features

Visit Scotland, be ‘Brave’.

July 5th, 2012

By Paula Conway and John Conway

Brave

After seeing the new Pixar film “Brave,” you may wish to follow your own will-o’-the-wisp to Scotland and experience this Celtic kingdom first-hand. A great place to start your Scottish adventure is the capital city of Edinburgh. This vibrant and culture-rich metropolis will provide you with just the right quirky mix of medieval and modern.

As home to the Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh has helped launch such performers as Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Steve Coogan, and it is still the place to catch up-and-coming acts from all over the world. In 2011, more than 41,689 performances of 2,542 different shows in 258 venues were staged over 25 days. This year’s Fringe runs Aug. 3-27. edfringe.com.

As the capital, Edinburgh Castle served as the royal seat of the kingdom until the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. Today, the castle is almost completely restored and open to visitors, and it still serves as a military administrative center. Besides the Scottish crown jewels on display here, there are the Great Hall and Royal Apartments, as well as numerous Scottish regiments that are celebrated in the National War Museum of Scotland. edinburghcastle.gov.uk

Only 20 miles southeast of Edinburgh is a site that would bring a smile to the face of Merida’s dad, King Fergus. The Glenkinchie distillery offers tours of the old malt floor and Scotch whisky tastings throughout the day. discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/

Two hours up the coast from Edinburgh is Dunnottar Castle, the inspiration for Dunbroch Castle in “Brave.” Dunnottar Castle’s key strategic location and breathtaking setting have attracted many visitors over the years, including Mary Queen of Scots, Kings James I and Charles II of England. The site was also used as a fortification from the late 7th to the early 18th century. Movie fans should also note that “Brave” was not the first major motion picture to use Dunnottar as an inspiration; Mel Gibson shot scenes for his 1990 version of “Hamlet” here. Dunnottar Castle is also said to be the most haunted castle in Scotland. If you’re brave enough to walk the grounds at dusk, you just might meet one of the several apparitions reported, including a Norseman, young deer hound, or a girl dressed in a dull plaid dress. dunnottarcastle.co.uk

En route to Merida’s Dunnottar Castle, why not visit the home of another literary resident, the title character of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Glamis Castle is an hour and 20 minutes north of Edinburgh, on the way to Dunnottar, making it an easy stop. Talk about royal connections: Glamis Castle was birthplace to Queen Elizabeth’s mother, home to a host of horrifyingly haunted traditions, and the site for much of the action in Shakespeare’s play. The real medieval Scottish King Macbeth had no actual connection to the castle, but the Bard of Avon did not let that minor fact get in the way of a good story. glamis-castle.co.uk

If you really hope to experience the mystery of the standing stones of the movie, you may have to exhibit some bravery yourself. The Callanish Standing Stones are a 5,000-year-old megalithic monument on the western coast of the Isle of Lewis, near the small town of Callanish. That’s approximately eight hours from Edinburgh (including a ferry ride to the Outer Hebrides on the Stornoway/Ullapool ferry), but the long trip has its rewards: Most of it is through the stunning scenery of the Scottish Highlands. callanishvisitorcentre.co.uk

IF YOU GO

Experience the land where legends come to life by going to visitscotland.com. Customized “Brave”-inspired itineraries include: castles, fortresses and tower houses along the countryside; myths and legends following the trail of ghosts, monsters, wizards and mysterious creatures; inspiration landscapes with lochs, forests and glens; ancient Scotland, where you can explore prehistoric stones, dwellings and other landmarks left by Scotland’s early inhabitants; and clans and Scottish culture to find out why the proud who claim their clan culture exclaim, “I am a Scot!”

United Airlines offers direct flights from Newark Airport to Edinburgh Airport, visit united.com .


Money-Saving Business Travel Allows for Family Time, Savings and More.

April 12th, 2012

By Paula Conway
Originally printed in the New York Daily News

hoseasons.co.uk
hoseasons.co.uk

New York small business owner Bradley Bailyn, a partner in Good Media Company, and his wife were able to enjoy their first family vacation in two years when Bradley cleverly decided to rent an apartment in the Dolphin House in Westminster, London, for a recent business conference instead of staying in a hotel. The apartment in Westminster, booked through Wyndham Vacation Rentals’ UK collection, Hoseasons, provided the perfect opportunity to combine business with pleasure.

“London is expensive, but when I found the apartment with Wyndham Exchange and Rentals and did the math, renting the apartment was the cost-effective option. My wife and I were able to cook our own meals at home, and the apartment building also came with some great perks: an Olympic-sized pool and gym facility access at no extra charge, plus steep discounts at the Aman Spa on property. This is now my preferred work and home spot when in London.”

The trend among small business owners and executives to book homes over hotels has increased in recent years. Bob Milne, president of Wyndham Vacation Rentals North America, cites the uptick to the need for businesses to save money, “Our business overall continues to see an uptick in vacation rentals revenue across our more than 95,000 U.S. and European brands. We believe this positive trend is fueled by a growing appetite for vacation rentals in both leisure and business settings. Consumers are coming to understand the incredible value a rental offers with conveniences such as a full kitchen, washer/dryer and ample space. They understand they’re getting more for their discretionary dollars, and at Wyndham Vacation Rentals we can fill that consumer demand with a wide variety of professionally-managed rentals.”

Carole Hyatt, the president and founder of The Leadership Forum based in Manhattan, gave up booking hotels for her seminars in San Miguel to include vacation time while working. “The home we rented in San Miguel has seven bedrooms, which allows us to work and play at the same time. We host the seminars at the house, and then also use the home, which is close to the center of town, to include some family time too.”

Jeff Chase, the vice president for business development with Villa Direct in Orlando, cites the recent recession as the reason for a large part of the push toward home rental for business over hotels.

“Industries got hit hard by the recession, and as consumers become more aware of their spending habits, they are looking for better ways to make their money go farther. In the last year we’ve seen a big increase in companies and individuals renting vacation homes booking for both business and pleasure. It’s also more relaxing than a typical hotel room. Our customers can have chefs come in and cook for business meetings, they host business parties at the home and have family to come along. ”

Many companies also offer incentives to entice business travelers away from hotels. Villa Direct gives free long-distance calling to all guests in Villa Direct homes, as well as free Internet access in most homes. Discounts on rental cars, theme parks and attractions, as well as a concierge team to coordinate anything guests need, from private chefs to business luncheons, are on hand 24/7.

Tom Ridgeway, owner of Hilton Head Island Rentals, has noticed significant changes in the business vacation bookings, and the demand for perks to keep his consumers happy has increased.

“The game has changed from the large corporation retreats, which had a stigma attached to them, to small businesses renting six and seven bedroom homes for creative sessions to grow business and facilitate communications among company divisions. We offer our customers total lodging and golf packages with incentives like reduced rates for golf and tennis, plus concierge services to meet their needs 24/7. Our clients want bikes delivered, breakfasts made in the home, to be driven to meetings on the island or golf games. The demands are far and wide and we need to meet those needs and offer incentives for them to book again.”

When the game has changed to deliver more services for less money, who can argue?


The real Mall of America is open for business.

March 25th, 2012

By J.P. Hoornstra

City Creek Center fountain

In 1868, Brigham Young encouraged Mormon merchants to band together in a cooperative enterprise in order to promote local manufacturing and combat outside influences. More than thirty stores joined the New Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Association (ZCMI). Other merchants, including some Mormons, objected to religious interference in commerce and encouraged rival businesses.

— Written on a sign posted inside City Creek Center, Salt Lake City, Utah

I sat down for lunch in front of a glass wall that reached from the bottom of the first floor to the ceiling of the second. On one side, a waterfall cascaded down over a man-made rocky cliff. On the other, the dining-room floor bustled with the energy and din of a stream of passersby — some transfixed on the water falling outside, others struggling to fight their way through the current of foot traffic. The scene could be imagined as an upbeat interpretation on the former Okada restaurant inside Las Vegas’ Wynn hotel, whereas the food, well …

Was it a sandwich from Chick-Fil-A?

A calzone from Sbarro?

Come to think of it, it might have been a Big Mac with fries — hey, check it out, there’s a mini-waterfall in front of the McDonald’s too.

The exact details of this meal blended together in my memory like the restaurants inside the food court at City Creek Center, the brand-new temple in downtown Salt Lake City. This temple glistens just as much as the one across the street, one that is most modestly termed a “church.” City Creek could easily be mistaken for a “mall,” but it’s more than that.

Really, does your mall have an actual running creek with 200 trout, two waterfalls, an outdoor fireplace, two flat-panel TVs delivering the weather forecasts and flight times from the local airport, fountains with dancing water and bursts of fire, 100 retail shops, 535 residential units and 5,000 underground parking spaces, all occupying 23 acres of prime downtown real estate?

“I think this is a completely unique experience,” said Bob Taubman, who is as correct as he is biased.

Taubman is the President and CEO of Taubman Centers Inc., a real estate investment trust that owns, leases or manages 27 retail properties in the United States. City Creek is the largest mall Taubman will open this year. Actually, it’s the largest mall anyone in the country will open this year, and the first enclosed regional shopping center to open in the U.S. in six years.

As a resident of Los Angeles, I should know something about malls. This one features elements of Americana in Glendale (the seamless blend of high-end business and residential units), The Grove in L.A.’s Fairfax District (animated fountains, false-front retail stores) and even Vegas’ famed Strip. The same team that dreamed up the choreographed fountain displays in front of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino designed the smaller version here.

So maybe you’ve seen this before — parts of it, at least — but you haven’t seen it in Utah. No one has.

“It’s very indigenous in every way,” Taubman said. “The whole idea of architectural features, wildlife, trees, all of that is indigenous.”

Truth is, it had to be.

prettymormons

The history of the Mormon religion is uniquely intertwined with capitalism, a relationship that predates Bryan v. Itasca County — the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized Indian gaming — by more than a century. In fact, one of the first department stores in the U.S. belonged to the ZCMI. (The next time you become engulfed in esters at an indoor perfume counter, give partial credit to Brigham Young.) It was considered so important to the city’s fabric, a faded-brick ZCMI storefront was conspicuously incorporated into the new City Creek structure.

The price tag on the City Creek project was $1.5 billion, slightly more than the Los Angeles Dodgers and slightly less than the gross domestic product of Fiji. Its sponsors claim that no taxpayer money was used to fund the project. Instead, it relied on the largest private institution in town, whose international headquarters are conveniently located down the street: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).

Thomas Monson, the Church’s president, said at the City Creek ribbon-cutting ceremony on March 22 that the project reflected the “unwavering commitment” of his church to Salt Lake City. He quoted Young, the city’s founder and the Church’s second president: “This is the right place.”

But why?

Talking to a few locals, an underlying theme emerged: This was a downtown in need of revival.

Scot Proctor is the publisher of Meridian Magazine, a widely read periodical within the church. Proctor began our conversation by making a Mormon joke, noting how a bronze statue of Brigham Young on Main Street has turned his back to the church and extended his left hand toward a bank.

The way Proctor told the story of City Creek’s origin, I was reminded of the philosophy behind Indian tribal casinos: The LDS Temple is sacred ground. When the economy turned south in recent years, businesses packed up and left, and urban blight began encroaching on the Mormons’ holy, elaborate home base. The idea for a mixed-use complex was hatched nearly 10 years ago, and construction on the project began in 2006.

Salt Lake City resident Jake Despain qualified what counts as “urban blight” in downtown Salt Lake City.

“It wasn’t graffitied,” he said. “It wasn’t trashed but, yeah, it was boarded up.”

So this wasn’t Times Square in the 1980s. But perception is reality. Downtown Salt Lake City has always had its attractions: The Mormon Tabernacle and its famous choir, an unparalleled geneological archive, the grandiose Salt Lake Temple. But these relics could not compete for the young, secular tourist — at least not since the Winter Olympics invaded in 2002. Veer off Temple Square, and chunks of downtown were sealed off by wooden planks. Nothing to see here.

That has changed.

City Creek Center fountainThe morning of March 22 in Salt Lake City was sunny and cool, the temperature hovering around 60 degrees. Off in the distance, the Wasatch Mountains were still covered in snow. The weather was the one portion of the script that no one could control, and even that cooperated magnificently.

And there was a script, to be sure. The invited guests for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony included Monson and LDS Presiding Bishop David Burton, Utah governor Gary Herbert, Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker, and executives from Macy’s, Nordstrom and Taubman.

“One, two, three, let’s go shopping!” Taubman exclaimed before cutting the giant ribbon. Fireworks shot into the sky. An a capella group, Eclipse, sang an original cover of “Zoot Suit Riot,” replacing the words “Let’s Go Shopping” during the chorus.

I spoke to retail executives who flew in from around the country just for their Salt Lake City store’s grand opening: Restoration Hardware from Louisiana, Express from Ohio, Cheesecake Factory from California and Steve Madden from Colorado.

But my favorite conversation by far was with a floor clerk at Hugo Boss, a young woman from Salt Lake City who sounded more excited to shop here than work here.

“It finally feels like a real city,” she said. “I like Utah sometimes but this is, like, a big deal.”

On the web: http://www.shopcitycreekcenter.com/
http://www.downtownrising.com/index.php/city-creek-center/


Airlines perk up for small businesses

November 10th, 2011

By Paula Conway and J.P. Hoornstra

Small business airline perks
It pays to advertise.

Joshua Rockoff saw a bus-stop billboard for American Airlines’ Business ExtrAA program and signed up his company on the spot.

“We have an employee traveling somewhere for business each week,” says Rockoff, president of the New York City-based Strike Interactive, LLC, which has now used Business ExtrAA for more than a year.

“Last year was a big year for us, a big boom time for us. We traveled quarterly but now we travel weekly, so with the volume of travel we wanted to see how we could collect points and use like company outings.”

He is not alone. Programs with similar incentives for small and medium-sized businesses have taken flight with several major airlines, with clients finding these programs just as practical as they are generous.

For example, American permits individuals and companies to reap rewards on the same flight — points for the business and frequent-flier miles for the employee’s personal tab.

“We racked up a considerable amount of miles. We had like 540,000 last year,” says Rockoff. “With Business ExtrAA we used the points for upgrades. My clients stipulate that we fly coach, so with Business ExtrAA we apply to free upgrades for business class for our staff.”

Delta’s SkyBonus program, for businesses of any size, is similar. As firms accumulate points toward upgrades, award travel, Silver Medallion status in the SkyMiles program and Delta Sky Club passes, individual employees earn miles through Delta’s SkyMiles program.

As a clever incentive to get companies started, 500 points can be accumulated just by reading one of four “SkyBonus University” articles on Delta’s website. Another advantage for those doing business in Europe: Air France, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Alitalia also participate in Delta’s program.

United focused on the German market by partnering with Lufthansa-operated flights for its PassPlus program.

Both PassPlus Flex and PassPlus Exec (designed for first-class travelers) come with plenty of perks for businesses from one to 125 employees: a trip to the Priority check-in counter, priority boarding and no baggage fees on the first two checked bags.

Depending on how frequently a business flies, discounts up to 15 percent (PassPlus Flex) or 25 percent (PassPlus Exec) might be the bigger perk.

United’s program also allows businesses to pre-purchase ticket packages based on their number of employees. American offers something similar, but more exclusive, with its AirPass program.

AirPass members receive something called a “Concierge Key,” a black card that opens up a world of perks. Only about 10,000 Concierge Keys have been issued to date.

“AA treats you like royalty,” gushes Rockoff. “They meet you at your car, take you on the lane early … They call you if your flight is changed. It’s personal.”

In the airline industry – or any line of work – that’s a good way to do business.


Vintage Charm in Downtown Denver

October 3rd, 2011

By Alex Miller

Denver's Brown Palace Hotel sits in the heart of downtown.

There’s no shortage of fine hotels in Denver, but when occasion calls for something special, one name always rises to the top: The Brown Palace. Continuously open since it was built in Downtown Denver in 1892, the Colorado city’s “Grand Dame” glows above the rest not only in the quality of its accommodations but in the unmistakable stately aura she projects.

Travelers accustomed to cookie-cutter hotel rooms will marvel at the ornate detail, the Byzantine wallpaper, the marble floors, and tile walls – and that’s just in the bathrooms. Enter the Brown Palace and be instantly transported to a time gone by, where wrought-iron rails and old-world chandeliers festoon the extraordinary lobby and inner atrium that extends all the way to the ceiling. Enhancing the sense of period, there’s daily afternoon tea, with grand piano accompaniment in the lobby.

No, my dear, this is not the Holiday Inn Express.

Expectedly, such a rarefied atmosphere doesn’t come cheap, but a room at the hotel is probably far more affordable than you might think. The Brown Palace has also introduced a new program for Colorado residents to sweeten a stay at the Brown. Called Palace Preferred, it delivers a variety of perks, including a preferred rate, 20 percent off the valet parking, free in-room wi-fi, restaurant discounts, and tickets good for a couple of drinks.

Signing up for the basic Palace Preferred is free, or you can upgrade to Palace Preferred Gold, which kicks in after you’ve stayed twice at the Palace in one year. Gold gives you free valet, automatic room upgrades, complimentary access to the Denver and Colorado athletic clubs, and a $25 voucher good at any of the hotel’s bars and restaurants. Register for Palace Preferred on the hotel’s website.

On a recent stay, I found the Brown as charming as ever and the staff as gracious as one would expect in a top-flight hotel. We had one of the corner king rooms, a lovely space that mirrors the unique rounded prow of the building itself. With a large oak desk, regal bed, and vintage drapes, the room conjured images of some old Colorado mining or railroad baron staying here, even among such definitely 2011 upgrades as air conditioning, iPod-compatible alarm, and a rain-style shower.

No stay at the Brown is complete without a pint at the Ship Tavern or the Churchill Bar — or the opportunity to sip tea or a cocktail in the lobby during the Friday or Saturday evening jazz performances. Sundays, go all out and enjoy the Dom Perignon champagne brunch at the contemporary American cuisine Ellyngton’s, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The hotel has a spa as well, featuring everything from massages and facials to manicures, soaks, steam rooms, and mud wraps. The spa also features a list of services specifically designed for men.

Located on 17th Street downtown, the Brown Palace is a great base for everything Denver has to offer. You can walk to many of the area attractions, although the hotel also provides a complimentary car for any location in the immediate vicinity.

In a world where so much is cheap and rushed, a night or two at an old-world hotel like The Brown Palace may be just the thing to remind us to slow down a little bit and enjoy something special.


In St. Louis, Gateway’s Grandeur Preserved

July 22nd, 2011

By J.P. Hoornstra

exteriorfrontside
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: You slip out the back door of your hotel and step into a fully enclosed shopping mall. Inviting stores stand dangerously close to the nightstand where your wallet rests. Equally close: Enough restaurants to guarantee you won’t eat at the same place twice all weekend.

For a consumer getaway to St. Louis, the Union Station Marriott serves as a logical starting point. But first, some history. For years after its 1894 grand opening, this was the biggest and busiest train station in the world. After two rounds of renovations – a $150-million overhaul in 1985 and a $20-million touch-up in 2010 – it’s also become a fine place to spend a weekend.

In town for a business conference, we found most of the original structure intact, including a canopy over the current mall that once sheltered 32 different tracks. While St. Louis’s symbolic “Gateway to the West” may be a massive arch, this wonderfully re-imagined train station was once the real gateway – and it still looks and feels like a 19th-century transportation megalopolis.

Without the bustle, the massive building might seem cold and cavernous. But given its pedigree and patina, there’s a warmth here, too. Floor to ceiling, the colors are vibrant, and the décor is consistent with the station’s Late Victorian architecture. Dotting the hallways are authentic pieces of furniture, such as grandfather clocks and lamps that would spark a lively discussion on Antiques Roadshow.

The hotel is cleverly organized around the property, which is certainly called for when fitting 517 rooms into a former train station. Some face Market Street, with its picturesque tree-lined park and magnificent fountain sculptures. Other rooms offer more modest views, and still others can only be accessed by a walkway that leads out of the lobby and into the mall courtyard. These rooms are closest to the gym and pool – ideal for a hot summer’s day.

Standard rooms are spacious and offer totally modern amenities, but you won’t necessarily want to linger. The second-floor lobby lounge was once the station’s “Grand Hall.” Surrounded by lampposts that once lit the way to waiting train cars, it’s a great place to relax and take in scenery. A pristine model train sits inside a glass case at the top of the staircase.

stainedglasswindow

The pièce de résistance is a stained-glass panel above the main entrance, featuring women representing San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York – the three main U.S. train stations during the 1890s. Made from hand-cut Tiffany glass, it looks right at home in the cathedral-like Grand Hall.

Hunting for more 19th-century remnants, we stumbled upon a boarded-up theater on the property’s west end, and a huge EXIT sign embedded in the original tan bricks above the 18th Street exit doors. One little-known secret: The original Union Station tunnels still run below the hotel, closed off to foot traffic.

Wander into the mall and you’ll find the property’s history chronicled on a series of signposts around the courtyard. These make for a good self-guided tour and offer interesting nuggets of trivia. Of special significance: It was here in 1948 that Harry Truman held up the Chicago Tribune front page erroneously declaring Thomas Dewey the victor in the tight presidential election.

During its heyday, the courtyard was called “The Midway,” a hybrid waiting room/shopping mall/promenade/social center/fairground. It still serves some of these functions, offering some only-in-St.-Louis shopping experiences.

Take, for instance, the Memories Museum, located on the second floor facing the hotel and full of exhibits to delight train enthusiasts.

Anything that can fit the insignia of Budweiser, St. Louis’ hometown beer, can be found inside the first-floor Bud Shop. (We were attracted by a trucker’s cap but decided to pass on the outdoor heat lamp.)

St. Louis is also a baseball town, and the Cardinals Clubhouse is its merchandise mecca. Jerseys, caps, collectibles, novelty items — if it has the Cardinals logo, you’ll find it here.

While slowly perusing the second floor on a Monday afternoon, we heard a song break out downstairs. The clapping and singing was coming from Fudgery, a Southeastern institution where fudge-makers lead free, raucous, interactive demonstrations throughout the day. It’s great fun for anyone, and the fudge is delicious.

Just don’t let the sweets spoil your lunch or dinner. Landry’s, separated from the main mall by a small lake, specializes in seafood with entrees ranging from a modest eight-piece fried shrimp to the Crab Feast – Alaskan king crab legs, baked crabmeat au gratin, and a jumbo lump crab cake, served with angel hair pasta tossed with crabmeat and vegetables. Sadly, this feast might not leave room for Landry’s delicious (and gigantic) bananas foster.

Two off-site culinary recommendations: Pappy’s Smokehouse serves, quite simply, the best barbeque in town. Once featured on an episode of Man Vs. Food, Pappy’s pulled pork, sweet potato fries, and sweet tea hold up against anything found in Texas.

For dessert, trek to one of the two Ted Drewes locations for a wide array of frozen custard flavors. It looks like nothing more than a quaint outdoor shack, but locals flock to Drewes in droves and leave happily satisfied.

paddleboats

Try burning some calories by paddling your way around the lake. Rent a small blue paddleboat with one, two, or three friends for $4 a person, and designate a driver who can successfully navigate around a water fountain – or be prepared to get wet. Formal hours of operation are not posted; however, there was a porter by the dock on the weekend, but not when we returned for a second visit on Monday.

That such new life has been breathed into Union Station is no small feat. It’s still home to a functioning train station (reduced to two tracks), a mall, hotel, conference center, and parking lot — in addition to being a living piece of history listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks.

The exterior is that of a Victorian-era castle, one that boosted St. Louis’s reputation and helped the city land the 1904 World’s Fair. Now, it may be the world’s only castle with penny-pressing machines and a Panda Express.


Baseball, History, and Baseball History meet in the California League

May 11th, 2011

By J.P. Hoornstra

SLC skyline for web

The Nostalgic California Vacation 101 is an introductory travel course, with a required reading list authored by literary giants. Henry Miller’s Big Sur is still as beautiful as ever. So are John Steinbeck’s Monterey and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Napa Valley. Miss the basics, and you’re missing some the best respites from urban life that the Golden State has to offer.

But if you’re looking for something farther off the beaten trail – and want to take in a few baseball games – the Single-A California League provides a surprisingly useful advanced course. Within the league’s 10 cities, the history of California and baseball intersect every summer.

The league traces its history to 1941, a full 17 years before the Giants and Dodgers came west from New York. Its teams currently play in San Jose, Stockton, Modesto, Visalia, Bakersfield, Lancaster, Adelanto, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga and Lake Elsinore. Whether heading north from Lake Elsinore or driving south from San Jose, it’s a geographically convenient 550-mile route. What you spend on gas, you’ll save on tickets — the combined minimum admission to all 10 parks is less than $70.

San Jose is the most populated city in all of Single-A baseball. In a hub for technological innovation, the Giants’ home park,munistadiumOFwall Municipal Stadium, stands out as a charming anachronism. Built in 1942 under the Works Progress Administration, it’s a true piece of Americana and emblematic of the city’s attempt to retain a slice of its small-suburb past. It’s also close enough to downtown to enjoy a night out after the game, but you’ll feel far away at the ballpark.

Enjoy the old-school ads on the outfield wall, which might as well be the backdrop for “The Natural.” The beer selection is major-league quality, and if the designated “beer batter” strikes out (he’ll be announced to the “Beer Barrel Polka”), both the domestic beers and the imports are discounted for the next 15 minutes.

bannerislandlogoNext stop, Stockton. Get on Interstate 280 south in San Jose and follow it as it winds north to Interstate 580 East. Then take Highway 205 East to Interstate 5 North. Take the downtown Stockton exit to Banner Island Ballpark, the youngest park in the league (opening day: April 28, 2o05).

But don’t be deceived. Historians believe that baseball was first played in Stockton in the 1860s. The famous poem “Casey at the Bat” was penned in 1888 by then-San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Ernest Thayer, and locals insist it was inspired by a game he saw in Stockton (which was once called Mudville).

Inspiration today is drawn from the scenic setting along McLeod Lake, off the Port of Stockton, for which the team is named. The laid-back vibe extends onto the right-field porch, where 50 wooden rocking chairs offer fans a unique, cozy seat in the shade.

Modesto is a half-hour drive south on Highway 99 in the heart of California’s Central Valley. John Thurman Field has stood on its present location, at the edge of a municipal golf course, since 1952.ThurmanFieldsmall

The quirks here are subtle, starting with the team name. The Modesto Nuts are named for the local agriculture industry, and mascots Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut eliminate any vagaries. The concession-stand menu includes a lobster sandwich (don’t be afraid!) nestled in among the standard ballpark fare. Check out a pair of unique libations offered on the express stands: Wine from the local McManis Family Vineyards and Kona Longboard Lager (at the west express stand only).

The two-hour drive to Visalia is the longest on your trip, but it’s a straight shot south on Highway 99, followed by a short 5-mile drive east on Highway 198. Exit Mooney Blvd., turn left on Giddings St. and find Recreation Park, home of the Visalia Rawhide, about a mile ahead on the right.

RecreationParkOpened in 1946, Rec Park recently enlarged its seating but is still the smallest park in the league with fewer than 3,000 permanent seats. The renovated entrance is curiously located down the right-field line, where the newest bank of seats juts out from a brick building.

The best seats are still behind home plate, at a proximity close enough for the umpires to hear your every profanity. If you’re looking for a convenient insult, part of the right-field fence is the broad side of an actual barn. It all adds up to the type of historic small-park charm that other buildings try to emulate – think of the grassy knoll in center field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park – but is difficult to pull off.

Once you’ve exhausted the nooks and crannies of historic Visalia, trace your route back from Highway 198 to Highway 99, then go south for about 90 minutes until you reach Bakersfield. Exit Olive Drive, make a right on Roberts Lane, tsamlynnhen turn left on Chester Ave. and drive south for a mile until you see Sam Lynn Ballpark on your right.

Since 1941, the Bakersfield Blaze (and its predecessors the Dodgers, Mariners, Outlaws, Dodgers again, Bears, Boosters, Indians and Badgers) have had to look due west into the sunset while batting, making the park unique for an inconvenience. When selecting your seats, know that the best here aren’t behind home plate.

The other quirk in the league’s oldest park is a center-field fence that sits a scant 354 feet from home plate, reputed to be the shortest in professional baseball. A high wall makes it tough to clear a ball entirely out of the park, however. You don’t have to close your eyes to imagine Dodgers prospects from Mike Piazza to Don Drysdale on this field wondering if they’d ever make the big leagues.

Lancaster, home of the JetHawks, is less than two hours south of Bakersfield. Get back on Highway 99, take Highway 58 East, then exit Highway 14 South. Take the Avenue I exit, hang a right, then make the first left onto Valley Central Way to find the ballpark.

thehangarTechnically it’s called Clear Channel Stadium, but it’s immediately clear why locals call it “The Hangar” — a giant model jet blasting off in front of the stadium entrance, an homage to nearby Edwards Air Force Base. There isn’t much to do in the Antelope Valley, especially for an off-duty pilot, and the JetHawks have drawn well since their birth in 1996.

Other than the jet, the relatively copious amounts of healthy food make The Hangar unique. The Club House Cantina by first base is full of Mexican goodies. A nearby Robek’s serves up smoothies and muffins. Wander over to the third-base side for coffee or tea, and you can leave on a full stomach without touching a hot dog, burger or pizza.

Get back on Highway 14 and plan on a one-hour, 15-minute drive to the city of Adelanto, the next stop. Veer east on Highway 138 and keep straight on Highway 18 as you take in the desert views. Look for Highway 395, turn left, and keep going straight on Adelanto Road when the highway veers left.

staterbrosstadiumIf it seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably in the neighborhood of Stater Bros. Stadium. The home field of the High Desert Mavericks is one of two major landmarks in Adelanto. The other is a static inverter station, so stick around and have some fun.

Because Adelanto itself is so sparsely populated, the Mavericks draw knowledgeable, diehard fans from all around the desert. And the locals dig the long ball. A combination of short fences and thin air means that more home runs sail out of Stater Bros. Stadium than any park in the league. Double-digit scores are de rigeur, like the 33-18 loss to Lake Elsinore in 2008 that set a Cal League record for most runs scored in a game.

It’s only appropriate that (part of) the road leading to the home of the Inland Empire 66ers is its historic namesake, Route 66. Take Highway 395 south to Interstate 15, over the Cajon Pass, then exit Interstate 215 south into downtown San acupBernardino. Exit 5th Street (alternately marked Historic Route 66), turn left, then turn right on E Street and find Arrowhead Credit Union Park a mile ahead on your right.

You’ll immediately notice the architectural resemblance to The Hangar, sans the fighter jet statue out front. The visual attractions here are inside – the enormous scoreboard, the San Bernardino Mountains in the background and the NBA-style dance team that performs atop the dugouts.

A glimpse of the team’s history sits next door in the form of the Branding Iron, a rowdy country bar that alludes to the Sixers’ former incarnation as the San Bernardino Stampede.

Rancho Cucamonga is especially close and you can take advantage of the proximity by getting your kicks on Route 66. Rather than taking the freeway, drive West on 5th Street, taking note of the Rat Pack-era architectural relics you’ll pass along the way. Turn left on Rochester Ave. and The Epicenter emerges grandly on the right.

EpicenterThe park opened in 1993 but looks much newer thanks to a 2008 renovation. What was sacrificed in old-school charm is compensated for with modern comforts like cupholders and seat backs. Because it doesn’t look like a Single-A stadium, the Epicenter has been the backdrop for Nike, Gatorade, Budweiser and Miller Lite commercials, to name a few.

In such a modern setting, the most historic footnote is just outside the park: The intersection of Rochester and Jack Benny Drive. It’s not far from the historic train station site that made “Anaheim, Azusa and Cooc-amonga!” famous in a line from the Jack Benny Show in the 1940s. Benny got a street named after him, plus a statue that was recently moved from the ballpark to the local cultural center.

Drive a block north on Rochester, make a right on Foothill Blvd., then another quick right onto Interstate 15 and drive 40 miles South to Lake Elsinore. Look for the Diamond Drive exit and take a right – the park is unmistakable sitting beside the massive lake.

thediamondThe Diamond matches the Epicenter’s upscale veneer, albeit in a much different setting. Tucked between the lake and a remote valley, it doesn’t get much better than a day on the lake followed by a night at the park.

Kids roll around on a grassy knoll behind the right-field bullpen — not unlike the scene in San Bernardino and Lancaster. A different vibe exists in the Diamond Club, an indoor restaurant behind the right-field foul line with a ceiling-high window facing the field. Enjoy a restaurant-caliber meal and a full range of beverages while you watch the game, not to mention air conditioning – a nice option in a triple-digit summer swelter.

Whether starting south and heading north, or vice versa, you’ll start and end at either side of the historic spectrum. Lake Elsinore is a non-traditional baseball market that led the league in attendance in the 2010 season. San Jose has a fine tradition, but it could be thwarted if the Oakland A’s ever move to the South Bay.

Meanwhile, the High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze have suffered from poor attendance and been linked to rumors of relocation. You get the sense that the unprecedented stability in the Cal League (all the teams have played in their current city since 1996) isn’t going to last forever.

In other words, there’s no better time to plan a trip.

Schedule/Ticket information:

Lake Elsinore Storm
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
Inland Empire 66ers

High Desert Mavericks
Lancaster JetHawks
Bakersfield Blaze
Visalia Rawhide
Modesto Nuts
Stockton Ports
San Jose Giants


Pittsburgh Steelers: Have football, will travel

October 16th, 2010

By Brian Goff

steelerfans

To introduce the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 21st century, it might be time to revive these resounding words: “They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars.”

That, in fact, was the memorable opening to the Dallas Cowboys’ 1978 highlight film, which famously christened the Cowboys “America’s Team.”

Some 30 years later, coming off their NFL-record sixth Super Bowl title, the Pittsburgh Steelers have gained fame — and bragging rights — from coast to coast. Says former player and online columnist Ross Tucker: “The Steelers have the most dominant fan base in the National Football League and their ability to consistently travel, en masse, and infest other team’s stadiums gives the Steelers a competitive advantage that no other franchise can claim.”

With thousands of fans packing up from Pittsburgh week after week and hitting the road with the team, the fact is underscored that the Steeler Nation truly extends from coast to coast.

So what is it about the franchise that manages to attract this kind of attention?

“The Steelers have a working-class mentality, and people identify with that,” said Jim Parsons, a Pittsburgh-area native, who has spent the last two decades in Southern California. “They are an easy team to follow, they don’t change coaches very often … they have had three in 30 years. When they find good players they keep them around. From the owners to the coaches to the players, there is a consistency there that people recognize.”

The loyalty is not just from the blue-collar crowd in the Three Rivers area, as not all Steeler fans hail from the rust belt.

Rita Wilde, a deejay for classic rock station KLOS-95.5 in Los Angeles is one such fan. “In 1994, I was a season ticket holder for the L.A. Rams … I lived and died with every play they ran, from a Jim Everett pass to an Eric Dickerson run. But then ‘she’ said she was going to move the team to St. Louis,” said Wilde, unable to even speak the name of former Rams owner Georgia Frontiere. “It broke my heart. I followed two of my favorite players to the Steelers, Jerome Bettis and Kevin Greene, and I have been a fan ever since.”

The Steeler Nation is a growing entity that can put on a strong showing just about anywhere in the country.

In 2008, the Steelers traveled to play the Redskins. It was the night before Election Day, and Washington, D.C., was already abuzz with anticipation. The Steelers put on a show with a 23-6 victory against the Redskins, but the Steeler Nation did not disappoint either, showing up in droves and drowning out any home-field advantage the Redskins might have had.

People took notice. Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon posted on his blog: “Steelers fans are, I think, the best in the NFL. After that, Cowboys fans, Bears fans, Giants fans. All those fans travel. … At least 20,000 fans were in Steelers garb waving terrible towels, Tony [Kornheiser] says it was closer to 30,000. There was no home field advantage. It was a neutral field last night.”

Similar stories crop up across the country, from San Diego to San Francisco on the west coast, to Jacksonville and Carolina on the east.

Florida Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette spoke about the Steelers and their fans coming to Jacksonville in 2006, saying, “They are, undeniably, the NFL’s best road fans, a legion of pigskin loyalists who network like crazy, using whatever resources available to purchase road-game tickets at ridiculous prices to watch their Steelers.

“How can you not bow in homage to Steelers fans? They’re the stalkers of American sports. Few support groups of pro teams do more to fill another city’s hotels, restaurants and seats on game day.

“Wherever the Steelers travel, their fans descend upon NFL stadiums like locusts. You cannot stop them. You can only hope your team plays well enough to muzzle them.”

Jim Parsons, who keeps up with the team with DirecTv’s Sunday ticket and the team’s website, has witnessed  this phenomenon in person.

“I have been to maybe a half-dozen games in recent years,” he said. “Whether it is San Diego or wherever, it is always fun to show up for a game and have a good time with all the Steelers fans.”

On the field, success will bring out the fans, but the Steeler Nation sees something deeper in this franchise.

“All the Super Bowl titles are great, but it goes beyond that,” Parsons said. “People see the same attitude and ethics that they hold dear in the team. They work hard, keep their nose clean, and if someone does step out of line, they get rid of them. They don’t put up with trouble-makers.”

In the past year, the Steelers traded Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes following several off-the-field incidents, the last earning him a four-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league’s drug-abuse policy. Fans’ loyalties were put to the test again when franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found himself in the spotlight following allegations of sexual assault.

“I’m kind of surprised that the Steelers didn’t get rid of Ben,” Parsons said. “The Steelers don’t usually put up with that kind stuff.”

And neither does the NFL. Though no charges were filed, Roethlisberger did receive a suspension from the league. When the notion of trading Roethlisberger was broached before the draft in April, Steelers fans were ready to cut their ties with the two-time Super Bowl quarterback. Roethlisberger played in the preseason, and made his regular season debut on Oct. 17, to mixed reactions from fans.

“I am actually going to be at the game when he comes back (Oct. 17 in Miami),” Parsons said recently. “I don’t expect the reaction to be completely negative, but at the same time some in the crowd will let him know they don’t approve.”

Whether it be boos or cheers, one thing is for sure: The Steeler Nation will be heard.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons


Living La Vida Lambeau

August 13th, 2010

By J.P. Hoornstra

Lambeau Field

As home to six national championship-winning Green Bay Packer teams, Lambeau Field is of one of the NFL’s most historic stadiums. Built in 1957 but renovated in 2003, a surprisingly modern-looking Lambeau still looms large in rural Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“Where should I go if I want to see a brick from the original stadium?” I asked a clerk at a sandwich counter inside, before she pointed me in the direction of the other side.

What else is there to do in Lambeau other than watch a football game? Plenty, as it turns out.

1. Snap up some souvenirs.

The Packers Pro Shop, at the Northeast corner of the stadium, doesn’t lack for much. Forget about toy trucks in Packers colors – upstairs, there’s an actual pickup on display. Bobblehead dolls that fit in the palm of your hand are nothing rare – but three-foot tall bobbleheads are. (I spotted three: one each of Donald Driver, Bart Starr, and Brett Favre.) In short, if a Packers logo can fit on anything, you’ll find it here. The usual insignia offerings include shot glasses and coffee mugs; the bed sheets and baby bibs are bonuses.

2. Take a tour.

Take a walking tour of the stadium with a knowledgeable guide and get a crash course in the history of the field and the franchise – starting with its origins in 1919 as the Acme Packers (sponsored by the local meat-packing company). Bring a camera – especially for when the tour veers onto the field itself – and you can capture yourself next to the bronze statues of Curly Lambeau (for whom the field is named) and legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Make the most out of your visit by purchasing a combination stadium tour and Hall of Fame admission ticket. For diehard fans of the game, the Hall and its super-sized exhibits are a must-see.

3. Eat like a Packer.

Walking around an NFL stadium will leave you hungrier than a lineman. Head upstairs to Curly’s Pub, a Packers-themed bar and grill offering hearty fare and a menu that that boasts athlete-friendly food that lets you “Eat like the Packers.” Every meal comes in three portion sizes: Rookie (small), Veteran (medium), or Hall of Famer (large). View the weekly menu on the Lambeau Field website.

4. Play games.

Next door to Curly’s is the game zone, an expanded arcade offering fun for everyone in the family. Test your arms and legs with a pair of interactive challenges that put you in the shoes of an NFL running back or quarterback. There are also the traditional arcade-style video games, as well as an air hockey table – a perfect way to let off steam without actually stepping onto the gridiron.


Fishing for Color in Salt Lake City

June 10th, 2010

By Paula Conway

SLC skyline for web

The goal on my second trip to Salt Lake City was to add some color to a city famous for its snow and salt. Happy to say, mission accomplished – and much easier than expected.

My first visit came a few months prior to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The snow had piled knee-high along the streets of downtown, where Olympic-themed banners advertised the coming global attraction. Most of my time was spent skiing the slopes, testing out the Wasatch Mountains’ famous powder. It was just right.

This time, even though fresh snow beckoned during a mid-week in May, my two-day trip would be dedicated to unearthing treasures on the valley floor.Hotel Monaco exterior

The Hotel Monaco served as the perfect launching pad. While it blends inconspicuously into Salt Lake City’s classic downtown and is housed in a brick building formerly occupied by a bank, the Monaco’s colorful interior was just what I was looking for.

My room was delightfully laden with reds and greens and golds, with plenty of white – if I wanted it – sitting outside my window on the mountains. The setting’s useful quirks extended to the smallest detail, namely a goldfish in my room that served as a provisional pet.

Hotel Monaco living roomThe warmth was far from superficial, however. An elegant living room downstairs is the place to find complimentary coffee in the morning and wine by night. The friendly staff was willing and able to help make the most of my visit.

Knowing I was hungry to experience Utah’s vibrant side, I was urged to visit the home studio of a local artist, Pilar Pobil. Pilar was born in Spain but has become something of a local institution here. I called to arrange a visit*, hopped in the rental car. and discovered even more color than I bargained for.

The rich, earth-toned pastels seemingly jumped off her interior walls, whetting my appetite for the dynamic hues of her artwork (and inspiring me to do away with the beige on my own walls). Pilar had just had a showing at the Patrick Moore Gallery in April and was preparing for her annual home studio exhibit in June, an exhibition featuring five other artists. It wouldn’t take that many artists to achieve the diversity of Pilar’s portfolio, which features paintings of people, plants, and landscapes, and utilizes everything from earth tones to bright primaries.

I purchased a pair of prints, but my art jones wasn’t satisfied. Per Pilar’s recommendation, I headed to the Phillips Gallery for a quick browse before dinner. Some of its contemporary sculptures would not look out of place at MOMA, and some of the paintings show so much skin as to make a Mormon mother cover her child’s eyes.

Cocktails at BambaraIt was back to the Monaco for dinner at Bambara, the in-house restaurant just off the lobby. Reservations are recommended, and it was easy to see why at a glance, what with a crowded cluster of patrons creating a low din over contemporary American dishes.

The homemade potato chips topped with bleu cheese were a sinful, garden-fresh appetizer. Save room for your entrée, because it is designed to fill you up. I rolled the dice on the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin and was rewarded with a juicy and tender dish. For dessert, I needed something a little more conservative. The crème brulee trio did the trick, and the sugar pumpkin, dark chocolate, and tangerine flavors were a welcome twist on the classic custard and hard caramel.

Bambara’s urban veneer was dovetailing nicely with the rest of my Salt Lake City experience. Having uncovered the city’s sophisticated side, I needed to dig into some only-in-Utah activities on Day 2.

Taking in the fresh morning air, I walked around the corner from the Monaco to catch breakfast at the Lamb Grill and Café. Knowing my feet would need the boost, I opted for a power breakfast of a cheddar cheese omelet, sliced bananas, and a strong cup of coffee. Then it was on to Temple Square, a walkable two city blocks north.

Temple SquareThe 10-acre downtown centerpiece is full of contradictions. Even though it’s a mecca for tourists of all religious persuasions, it’s hardly a tourist trap – admission to one of its guided half-hour tours is free. Among so much sightseeing, it may be easy to forget the grounds are also a spiritual center for the Latter-Day Saints. Needless to say, I’m glad I remembered my camera.

Beginning at 9 a.m., tours depart every 15 minutes from the North and South gates and are delivered in 40 different languages. Since there’s enough beauty and history here to hold my attention, I choose English. A pair of young and friendly “sisters,” sent here to serve their church mission, serve as my guides. They explain the history behind each of the tour stops: The Mormon Tabernacle (no one was singing while I passed through), the North Visitors Center with its imposing 11-foot Christus replica statue, the 21,000-seat Conference Center, the Family History Library, and the Temple itself – whose doors are closed to non-Mormons.

Of everything on the tour, the one that kept calling me back was the Family History Library. It’s a mecca within a mecca – specifically, for genealogists. I got lost in their digital library, and only hunger pangs eventually pried me from my seat. I left with some data in hand covering a couple centuries’ worth of roots.

Martine CafeOnto lunch, where on my walk back to the hotel I found an upscale casual treasure in Martine. Their southwest chicken salad was more refreshing than spicy, and was filling without being too heavy.

Back in my hotel room, I was yearning to pore over some of my family history, but couldn’t resist a power nap after a morning spent on my feet. Even after waking up, I wanted the relaxation to continue.

That led to an afternoon excursion to the spa at the Grand America Hotel, the opulent older brother to the hip-yet-sophisticated Monaco. I didn’t want to confess that I was Grand America Hotel spastaying four blocks up the road, and ultimately I didn’t have to. The $25 surcharge to use the spa is waived with the purchase of any service.

I chose to bask in the opulence with a Duet Massage. Imagine a pair of classically trained pianists using your body to perform a 50-minute Tchaikovsky masterpiece. It’s kind of like that.

I certainly wasn’t willing to leave, but my final dinner in Salt Lake City had to be spent at a loBrewviescal treasure that would make me feel back at home — with a room full of strangers. Cleverly called Brewvies, it’s a fairly straightforward combination of a bar, movie theater, and a diner that begs the question: Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?

Maybe someone in Utah was waiting for the state to relax its curious liquor laws, which had been in place from 1935 until 2009, to unleash this idea. Regardless, once I finished talking about my family tree, I knew I would be telling friends about watching Date Night with a chicken sandwich and beer in hand.

After checking out of my hotel the next morning, I realized I had two options: Try to open a Brewvies of my own, or bring some friends back with me on my next trip. Knowing that Salt Lake City boasts such a broad spectrum of cultural hues, a return visit shouldn’t be a tough sell.

* Call 801-359-2356 to book a studio tour.


New York

Bermuda

London

St. John

Shanghai

 

Louisville: Where History and Goodies Collide

April 16th, 2010

By Paula Conway

My last-minute trip to Louisville was also my very first — guaranteeing one delightful surprise after another.
As a neophyte, I was urged by a friend to try a Hot Brown (an open-faced turkey sandwich, smothered in cheese, with bacon), to sample a Derby Pie (a cookie stuffed with chocolate chips, walnuts, hot fudge, [...]

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Old Havana Lives

September 7th, 2009

RUMBAR, inside The Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne, lays claims to being Miami’s only live Latin music venue. On weekends, a four-piece band in white dinner jackets will take you back to Old Havana with rhythms of vintage Cuba. Order a rum flight for a vertical tasting of Miami’s largest selection of rums from Trinidad, Barbados, [...]

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New! Youda Chef

August 28th, 2009

Keep customers happy by serving them sushi and master the skills of a Sushi Chef!

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