sunscreen. Then, the hardest decision — what to pack for lunch? Beverages were easy; state parks don’t allow any alcoholic beverages, so lots of water, ice tea and lemonade.

Easy was the word of the day, so we ordered fried chicken from Speedy Chick, a local Marshall chicken and fish take-out spot. I grabbed some tortilla chips and made some guacamole. On our way to get the chicken, we got some deli salads and a fresh watermelon. After icing everything down in the cooler, we were ready to go.

I love South Haven, because it is just a short car ride away. It has wonderful beaches and lots of great bars and restaurants, as well as a nice shopping street. This trip, though, was all about the sun, sand and water.

We already had our Michigan Recreation Passport (an $11 bargain), so we headed to the Van Buren State Park and Dunes about three miles south of town. If I had any camping skills, this would be a great place to pitch a tent or a pop-up for a weekend away. We, however, enjoyed one glorious beach day.

Van Buren State Park is approximately 400 acres of land located along the lake in the county of the same name. There are three big lots for parking and a short walk to the beach, past ample restroom and shower facilities.

The one-mile sandy beach was not too crowded, and we set up our chairs and towels close to the water. We navigated through the rocks at water’s edge and jumped in the slightly chilly water. The water was shallow and perfect for a splash fight. After a few minutes in the water, it was time to warm up in the sun. There is something so calming about being near a large body of water, watching the boats go by. I sat in my chair and cracked some light summer reading. Others in our group, being more athletic, decided to run up and down the dunes. Another group tossed the Frisbee. All of us worked up an appetite for our picnic.

While I remembered a knife to cut the watermelon, I somehow only brought four plates for 10 people. Luckily, fried chicken and watermelon can be eaten with fingers and a napkin. Potato salad was a bit tougher. And no lunch on the beach is complete with a little sand in the mix. After a leisurely lunch, a nap was in order.

The sun was getting a little low in the sky when we decided to pack up and enjoy an adult beverage in South Haven. Since we hadn’t planned ahead, we drove around until we spied Captain Lou’s right on the river, at the foot of the drawbridge. It had a great outdoor deck, and since the sun was still shining, we decided this was the place to finish up our beach day. They offer a classic bar menu with hamburgers and fried perch — and lots of ice-cold beer. We waited to get a seat, but it was worth it. After a day in the sun, we couldn’t stay until the live music started, but I’m sure it’s a great hang out spot.

What a great way to start the summer: sun, fun and sand in South Haven.

I Love the Beach

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

A chair and umbrella call guests to the beach

A chair and umbrella call guests to the beach

With the polar vortex upon us, and buried under snow and ice, I like to day dream about a warm beach under a blue sky with temperatures hovering around 75 degrees. Of course, a fruity beverage with an umbrella garnish is also part of my wishful thinking. I thought I’d share my favorite seashores and recapture the warm memories of favorite beach vacations. It’s never too early to start planning your winter escape.

Maui, HI. With 120 miles of coastline, Maui has over 30 miles of beaches. I don’t think you could pick a bad one, but we really enjoyed a part of the island called Kahana. It is famous for its wind surfing, but I only left the warm sand to wade into the azure water. We rented a first floor, three-bedroom condo at the Kahana Village that included a nice living room and a huge lanai. One of the highlights of the trip was a daylong snorkeling trip. We took a boat out to the crescent shaped island of Molokini, a State Marine Life and Bird Conservation District, and spent several hours swimming with sea turtles and colorful fish.

Oceanside, CA. This is a small city north of San Diego with great wide beaches. We rented a condo at North Coast Village that purportedly had a sunset beach view. It was a nice enough place, but you literally would have needed to hang off the balcony to catch the sunset. There was, however, a fabulous sunset view from the restaurant-class outdoor barbeque area, where my husband grilled a very tasty steak. The pier was a short walk away, and it was the best place to be surrounded by the ocean without going out on the water. Lots to see in the San Diego area—an incredible world famous zoo, SeaWorld and even LEGOLAN

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Key West, FL. Key West is a small, funky town with 25,500 fun-loving residents, many hotel and restaurant choices, and nice, uncrowded public beaches. About five miles offshore along the length of the Keys is the only living-coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. The coral formations are famous for their abundance of key west sunsetfish, from impressive schools of blue-striped grunts to toothy green moray eels. We took our daughter on her first snuba experience, a combination between scuba and snorkeling. We really liked The Pier House as a place to stay. Blue Heaven was our favorite restaurant, with its outside seating and chickens under foot. Don’t miss the Key Lime pie with a sky-high meringue.

Amelia Island, FL. Amelia Island is in northeast Florida, just across from Georgia on the St. Marys River. We stayed at Amelia Island Plantation, 1350 acres of resort and nature. The beaches were world class and almost an afterthought when compared with all of the other fun activities. We really enjoyed the clay tennis courts and managed to fit in a spa treatment. It was also the first place we tried a Segway tour—those funny two-wheel things you ride standing up.

Kiawah Island, SC. For a truly five star vacation, book an ocean view room at The Sanctuary. The sweeping two-story staircases set the tone from the moment we entered the lobby. Our room was very classy with a huge tub, a marble walk-in shower, luxurious bedding and lots of pillows, and high quality soaps and shampoos. I spent several afternoons at the infinity pool nearest the ocean and mokey westrnings wiggling my toes in the sand. In either location, there was ample service for towels, food and beverages. We paddled a kayak through the wetlands to work up an appetite for dinner at the Ocean Room. If you can tear yourself away, Charleston is a short drive away.

Just thinking about all the wonderful beaches I’ve enjoyed makes me want to go back to all of them. Fun in the sun sounds wonderful in an early March Michigan.

 

 

Traveling with Three Generations

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

I hate being so predictable. When I recently read that multigenerational vacations remained the single hottest travel trend in 2014, I realized I was one of many seeking quality time with both parents and children. None of the research captured why I organize these trips. It’s very simple. I don’t have enough time with either generation.

This is the time of my life filled with departures—some permanent and some temporary. And time is really flying. I don’t want to turn around and find many of the people central to my life aren’t around anymore for anything, including making new memories. I’m planning the trips more frequently now, as the clock runs faster for my parents and since our daughter wants to travel on her own or with her friends.

Years ago, we started to travel with multiple generations—a trip to Venice, Italy with my mother and then four-year-old daughter. More recent trips included a week in Maui with my mother and stepdad.

Let me share a recent trip as a primer for planning your own three-generation trips. I look for places that are near good medical facilities and that have non-stop flights. The island of Maui fit the bill.

Renting lodging was the first step. We needed enough bedrooms so that each generation had their own private space. Don’t do this unless you, as the organizer, also want to plan all the meals. If not, pick a hotel or resort. We rented two cars, so every generation had access to an escape route. And planning naptime into the day is important.

We found a lovely beachfront, first floor, no steps, three-bedroom condo, at the Kahana Villagewith a nice living room and a huge lanai. With separate rental cars, we met at the condo. My folks took the master, so they had their own bathroom—another key point in traveling with elders.

We made a plan for the week that included together time and alone time.. Breakfast every day was together, but everyone was responsible for his or her own. Lunch was a pick-up affair, and dinners were planned as either in or out. My husband and stepfather wanted to go winetasting, while my mom, daughter, her friend and I wanted to go snorkeling. Perfect.

The younger generation wanted to drive the road to Hana and hike to the waterfalls. The road to Hana is listed on every top ten list of things to do in Maui and consists of miles of hairpin turns, punctuated by opportunities to hike up to waterfalls. My folks passed on that, and my husband and I shared the driving and the girls hiked all the trails. The highlight of one stop was a young man proposing to his girlfriend, which my daughter captured on her iPhone and then emailed to the happy couple! The girls wanted to sample the nightlife in Lahaina. My husband chaperoned while I stayed home with my parents.

We all used the beach in various configurations, except my stepfather who doesn’t like the sun. Our all group outing to another beach featuring sea turtles was rather comical. We arrived in our separate cars. My parents wanted full shade, the girls wanted full sun, and I wanted to scream. It was a fun day at the beach shuttling between them! My solution was to rent a raft and float out on the ocean.

The best memories, however, were the simplest things we did together. We had a great meal out at Roy’s, a Hawaiian fusion restaurant with a few locations on the Islands and elsewhere. Going to the farmers market and the fish market and then cooking dinner together was probably the best moment of the trip.

Traveling with my parents and daughter is the stuff of lasting memories.

Escaping the Winter Chill on the Cheap

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, Feb 9, 2014

IMG_1555Without a break in the freezing weather on the horizon, I finally snapped and started searching for a cheap airfare to where the sun was shining. It’s possible to have a budget trip and get a tan during the winter, but it takes some careful planning, flexibility in your travel dates and a willingness to spend some time on the Internet. Here’s a primer to sun in the fun on the cheap.

First, unless you have a free place to stay, plan your destination around the cheapest flights. I usually start with websites such as Orbitz or Expedia, so I can see where the lowest cost flights are going. If you can travel on Wednesday, the fares are usually lower.

In this latest case of cabin fever, my husband already had a trip to Sarasota, so I started looking at flights and couldn’t find one less than $400. I widened my search to Tampa, and bingo—Spirit Airlines was offering a flight for $116 (round trip). By the time I added the cost of taking a suitcase and paying for my seat (Spirit charges extra for everything except the air you breathe), the fare was about $200, still half what other airlines wanted for a flight to the same part of the country.

It was a nonstop flight (a huge plus), on what must have been the most tightly packed plane I have ever seen (a huge minus). Thank goodness the seats didn’t recline, because my neighbor was already 10 inches from my face. I just kept thinking about the sunshine in my future.

My next stop was to start looking for hotels. I usually start with TripAdvisor. While the site has gotten much more commercial since it started in 2000, it is the best place I know to get a sense of what hotels are available and what guests say about them. I especially like the feature that tells you what room to request. Just like flights, make sure you check a few nearby cities. Sometimes it really pays to rent a car and drive a few extra miles to get a better hotel deal. I recently found a $15 a day car rental rate. Yahoo.

Airlines will try to book hotels and cars for you but I have found you can get a better rate on both by going directly to their websites. If you really feel lucky, try naming your price for your rental car and your hotel room on Priceline.com. I’ve gotten some amazing deals on both, but be careful—one time I ended up flying through Newark in the opposite direction to where I was headed.

Having a rental car pays off by giving you more options of where to stay and where to eat. If you plan to stay within walking distance of the sand and live off the coffee pot and out of the mini-fridge, then skip the rental car. Otherwise, having a car gets you to the best local places to eat.

Once you have your flights, hotel and rental car, you have one more research task — finding some great places to eat. I make sure my hotel room has a mini-fridge, so I can store breakfast food and some lunch supplies. For meals out, I start a web search with the name of the city and the phrase “budget meals.”

Local city magazines often run annual lists of reasonable places to eat, and those sources have yet to fail me. Asking at the front desk of the hotel can also yield some good suggestions (once they stop convincing you to try their restaurant). Another tip is to eat lunch out rather than dinner and look for early bird specials or happy hours with heavy appetizers.

I wish you good luck bargain travel hunting and happy hours in the sun.

Oahu’s North Shore worth a visit

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

An hour north of Honolulu’s tall buildings was a part of Oahu that looked and felt like the Hawaiian Islands of my imagination. The wide sandy beaches of the North Shore stretched for seven miles, packed with cars, the waves dotted with surfers. Every so often, we would see a shrimp food truck, which seemed to be the preferred dining choice.

We were looking for Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, one of the best known and oldest of the North Shore trucks. The trucks get their crustaceans from shrimp farms of nearby Kahuku.

Before we found the truck, we located our resort, Turtle Bay. Sitting on an amazing point of land, the hotel rose up in two wings.

The view was almost good enough to ignore the room’s tired and worn décor. The hotel was in the middle of a renovation; unfortunately our room had not yet been transformed.

With the beach on one side and the pool on the other, it was difficult to decide where to start sun bathing. The fabulously green-blue water won out. The hotel provided an hour of free snorkeling but it was too rough to see any fish. The open air beach restaurant, Ola’s, allowed us to choose from both the bar and dinner menu. The Kalua pulled pork with goat cheese nachos were a perfect snack.

The next day, we visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. For 50 years, the Center has given visitors a sampling of Polynesian dance, music and culture. We bought all-day tickets which included a luau and the evening show, “HA—the Breath of Life.” We might have enjoyed the seven replica villages if our tour guide hadn’t been horrible. We knew we were in trouble when she entreated us to share a funny, personal fact with 20 complete strangers. When we tried to unobtrusively wander off, she chased us down. Finally, we escaped. The luau dinner was good, not great. Then evening show, however, was worth the price of admission. A loosely connected story of a young man growing to adulthood, it featured breathe-taking dancing and a jaw dropping fire show.

A stop at laid-back Haleiwa Town was the perfect antidote to the forced fun of the Cultural Center. We shopped and snacked in what was the social and artistic hub of the North Shore. For dinner that night, we went in search of the recommended shrimp truck but stopped instead at the very simple Kahuku Grill. Great burgers and wonderful garlic butter shrimp eaten at an outdoor picnic table in view of the ocean really typified the North Shore experience — laid-back, down-home and fun with incredible beaches.

 

Sojourn in Saugatuck

Published In the Battle Creek Enquirer November 10, 2012

Sunrise in Saugatuck

The sun, rising over the boats in their slips on the Kalamazoo River, was a reminder that while summer was over, there was still much to be enjoyed in Saugatuck, a small village located on Lake Michigan. Scuffing our feet in the fallen leaves, we walked around the neighborhoods with their rich architecture of Greek Revival and Italianate homes, right next to Arts and Crafts bungalows and through the historic downtown.

We started with dinner at the Butler, a family-owned restaurant.

Longtime Saugatuck resturant, Butlers.

With a great view of the Lake Kalamazoo harbor, the servers were friendly. Unfortunately, they had run out of their “famous” prime rib and the rib eye steak wasn’t as tasty as it should have been. The cherry, chicken and walnut salad with crumbled blue cheese and red onion was a meal by itself.

With more than a few calories to burn off, we headed back to the Wickwood Inn where a very comfortable king-sized bed awaited. We had chosen the Wickwood because we loved the Silver Palette cookbook written by owner Julie Rosso. The town offers a plethora of bed and breakfast lodging, including the Victorian Inn, the Newnham Suncatcher Inn and the Park House Inn, to name a few.

Breakfast at the Wickwood Inn.

As someone who loves this category of lodging, my short checklist of what separates a good experience from a great one includes four critical items. First, the innkeeper needs to seem glad to see you. Second, the bed has to be wonderful, with lots of soft pillows and high thread count sheets. Third, you need the extras like wine and cheese at the end of the day and beverage service all day long. Finally, the breakfast has to be truly superb and provide a variety of choices.

The Wickwood met all my expectations. The quality of the food really separates this inn from others. Checking out on a Friday afternoon, we did feel a bit of pressure from the staff to vacate so they could get ready for their weekend visitors when we would have liked to linger.

One of the local stores offers a word of advice to visitors.

Being pushed out onto the streets of Saugatuck was hardly a hardship, with so many unique stores to browse.

Kiawah Island: Anything but golf

Adirondack chairs waiting for the next guest on the flagstone patio outside the Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island.

Published August 11, 2012  Battle Creek Enquirer

When the 156 top players at the 94th PGA championship tee-off on August 6, they’ll face a course with more seaside holes than any other in the Northern Hemisphere — 10 holes on the ocean. Now wait a minute. Golf? Anyone who knows the Indulgent Traveler knows that golf is not my sport.  With the exception of the Olympics, you won’t find me following any televised sporting event.

The PGA tournament will be happening on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, 45 minutes from Charleston. And trust me, you can spend fabulous time on the Island without venturing near the links. Ten miles of beaches was the siren’s call for me, not to mention a five star resort, The Sanctuary. Driving up to the columned entrance, our first encounter with the level of service we would come to expect was with the first of several transplanted Michiganders, the doorman who handled our bags.  Full of useful tips about where to park, he moved us seamlessly from our car to the registration desk.

Walking into the lobby, you can’t miss the floor to ceiling windows looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. The lobby is dominated by sweeping two story staircases on either end.

When I first started writing this column, I developed an indulgent traveler checklist to measure how various lodgings stacked up. Our room had all the checks: a balcony with a table and chairs and an ocean view; a huge tub; a marble walk-in shower; luxurious bedding and lots of pillows; high quality soaps and shampoos. I could go on but you get the picture.

A chair and umbrella call guests to the beach

Who wanted to stay in the room with the ocean calling? I selected the infinity pool nearest the ocean. A nice man fixed towels on my chaise and raised my umbrella before sending someone to take my food and beverage order. Heavenly but pricey, a theme of the resort.  The same kind of service awaited on the beach and you could wiggle you toes in the sand.

Later in the afternoon, we decide to explore the Kiawah River via kayak from the Heron Park Nature Center. Our guide was patient with us novice paddlers. She showed where we could scoop up the prized Pluff mud used for expensive facials. I was gung ho to scoop out a bunch until she told me about the millions of fiddler crabs living in the mud, eating bits of organic matter. After paddling, we took a quick boat ride to see the dolphins at the mouth of the river.  We caught a great show of dolphins eating dinner, where as a group they strand themselves to chase fish up on the sand. After gorging, they wiggle back into the water.

Miles of inland marshlands awaits visitors by kayak

We were also hungry for dinner. The award-winning Ocean Room was a fine dining, white table cloth service steakhouse. To start, I couldn’t pass a cold, Johns Island corn soup with blue crab. We choose a special 32-ounce bone-in, local, grass-fed steak that easily served three of us. Two kinds of potatoes, pureed and truffled french fries complemented the meat. Dessert was heavenly flourless chocolate cake with butter pecan ice cream.

And if our stay couldn’t get any better, I took an hour for the signature massage at the Spa. My massage therapist was a young woman from near Lansing, who found her way to the island and never left. I could’ve spent days in the spa with a Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room.

After spending a few days on Kiawah Island, I could understand the attraction of my fellow Michiganders and everyone else. To paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara who would have felt at home here, “Kiawah! … I’ll think of some way to get back. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

If you go: Kiawah Island Golf Resort,  http://www.kiawahresort.com

 

Ludington’s a sandy summer dream

Published July 22, 2012  Battle Creek Enquirer

With over 3000 miles of coastline in Michigan, let’s celebrate the longest freshwater coastline in the United States. So many miles of beaches, so little time.  We decided to dip our toes into Lake Michigan from the white sand beaches of Ludington for a weekend getaway.

Spur of the moment trips can either yield great bargains or premium costs. We love intimate, historic bed and breakfasts and as well as the reliability of chain hotels. Luckily, Ludington had lots of different choices in both categories. We choose the five room Cartier Mansion Bed & Breakfast, the 1905 estate of Ludington lumber baron Warren Cartier. This neoclassical beauty of a home sits right on the main drag with two-story white columns decorating its impressive portico.

True to his professional calling, Cartier built his home to showcase a variety of different varieties of wood, including the foyer’s white oak and the black walnut in the library. Admiring the woodwork, we slipped past a lively cocktail reception on the first floor to our comfortable rooms upstairs.

In search of seafood, we picked P.M. Steamers, a 30 year dining tradition situated on waterfront and at the home port of the historic SS Badger, the largest car ferry to ever sail Lake Michigan and the only coal-fired steamship still in operation in the U.S. The restaurant’s name pays homage to Michigan’s steamship era. Enough about history; how was the food? The Michigan trout with cherries and the potato-crusted Canadian walleye were exceptional.

Ludington is known for its beaches, and they didn’t disappoint. We went to see the sugar sand beach at Ludington State Park Beach north of town. The name seemed appropriate, since the sand was very white. We set up towels and wiggled our toes in the sand until we were too hot and had to jump in the Lake to cool off. A few hours of sitting in the sun and relaxing with a good summer book is exactly what I needed to really feel that summer had arrived.

No trip to this city is complete without a stop at the House of Flavors,a ‘50s diner with a full menu and out-of-this-world ice cream made on the premises. The Neal family has been making ice cream in town since 1948.  Practice does make perfect with 400,000 gallons of ice cream produced every week. In addition to all of the regular flavors, they offer a line called Ashby’s Sterling Flavors. I had to try Anniversary Cake, a cake batter ice cream with cake and frosting pieces. Wow. It was the kind of place to throw caution and diets to the wind and enjoy every fully loaded lick.

Breakfast at the inn was as delicious as advertised.  The praline French toast was my favorite. As with all good innkeepers, this breakfast recipe was made the night before, so that the early morning food preparation isn’t any earlier than necessary. One thing to know if you choose this kind of lodging is that you have to be prepared to make conversation with other guests before your first cup of coffee. Sometimes your group may be seated at your own table, but most often you sit with the other guests. On our visit, we met a nice young couple enjoying some anniversary, but it was early which made it difficult to recall all of the details.

And, in case you were wondering, even after the million-calorie breakfast, we sampled another flavor on our way home, licking the drips as we drove. Sand, water and ice cream—a summer’s dream.