Maverick Adventuring

Santa Barbara's Funk Zone: 16 Wineries in 6 Blocks

Obi Wine Kenobi. That is what some have called my new friend, Randy, the tasting manager at Cottonwood Canyon. He knows a lot about wine. He has probably forgotten more than I will ever know. But he doesn’t wield that knowledge with malicious intent, like an intimidating light saber of condescension. No, he is just as excited to share Cottonwood Canyon’s wines as we are to taste them. He explains the nuances of the varietals as we discuss the intimate pairings of succulent dishes that should accompany each.

Being a Foodie, I am in Heaven. For Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is a perfect mecca for wine lovers, Foodies, and Funksters to taste, eat, and play, all a short trip from the major metropolis of L.A.

Where else will you find 15 world class wineries’ tasting rooms, plus 2 unaffiliated tasting rooms, a brewery, and one liquor distillery in a 6 block radius?

Starting your tasting tour at the tiny, unassuming Cottonwood is commencing your trip at the top of the Zone and working your way down toward the ocean. This is my recommendation. You can zig zag, go straight block by block, or just let the wine call to you. This is your weekend, discover as you will.

Note: Cottonwood is on the Urban Wine Trail maps, but not the Funk Zone maps. Same with Kalyra, and Deep Sea. Guessinger is on no map, and LaFonda is brand spanking new.

santa-barbara-funk-zone

Straight south on Anacapa St., your next stop will be at the 2 most popular wineries, directly across from one another. Oreana (voted best tasting room in 2012 by the Santa Barbara News Press) can tend to be a bit rowdy as was the case when we were there. They were one of the pioneers of the Funk Zone, repurposing an old tire factory into a laid back winery, where they even have movie nights!

Santa Barbara Winery is a bit more relaxed, and it has reason to be. SB Winery began in 1962, the first winery in Santa Barbara since prohibition, making it the Granddaddy of the Funk Zone, so be sure to swing by and pay homage. They have a lovely wooded seating area for relaxing, if you can find a seat, that is.

Next stop, 4 in a row on Yaconali St. You can literally throw a rock and hit them all.

Starting from East to west, we check out, Riverbench first. Where our lovely host, Cassie, shares all the best vines with us. Riverbench touches all the heartstrings, in that it is a Sustainable In Practice (SIP) certified winery, meaning that it builds community between the vineyards, the workers, and the land. They also donate a portion of their Pinot Noir Rosé to charity. The wine is wonderful and you can feel good about yourself while sipping it!

Area 5.1 puts the fun in Funk Zone. A great riff on the “secret” Nevada military site, 5.1 is called that because of the 2 owners, Martin and Mike Brown. Australian born brothers, with a love for good wine, decided to make their wine as the “Aliens” they were. Thus Area 5.1 (as well as Kalyra) was born. Along with the fact that they deal with 5 vineyards, 5 winemakers, 5 wines on the tasting menu, and Martin’s birthday is 5/1. Seeing a pattern? Their wines are solid, smooth, and I took home a bottle of their amazing Port for later testing.

AVA (American Viticultural Areas) Winery is a nice wide open, very modern tasting room. They make “wines of distinction from the five AVA’s of Santa Barbara.” With the help of a giant wall map, you can taste your way specifically through the terroir of the local region, mile by mile.

Directly across a small breezeway finds you at Pali Wines. An equally modern room, but with hints of the mountains with their woody accents. Two of their Pinot Noirs were recently given “Top Values” recommendations by Wine Spectator’s James Laube. This is also one of the few wineries that features wine on tap, something that is becoming more popular in the US.

Directly across the street you will see the latest newcomer to the scene, La Fond, having just opened in May of 2014. Pierre LaFond, an architect by trade, is also the owner of the Santa Barbara winery, which, again, you can hit with a rock from here. LaFond is a bit more refined than SB and there were two standouts here for me. Their Pinots were very smooth and did not have what I have dubbed the “Pinot Funk” on the nose, and you get to take the tasting glass with you! A great souvenir and smart marketing all in one.

One block and several art installments later, will find you around the corner at the Fox tasting room located inside the Santa barbara Art foundry. You can grab a glass and wonder around the fun and funky exhibits, many wine themed, throughout the warehouse.

Now you have a decision to make. This is where you can call it a day and save the rest for tomorrow or press on like a blurry eyed wine fanatic.

I recommend the prior. Get some rest, and start fresh tomorrow.

On day 2, I would start with a double header tasting at Kalyra and then walk directly across, literally 10 feet away, to Giessinger. I guess you could switch them if you are feeling adventurous.

Remember the 2 Aussie gents who started Area 5.1? Well, here they fully embrace their roots in the land of OZ. The room is a vibrant fun loving homage to the land done undah! Surfboards and Aboriginal art abound, and even show up on some of their labels. If you want to taste Santa Barbara with an Australian flair, this is definitely the place.

Giessinger takes a more French forward approach with their wines and their room. Lovely art adorns the room, and their wines bring the art of French wine making to the California coast. They also have the distinction of winning the “Best Wine Tasting Room in Santa Barbara for 2013,” given to them by the US Commerce Association.

Now it is time to head past yesterday’s quarry on Yanonali, turning right on Anacapa, heading toward the water. En route, you will find a gaggle of tasting rooms huddled up closely to one another for warmth, or I guess you could say, winth. Yes, I just made that up.

The first stop will be Corks n’ Crowns. This is one of the top places to go in the Zone. Their claim to fame is that they are not a winery. They actually serve as a representative tasting room for many wineries that are too small to have their own rooms. So, in one place, you get to taste many wines that you will not find anywhere else. You get a huge variety to sip and it’s a very fun place to hang out and just relax.

Snuggled in right behind C n’ C, is Chatter + Drake, the winery run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Andi Cummins. Both are artists who also craft lovely wines. Interestingly, they produce wines by “blocks” in a very small region, the Lawrence Winery in the Edna Valley, highlighting the subtle differences row by row. The tastywines are mainly Pinots, and they have a small private room to rent for parties.

A nice long walk of about 30 seconds brings you to the doorstep of Kunin Wines. A family owned winery, Kunin’s wines all come from the Central Coast AVA. Kunin is one of the elder statesmen of the Zone, having been there for over 5 years, since Seth Kunin had a vision to bring high quality boutique wines to the area. Much recognition and several awards later, Kunin Wines is a firm anchor to the Santa Barbara wine scene.

Just next door is Municipal Wines, where Dave Potter has made a place that is like going to a friend’s clubhouse made from things he found in his mom’s basement and at the local flea market. Having trained in Australia and France, the homey feel does not belie the world class wines he makes. This is not a snooty wine haven. They have a stuffed bear for cryin out loud! Municipal is a great place to wind down the day. But we are not quite done.

There is one more place to hit, that is not exactly in the Funk Zone, but I recommend it because it is the best place to sit, sip, and sunset. You need to head around the corner and out onto the boardwalk to Deep Sea Winery, the only tasting room with an amazing view of the Santa Barbara Coastline. This vineyard, run by the Conway family, gets it’s name from the ancient sea beds of Arroyo Grande where their vines reside. This is the ideal way to end a tasting day, on the sea watching the sun set, sipping one of Deep Sea’s lush, rich, smooth wines and reminisce about your adventure.

“Best…Weekend…Ever!”

It's a fleeting term at best, as it will be replaced on and off throughout one’s life, but I can say without equivocation a visit to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone has elicited this statement often and will continue to do so even more, as plans for expansion are being put into play in the Zone for more amazing wineries, fabulous eateries, and general funkiness. If you love wine, food, art, fun, luxuriating in the sun, and a nice walk on the beach, get thee to the Funk Zone. And tell ‘em Spike sent ya.

Keep Spicin It Up!

Reprint from 2014

Revisiting one of my favorite places- Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. This article got lost in the mix somewhere along the way. I figured now is a good time to get it out in the internet ether. A few things may have changed but not much. So get out to SB and have a drink for me!

 

Iconic Cities, Iconic Dishes, Iconic Dates

Here at “Don’t Kill Your Date (and Other Cooking Tips)” I’m all about showing you adventurous dating tips. But not all of you can be trekking across the globe to share exotic locales with your lovely ladies. That can get a tad expensive.

But just because you can’t surprise her with a private jet trip over to Paris to punch a mime and grab a baguette doesn’t mean you can’t bring her the world. Every city has an iconic dish, an ingredient, or a local specialty that they are known for.

Once you visit those places these are the things you want to bring back home and savor those cherished memories. But if you haven’t been there yet what do you do? Thanks to the fancy intrawebs these days you can research just about anything. So now you can…

Bring the iconic dishes from iconic cities to your home and impress your dates.

This is a great way to show your ladies your adventurous side. Even if you are not particularly well travelled, you can both share a “pre-memory” of a place that you both want to visit through a few iconic dishes from the region. And they don’t have to be difficult to prepare.

For example, let’s say you both want to visit Argentina, as do I and my wife. What are they known for? Great wines, grilled meats, and tango predominantly. There are several easy ways prepare a killer Argentinean date night.

Don’t have a full on Argentine parrilla to roast up a side of beef on an open fire? Neither do I. But I can go down to my local store, grab a nice inexpensive bottle of Malbec and a couple of steaks. I can find a decent tango type station on iHeart Radio or Pandora for background ambiance. And now I am mostly set. But there is one step further you might wish to take.

Its not always the iconic dishes that make the meal, but the accoutrements that are added to the mix that really make it memorable.

In our Argentinean date night example you have the big three and that is great. But what will really evoke “future memories” is the addition of a chimichurri sauce (recipe here) which is the iconic condiment that really makes Argentinean meat dishes stand out.

Or if you are planning a tasty Indian adventure for your evening, you might want to prepare a simple lentil dal, tandoori chicken or tikka masala. But what are these dishes without some naan bread for soppin and a spicy sweet mango chutney to top it all off?

And what’s an Italian meal without a rich Chianti, some nice olive oil drizzled atop, and premium Parmesan cheese grated all around, but only use the good stuff! Don’t skimp on the extras, they can make or break a dish and they go a long way.

It’s the little details that can really knock her socks of (maybe even more).

Take the time to listen to her when she talks of far off lands she wants to visit and the dishes she wants to enjoy there. Be the man to spark her adventurous desires. Research a little, surprise her with a tasting menu of her dreams. Don’t just cook up a delicious meal, go the extra mile to discover what really makes that specific region stand out, and add the little tasty details.

You don’t have to fork out a ton of money and take her around the world to make her attracted to you. You can do it all right from your own home. It is amazingly simple and affordable. An added benefit is that you get to find out how well you click together beforeyou attempt one of the toughest tests of whether a couple can work – traveling together. And that is a whole other story……

Bon Apéttit!

Our Italian Honeymoon: Moneglia

Silence. Dead frickin silence. How unnerving. Living in Koreatown, Los Angeles, or as I call it living “in Blade Runner,” is a world away from where we are now. Here, in Moneglia, Italy, there are no helicopters hovering every night looking for the latest bad guy or news scoop. I do not hear cars and motorcycles screeching or rumbling by. I don’t hear that ever annoying rolling/scraping sound of a guy on a skateboard, who is way too old to be on it by the way, whizzing down the sidewalk. All I can hear is the sound of my brain straining to shut down, relax, and, as Depeche Mode recommends, enjoy the silence.

moneglia

If you have ever been to or heard of Cinque Terre, or the “Five Lands,” you have probably heard that it is a tourist mecca now. It is busy, hectic, and over crowded. Well, that may very well be, especially during the high season summer months. But we are here in the fall. And we are not IN the Cinque Terre confines exactly. We are in Moneglia, north of there by about a 20 minute train ride. Close enough to enjoy day trips yet far enough to not be bothered with all the negative aspects of the tourist trade.

moneglia-beach

Here we have found the perfect AirBnB experience. We have rented out a one bedroom apartment all to ourselves for a month as our Honeymoon home base. When our host Michela picked us up at the train station she was very nice and, as awkward as first meetings with linguistic hurdles can be, she was gracious and accommodating. She even took us to the store for some first night provisions, aka wine.

One thing to note, we knew there would be a walk down the hill from our flat to get to the town. While Michela drove us up the hill that walk seemed farther and farther to me, reminiscent of JoBeth Williams run down the hallway in Poltergeist, only without creepy clowns and hungry grabby trees. But she assured us it was only about a 20 minute walk to town. She was just about right. It turns out that the 3 mile round trip walk was not only pleasant, but relaxing and beautiful. And yes, we are truly getting buns of steel.

This place is amazing! It is plenty roomy, has a full kitchen (granted, it has an oven resembling the Easy Bake variety, but it works well enough), a washing machine, a nice comfy bed, nice decor, and an amazing patio for sunset watching over the sloping hills toward the ocean. There’s even a little grill area outside and a pizza oven! A full frickin pizza oven!!! I have GOT to cook something in that. All of this for one month for about $1000. Not too shabby AirBnB. Not too shabby.

moneglia-airbnb

As we make our jaunts down to the town and back and sample all the wonderful restaurants, we are getting to know the place as our own. We hit the one (tiny)supermarket that takes credit cards almost daily. You can’t carry too much up that hill at once. We are getting into the local rhythm. We have sampled several wonderful restaurants already. We know some folks by name and will see them again.

assirto-moneglia

So far the biggest standout here has been Assirto, where I saw god in the form of some truly spirited acorn fed Iberico ham served with marcona almonds. Kim had the same experience with the goose cutlets in an apple sauce. We also had the full sea breem, caught that morning about 100 yards off shore in Moneglia, filleted and broiled full body. Then there was the yellow fin and salted cod sashimi style, with olive oil made just down the road in Levanto, crushed with oranges for that hint of citrus. Truly inspired. Before we ordered, the owner, Luca sat with us and told us of every little detail of the menu, in his wonderfully broken English. He spoke in a way that let you know, he was proud and excited to be serving the fruits of his home with you. By the time he was done, we just said, whatever you recommend, Luca, that is what we will go with. So we enjoyed a lovely local Rosé wine with our sumptuous repast. And we will be paying another visit to Luca soon.

moneglia-beaches

After several days of chilling in the area and feeling like a local, I am sure I will find a way to relax and enjoy the slower pace and less ruckus. In fact, we are heading out as I write this for a Halloween weekend in Venice. I am looking forward to heading back “home” to our little hideaway in Moneglia to see how it feels to unwind again from our latest adventure. We have made day trips to Cinque Terre and they are gorgeous and romantic as advertised. I will have much to say about these places for sure. But right now as this train bobs and weaves its way toward Venice, with all the train noise, views whipping by at top speed, and cacophonous screaming children aplenty, I am finding myself longing just a bit for the solitude of our little quiet retreat in the hills and a nice quiet sleep.

Our Italian Honeymoon: Florence

Aaaaaaahhhhhhh Florence. Now this is what Rome was supposed to be! The beautiful architecture, and the pace - romantic, less chaotic, ancient and full of intrigue. It was welcoming above all. I did not immediately feel the same sense of apprehension that Rome inspired. As soon as we settled in to our truly great, and uber funky, hotel find in Room Mate Luca, we knew that our stay would be something special.

All of our friends who had visited the great city of Florence (or Firenze, as the locals would say) sang its praises and said without a doubt that we simply MUST go see this city. Actually we had no firm plans to stop there at all. It was a fluke of my scheduling mishap. I had booked our flat in Moneglia one day later than I had thought, so we had an extra night to fill. Well, Florence was on the way, so why not.

I knew very little about the place. I had seen the Borgias, I knew there was a Duomo of some kind, and that the steak was supposed to be out of this world. Once we got settled in to our funk-a-riffic digs, we set out to see what all the fuss was about. In about 5 blocks, I knew what so many were talking about. WOW! That is one beautiful Duomo! It is massive and it really does take your breath away. The amazing detail that went in to it is awe inspiring. The way the light hits it at dawn and dusk is simply magical. And at night it is lit up and looms over the main center of town. Where everything is happening.

Il-duomo-florence-travel

There are several upscale places to shop for fine leather goods as well as your cheapo knock off souvenir shops. And fortunately for me (and them) there are far fewer annoying iphone “selfie” peddlers. Just across from the Duomo, we had our first taste ofhappiness, Florence style. At a great little trattoria called Sasso di Dante, where I had an incredibly rich chicken liver bruschetta. We sat down in view of the great structure, had some lovely red wine, incredibly tasty nosh, and were serenaded by an authentic Italian accordion player. Aaaaaaaaahhhhh Florence, you do weave your spell….

florence-accordian-street-performer

Next up, a visit to the bell tower at the Duomo. 443 or so steps to the top. I recommend you do it at sunset. You will have an amazing 365 degree view, you will work off lunch and work up an appetite for the amazing dinner to come, plus, your ass will be quarter-bouncing firm by the time you are done.

Since we only had one night to get acquainted with the gorgeous city, there were only 2 things I knew we had to do, and both involved food. The first was to have an authentic Florentine steak. Originally to be had at Mario’s, but that was to have to wait, as they only opened for lunch. Our new hotel friends at Luca recommended a place that was open that night called Donnini’s. Oh dear gawd, I cannot recommend this place highly enough! Perfectly situated on a grand piazza with open air seating and a lovely view of a working and very lit up carousel. Which, of course, we rode on. Derr…

Now, that steak was a thing of beauty. I dare say it was truly the best steak I have ever tasted. At the very least it is in the top three. On par with the Kobe Beef I had in Kobe, Japan and the bone in ribeye at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo in Vegas. But, now that I consider it, I do have to walk the Florentine steak to the front of the line, as Puck’s steak did have a sauce on it, and the Kobe steak was sliced and diced by a great chef. This steak was primal, simple, perfect. Just a big ass T-bone (well Porterhouse really) as big as my head, seared to perfection, seasoned and served with just salt and pepper and a little grilled potatoes on the side. No filler, no showy glamour, no glitz. Just the ne plus ultra. My king of steak.

I’m not forgetting about Mario’s though. We were able to visit for lunch just before we left. And oh what a lunch. This tiny bistro just off a main piazza around a hidden corner is an icon. I had no idea. We went in, gave our names and waited outside like everyone else. While we waited the line got longer and longer. We had arrived at just the right time. Once our name was called, we were ushered to wedge in, joining another coupleat a tiny table, while rubbing elbows with another table of four mere inches away. Boy, do they pack you in! Our newfound table mates were just finishing up their repast and said nary a word to us until they got up and said “Ciao” in their best German accented Italian. Shortly thereafter we were joined by a lovely young couple from Iowa on their Honeymoon as well. Small world.

We chatted away as we were given our liter of house red wine (just for Kim and I), and John and Helena were given theirs. I think that set us back a total of 14 Euros, about $20. Always order the house wine when traveling in Italy. Just sayin. The next thing to plop down was a perfectly cooked osso buco for Kim and a braised rabbit in a (paprika?) sauce that was divine. I was told to try the Florentine steak at Mario’s but for lunch it was just a tad to heavy for me. Guess I’ll just have to come back….. Oh wait, WE ARE!!!!

kimberly-spencer-italy

Now that we have been introduced to this incredible place, we have decided to make another stop for 2 days on our way back to Rome for our final Italian Honeymoon goodbyes. A visit to the Uffizi Gallery will be attempted and a sunset at Ponte Vecchio has been recommended as well. So, Mario’s will get another chance to wow us as I am sure it will. There most definitely will be at least one more Florentine steak in my near future, though I’m aiming for at least two.

Our Italian Honeymoon: Montorosso

Monterosso. What a lovely little town. Yes, the beach here is stunning and it is worth spending some time cavorting and/or frolicking about in the sand. But the real adventure starts when you leave the main drag and head inward or upward. As with all the Cinque Terre towns, there is most definitely some fine food to be had, just get away from the touristy areas. And as I always say, if there are pictures in the window of the food on order, run (this does not particularly apply in Japan, where all the restaurants seem to have pics up).

montorosso

The two great experiences we had here were, first, at a tiny little wine bar, Enoteca da Eliseo, just inland past the big church (which I dubbed “Our Lady of the Beetlejuice, due to it’s dark and white stripes) where we met up with some fabulous Australians who had just met each other there as well – one group from Sydney and one group from Melbourne. I fortunately love both those cities equally well. Though I would have to give my tip of the hat to Sydney, mostly for the stunning harbor scenery. As the night went on, and more wine was poured, we all got a bit rowdy and were admonished by a nosy Canadian busybody who said we were the reason people hated “Ugly Americans.” To which our new Aussie friend shouted, “Screw you, I’m Australian!” Love that lady.

kimberly-spencer-enoteca

This wine bar was an absolute find! The house wine was cheap and tasty. The owners were incredibly nice and even though we were a bit rowdy toward the end, they were gracious as can be. They even gave me a bar towel, once I let it be known that I collect them. So when you head over to Enoteca da Eliseo be sure to have a drink and remember, keep it down, or the Canucks might get ya.

La-tortuga

There are several fabulous eateries in the twisty little town that we did not have the chance to visit. We will hit those at a later date I’m sure. But the second place I can wholeheartedly recommend is L’Ancora della Tortuga! This amazing little restaurant is literally carved into the mountainside to the south of town heading toward the hike to Vernazza. You can dine inside, where the decor is Ligurian seaside shanty at it’s best, or you can dine up top with a stunning view of the sea. I recommend the latter. You will never forget that view.

We started with a pesto stuffed squid served in a pool of lusciously succulent pumpkin (or butternut squash) puree. One of the most amazing dishes I have ever been served. It was gorgeous to behold and even better on the taste buds. Since pesto was invented here in Liguria, I think they have it down. And the incredible freshness of every morsel of seafood on this trip is mind blowing. I have truly never had better.

la-tortuga

Next course was a simple grilled tuna in sweet red onions sauté for Kim, and a lobster risotto for me. Holy balls! Perfectly perfectly perfecto! Sweet, savory, and impeccably al dente was the risotto. The lobster perched atop, exuding the flavors of the sea just a stones throw away from where we sat. The tuna bright and bursting, a perfect foil for the   onion’s umami undertones. Heavenly.

Another real find here was actually in the bread basket. We could not quite pinpoint what that bread was until we asked. “It is pasta,” the waitress said. They simply deep fried the fresh pasta and it came out like a sopapilla or beignet. And it was magical. The fact that the house wine was excellent and the view was beyond compare didn’t add to those magical feelings at all, I’m sure….. Sarcasm intended….

montorosso-beach

Monterosso was the most “beachy” of the five towns and I am sure that in the high tourist season it is probably unbearable for my taste. And that is why I always try to travel in the off seasons. Much of the tourist trade is gone, the crowds are far more reasonable, and the weather is usually cooler and more invigorating. High summer heat and fat smelly tourists slathered in sun cream and bug repellant are a deadly combination to be avoided at all costs.

I can however, recommend, no, demand, that you make the hikes from Monterosso to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia. They are still open and beautiful. Sadly, the hikes from Corniglia to Manarola and Manarola to Riomaggiore are closed. Damn shame. Having made the trek from Monterosso to Vernazza, and the trek from Corniglia to Vernazza, I can say that not only are they some of the most amazing and stunning hikes I have ever taken, I can also attest that my buns of steel are almost quarter-bouncing ready. And all that pasta I have been shoveling in to my pie hole is burning away quite nicely.

montorosso-cinque-terre

So, eat the food, see the sights, and enjoy the beach of Monterosso. Then take the hike over to the wonderful twisty town of Vernazza. And no matter what you do, beware of nosy Canadians.

Our Italian Honeymoon: Rome

rome-graffiti

Graffiti. So much sad sad graffiti. Crappy tags on almost every surface. Every now and then, a pathetic half-assed attempt to paint over it. It’s not art. There are some well done murals, but they are few and far between, scattered among the seldom cleaned trash bins, decaying buildings, and smells from origins of which I would rather not know. This is Rome. I expected my first encounter with the great city to be more, well, magical. But after a couple of days, all I have found is a sense of a sprawling decaying urban European center not unlike so many others I have visited. Not to say that the city isn’t welcoming and in so many ways, enchanting. Of course it is, it’s frickin Rome! I guess after all these years of anticipation, like so many things we build up in our hearts and minds, the real thing tends to be a letdown. Am I speaking sacrilege? No, I really want to LOVE it. It is, after all, our Italian Honeymoon tour!

The fact that our initial lodgings turned out to be a bit less than advertised didn’t exactly help the situation. We used AirBnB for the first time. It was a great service; everything was checked and double checked, reserved and paid for beforehand, so there were no last minute surprises. Except for the fact that the private bathroom we were promised was not quite private. Having a private room in a private residence with a bathroom in our room for our Honeymoon is what we expected. This was our own private room in a very nice flat, but the bathroom was downstairs across the “common area” and kitchen. So in order to visit, you had to suit up and traipse across the flat. Though it was supposedly ours only, I am certain there were other visitors. Don’t ask me how I know…. Oh, and did I mention we had to be quiet as we walked through the living room area as there was another guest sleeping there off to the side cordoned off by room dividers. Yep, that was his “room.” I wonder what he paid?

Not to say that AirBnB is bad. Far from it! I love the service and think it is a great boon for the planet, entrepreneurialism, and travel freedom. In fact, I’ll tell you just how truly AMAZING it is in my next few posts as I regale you with beautiful tales of the Italian countryside, fresh herbs and fruit right outside our flat, and being serenaded by the local church bells. But for our introduction to the service in Rome, the age old motto of “Caveat Emptor” rang out loudly in my cranium.

coliseum-rome

The big sights are still there, the Coliseum, Forum, Spanish Steps, Vatican City, etc, etc, and so on. And they are beautiful as advertised. Quite awe-inspiring actually. Imagine the history! Gladiators slaughtering one another, Christians being torn apart by lions, the Vatican helping the Nazis horde Jewish gold. What? Too soon? I’m just saying, the history is impressive, it’s just not always flattering.

It doesn’t help that at every tour bus stop, every attraction, and every train station, there are clone swarms of what seems to be the same Bangladeshi man aggressively hawking shitty hats, cold water, cheap Chinese scarves, some strange little squishy toy, and the ever popular iphone selfie stick for taking better self indulgent “look at me” photos from further than an arm’s length out. It may be years before I get the mind numbing sound of “selfie?” being half-heartedly “shouted” at me every ten feet. It got so bad near the Spanish Steps that one hawker aggressively pushed some “free” flowers on my wife, gesturing that, no indeed they were free. Sure. After we stated, “No, Grazie” abut ten times, he initially took them away after, of course, asking me for some cash. After my final, “No, Grazie!” He uttered some ancient curse at me and I, in turn, cordially invited him to have sexual intercourse with himself. A group of these guys recently attacked and tried to rob a U.S. policeman on Holiday. I wonder if my jerk of a rose pusher was one of those weenies. Oh how I longed to go Gladiator on him myself and take a rousing wack at his skull with a blunt object of some kind. Somebody will soon, I’m sure. Had I done so, undoubtedly the crowd would cheer me on as they did the warriors of antiquity and I would be showered with praise, gold, and virgins (which my wife would not appreciate).

Speaking of virgins… Then there’s the romance. Couples kissing out in the open, seemingly lost in their passions, sharing a gelato and groping one another in the parks. Swarthy fellas hooting, gesticulating, and whistling at the ladies as they go by. Innocent enough, but the fact that they are oogling my wife is a bit annoying. Although she is fabulously attractive and sexy as hell. Hey, she can’t help it, that’s the way God made her. Hallelujah. But it is our Honeymoon after all, so I could be just a bit sensitive. All in all, not too swept away by the whole romance thing in Rome. It’s not like the old movies with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, zipping around on Vespas, drinking espressos, and just generally being fabulous.

Kimberly-spencer-speaking-italian

No, we came to Rome amid various warnings of pickpockets, roaming bands of thieving gypsy children, and scamming taxi drivers. Not exactly a warm welcome to this once great city. It’s hard to sit back and enjoy your time here having to keep one eye out for marauders and one hand on your wallet. For all the outward leanings, this city is sadly living below it’s potential. As for the inside? Well, that is where the city gets it right. The food and the gracious hospitality. Like most sprawling metropolises I have visited, you do have to have a discerning eye for a good restaurant. Ask the locals, get recommendations, and normally, if they have pictures of the food on their windows, RUN!

pickpocket-warning-rome

Steer clear of the touristy areas and you can find some truly wonderful eats. But here in Rome, it’s hard to do as their is a tourist trap everywhere you turn. After awhile you just say, “Hey look, more ruins… Wooptadeedoo!” Be vigilant and you will find some seriously tasty treats – the best part of Rome! Like Luca’s the local Trattoria in the artsy area where we were staying just east of Termini Station with incredible caponata, friendly waiters, and a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. The cacio e pepe was quite rich and flavorful here.

pasta alla amatriciana

Then there was another random find in Nana’s Vini e Cucina near the Spanish Steps. Oh what wonderful pasta alla amatriciana! The deep rich smoky bacon, tart tomato, and savory parmesan lovingly smothered the perfectly al dente bucatini as well as my taste buds. The flavor still haunts my memory. Truly a great foodie find, made all the better by our new waiter friend Salvatore who amped up our experience by providing us with two rounds of Limoncello gratis for our “Luna di Miele.” Grazie!

In keeping with the “get recommendations from locals” motif, Salvatore recommended the leather shop just next door which my wife, Kim, had been eyeballing all through dinner. It turned out to be another great find, as the brand new hand made brown/black fine Italian leather belt that adorns my waist can attest to.

I guess my first visit to Rome could have been more romantic. And we will have a another shot at it after our stay up north in Cinque Terre for a month, and I will do my best to adore the city. Just be aware, that if I do not come back to the states, it’s probably because I cold cocked some jackass trying to push a damn “selfie” stick on me after I have thrice told him to “Feckoff!”

5 Ways to Start Jet Settin' Like a Mo-Fo (Fo FREE!)

jet-setting-hawaii

What if you could fly anywhere you wanted at just about any time you wanted without changing up too much of the way you live and operate now? Interested?

What is sexier than telling your lady to pack up a saucy bikini and her best beach hat because you are surprising her with a quick trip down to Jamaica?

The answer is nuttin!

So, how do you do it? You start planning NOW! Wherever you are in life. And I have recently come across some pretty cool ideas to make travel even easier.

Not to say that travel will be completely free all the time, but if you do it right, most of it can be. And actually, it’s not that hard.

1. Join every airline and hotel reward club and get on their email alerts!

I am a member of many many rewards clubs. It takes a bit of time to get on their lists and emails, but the effort can put you at the front of the line when amazing deals come your way that are not out to the general public. And signing up is FREE! If you don’t want to get on all of them, just target the ones you might use most often. Pick the ones that will work best with step 2.

2. Sign up for airline and hotel reward credit cards.

Here is a really cool way to get outta town. There are plenty of airline and hotel credit cards out there, but a couple of items to consider are:

a. Who gives the most sign up points for the least money spent?

b. Which ones have no International fees for usage?

c. How many points per dollar spent do they give you?
I got a Citi AAdvantage card recently. It gives me 40,000 miles for my sign up, if I spend $3000 in the first 3 months. Easy. I’ll explain in #4 a cool way I found to knock it out cheaply. That is almost enough for 2 round trip tickets if you get a good deal. And that is where the email alerts come in!

I also have another card that gives me points on any airline and has no International fees. That’s the one to take to Jamaica! In some cases I will get double points or even triple depending on when and where I am buying what I already need. Check out several offers before you pick one and make sure it’s the best for your needs.

3. Sign up on travel deal consolidation sites

There are so many cool travel deal sites out there nowadays. I am signed up for many. Yes, it’s a lot of spam, but you learn how to weed it out quickly and know when a really good deal comes your way. I like TravelzooAirfarewatchdog, and SmarterTravel right now.

You can set certain search parameters on these sites or just marvel at some of the amazing deals you will jump on someday soon. But stay aware of the great local deals that will come your way as well. We recently bought 2 tickets to a downtown L.A. wine tasting event for only $19 each with 90 wines. A great local adventure!

4. Maximize your reward points.

If you are going to sign up for cards, you MUST stay aware of what you are spending and when. If you have to hit $3000 in 3 months, make a plan. First, think of all the things you are spending money on each month that are fixed. Do you have cable, phone, health insurance, car payments, etc.? Just switch to pay them on the credit cards and PAY THEM OFF EACH MONTH ON TIME! This way you will get all the points and it will cost you ZERO in interest. And it helps build your good credit.

I just found out about Rental Payment Services that can pay your rent on your credit card (for a small fee). So, let’s say your rent is $1000. At 3 months, there’s your card minimum! It will cost you less than a 3% service fee ($90 total for 40,000 points – not bad). I am trying WilliamPaid right now. I only recommend using it for the short run to build up your initial dollar count, it’s not good for long haul.

There are also rebate sites like Ebates and BigCrumbs that have some pretty cool deals that can help you out. So get signed up there for free too and check it out.

5. Take action!

If you sit there and do nothing, you will always wonder what you could have done. Don’t be that guy. That guy is not attractive. Be the guy who not only dreams, but plans and executes adventure. Sign up, get involved, put these ideas into play. And if you want to learn more, here are a couple of guys who get waaaay into the minutiae of it all and can really help you numbers nerds to rock out!

ThePointsGuy
MillionMilesSecrets

Get ready to get out there and do some Maverick Adventuring of your own and enjoy that awesome life you are designing for yourself!

Keep Spicin It Up!

A Little Time in Ireland

And now for a whirlwind trip to the greenest place on Earth! I LOVE IRELAND! Granted I do have a little Irish blood in me, but everyone should absolutely LOVE this place. This blog is all about a very quick trip of a few days. When you don’t have a lot of time, here are some highlights to hit.

Spike-Spencer-cliffs-of-moher

When you get there, you will probably arrive in Dublin. So step one- have a seriously authentic Irish breakfast, sometimes called a “fry.” This is the best breakfast on the planet, bar none! I eat it every day I’m on the Emerald Isle. It varies a bit from place to place but overall it is just as pictured below. Sorry Vegans, you’re screwed.

irish-breakfast

While in Dublin there are a few things you MUST do.

Drink Guinness.

At The Guinness Brewery Tour of course, which sadly was WAAAY better when I went there many years ago when they had an entire floor dedicated to their advertising, replete with 7 foot ostriches and big ass toucans, not to mention ads with Rutger Hauer touting the black gold.

Drink more Guinness.

Discover The Book of Kells. At Trinity College you can view an amazing version of the Gospels illustrated by Celtic monks. Just beautiful. And the college is quite impressive as well.

Drink Guinness again.

Try this time at Temple Bar. If you know me, you know I have spent some time here. I wish I had more bar recommendations, but after a bit, they all tend to weave together in a mush of Jameson’s, Guinness, and Celtic debauchery. I can recommend a lovely restaurant called Gallagher’s Boxty House. You can enjoy some authentic Irish grub you’ll seldom find outside of Ireland.

Drink Guinness.

For the most part, simply wander around Dublin, criss-cross the Liffey River, and explore all the history and culture you can soak up. Then, hit the road!

If you want to explore close to Dublin:

Johnnie Fox’s: the highest pub in Ireland. Just a fun place to be with tasty food and live music with a little history to boot. Their “Hooley Show” is well known and a great cultural song and dance experience.

Wicklow/Glendalough: a quick day trip getaway that will astound you. This is one place I go see every time I visit. Glendalough is an Early Medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St Kevin. The cemetery is anciently beautiful, and the lake at sunset is one of the most magical places I have ever seen.

wicklow-way
glendalough

I’m focusing mostly on Dublin here, but if you have an extra day or two? Here are my top picks.

If you can get there, I highly recommend a walk along the Cliffs of Moher (pictured at the front of this post).

You could drive along the Mountains of Mourne to the north and head up to Belfast.

Drink Guinness.

See The Rock of Cashel, for great pics of a ruined castle.

Kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle (Blarney, Co. Cork). I did it twice!

Pick up some Irish Moonshine (aka Potcheen) at Bunratty Castle (Bunratty, Co. Clare). But don’t open it in country, or else leprechauns will chase after ya!

Drink Guinness.

See Kylemore Abbey (Connemara, Co. Galway), a beautiful photography moment across the lake.

Walk the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim to the north.

Drive to the top of Slieve League (Co. Donegal), some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Be prepared, it is a remarkably sphincter puckering experience! Possibly very dangerous. Scariest drive I’ve ever made.

Drink more Guinness.

Don’t miss driving the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula (pic below) if you can. You may even see a rainbow or two. Maybe even a DOUBLE rainbow!

ring-of-kerry

Finally, splurge for at least one night in an authentic Irish Castle. I can personally recommend Ashford Castle (Cong, Co. Mayo), where I did a fine bit of Falconry. This was also the backdrop of the classic John Wayne film, “The Quiet Man.”

I’m sure I have missed a few places, as there are stunning views at every turn! And it’s most exhilarating to drive a standard stick shift car on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, at night, in the rain, signs in Gaelic, on tiny roads with walls only inches away, at approximately 60 miles per hour. When you can do that, you really get the feeling of being truly Irish.

Slainte!

Drink Guinness.

A Hotel, Near Napa...for Under $50! (I know, Right?)

I know, I know, hard to believe, right? Well, it is true. As of this writing, for under $50 you are about 15 miles and 20 minutes away from the heart of downtown Napa. A perfect jumping off point for an affordable Napa Valley adventure.

Yes, it's a Motel 6.

So as long as your date isn't scared of the name, this is a budget-friendly place to launch an adventure!

kimberly-spencer-modeling

As modeled by my lovely Kim above, you can see what a nice inviting hotel room this is. It is roomy, it is very clean and it has a nice relaxed funky minimalist vibe so reminiscent of the sleek affordable hotels and/or hostels I have seen in places like Europe or Australia and New Zealand. But this is not located in these far away places. Nope, this one is just outside of Napa and it is actually a Motel 6. This particular one is located at:

 

When I walked in, I was amazed. I have stayed in Motel 6’s for decades and I have never been to one in this great of a condition. It was spacious, inviting and comfortable. The bed was adequate, but the idea that you can put bags up underneath the bed was a very smart, space saving addition. And since the floor is vinyl, not some 70’s style nasty shag situation, the sliding is easy for storage. The bathroom is fairly standard, but the sink area has more of that modern feel with a touch of artistry that is not what I have come to know as a Motel 6.

MOTEL-6-RENO

The flat screen 32” TV was great and it had limited cable access, but it did have AV connections for gamers, if you like, and there was free Wi-Fi in the room. It wasn’t particularly fast, but it got the job done. The amenities were scarce without a coffee/tea maker, an iron/board, hairdryer, or clock, but we made do. I learned that you can grab those at the front desk as needed, so that makes it easier, including free coffee, but there’s a Starbucks nearby for you coffee snobs, along with fast food aplenty.

Everything was bright and open and quite relaxing. The vibe outside was not too bad either. Nice and quiet. Apparently there is a pool that I didn’t get the chance to see, but motel pools aren’t exactly my cup o’ tea anyway. In the pics, it looks nice.

MOTEL-6-IMPROVED

The AC unit was a bit loud, but that seems to be the norm in every hotel I’ve been in, even in the upper end 4 to 5 star places. You get used to it… Ish… Overall, I recommend this Motel 6 if you are heading up to Napa for some fun. I know I will more than likely be visiting again, next time I am in the mood for some wine country fun!

A Nice Wine Country Run in Sonoma

So, my lovely lady, Kim, ran a half marathon in Healdsburg, CA. Some of you know that that is what we call Wine Country! Or as the I, the Maverick Adventurer call it, “My Playground!” I love this part of the world. I have been to wine areas all over the world – Australia, New Zealand, Paris, Canada, etc, but I have always enjoyed the Napa/Sonoma area the best. It’s just my taste. So when my gal runs a marathon there, what on Earth is a growing boy to do, but go and support his sweetie. Oh, and taste some wine……

kimberly-spencer-spike-spencer-healdsburg-sonoma

So a little about Healdsburg. Walking around the tiny town is a joy. Just like so many of the little towns in this region, there is a warm feeling of a common love of all things wine, food, and quality. Everything is clean and well kept, the people are friendly, and the vibe is laid back. Though there is a bit of a rivalry between Sonoma and Napa, I believe the overall sense of the region to be open and inviting. Even though Napa’s wineries charge a lot more than Somoma. Just sayin.

While in Healdsburg we dined at Willies, an unassuming local place that simply blew me away with dishes like the Caramelized Butterfish w/ Miso Vinaigrette & Exotic Mushrooms (below) and the Hamachi Ceviche with Rocoto Chili, lime juice, and Pepitas. Both dishes were exquisitely prepared and perfectly presented. The service was excellent and our server, Gabriell, was knowledgeable and friendly with great hints about other wineries to visit later in the day. I highly recommend Willie’s!

willies-sonoma-restaurant

Then we popped next door to the Toad Hollow Vineyards tasting room. Another unassuming storefront that did not belie a truly great wine tasting experience. Fun, inviting, whimsical, and friendly yet again. And, did I mention, free? Our host, Travis, was not just a tasting helper, but also a marathoner, swimmer, and fitness coach. Kim and he got along swimmingly. Nyuck nyuck nyuck. The wines were lovely. Though nothing jumped out at us, I will most definitely go back for the fun vibe. And, of course, the tasty wines!

toad-hollow-tasting-room

Then there was Santa Rosa. Nice place, but definitely a bit of a different vibe. As far as “Adventuring” goes, there definitely was some of that. One of the things I do when I travel is I tend to stay at budget motels and such. Big fan of Motel 6, and I will have a great one to tell you about later. I figure, you are not there for the sleep, you are there for the ADVENTURE! But the Santa Rosa stay was at a bunghole of a rat trap called the Vagabond Inn. Wheeere to start?!? Crappy bed, crappy pillows, crappy water, crappy coffee, crappy area, crappy vibe, crappy lady running the place, crappy guy passed out at the bottom of the stairs, crappy crappy crappy! Let’s just say, I won’t be staying there again. Run from this place!

But there were a couple of nice eateries that I discovered in Santa Rosa. One was called Piner Cafe where I had a really great blue cheese burger (pictured below). Nice family friendly feel here. Don’t let my sad alliteration or the tatted up waitresses scare you; they were really very sweet and attentive. There was plenty of food at a good price. And that burger was damn good!

Piner-Cafe-burger.jpg

And there was another tasty burger to be had the same day at Brody’s. (Yeah, I know, I need a frickin salad or two.) The burgers here were varied and happily grass fed, hormone free and such. And they were executed well. Another draw are $1.50 pint brews on tap. Good on ya! Oh, and quite tasty onion rings, crunchy and substantially thick cut. If ya know me, ya know I’m always looking for the best onion rings. The building used to be a fast food joint or something similar and still has that feel, but they have made it a little more interesting with a TV and some local “color” aka drunken, sport junky, revelers. But not completely trailer park, ya’ll.

The wine find in Santa Rosa was the Siduri and Novy. This is a winery located in a business block warehouse area, not what I expected. And, again, the tastings here are complimentary. The wines were very nice with grapes sourced from all over. Pinot Noir and Syrahs were the predominant varietals here. On both of which I have mixed feelings, but I find Sonoma and Napa to have the best in the world. The discovery for me here was a Blanc Pinot Noir from the Novy side. Yep, I said Blanc. I was unaware there was such a thing! I’m a red wine guy almost exclusively, but this smoky, slightly fruity toned and refreshing wine was a nice surprise and now holds a place on my shelf.

The final stop in Sonoma for us was at the Paradise Ridge Winery (prwinery.com). This place has a really interesting art sculpture garden that greets you on the drive up. This place has a $10 tasting fee  that is waived upon purchase. We received a 2 for 1 complimentary tasting, and I’m quite sure that was due to my sparkly lady. They have a gourmet chef on site and they provide food pairing suggestions with each wine that made the Foodie in me quiver and really want to cook! The wines were robust and the scenery was lovely as well. The art was modern and interesting to downright weird and macabre. But overall, an enjoyable experience that I can recommend.

sonoma-wine-country

So that was the Sonoma quickie trip! I am sure I will be back to explore the area even more. So go visit the area, taste some wine, take a lovely stroll in downtown Healdsburg, and whatever you do, steer clear of the Vagabond Inn in Santa Rosa!