Tag Archives: California

10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About San Diego

10 May
San Diego Beach

San Diego Beach

With sapphire waves, warm beaches and famous tourist sites, San Diego’s reputation as an iconic surf and sun destination is justified. Yet, visitors exploring beyond beaches and the Zoo can take these roads less traveled, enhancing a visit to this popular SoCal enclave.

Here are 10 things you didn’t know about San Diego:

#1 San Diego is a Major Gem Capital of the World

Not many know that the Pala gem-mining district produces the world’s highest quality pink tourmalines as well as bi-colored, watermelon, green and multi-colored tourmalines.  Abundant pockets of high quality gemstones were discovered in the northeastern dry desert hills, beginning a century-old local industry.  During the 1800s, the Empress Dowager of China prized the Himalaya Mine’s high quality pink tourmalines so much she purchased over 90 tons, skyrocketing prices.  Today, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. displays the Candelabra Tourmaline, a stunner mined at the Tourmaline Queen Mine in 1972.

Search for your own pink tourmalines, kunzites, morganites or other precious gems at the only actively working underground mine in Pala.  At the Oceanview Mine, you can screen buckets of gem-rich dirt and gravel, called tailings, for a fee.  The Staff provides training and equipment for a fee; you get to keep anything you find at no extra charge.

#2 Local Theatres Create Broadway Blockbusters

San Diego has sent more Broadway smashes to the Great White Way than any other U.S. city, courtesy of The Old Globe Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse, founded in 1947 by Mel Ferrer and Gregory Peck.  Since the 50s, the La Jolla Playhouse has launched blockbusters such as “Jersey Boys” or Matthew Broderick’s revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

And The Old Globe has sent “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Damn Yankees” and “The Fully Monty” back east.  When in town, catch a future Broadway hit before Manhattan does.

#3 San Diegans Are Known for Boasting About Their City

San Diego skyline

San Diego skyline

With constant sunshine, an average temperature of 72 degrees, the wide beaches, and their healthy outdoors lifestyle, San Diegans must be the most appreciative citizens in the world.  Sporting the local uniform of surf shorts and flip-flops, their favorite topic of conversation is how lucky they feel to live there.  When you visit San Diego or take a tour of San Diego, feel free to pick up this conversation with any local and experience why the town earned its nickname of ‘Sandy Ego.’

#4 You Can Do San Diego Without A Car

San Diego Ferry. Photo courtesy of nan palmero via Flickr.

San Diego Ferry. Photo courtesy of nan palmero via Flickr.

Save big bucks on gas and a rental car while absorbing lots of local color.  Plan to arrive at downtown’s Santa Fe Depot on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles.  Travel around town on the extensive San Diego Trolley system.  Take a scenic ferry crossing on the San Diego Bay to visit Coronado Island or race north to the beach towns of Solana Beach, Carlsbad and Oceanside on the Coaster commuter train.  Then, boast about doing a Southern California trip without driving on the following ferries:

-Pacific Surfliner

-San Diego Trolley

-San Diego Bay Ferry

-The Coaster

#5 San Diego Has a Lobster Season and It’s Delicious

Unlike its East Coast cousins, the California spiny lobster lacks large front claws but diners prize the t firm, sweet, and delicate tail meat.  The males of this Pacific monster can grow up to three feet long and weigh up to 26 pounds.  Local lobster season runs from the Saturday preceding the first Wednesday in October to the first Wednesday after the 15th of March.  Savor the bounty, as well as local catches of Red Rock Cod, Swordfish, Urchin and Sea Bass, at the following local fish markets and eateries:

-El Pescador Fish Market, La Jolla

-Point Loma Seafoods, Point Loma

-Sportsmen’s Seafoods, Mission Bay

-The Fish Market, Downtown San Diego

-The Fishery, Pacific Beach

#6 San Diego Has a Little Known Gold Rush History

Julian's famous apple pies. Photo courtesy of greggoconnell via Flickr.

Julian’s famous apple pies. Photo courtesy of greggoconnell via Flickr.

An hour’s drive east, the historically authentic, century-old gold mining town of Julian in the Cuyamaca Mountains showcases a little known chapter in California’s Gold Rush history.  Julian’s 1869 Gold Rush was short-lived but many settlers remained to create a vibrant apple-growing region.  Officially, visitors make a trek from the coast to experience a four-season mountain climate, which may include snow at the 4,235 feet elevation.  Some come for the hiking, historic sites and the B&Bs.  But one of the things you probably don’t know about San Diego is that the true reason for a Julian excursion is for the famous apple pies, proffered by bakeries up and down Main Street.

#7 San Diego Combines Indian Spiritualism with Surfing

Surfing in San Diego

Surfing in San Diego

About 25 miles north of downtown San Diego, Encinitas, a quintessential surf town, is home to a famous surf break called Swami’s.  The break is famously extolled in the Beach Boys’ song “Surfin’ USA.”  It’s also home to the lush gardens and hermitage of the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram, overlooking the reef point populated by surfers.  In 1937, Swami Paramahansa Yogananda created the temple and gardens as place of peace and meditation.

A once favored haunt of George Harrison, you can stroll gardens adorned with waterfalls, palms, flowers and koi ponds or contemplate the vast ocean below for free.  Nirvana at no extra charge.

#8  San Diego Enjoys a Purple Abundance

Aromatic lavender fields bloom during the May and June harvest season in San Diego’s backcountry.  Valley Center’s Keys Creek Lavender Farm, an eight-acre working farm, grows more than two dozen varieties of lavender and offers a glimpse into the area’s agricultural abundance.

Visitors can tour the fields, enjoy an English High Tea and learn how lavender is distilled into an essential oil in the farm distillery.  You can purchase Culinary Lavender, Lavender Lemonade, or Lemon-Lavender Whipping Cream Scones at the Farm Store.  Don’t forget your camera.

#9 California Was Born in San Diego

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego. Photo courtesy of Ken Lund via Flickr.

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego. Photo courtesy of Ken Lund via Flickr.

Long known to local Native Americans, the Kumeyaay people, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for Spain, made the first European landing in San Diego in 1542.

But it took another 200 years before Spain decided to act in 1769, dispatching Gaspar de Portolà and his expedition to build a California settlement at the Presidio of San Diego, a military post.  Soon, a cluster of adobes housing military families soon grew into the original town of San Diego.  But it wasn’t until 1846, when U.S. Marines raised the U.S. flag in San Diego’s plaza, that California got on track to become the 49th state.

Today, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park occupies the very spot of California’s birthplace, the spot where those first Spanish adobes once stood.

#10 San Diego is Ground Zero for All Things Dr. Seuss

Longtime resident of the beautiful La Jolla village area, Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss, donated the world’s largest collection of original Dr. Suess manuscripts and other materials to the University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library.  Named after benefactors and literacy supporters, Audrey and Theodor Geisel, its Brutalist architecture is controversial and as nonsensical as a Dr. Seuss rhyme.  Who knew that the kids who grew up with “One Fish, Two Fish” would one day study nuclear physics in a library named after the guy who taught them to read?

10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About San Diego

Wine Road Wonderland: Day 3

5 May

Dave Caffaro at the helm of the tasting bar at his funky winery in Dry Creek Valley.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Note: If you’re just tuning in, you might want to start with the first and second posts in this three-part series.

Day 3: Dry Creek Valley

Despite its name, my time in the Dry Creek Valley was a wet one. But I appreciated getting to see the stygian side of Sonoma, as storm clouds lent the countryside a depth and richness wholly absent when the sun is shining.

Here are some of the highlights from my trip:

Wine Futures

Cover crops in bloom between rows of old vine Zin blocks at Caffaro Vineyard.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Cover crops in bloom between rows of old vine Zin blocks at Caffaro Vineyard. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

“This is the most understated winery in Sonoma,” or so said the lanky blonde guy standing next to me at the tasting counter. I could see the appeal. The David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery is full of vintage paraphernalia, like a boxing robe worn and signed by Muhammad Ali.

According to the vineyard’s namesake, they “do a lot of crazy things here” — like growing an astonishing 36 varietals on 20 acres for starters. Dave’s wine jungle juice, Zp2c (essentially leftovers from every barrel of each vintage blended together), is another example. The self-described stock-market flunky who nevertheless sells his wine in “futures” says his wines are fruit-driven, because that’s what he likes, and because he doesn’t believe in copying the French. “I make California wines and refuse to apologize for it,” he said. 

Winery in the Clouds

Gustafson Vineyards, which used to be a sheep ranch, is home to great wines…and a great mascot. With a width of 11 feet, the 300-year-old madrone tree that graces the property is the oldest of its kind in Sonoma, and possibly all of California. Things were far from dreary on this drizzly day, thanks to the heart-and-hearth-warming fire in what reminded me of a cutting-edge hunting chalet.

Despite my disdain for rosés (see Day 1), Emmet and Kaitlin, the exuberant brother-and-sister team who run this beautiful winery, had me reconsidering with their 2011 Estate Rosé of Syrah. Kaitlin said that despite having “been bastardized in the U.S.,” rosés, when done correctly, are actually versatile, full bodied wines that don’t compete with food flavors.

Picnic Time

Kaitlin showing me the grounds at Gustafson Wineries. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Kaitlin showing me the grounds at Gustafson Wineries. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

At the start of my day, I’d walked down the street from the h2hotel and picked up a boxed picnic lunch from Costeaux, a French bakery known for its artisanal breads, meats, and cheeses. Despite the rain I enjoyed a delicious turkey croissant sandwich while overlooking Lake Sonoma.

It’s a quick and delicious option when you want to power through a non-stop day of wine tasting.

Salt of the Earth

If Sonoma is a place where the winemaker still wears multiple hats, Lou Preston is the county’s poster child, and he certainly knows how to give a tour. This should be no surprise as he has a lot to show off at Preston Vineyards, from the bread oven and hand-pressed olive oil, to the colorful chicken coop and rustic farm store where they sell walnuts, chili peppers, prunes, and a rainbow of fruits and veggies. And, naturally, there’s the winery itself.

As we toured the grounds, Lou said the “B” word: Biodynamics. Having heard this term several times in Sonoma, I had done a little research on the subject. Between abiding by the lunar calendar and implementing “preparations” that include burying a lactating cow’s horn filled with manure in the ground for weeks at a time, I had decided that it sounded like a bunch of hokum. That was until Lou showed me the light.

Sheep grazing is part of Lou Preston's holistic management plan for his biodynamic winery.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Sheep grazing is part of Lou Preston’s holistic management plan for his biodynamic winery. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

“Organics is what you don’t add,” he said. “Biodynamics is what you do add, which I find even more important.” In addition to the ritual aspect of biodynamics, planting a diversity of crops and allowing animals to graze the vineyards helps keep everything aligned. “The sheep graze, adding their particular nutrients, then the chickens graze behind them, feasting on the insects and pests the bovines have kicked up.”

Lou next mentioned “Family Night” on Sundays where they sell wine by the jug for $2 and talk story about the history of the vineyard and of winemaking in general. “It’s not about selling the wine,” he said, “it’s about telling the story of an earlier time.”

Italian Living Room

When I walked through the door at SCOPA, I thought I’d stumbled into a private party, but I was soon reassured by several friendly women that it was indeed the entryway. The sign above the door reading “Barber Shop” had added to my confusion (I later learned that the relic had been discovered during renovations and left in place). After being shown to my table, I was soon greeted by Ari, the owner and chef who’s behind the restaurant’s casual elegance and warmth (it was his idea to build the walls out of local river rock).

As I popped Lupini beans into my mouth, Ari told me that his Italian friends laughed when he told them he’d put the old-school card-playing snack on the menu, likening it to putting popcorn on the menu of a 5-star American eatery. But guests love them, and it keeps the restaurant centered around family.” For my main course, I polished off one of their specials: housemade “shoestring” pasta (tagliolini) dyed with squid ink and served with dungeness crab.

When I asked Ari about the “Winemaker Wednesday” sign I’d seen on the wall. He told me that he sets the wine list for the entire year each April, and that to make the cut, winemakers must commit to being a guest server for two nights throughout the year during which only their wines are on the menu. “It’s way more fun than just having them come in and do a traditional tasting,” he said. “Plus it keeps the community connected.”

Wine Road Wonderland: Day 3

Wine Road Wonderland: Day 2

5 May

Rows and rows of grapes at Starlite Vineyards. (Photograph by Eileen O'Shea, Flickr)

Note: If you’re just tuning in, you might want to start with the first post in this three-part series.

Day 2: Alexander River Valley

The Vineyard Preserve

Medlock Ames winery has been left truly wild, offering modern insight into the valley’s homesteading past. Affable co-owners Ames and James have utilized less than a quarter of their land for growing grapes, donating the rest to a land trust to be used as wildlife corridors that allow animals passage to the adjacent Pepperwood Reserve. Ames, sporting horn-rimmed glasses and shaggy brown locks, said they see all manners of critters at the winery — fox, coyotes, rabbits, snakes, wild boar, great horned owls, even otters in their ponds.

While one might be tempted to describe the duo as hippy-dippies, they are doing their part for the planet, utilizing cutting-edge technology to lessen their carbon footprint one bottle of wine at a time. In addition to monitoring soil moisture via satellite to prevent overwatering and employing gravity flow techniques in the winemaking process, their entire operation runs on solar power.

Ames (far left) and the rest of the crew inside the 100% solar run Medlock Ames winery.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Ames (far left) and the rest of the crew inside the 100% solar run Medlock Ames winery.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

If you visit their tasting room, a short drive away from the vineyard, be sure to try their Merlot from the “[Thomas] Jefferson clone,” a strain the Founding Father allegedly snagged from the famed Château Petrus in Bordeaux in his ambassador days and planted back at his farm in Virginia.

Underground Cave

Lancaster Estate is a short drive from the others, but a world away. One look at the “wine cave,” and I was smitten. It took two years to carve the 60-foot niche into the granite hillside, and walking into its belly is like teleporting to a chic nightclub. “The Library,” which houses a sampling of every vintage made since Lancaster began producing wine in 1995, is a must see.

My host, winemaker Jesse Katz, who looked not a day over 21, explained that every grape is grown, hand-picked, fermented, aged, and bottled on site so they can maintain total control of the production process and that only yeasts native to the property are used in order to attain the purest expression of terroir.

Art-Minded Boutique Winery

A striking statue of a nude woman arching her body toward the ground by local artist Peter Crompton welcomes visitors to the quaint tasting room at Starlite Vineyards.

From behind the bar, Gary Sauder explained that while the winery specializes in Viogniers and Bordeaux-style Cabernets, today we’d be tasting several of their Red Zinfandels. This was a happy coincidence because red Zins’ spicy, fruit-forward panache has pushed them straight to the top of my list of personal favorites. If you’re with me on Zins, this is definitely the place to sample a few!

“Cappy Hour”

The eclectic, bohemian lobby at the h2hotel. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The eclectic, bohemian lobby at the h2hotel. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

If Santa Rosa is the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, the town of Healdsburg is arguably its soul, and the h2hotel is one of its newest additions. Eclectic bohemian décor brings life to the boutique hotel’s 36 rooms, which are decked out with “eco-chic” bamboo floors and organic Coyuchi cotton towels, robes, and sheets. My favorite touch was the H20 bar on every floor that offers filtered and sparkling water on tap. The hotel, a green building with gold-level LEED certification, also gives its guests access to a fleet of bikes and a creekside pool at no extra cost.

When I headed down to the Spoonbar just off the hotel lobby, manager Cappy Sorentino announced it’s  “Cappy Hour!” and started handing out inventive cocktails like a Lion’s Tail (Larceny bourbon, allspice dram, lime juice, bitters) to guests who passed by. Be sure to check out this lively spot with creative food offerings that rival its drinks. 

Yucatan Flair

Mateo’s Cocina Latina is memorable both for its locally sourced Latin-Caribbean menu and its devotion to good food and no-fluff sustainability — both of which can be traced back to chef Mateo’s experience living off the land to feed his family while growing up in the Yucatan.

I polished off my tacones, halibut ceviche, roasted rack of lamb, and the best margarita I’ve ever had just in time to meet Mateo himself. He explained, words flying at warp speed, arms waving about madly, that he sources produce and meat from 67 different local farms to stay truly sustainable. This little gem is a must visit, if only to have some of Mateo’s élan rub off on you!

Wine Road Wonderland: Day 2

Wine Road Wonderland

5 May

A vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. (Photograph by Ddg50, Flickr)

Russian fur trappers used to roam the area now known as the Wine Road, looking for otters in the myriad rivers along the coast. Though the fur trade has all but disappeared, farming and viticulture have carried on in a big way throughout the valley.

Now the less polished, more sustainable younger sister to high-profile Napa (which is often described as the “Disneyland of wine tasting”) is one of the last stands for an authentic California wine experience, where family operations still thrive and land stewardship remains a top priority.

I’ve done my fair share of wine tasting for birthdays and bachelorette parties, but I’m a far cry from a sommelier. Lucky for me, I was about to learn a lot, including fun new terms like sur lie, cordon pruning, and cork hopping. I would also learn that Sonoma is the land of owl boxes, enigmatic dog ambassadors, and fun-loving people who work hard while making it look easy.

Each day I visited one of the three main regions of the county: the Russian River, Dry CreekAlexander, and valleys. The regions all possess a unique microclimate and soil type that yield an impressive palette of varietals with distinct terroirs (which I learned is essentially a wine’s thumbprint — environmental variations that give it a flavor unique to where and when it was grown).

Here’s my itinerary — Use it as a template to create your own personalized tour!

The vineyard at Catalan-influenced Marimar Estates. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The vineyard at Catalan-influenced Marimar Estates. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Day 1: Russian River Valley

The Garagiste Winery

Husband-and-wife duo Barb and Stew run Lauterbach Cellars out of their garage. Locals know them for their “Will Work for Wine” crew — friends and family, including the local deputy sheriff, who help package their entire yearly yield of a few hundred cases in a matter of days.

They may be a physician and a legal director by day, but both step seamlessly into the winemaker role, especially Stew, the “Mad (Wine) Scientist” who treats visitors to barrel tastings extracted with a “wine thief.” Guests get to compare the same vintages aged in new oak versus neutral oak, and at various stages of aging. The real fun starts when Barb whips out the graduated cylinder, and they begin mixing the vintages to demonstrate how to build complexity.

Tapas & Wine, Catalan Style

Despite being located in the foggiest part of the region, it’s hard to miss Marimar Estate thanks to the three enormous statues of the vineyard’s Springer Spaniels. Owner Marimar Torres built the vineyard by blending Old-World class (complete with Catalan-style fountains shipped from her homeland in Spain) with New-World freshness.

In 2003 Torres’ operation was certified organic after she sought help from a 60-year-old white Rastafarian organic guru who goes by “Amigo Bob.” Despite the success she’s had employing his methods, less than 2 percent of the vineyards in the region are certified organic, making this female vineyard owner even more of an anomaly.

See a different side of Sonoma from a zip line.  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

See a different side of Sonoma from a zip line. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Zip-Lining Through Redwoods

Craving a side of adventure with all that wine? Find it along the Bohemian Highway at Sonoma Canopy Tours. You might still feel tipsy after slashing through the air, but this time it won’t be from the wine.

The guides make the experience memorable and fun by pointing out “unicorns” and flashing creepy faces at perfectly inappropriate times (ask for Sarah and Luke, though I’m sure they’re all great!). 

Ritual Retreat

Situated on a creek where salmon still come to breed, Osmosis is no ordinary spa. And that goes double for its cedar enzyme bath. Spend a relaxing and detoxing half hour covered chin-to-toe in cedar chips rendered spongy by thousands of enzymes that raise the temperature to 130 degrees, and tell me you don’t feel like a new person.

Michael Stusser believed so strongly in the treatment after it cured his sciatica that he brought the concept back with him from Japan and opened up his own spa to share the love. After founding the Green Spa Network in 2006, a community of health and wellness businesses committed to making the industry more efficient and Earth-friendly, Stusser led the way with a complete eco-renovation of his spa and its traditional zen garden.

The zen garden at Osmosis Spa. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The zen garden at Osmosis Spa. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Pork Palace Perfect

It’s hard not to smile when you walk into the long red roadhouse that is Zazu. If that doesn’t get you, the sunny restaurant, homegrown menu, and quirky husband and wife owners will. Former Iron Chef contestant Duskie Estes, who often sports pink Converse sneakers and glasses designed by her friend Lisa Loeb, is known for her creative twists on American classics, while hubby John is responsible for the hand-made pasta dishes, Black Pig Salumi and dry-cured applewood smoked, brown sugar-glazed bacon from heritage breeds, and gelatos (try the espresso flavor with bacon toffee crumbles).

Keep an eye out for the new Zazu opening this spring in The Barlow, a former industrial space in Sebastopol that was converted into a “venue for wine makers, food producers, and artisans” that are interested in connecting customers with quality products and educating them about the production process itself.

Command Center

If you’re looking for a home base while you’re exploring the Wine Road, the circa 1907 Hotel La Rose is a good place to start. Its location in Santa Rosa, the largest metropolis between San Francisco and Portland, makes it a prime launch pad for oenophiles.

The ever-friendly hotel manager, New Orleans transplant Dade Vincent, informed me that Alaska Airlines recently added non-stop flights from San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, so book your flight today!

Wine Road Wonderland

Scent-sual Escapism in Ojai

30 Apr

Sherrie Dawkins in the apothecary (the copper still is to her left).  (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

It’s always a relief to make it through Los Angeles when you’re en route from San Diego. But just a few miles farther, I had even more reason to exhale deeply: I was winding down a two-lane country road with eucalyptus trees towering overhead and striated mountains on the horizon, in a little town called Ojai.

Not only that, I was about to pull up to my first destination along the Road to Wellness, the Ojai Valley Inn. And when I finally arrived, it was as if I’d been deposited in a rustic-chic hacienda village in an era when Spanish missionaries still ruled the land.

The inn, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, has long been a hideaway for Hollywood celebs from Bing Crosby to Kristen Stewart. But something else drew me in: Artist Cottage and Apothecary.

Sherrie Dawkins greeted me with a cheerful smile as I ducked inside the apothecary out of the blustery winds that periodically swept the grounds. The first thing the aromatherapy expert made clear was that I’d be playing the “perfumer” today; she would just be my guide.

The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

When I asked Sherrie how she decided to pursue such a curious career path, she told me that she became interested in essential oils after having her son and witnessing their power firsthand. “I’ve used them to help with everything from colic, to headaches, to burns and rashes,” she said. “That’s why in biblical times frankincense and myrrh were as valuable as gold — they were the medicine of the day.”

The scents shoot straight to the hippocampus, causing an immediate visceral reaction, which, according to Sherrie, is a good way to check in with your body and awaken its intuition. “When you smell the oils, your body responds to what it needs in that moment,” she said.

Essentially, if I came in feeling tired, I’d be likely to choose energizing scents; whereas, if I came in tense and anxious, I’d be drawn to more relaxing oils. Because of this, Sherrie explained, I’d never make the same exact blend twice.

She presented the 37 bottles of essential oils to me with their labels turned away so I wouldn’t have any biases to overcome, then passed each one under my nose, making sure to spend equal time with each nostril, as they take in different information.

I was to rate each oil based on my gut reaction, and was surprised when some of the scents — peppermint, tangerine, gardenia — prompted a flood of memories from my past. Like at a wine tasting, I was encouraged to “cleanse my palate” by sniffing roasted coffee beans between each pass.

After meticulously rating each scent from 1 (“Hate It”) to 5 (“Love It”), only the 3s, 4s, and 5s made it to the next round. Sherrie explained that a second pass could often shift a “love” to a “hate,” and she was right; the only one I’d granted a 5 on the first pass failed to make the final cut.

Next, I blended my top choices drop by drop in a small blue vial and warmed the custom scent — or potion, as I’d started thinking of it – in my hands to aid the mixing process.

My special blend:

My special blend: “Genesis.” (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Sherrie explained that the oils are extracted from plants using a still, pointing to a copper one on the counter next to us as an example. “It takes one acre of lavender to make two pounds of lavender oil,” she said. “It’s a true art form, similar to wine making, and more people are beginning to rediscover it.”

At the start of our session, I’d told Sherrie I liked fresh and citrusy aromas, but I ended up with a “fresh but romantic and intoxicating blend” with several aphrodisiacs in the mix. Grapefruit and lemon provided the uplifting top note (the one you smell first, but then dissipates quickly); jasmine and coriander filled out the spicy, intoxicating body; and frankincense, sandalwood, and oak moss lent an earthy, smoky base note to the blend.

Naming the potion is essential, as the inn keeps it on record so it can be recalled at a moments notice. I named my potion “Genesis,” because Sherrie explained that several of its components, including frankincense, represented new beginnings. This seemed perfectly appropriate since my life will be changing dramatically this summer – I’ll be getting married, beginning graduate school, and moving across country for starters.

Scent in hand, I walked over to the elegant, Mission Revival Style Ojai Spa to meet Gloria Ah Sam for my full-body “Essence in Balance” massage.

She added jojoba oil to my “Genesis” blend for the occasion. “It’s what your body needs right now,” Gloria said by way of explaining the concept behind her methods. “You hand selected these scents that appealed to your chakras in the moment, and now your senses will be flooded with them.”

Diane, my calming practitioner took over from there. As she began working the oil into my muscles, I realized that she was essentially applying medicine to an organ of my body — indeed the largest one as she noted — my skin. With this in mind I surrendered to the soothing yet energizing potion, which was not remotely overpowering, even though I was covered with it from head to toe.

As Diane went to town on my right shoulder, which was extra tight and knotty, she said: “Now, I’m just waking this guy up, I would encourage you to get several more massages to continue working the stress out of it.”

Diane, you don’t have to tell me twice!

Scent-sual Escapism in Ojai

The World’s Strangest Beaches

29 Apr

While white sand beaches with azure waters and billowing palms are nice, they’re far from unusual. For those looking for a truly unique coastal experience, the following beaches provide just that. Barking sand, star-shaped fossils and natural underground hot springs are just a few of the strange experiences you can have on the following strangest beaches.

Hoshizuna Beach, Okinawa, Japan

Hoshizuna Beach is one of the unique beaches in the world where you can find star-shaped sand (the other two are on Taketomi Island in Okinawa, Kaijihama Beach and Aiyaruhama Beach). The tiny stars are actually fossils from thousands of tiny crustaceans. That being said, locals have a mythical story to go along with why the beaches contain star-shaped sand. Legend has it that there once was a star mother and father who had a star baby. While they consulted God of Sky about the birth they left God of Ocean out of the decision making, who became infuriated and killed the baby star with a big snake. The snake’s feces became the fossils we see today on the beach. Additionally, God of Sky put the baby star into the heavens as a fossil, which is why you see stars in the sky today.

Gulpiyuri Beach, Llanes, Spain

Gulpiyuri Beach; World's Strangest Beaches

Gulpiyuri Beach, Llanes, Spain. Photo courtesy of guillenperez via Flickr.

While there’s nothing unusual about a beach with golden sand, crystal waters and waves, it is when its location is in the middle of a meadow. The 131-foot (40-meter) shoreline of Gulpiyuri Beach offers a whole new type of beach serenity, as you can cool off in the translucent salt waters while taking in both beach and rolling countryside hills.

Loango National Park, Gabon, Africa

For those who want a mixture of pristine beach and wildlife spotting, Loango National Park is the place for you. The park extends all the way to the white sanded coast, where you can watch hippos, gorillas, buffalos, leopards, elephants and wild pigs take a dip in the water — and sometimes even surfing. It’s definitely not your usual day of building sand castles and playing beach volleyball.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska. World's Strangest Beaches

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska. Photo courtesy of brewbooks via Flickr.

Petroglyph Beach will take you back in time. Nobody is quite sure how the 40 rock carvings got there, but they make the beach quite unusual as you take in the boulders etched with faces, birds and fish, thought to be carved over 8,000 years ago. For a mix of mystery, history and culture, Petroglyph Beach is a must.

Barking Sands Beach, Kaua’i, Hawaii

Just as the name says, the sand on Barking Sands Beach makes a barking noise when rubbed. This means that as you walk over its 17 miles (27 kilometers) of coastline it will sound like a rambunctious dog. What makes this strange beach even more unusual is it’s also home to a rocket-launch site and missile-defense testing center.

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas. World's Strangest Beaches

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of dany13 via Flickr.

While white- and golden-sand beaches are commonplace, when is the last time you laid out on a beach of striking pink sand? Pink Sands Beach is over three miles (5 kilometers) long and 50 to 100 feet (80 to 161 kilometers) wide. The cause of its unusual hue is Foraminifera, a coral organism that leaves behind its pink shell when it dies.

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. World's Strangest Beaches

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of eliduke via Flickr.

Due to intense geothermal activity on the Coromandel Peninsula, visitors to Hot Water Beach can dig holes into the sand to create natural hot spring pools. The water gets as hot as 147°F (64°C), and makes for a relaxing and unique beach experience.

Schooner Gulch, Mendocino Coast, California

Also known as “Bowling Ball Beach,” visitors to Schooner Gulch can witness thousands of boulders of equal shape, size and spacing sit lined up like soldiers defying the tides. What’s truly amazing about this rare phenomenon is it is completely natural, with no human interference. The geological explanation is that these concretions are created from resilient minerals and materials that have been able to withstand damage from the Pacific Ocean.

Giant’s Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland. World's Strangest Beaches

Giant’s Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is home to 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, created by volcanic eruptions. These natural formations feature precise hexagonal shapes laid out like honeycomb clusters that disappear into the sea.

The landscape is so dramatic in appearance it has inspired local legends of giants walking over the water to Scotland, hence the word “causeway.”

Chandipur Beach, Chandipur, India

At high tide Chandipur Beach may appear like any other; however, at low tide the water recedes about three miles (five kilometers) from the shore, exposing the seabed to beach-goers. Visitors can see unusual seashells, driftwood, crabs and  other organisms  usually not exposed on the beach, giving them the feeling they’re walking into the sea.

Genipabu Beach, Natal, Brazil

Genipabu beach. Natal, Brazil. World's Strangest Beaches

Genipabu beach. Natal, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Leandro’s World Tour via Flickr.

Genipabu Beach offers much more than just swimming, as the landscape is a mix of beach and desert. Enormous sand dunes allow for sand boarding and camel riding, while the Atlantic Ocean provides opportunities for water sports. Basically, this unusual beach offers two completely unique experiences in one.

Perissa, Santorini, Greece

Perissa Beach, Santorini, Greece. World's Strangest Beaches

Perissa Beach, Santorini, Greece.

While we’ve all seen white and gold sand — and sometimes even strange beaches glowing with hues of pinks, oranges and reds — Perissa Beach in Greece is the complete opposite. The endless beach’s pitch black sand creates a strikingly eery yet beautiful landscape. These dark volcanic granules are extremely soft and fine, as well. From the beach you can also walk to the ancient city of Thira, thought to have once been a Spartan colony, by hiking up the Perissa’s backdrop mountain of Mesa Vouno. Warning: Because of the sand’s dark color it tends to get extremely hot, so bring your flip flops.

The World’s Strangest Beaches

10 Best Places to Hike in the World

28 Apr

Whether climbing Everest is at the top of your bucket list or you’d prefer a gentle hike through the British countryside, the world is full of jaw-dropping natural landscapes that beg to be discovered on foot. From Iceland’s otherworldly topography to unveiling the real Middle Earth in New Zealand, here are 10 of the best places to hike in the world.

New Zealand

Mount Cook in New Zealand

Mount Cook in New Zealand

Immortalized on film as the magnificent backdrop to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, New Zealand’s many attractions and dramatic scenery have had a revival of late, with Peter Jackson’s most recent offering, The Hobbit, reminding travelers what they’re missing. It’s no surprise that hiking – or tramping as it’s known to New Zealanders – is one of the best ways to take in the scenery, and well marked routes traverse the length and breadth of the country, served by a wide network of government-run campsites. Most popular are the nine Great Walks including the one-day Tongariro Alpine crossing, passing by the famous Mt. Ngaurube volcano (otherwise known as ‘Mt. Doom’ from the Lord of the Rings films); the 82km Heaphy Track, which passes a varied terrain from dense rainforest to rugged coastal cliffs; and the 53km famous Milford track, which offers spectacular views of New Zealand’s tallest waterfall.


Mount Everest

Mount Everest

Nepal’s legendary Annapurna Circuit tops many a hiker’s bucket list and the 230km loop is renowned as one of the world’s most impressive treks, tracing the awe-inspiring Annapurna massif and crossing the Thorung La pass at a breathtaking 5,416 meters. Nepal’s other famous challenge is, of course, the mighty Everest, and trekking to the base camp of notorious peak has become a popular undertaking even for non-climbers. Nepal’s appeal isn’t just the challenging trekking and ruggedly beautiful Himalayas though – the Buddhist country is noted for its unique hospitality and soaking up the culture is as much a part of the experience as the hike itself. Hire a local Sherpa guide, bed down in a traditional mountain village, visit serene mountaintop temples and sip yak butter tea with the locals, as you uncover a whole other world thriving in the wilderness.


With short walking trails and rambling long distance treks running to every corner of the British isles, the United Kingdom makes the perfect location for hikers to test out their navigation skills, with well marked routes doing away with the need for a guide.  Head to one of England’s world renowned National Parks like the Lake District, the Peak District or the Yorkshire Dales, where the vast moorlands and sweeping hills are dotted with cobblestone villages and traditional pubs, or attempt the 182km Coast to Coast trail, spanning the entire length of England. It’s not just British soil that’s well trodden – you can also visit the Scottish Highlands which are home to the UK’s highest peak, Ben Nevis and a vast network of footpaths provide dramatic views over the windswept glens and glistening lochs of the northernmost county.


Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

From scrambling through the volcanic valleys of Cappadocia to trekking the vast Taurus Mountains, Turkey has plenty to offer lovers of the outdoors away from sun and sand of the Mediterranean coast. The 500km Lycian Way, running along the coast from Fethiye to Antalya, and the St Paul’s Trail, following in the footsteps of the legendary evangelist from Perge and Aspendos to Yalvac, are the country’s two main long distance hiking routes, passing a number of key historic sites and showcasing the country’s incredibly diverse terrain.


Hiking in Iceland

Hiking in Iceland

With majestic glaciers, bubbling hot springs and looming volcanoes, hiking through Iceland’s otherworldly landscape offers some of the world’s most unique photo opportunities. Hiking is possible almost anywhere, but most adventurers head for one of the national parks – Skaftafell national park is a wonderland of shimmering ice caps and jagged mountains, whereas Landmannalaugar’s striking rhyolite mountains provide the focal point of the celebrated 4-day Laugavegurinn trail.  Another popular trek is scaling the country’s highest peak Hvannadalshnúkur, at 2110 meters, where you’ll be afforded spectacular views over the Vatnajokull glacier – one of the world’s largest.




The gateway to Antarctica has fast become a popular destination in its own right – a wintry playground of glaciers, penguin colonies and snow-dusted mountains. Stretching across the southernmost parts of Argentina and Chile, visiting Patagonia means seeing some of the continent’s most magnificent surroundings – swollen glacial valleys, pristine lakes and towering mountain peaks. The UNESCO biosphere reserve of Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean side, is a hotspot for hikers with well-marked trails offering expansive views of the famous pink granite Paine towers, or else make the pilgrimage to see the wondrous Perito Moreno Glacier, the ‘smoking mountain’ of Chalten volcano or the windswept archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, the ‘Land of Fire’.


Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Hikers could spend a lifetime exploring the US on foot, but the varied terrains of California make the perfect place to start. While there are few pockets of wilderness left undiscovered, America’s third largest state still has plenty of jaw-dropping hikes up its sleeve, including some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. Hikers can choose from exploring the epic canyons and dunes of the Death Valley desert; the granite cliffs, tumbling waterfalls and vast rivers of Yosemite National Park; or visiting the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman Tree, in Sequoia National Park. The world famous parks aren’t the only options – the Joshua Tree National Park, Redwood National Park, Big Sur and the Golden Gate National Park all lie within Californian borders, with the landscape ranging from snow capped peaks to arid desert basin.

The Alps

Chamonix, Switzerland

Chamonix, Switzerland

Hikers traveling to Europe will find it hard to miss a walk in the Alps, Europe’s principal mountain range, sprawling across eight countries. Throughout winter the Alps play host to some of Europe’s glitziest ski resorts but as the snow thaws, hiking the alpine slopes becomes one of the region’s most popular pastimes. Color-coded signposts mark out routes throughout the Alps, Europe’s open border policies means hiking between countries isn’t a problem and there’s such a high concentration of peaks over 4,000 meters that you won’t have to walk far to get a view. Explore the traditional villages and cheese factories in the Swiss foothills; follow one of the acclaimed tracks through the lush valleys and glacial passes of the French Alps; or tackle the hugely popular trail encircling the iconic peak of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, straddling the border between France and Italy on a Half-Day Trip to Chamonix and Mont Blanc from Geneva.

Canadian Rockies

Canadian Rockies in Banff

Canadian Rockies in Banff

Taking the famous train journey through the towering Rocky Mountains are one of Canada’s most celebrated attractions but to truly experience their magnitude, you’ll need to don your hikers and take to the hills. The vast Rockies harbor myriad opportunities for hiking but the best-marked trails and a network of alpine huts lie within the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage site. Notable trails include the famous Berg Lake Trail, running through the Mount Robson Provincial Park and scaling the highest peak in the Rockies; the Mount Fairview trail in Banff National Park, offering panoramic views of the dazzling Lake Louise; and the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit in Yoho National Park, a scenic route through lush woodlands and shimmering glacial valleys.


Ticked the other nine off your list? Now’s the time to get truly off the beaten track and discover some of the world’s most inspiring and least-visited landscapes – hikes long overlooked by the tourist hoards. Kazakhstan has been steadily building a reputation among serious hikers for its remote and unspoiled wilderness, and with a number of reputable trekking companies operating in the country, it’s easier than ever to explore. The Tian Shan and Altai mountain ranges hold the most popular routes, with ancient pathways tracing the borders of Russia, China and Mongolia. Just make sure you take a local guide.

10 Best Places to Hike in the World Argentina , banff , California , canada , Chile , England , featured , France , Geneva , Iceland , Kazakhstan , Nepal , New Zealand , Patagonia , Switzerland , turkey , United Kingdom , Yosemite National Park