Monday, December 28, 2015

Where to Travel: Avalon @ Santa Catalina Island

Situated about 22 miles off the California coast, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island is close enough to Los Angeles for a quick weekend getaway, yet far enough to feel like you are in a completely different world, void of smog-ridden air, traffic jammed streets and the big city life.

Only a mere one square mile in size and slightly less than 4,000 inhabitants, the coastal town of Avalon has picturesque streets and jaw-dropping views of the Pacific Ocean at almost every twist and turn, and a laid-back vibe. It’s a suitable destination for romantic couples, groups of friends or even the solo traveler. It has accommodations and leisurely activities that cater to all budgets, and activities for all fitness levels. During the summer, throngs of tourists pack the streets, but during the winter off season, it truly feels as though you have the entire town to yourself, and the weather is still pleasant. 

I decided to compile a list of the top things to experience while in Avalon, regardless of season. But note — this list is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s still so much to see and do — I haven’t yet visited the museum in the Catalina Casino, I want to take an off-road excursion into the interior and I’ve got to get to the nearby village Two Harbors — but in the meantime, this is what I’ve come up with.

So, take a look below to get inspired for your next trip. And as if my Top 10 list isn't enough to convince you to book a trip, perhaps snagging a deal will. From now until March 2016, you can get hotel discounts and a free ride to/from the island through "Best of Winter" packages, offered by Catalina Express and Paradise Hotel partners. Several hotels are participating and some are even offering discounts on sightseeing activities. You can find more information at Catalina Express' Paradise Packages Page; hotels offering the deal are marked "Best of Winter."

I’ll see you over on the island, one day soon! 

For a quintessential American breakfast, Original Jack’s Country Kitchen is the place to go. Within a bright, airy and cozy diner, you’ll get large, filling portions and free refills of Kona coffee. Waits to be seated can be long during the summer peak season but in the soft season, you can literally walk right up to a table. One of the most popular — and tastiest — options is the French toast, made with Portuguese sweet bread and topped with macadamia nuts and coconut syrup (pictured below).


The Descanso Beach Club is located on a strip of sand that’s only a quick walk or trolley ride away, north of Avalon's main town square and the famed Catalina Casino. During the summer, the beach fills up with frolickers playing in the water, laying out on the sand or posted up at the bar, with a nearby DJ spinning the latest and greatest hits. During the winter, it’s a lot less crowded, and you may even have the entire place to yourself, as this couple in the photo below did. All year round the outdoor bar offers phenomenal libations. And for those who are looking to do more than work on their tan by hanging out, rock climbing, water sports and zip lining options are also available here.


8) Where to Eat: Lunch @ Maggie’s Blue Rose

This beachfront restaurant that’s situated in the town center overlooking Avalon Bay is one of the newest dining options in the city. Serving up fresh Mexican fare, it’s a nice option for a filling, but not-so-filling-you-can’t-move-for-the-rest-of-the-day kind of lunch. They offer very tasty tortilla chips and the lobster enchiladas, pictured above, are not to be missed. Also on the menu are varied takes on the classic margarita, such as the Quinceneria, pictured below. This decadently sweet blend includes blue curaçao, grenadine, whipped cream and sprinkles, all infused into a coconut margarita. Grab a seat on the outdoor patio for the best view.


7) Where to Be Merry: Biking All Over Avalon

Renting a bike for several hours is an optimal way to explore Avalon and its surrounding areas, for the more athletically inclined. Note — I say athletically inclined because there are some serious hills mountains that will test even the most fit persons (notice that I’m not on the bike in the above photo, and it's not just because I got off to snap a pic. I definitely had to walk my bike uphill, more than once during our three-hour excursion, due to how intense the ride was). Nonetheless, all of the pain, sweat, blood and tears are worth it, because riding up and through the nearby mountains provides stunning, scenic views of the tiny town of Avalon below, and riding further out provides opportunities to see really cool landmarks, including a golf course, sprawling open fields, a campsite and a nature conservancy, which can all be found on the ride up to The Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens. There are multiple bike shops to rent bikes from, and choose your pick from electric bicycles to beach cruisers and mountain bikes.

6) Where to Be Merry: Carting All Over Avalon

And if you still want to see all of the spectacular sites that you’d see on a bike ride but don’t want to do any of the work to get them, then renting a golf cart is the way to go. Carts can be taken pretty much anywhere that bikes can be taken, and provide access to the same stunning views. The upside to renting a cart is that you can cover more ground in less time than when riding a bike. The only caveat — with the average $40-an-hour price to rent a cart compared to the average $25-all-day-long price to rent a bike, opting for the cart is the more expensive choice. Should you choose to cart it though, multiple shops within walking distance of one another rent out the carts, in downtown Avalon.

CC Callagher is a cute gift shop that also fronts as a café, a sushi spot and my favorite thing — a wine bar. Situated in the back corner, the bar offers a respectable menu of worldly wines and appetizers. For $29, you can also get a flight of three wines and a selection of crackers, cheeses and fruit, pictured above. The ambiance is phenomenal. It’s intimate, thanks to lit candles and ambient lighting, tables in secluded sections and charming knick-knacks strategically placed all over. There’s also a wine room that holds hundreds of wines, if you're inclined to take any to go.


4) Where to Drink: Nightcaps @ Avalon Grille

Avalon Grille is a high-end restaurant right on the waterfront in downtown Avalon that serves up American fare in a handsome, slightly masculine décor. And in my humble opinion, its main selling point is what’s smack in the middle; a big, beautiful bar that serves up strong libations. Featuring both seasonal and traditional cocktails, such as this Old Fashioned pictured above, it has an ambiance that makes you want to pull up a stool and throw back a few, either alone or with friendly companions, and get lost in a satisfying conversation for a few hours. Add impeccable attentiveness from the bar staff, and you’ve got yourself a winner.


While Catalina Island can most certainly be enjoyed in only one day, turning a day trip into an overnighter provides the perfect opportunity to pack more into your trip, or to experience all that Avalon has to offer, simply at a more leisurely pace. There are many accommodation options, for all price points. On my recent trip on the island, I stayed in a room at Hotel Catalina’s Courtyard Garden Suites*. Hotel Catalina has been deemed a historic site. Located in a Victorian house, it has an old-fashioned décor and big, beautiful verandas to relax on. The Courtyard Garden Suites, located a few blocks from Hotel Catalina, has updated, renovated rooms and a courtyard with a fire pit, but also a noteworthy past, as it previously was frequented by scores of Hollywood’s elite, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Marilyn Monroe and even Frank Sinatra, when the hotel had a different name. You still have access to all of Hotel Catalina's amenities if you're staying in The Courtyard. It's a good option if you’re working on a budget, but still want to experience a charming and cozy place to rest your head. The hotel is also currently featuring a "Best of Winter" package deal  until early March 2016 that includes a 10% discount at four restaurants in the city and also with  tours with the Catalina Adventure Tours company and roundtrip transportation to and from the island, when booking a 1- or 2-night stay.


2) Where to Be Merry: Serene Sunrises @ Avalon Bay

And should you decide to stay the night, make sure that no matter what time you go to bed, you wake up early enough to see the sunrise. The town of Avalon faces east, putting you in just the right position to see the sun gradually make its way into the sky, above the glistening ocean. It’s also remarkably peaceful at this time of day, as mostly the entire town is still tucked away in their beds, and there’s no one out. Literally. It was just me and this seal, pictured below, during my recent sunrise experience.

1) Where to Be Merry: Walking on your own @ Avalon

Honestly, one of the best activities to do is simply to go walking through Avalon — on your own! A mere one square mile big, you can pretty much see everything there is to see easily, as quickly or as slowly as you please. The main beachfront of Avalon Bay has a ton of local shops to peek into; streets directly behind the beachfront are lined with more stores and restaurants, and create the downtown center. You can also walk up and down the residential streets to get a glimpse of the quaint houses. The stroll to the Descanso Beach Club offers lovely views and a chance to stop by the museum and movie theater in the Catalina Casino. And the best part of it all — you can do this pretty much any time of the day or night. Below are views of the city, at different times of the day...

**Note: Getting there**

How to get to the island? By boat service, helicopter, seaplane or private yacht charter. Boat service is the most reasonable and affordable option, and there are two main companies, both that I’ve used: the Catalina Express* and the Catalina Flyer. While the Catalina Express has slightly more expensive prices that Catalina Flyer, it has ports that are closer to L.A. The Catalina Flyer operates out of Newport Beach and the Catalina Express operates out of Dana Point and the two closest ports to L.A., San Pedro and Long Beach. Both have deal packages with hotels and activity companies on the island, and right now, Catalina Express is also offering "Best of Winter" packages (as explained earlier in this post) and also a "Free Ride on Your Birthday" deal.

*Catalina Express and Hotel Catalina’s Courtyard Garden Suites provided complimentary access. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Where to Eat: 100+ Worldly Cheeses and More @ Wheel House

The Eats: A specialty shop featuring cheeses from around the world, and also wines and beers, gourmet gifts, sandwiches, classes and special events.

The Location: Culver City

The Vibes:
Intimate, casual, homely, inviting

Good for: Cheese lovers and great gift ideas

When-To-Go: Tuesday – Sunday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

The $ Factor: $$$ - Cheeses in the display case are $20 
– $50 per pound; you can purchase by the quarter pound

The Names behind the scenes: Owner Alex Josef

The 4-1-1: Wheel House also offers educational and social events, including movie screenings and cheese classes.

Parking Situation: Metered street parking

I’ll Be Back…: To check out a cheese class soon!

Culver City’s Wheel House cheese shop first opened its doors last year, featuring more than 100 cheeses from around the world.

But now, it's not only cheeses you'll find here.

Beginning this Fall, the tiny, two-room storefront with an adorable patio (pictured below) has been adding quite a few selections to keep palates pleased and satisfied.

Wheel House has started to sell 30+ wines, 20+ beers and three ciders. All beverages are meant to compliment and pair with the vast selection of cheeses, which hail from more than a dozen countries, including the States, Italy and Belgium.

Wheel House is also offering a new food menu. Items include cheese and meat boards, three sandwiches served on French baguettes, and seven sides that include Marcona Almonds, Gluten Free Crackers and Bourbon Cured Dried Fruit.

Yours truly had a chance to check out Wheel House’s newest additions at a private media event earlier this month. Several different cheeses and a few finger snacks, such as the bruschetta pictured below were available to feast upon, in addition to eight wines and two ciders.

While there was no doubt that the high quality cheese and wines were enough to keep anyone coming back, what also impressed me was the wide and varied assortment of take home gifts. Artisan chocolates, baguettes, honey comb, black olive tapenade and truffle butter are only but a few of the gourmet goodies available.

So the next time you’re craving some wine and cheese, stop by Wheel House. Grab a bottle and a pound of your favorite cheese, to enjoy in the comforts of your own home, or right at the store.

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Monday, November 23, 2015

And Where Do You “Where To?”: 5th Annual Thanksgiving Edition

In usual fashion as I do every fall, I'm stepping down as the main writer of my blog and turning it over to other tastemakers, to share where they "eat, drink and are merry" throughout Los Angeles.

I love doing this, because by reading their selections, I'm always inspired to try somewhere new or, I get affirmation that I'm going to all the right places.

For this time around, I spoke with several friends, folks I've met this year and professionals who are part of a phenomenal networking group that I'm in, called We Are The Industry. The group has been around since 2007 and was formed to "encourage, promote, and support young, diverse, creative minds behind TV & film primarily in Los Angeles."

Read on to hear what everyone's top picks are, and of course, have a fantastic Thanksgiving holiday.

“I live in Koreatown and there's no shortage of good places and hidden gems, from the chic to the unassuming. I recently discovered the brick and mortar store of the Chinese/Korean fusion food truck The Bun Shop (151 N. Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004). Choose a bun (or 3) and a topping of your choice (the Kalbi -- which is beef, tempura onion, mixed greens and a spicy aioli -- is hands down the best). My personal favorite sides are the Ba'Corn Cheese (a shareable heaping of corn, bacon, mozarella cheese, jalapenos and scallions), Citrus Edamame or the fries (garlic/rosemary Shop Fries or brown sugar/paprika Sweet Potato fries with a honey cream sauce). Don't be cute and try to pass on dessert. You MUST save room for the Deep Fried Oreos with green tea ice cream, whipped cream, and a caramel drizzle. There's 4 there, so you can split your shame. Chill vibe, not too crowded, golden-era hip-hop playlist complimented by a great staff make this a must stop for a chic but cost-friendly beer/wine happy hour, date night, meeting spot, or pre-game for a night out.”

“My favorite social destination(s) would have to be: Bossa Nova, Swingers and Jazz Night at the W Hollywood Hotel. I've always enjoyed eating at both Bossa Nova and Swingers because they hold sentimental value for me and no matter what, the food never disappoints. Although, I rarely ever experience a new dish! At Bossa Nova my favorite dish is the Blacken Chicken and at Swingers I love their Peach Cobbler a la mode.”

“Sweet Serenity is what comes to mind every time I make it to the top of Runyon Canyon. The canyon is one of my favorite places in LA. People and pets from all walks of life enjoy the beauty of nature, the camaraderie of other fellow hikers, and the nearly 360-degree view of all of Los Angeles County. It is a delightful scene that everyone should experience.”

“My favorite place to have a great time is District 13 in Hollywood. I not only love this secret hideout because it makes me feel like Katniss Everdeen, but I also love it for the gastro atmosphere. If you are a fan of beer, this place is definitely for you as they have a giant selection! And even if you don't like beer, you'll want to just hang out there for the décor, vibes and feel.”

“My favorite place in LA to eat is Palms Thai on Hollywood. It's my favorite spot because it's always good. They always deliver. The vibe is not super trendy or catering to any specific young demographic. It actually has a real family vibe, like a Thai Golden Corral. But their food is bomb, I can eat there every day of the week.”

“One of my favorite places in LA is the Hollywood Walk of Fame because it gives me hope that one day I can be a legend. Every star that is on the ground is known for GREATNESS and that’s what I’m striving for. It inspires people from different walks of life to keep the faith, to keep working hard and to see that any race can make it in Hollywood. Whether that is a writer, director, actress or producer, there is a star on the ground waiting for your name to be on it. You just have to reach out for it, grab it and claim what's yours!”

*LWOO = Lauren Ward Overcoming Obstacles & Loving Women Openly and Optimistically

“One of my favorite LA places is Perch in Downtown L.A. I like this because of their great cocktails and roof top bar. This is a great place to unwind with friends.”

“As an Advocate and Public Speaker, I like to clear my mind with an occasional hike. One of the coolest spots to hike is the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, located at 6300 Hetzler Rd., Culver City, CA 90232. I like to come here, because its steep staircase hike and winded dirt trail give you just the right amount of challenge to break a sweat, but are easy enough to complete with friends, family and even kids. As a bonus, once you reach the Scenic Overlook, there is a small Nature and Culture Heritage center open free of charge to the public.”

Monday, November 16, 2015

Where to Be Merry: Bruno Mars @ A Private T-Mobile Concert, The Shrine Auditorium

Last Tuesday, Nov. 10, T-Mobile took over The Shrine in downtown L.A. to throw a free concert featuring Bruno Mars, in celebration of their newest launch: Un-carrier X, which offers the ability to stream 24 services — including HBO, Hulu and Netflix — without using high-speed data.

Aesthetically speaking, for the event, T-Mobile decked the iconic L.A. venue in pink, inside and out. Outdoors, near the entrance, instead of an infamous red carpet, a pink carpet stretched down the length of the building, with the backdrop of a never-ending T-Mobile step-and-repeat. Once inside, multiple Un-carrier X ads featuring millennials graced the hallways and several no-host bars were strategically placed on the first and second floors.

On our way to our General Admission seats on the second floor balcony, my friend and I somehow ended up in a very snazzy VIP section. There were a ton of fun people to chat with, including a lot of T-Mobile staffers, access to view the concert from a prime spot on the balcony and a hosted bar that also made an amazing cocktail — the vodka-based Magenta Collins with lavender syrup, club soda, lemon juice and lavender sprig, pictured below.

Around 9 p.m., recording artist Zedd took the stage for a pretty epic DJ set. His DJ booth featured screens behind and below him, creating a surreal, 3D experience of moving backgrounds that were synchronized to change with the different beats of each song. There were fireworks, streamers, lasers, flashing lights. The whole nine yards. Zedd himself was beyond hyped, jumping up and down and getting really into each song. And the crowd went wild. At one point, I forgot where I was and thought I was in a legit rave, in a downtown warehouse.

Next up were simultaneous DJ sets by Lil Jon and DJ Vice. Strategically positioned in second-floor balconies on opposite ends of the venue, high above the crowd, the two spun hip-hop and EDM records. Sometimes they took turns, taking their time to flex their skills on the turntables. Other times, they effortlessly blended into each other’s tracks, rapidly going back and forth. At one point, Lil Jon reminded us just how many club-bangers he’s produced, playing many of his No. 1 singles, including “Turn Down for What,” “Get Low,” “Shots,” “Yeah!” and so many more.

And finally around 10:30 p.m., it was time for the man of the hour, Bruno Mars. He and his eight-member band burst onto the stage, bubbles of fiery energy, for the first song of the night, “Treasure.” He then went through hit after hit: “Billionaire,” “Marry You,” “Nothin’ on You,” “Dancing with Another Man” and “Grenade.” He even performed a cover of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and what he said was a never-before-recorded song, “Top of the World.” And while the crowd cheered and sang along to pretty much every song, they gave a few extra cheers when Bruno Mars did a '90s R&B mash-up of Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo,” Soul For Real’s “Candy Rain” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” He saved “Just the Way You Are” for the encore. Or, so we thought. After running off stage when the song was over, he and his band came back to perform “Locked Out Of Heaven.” And even then, it wasn’t over! They started to play what appeared to be only a few jazzy runs, but a few minutes in, the runs morphed into “Uptown Funk.” It was only after that song that the night was officially over.