Taking in the trees

Forest bathing 

            It was a hard week, one in which I hadn’t slept much. I was feeling couped up, wishing our condo got more sun during the day. 

            Then, I spotted a friend’s Facebook post showing how she had fixed a similar slump by walking among the trees, in particular the redwoods at a certain Saratoga park. Neither my husband nor I had ever been to Sanborn County Park, which has 3,453 acres and 22 miles of trails sandwiched between Saratoga and Skyline Boulevard.

 Rich has been working remotely for the past year. Despite his deadlines, we dropped what we were doing to drive south from Los Altos. Rich appeared to humor my mood, but I knew he also loves to get outdoors.

            After a 20-minute drive, we entered the park, passing the gatehouse where the guard’s only question was “How many?” She noted there were two of us on a clipboard and there was no charge. I wondered what the Covid-19 restrictions were for the park, but the phrase, “25 percent capacity” flashed in my mind. Was that just for restaurants and stores? Maybe it also applied to county parks. I later found out the per vehicle charge will be $6 starting April 1.

            There were few cars; one was flanked by parents opening the car doors for their young children. Signs said the park closed at sunset. It was only 3:00 pm. 

I looked up and turned around like a slow-motion dervish, noting the 30-foot redwoods that made up Peterson Grove. We walked on a platform built inside the gigantic trees, and I remembered the book my daughter had given me last time she visited: “Forest bathing Retreat – find wholeness in the company of trees,” by Hannah Fries.

            In it, the author talks about the benefits of surrounding yourself in nature, breathing in the fresh air and trees. The Japanese term Shinrin-yoku refers to a kind of forest therapy started there in the 1980s as an antidote to the conditions that urban, cement-choked  life causes. I had always felt better after being out in the negative ions for a few hours, sure that trees had some magical mystical quality. The gnarled branches seemed to connect to each other without touching.

            The thing I felt most was my own fraility.  I had just had a shoulder arthroscopy, making me aware that I might fall on that side. I was like a broken tree. Still, the sound of leaves blowing, called psithurism, invigorated me and I felt I was receiving healing energy from the trees. The air smelled fresh, clean, and I tried to stand still while my husband moved forward.

            The book says, “sit as still as you can in one place for a while – 20 minutes or so, and see how the forest begins to slowly go about its business again all around you.” We found an amphitheatre, marked Outdoor Stage. I could imagine a play staged here, with chairs placed around in a semi-circle. It was cold but silent. Around us, a few broken-off branches lay scattered on the earth.

            We walked past a hike-in camp site, with sturdy plastic cabinets to keep out animals. Then we traveled through the RV camper hook-up sites and back to our car. After just an hour, I felt lifted up as high as the redwood trees, open as the sky. And that night, I slept eight hours straight, feeling refreshed in the morning. The forest bathing therapy had worked to rejuvenate me. It’s worth another trip. 

Redwoods at Sanborn County Park

Mardin: Silk Road city welcomes diverse religions in Turkish dust bowl


Mardin, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, is just an hour from a Middle Eastern war zone. And yet tourists pour into the area, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Even Prince Charles visited the oldest orthodox Syriac monastery in the world, which is still a working Syriac monastery. Mor (Saint) Gabriel Monastery closes after dark, but you can see monks tending the garden during daylight hours. Located in the Tur Abdin plateau, a few kilometers from old Mardin, the Assyrian monastery is also called Deyrulzafaran. It is massive, with 365 rooms for each day of the year, and services are held daily.

Mardin is known for telkari, an ancient jewelry technique using pure silver.


Jewish, Syrian, Yezidi, Kurdish, Arab and Chechen civilizations have left their marks on Mardin, which is nevertheless on the State Department’s list of risky areas. Turkish soldiers wrestled with PKK Kurdish fighters last year, making the region off-limits for foreign service employees.

But I’m glad we were able to make the trip from Istanbul to Mardin in August, 2019, despite the extreme heat.

Telkari is an type of ancient jewelry making using pure silver. Mardin is known for the craft.

If only you could walk through the narrow, stepping streets of the old town, to experience for yourself the walk of ages. I felt like I was in upper Mesopotamia,


The jewelry stores sell silver bracelets in a special design that is characteristic of the region. When we returned to Istanbul, for example, my sister-in-law immediately knew the style of her sultana bracelet, wrapped up one finger then down to her wrist. I bought myself a stone and silver beaded necklace for $13 and offered to pay in American dollars. The owner was quite pleased, but I made sure that he would be able to exchange the dollars. He nodded his head, of course, because the lira was down.

I witnessed the honesty and generosity that Muslims in my country exhibit on a daily basis. Everyday, people helped me lift my travel scooter over curbs and steps that were inches tall. As a limited walker, the terrain proved arduous for me. Men appeared to carry my little travel scooter or to inquire if I needed help.

Christian Syrian refugees determine about 40% of the population, with Kurds coming in next place. Turks only make up 5%.

The rocky terrain merits the Syriac name Mardin, which means fortress. Since life is so hard here with narrow steep roads, taxi drivers gave me their cards and told me to call them if I couldn’t make it up a hill. They were willing to track back to get me so that I didn’t suffer walking straight up in the sun, a hot ball of fire in the afternoon. Another driver gave us his card and insisted we call him if we couldn’t walk anywhere.

From the air, Mardin looks like a kaleidoscope of colorful wedges. But this area is no Trivial Pursuit. The capital of Mardin Province, it’s deep in what was once Upper Mesopotamia. We arrived on a full plane on the Pegasus Airlines discount brand, leaving from the domestic Istanbul Airport (SAW), named Sabiha Gokcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter. Ironically, according to Suzy Hansen, in Notes on a Foreign Country, Gokcen flew many air force missions against the Kurds.

Since this week of Kurban Bayrami, calls for people to eat leg of lambs like Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Remember the Old Testament story of the sacrifice of Isaac, who gives his son’s life to show his devotion? God was so impressed, he decreed that in the future, believers could sacrifice lambs instead.

In the Muslim faith, one must also practice Zakat, or donating two percent of your income to the needy. So that people can buy lamb for the homeless, there were pop-up butchers everywhere.

Just a few years ago, tourism faltered, with only 2000 beds and not many comers. Now, there are thousands more hotels and the tourism has tripled, partly due to a phenomenon of a woman, Chef Ebru Baybara Demir. Although born in her father’s country of Mardin, her family moved to Istanbul so she could have the best education and opportunities. Now, she’s paying it forward.

Mardin’s a city under an ancient citadel about 3,000 feet tall that protected empires: Byzantine, Selcuks, Ottoman, Syriac, Duer, the best and the brightest of the world. As a Sunni Muslim (on my birth certificate), I never really knew what it meant to live according to Islam. My parents, freed of any extended family pressures when we moved to the States, taught me that religion was the opioid of the masses. We subscribed to secular humanism magazines, and while I knew a few Islamic prayers, they were mostly learned when my Grandmother visited and recited them whenever my father drove in New York City traffic. “Bismillah, lahmahni rahim” is one you might recognize from Freddie Mercury’s song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Friends of theirs prayed three times a day and asked for a private space when they came over for dinner, but my psychiatrist dad told me religion was just a crutch.

Mardin Airport from Istanbul’s Sabihah Gokcen

Around us, men with hair spilling out of their shirt sleeves looked out the tiny windows to get a glimpse of the agrarian region they may have left years ago to make life in the big city. That’s how Istanbul became the sprawling megapolis with a population of 15.7 million people. Mardin has only

The unbearable heat hit us hard on debarking. Porters threw luggage and strollers in plastic bags on the sizzling pavement while I tried to sit on a shady part of the plane. I could feel the sticky weight of every piece of clothing I had on. We finally got our baggage and made our way through the building to the parking lot.

Ata, a man who works with Chef Ebru Baybara Demir, picked us up at the airport. He loaded our luggage and my travel scoot in the back of his truck with the sunflower oil he had just picked up at Migros (Turkish Safeway) and offered to take us to her office in the center of the old city. My daughter Leyna was there to do some grain business with Ebru, a celebrity chef. I remembered my Turkish and said “kiyafetimizi degsterelim once.” He understood that we needed some down time, but he seemed indefatigable himself.

Ebru, as she is known, donates food and clothing to the Syrian regugees, especially during Kurban Bayrami.  Since moving back to her father’s homeland in 2000, ago, Demir has helped increase tourism while giving women refugees jobs and training at Cercis Murat Konagi restaurant. Ebru and her husband restored the mansion, turning it into a highly rated restaurant.

If you go, order the appetizer plate.  It comes with several health takes on Turkish dishes and the presentation with decorative spoons on a tray. Chef Ebru says she has a copyright on the dish.

Under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the governor of Diyarbakir Haci Hasan Pasa commissioned the building which now houses The Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum and Dilek Sabanci Art Gallery. The Armenian architect Sarkis Lole designed it as a calvary barracks in 1889. In the photo above, one can see what used to be a stable. The museum displays Ottoman artifacts, jewelry, busts of gods and goddesses.

There’s an eery silence in the air here. I felt this also in Ephesus, near the Virgin Mary’s house. It reminds you of the history of the place, past civilizations that offer a gravitas to Mardin.



Beyond the guidebook: Read these books on Provence

A good trip sparks anticipation. I try to read a few books about a destination to figure out its culture, not just the tourist sites. Guidebooks, of course, have their place.

The Chateau de Cassis is at the top of a long path and has a great view of the harbor.

In the movie ” A Room with a view” Vanessa Redgrave uses her Baedeker to explore monuments in Florence, tearing a page out as she goes. Great way to save on extra luggage weight.

Try to research quirky facts on the Internet or find pertinent blogs. Even uber-positive tourism sites can help you narrow down the towns that will appeal to you.

For a more balanced view, check out TripAdvisor.com or the travel pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The problem with reader reviews or comments is that you don’t know whether the person writing is in your “tribe” or not. Do they have the same interests or world view? You’ll have to use your judgment, perhaps by looking up past reviews by the commenter. If a hotel inspires high praise and pans, you can guess that your opinion may fall somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes hotels in Europe, ask guests to write positive reviews in Booking.com and on Yelp. Do not fall for that trap. And if you post your own review, remember that other travelers are relying on your message to decide whether or not to visit a spot. Instead, be honest and mention the good, the bad, and the ugly.


For our trip to Provence, I talked to French friends, got tips on what to read, and bought photo books like “One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Provence.” Published by Rizzoli, New York, this coffee table book includes villages in Provence-Cotes d’Alps as well as other provinces in France. The photographs will inspire you and underscore little-known facts. The pages on Arles, “gateway to the camargue,” show a striking sunlit amphitheater, where the town stages pretend bullfights

We chose that storied city, a favorite of President Macron’s, as our launching point. Some people choose to fly into Paris to take the Train a Grands Vitesse (Known as the TGV ) to Arles, but with limited time, we flew south on Air France to Marseille.

From there, we rented a car and drove west to our first hotel near the center of Cassis. I had been there years ago in the winter. It was a sleepy village then, but now it’s a vital and bustling town. We hit the beach, but the water was ice cold.

In another inspirational book, “the French Riviera for Artists,” the author, uses her watercolors to capture the mood of each town, from

A sample of the books I carried with my snacks and a blanket to sit on. The straw basket called out to me in Cassiss, because it had “Ma Vie en Rose,” embroidered on it.

I don’t just rely on guidebooks. I research quirky facts on the Internet, read blogs and even uber-positive tourism websites to help us narrow down the towns to visit. My husband and I booked hotels for September. I anticipated sunflowers, the Van Goghs in Arles, and the famous sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. My husband imagined Roman ruins and colliseums and warming bowls of bouillabaisse. We both counted on warm weather, so I looked up hotels with pools.

Before any trip, I put together a reading list, partly to assess the mood of a destination. Is the region gloomy like the marshes in Jane Austen, or intellectual like Simone deBeauvoir?

It’s important to jot down any hotels, cafes or museums that seem worth a trip, according to bloggers. Don’t forget Rick Steves’ guidebooks. They’re loaded with accurate historical details for travelers to absorb. Long after you’re home, you’ll remember the personality of a place. Take photos, take in the ambience and relax into the scenery, too. Talk to everyone you can.

Author Nancy Pearl, a librarian who says she leans more toward armchair travel, triggered my own book habit with “Book Lust to Go, Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers,” Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2010, 270 pages. Several more editions of “Book Lust” have come out since I first discovered Pearl, who thinks books can tell you a lot about the people, culture, and outlines of a new place. I love that she included travelers as well as dreamers in her subtitle!

A geographical index in front of “Book Lust to Go” lets you choose from Afghanistan: Graveyard of the Empires, to Zipping through Zimbabwe/Roaming through Rhodesia. Pearl’s suggestions are mainly fiction books with some nonfiction thrown in. Or maybe I’m just more drawn to fiction.

Marcia DeSanctis writes from the heart

Here’s another one for you, full of unique places to see. Marcia DeSanctis wrote “101 places in France Every Woman should go,” to transmit her love of the country. Published in 2014 by Solos House, Inc, “101 Places” is part of a series on travel. DeSanctis writes beautifully about French landmarks she discovered while teaching high school French in Paris. I stopped at a few of the sights she writes about lovingly: L’hotel Particuliere in Arles and the Calanques of Cassis.

L’hotel Particulière in Arles, a 17th century mansion, was one of the best places we stayed. Recommended by DeSanctis because of “the courtyard so serene, the white sheets so pressed, and the tucked away bar with the wine menu scrawled on a chalkboard so inviting.” A romantic aura and the floral smells made this one so memorable.

In addition, the narrow lap pool and trees bending down onto the patio create a quiet refuge. We stayed on the bottom floor due to the steep steps to the other rooms, not very accessible, but our windowed ground floor porch reminded me of parts of Paris long ago.

Provence from A to Z still holds up

For Provence, we gathered Peter Mayle books from the local library. Once an ad executive, Mayle bought a farm in the South of France with his wife Jennie in 1987 to escape dreary England. His 1988 book, “A Year in Provence,” became an immediate bestseller, and several others followed.

Like Pearl, Mayle starts with an alphabetical theme in “Provence A to Z.” “Toujours Provence,” ” Encore Provence” and”Marseille Caper” among many others.

Marseille, the largest city after Paris, used to have a shady reputation. Now, it’s the kind of place President Emmanuel Macron chose to meet with Angela Merkel, prime minister of Germany. Read about the marvelous Le Petit Nice and Gerard Passedat here.

But when my husband Rich read “Marseille Caper,” I learned a thing or two about provencals. They talk slowly, appreciate a good bottle of wine, and love to socialize. Wine shapes most meals. The restaurant Mayles describes as having the best bouillabaisse is Perron.

You can’t go to France without thinking about food, and Mayle certainly explores the provencal kitchen in all its flavors. Try the bouillabaisse when you can, for example. Mayle talked about the restaurant Peron, the first restaurant we went to when we were in Marseille.

San Juan-Les-Pins – “Cooking with Picasso”

“Cooking with Picasso,” by Camille Aubrey describes a year when Pablo, the great modern artist, rented a house in San Juan- les- Pins. I’m grateful to Karen Bonke, a book club friend who turned me on to this one. It’s whimsical and a mystery. The story unravels from two viewpoints: that of Ondine, the lover and Picasso’s cook, and her granddaughter, who knows there’s a painting of her grandmother somewhere in the south of France.

Sampling glamping in Nevada City


Try #13, the Cowboy tent with a Western theme and a place to hang your hat. Whimsical touches like horses’ hooves decorate the walls. Photo by Eren Goknar.

About two miles from downtown Nevada City, InnTown Campground provides RV hook-ups, camping, and tents with wifi connections. If you love sleeping outdoors, but not on the ground, glamping may be for you.

Just remember that you still have to lug your toiletries to the restrooms and  outdoor showers. The two two shower facilities include one that is handicapped accessible.

Owners Erin  and Dan Thiem provide heated mattress pads, but no heaters. Remember, even though you will sleep under a canvas tent, you still have to walk across the circular driveway to get to the two showers-one indoor and the other outdoor.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word means blending camp activities with the comforts of home, like plugs, wifi, pillows and a queen bed. We particularly liked the InnTown’s new heated mattress pad with dual controls, since it gets chilly in the Sierra Nevada hills at night. The tents sit on platforms and your bed has real mattresses and linen.

Nevada City

Settled in 1849 at the height of the California gold rush, founders decided on “nevada” because it meant snow, and so that Nevada City so it wouldn’t be confused with the state of Nevada. Because of the cold weather, the glamping tents at InnTown shut down from December until March, but the regular camping and RV sites are open throughout the winter.

Try out cooking at the kitchen, which has a homey, clean look and a table for your family to play games or eat meals. The cafe sells hot chocolate

People tend to know each other. Visit on July Fourth for the Hometown Parade and you’ll see  patriotic displays worthy of Mayberry, RFD, the fictional town set in small town America on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

With a population of only 3,200, Nevada City delivers big adventures with  a small-town vibe.  The three to four-hour drive from the Bay Area makes it easy to get there over a long weekend.

Though not as far nor as big as Lake Tahoe,  a river runs through it.The Yuba River becomes a popular swimming spot in the summers, when you can see cars parked on Highway 49 for a couple miles.

It’s a good place to see the fall colors of the Sierra Nevada hills, and while the kids might like camping, my favorite activity is wandering downtown past 19th century Victorians. The downtown feels like any  town you’ve seen in old westerns, but the roads are paved.

The Empire Mines offers docent tours, and the campground is next door to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Museum.

Locals like to go to nearby Grass Valley for the Nevada County Fairgrounds. While the fair doesn’t start till August, the Strawberry Music Festival hosts several bands in May.

Now, with Covid-19 changing everything, you can still camp and enjoy the outdoors. The camp store is closed, but you can access the kitchen, laundry, T.V. area and reading nook. Family outdoor movie nights are a favorite with campers.

The fifteen glamping tents start at $110 per night.  One tent has four twin beds; there are others with two queens.  Find everything online at inntowncampground.com. There are also 18 motor home sites, which provide water and electricity hook-ups and start at $65 a night.

Locals like to go to nearby Grass Valley for the Nevada County Fairgrounds. While the fair doesn’t start till August, the Strawberry Music Festival hosts several bands in May.

The Spice Station: Mistress of spices in Silverlake District, LA


Silver lake District in Los Angeles projects urban grittiness, but there are some amazing finds here. I wandered into the Spice Station recently, after a day at the art museum.

It takes five minutes or so to find 3819 Sunset Blvd., because first you have to meander through a path, the lovely impressionistic courtyard covered with trellises and a fountain . After the courtyard, you will step into the actual store, filled with spices in apothecary jars.


Owned by husband and wife team Peter Bahlawanian and Bronwen Tahse, the store carries 140 spices, teas, and tissanes.
I took home jasmine tea and Himalayan salt in packets. The small cottage is lined top to bottom with jars of spices.

DTLA art galleries and museums

More than 100,000 pieces of art in Los Angeles County Museum of Art 5905 Wilshire Blvd. guarantee that you’re not going to see all of them in this lifetime!

But pick and choose and take in the ones that call to you. Free admission on the second Tuesday of every month, otherwise it’s $15 for adults, $10 for seniors 62 and older.
Temporary exhibitions include one on Samurai armour, another on Pierre Huyghe, and a third on the Hudson River School. Visit lacma.org for additional information.
The streets around LACMA also contain lots of art galleries. Wander around for hours.

When in Vegas, do as the Venetians do


Cute teddy bear gondoliers for sale at the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes, Las Vegas

Floating beneath a blue sky with fluffy, painted-on clouds, we obeyed the gondolier, Pepe, when he told us to kiss as we passed under the arched bridge.

Customers boarding the next gondola smiled their amusement, but we were just part of the act at the Grand Canal and Shoppes at The Venetian and the connecting Palazzo hotel, situated on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip.

The waterway runs indoors past shops ranging from Barney’s New York to Tory Burch.

Our private gondola ride cost $80, but visitors can share a boat for less. As we stepped in, Pepe, a true showman, posed with us for two photos, which we later purchased for $65. The cashier threw in the 3D frame for “free.”

The temperature hit triple digits outside and the sky was blindingly sunny, but inside the climate-controlled Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian and Palazzo hotels, it could have been dusk.


The clouds are ceiling paintings, but the canal is real at the Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada

Like so much in Vegas, things are not always what they seem.

Every so often Pepe broke into a familiar song like “That’s Amore” and ended with the theme song from “Lady and the Tramp.” His voice was quite good, so I asked what he did when he wasn’t singing on the Venetian’s Grand Canal.

“I work on cruise ships,” he said in charmingly accented English. “But my American wife doesn’t like me to travel far, so I work here, too.”


Nestled between the Wynn and Harrah’s – and just 20 minutes from McCarran International Airport – the five-star Italian-themed Venetian rises up 36 floors, with 38 diverse restaurants, 160 shops and several pools. The Azure Luxury Pool deck includes three pools, a hot tub and a poolside cafe.

The 18,000-square-foot TAO Beach deck was so hot – pun intended – people lined up to enter. The new TAO Asian bistro has received rave reviews. Amenities on the deck include 12 air-conditioned cabanas complete with high-definition plasma TV, minibar, masseuse and sunglass cleaning. Yes, sunglass cleaning. Celebrities reportedly love this pool, which closes at sunset. During peak season, the TAO nightclub opens its doors Thursdays through Sundays.

A third pool deck, the Venetian, features spouting fountains and chaise lounge-side drink service, as well as the luxurious cabanas. The larger pool was filled with children the day we visited, but there’s also a smaller one.

In fact, The Venetian welcomes families, except in the casino.

The outdoor area features replicas of Venice landmarks – St. Mark’s Campanile, the Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge.

The king suite we stayed in included a sunken living room with pullout sofa and three flat-screen TVs, the smaller one in the 150-square-foot bathroom. There’s even a phone near the toilet. The palatial bathroom includes a vanity. A lighted mirror has settings that change from day to night, so you can make up your face appropriately.

The remote-controlled Roman shades hold cachet for gadget lovers, and the in-suite dining is round the clock.

Rooms – all renovated over the past few years – start at $355 a night for the 650-square-foot king suite, which can run a little more depending on whether you have a desert or Strip view. Furnishings are pretty plush – you can sleep a long time in those Egyptian cotton sheets. The hotel’s Bella suites have two queen beds.

The Venetian’s penthouse suite spans the three top floors, with a master bedroom, multiple TVs, a fireplace, a second bedroom and two marble bathrooms with jetted tubs. And you don’t have to pay for snacks.

After you have gotten over the huge rooms, think about visiting the concierge desk for show tickets. “Lipshtick,” with comedians like Roseanne Barr, the musical “Rock of Ages,” the Sinatra-centric “Frank The Man. The Music” and Smokey Robinson’s Motown revue “Human Nature” are all on the bill at The Venetian this summer.


Although The Venetian includes shops, pools and shows, the food is definitely worth a mention. Try a New York strip steak at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut. The meat was tender and the service solid. We ended the meal with a banana cream pie with banana crème brûlée that was sweet but not too rich.

Other choices include Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cafe and restaurant, where our breakfast included a basket of four different artisanal breads that could only be baked in California.

For lunch one day, we stopped at db Brasserie on The Venetian’s restaurant row and experienced great service. Our appetizer of three cheeses – from sheep, cow and goat – was especially impressive. Although we didn’t have time to eat there, hotel staff recommended Morel’s French Steakhouse & Bistro.

Like other hotels on the Strip, The Venetian hosts dozens of conventions annually. Airlines like Southwest schedule 15-17 flights daily to Sin City. In fact, I sat next to the marketing person for Cars.com on our flight to Vegas. She recommended visiting the Fremont Street Experience, a light-show extravaganza near Las Vegas’ old downtown, where the Golden Nugget and other casinos are still in operation.

Despite its attractions, we had to leave The Venetian at some point, so we took a taxi to “Zarkana,” the new Cirque du Soleil show at the ARIA Resort & Casino. The costumes, colors and zany clowns reminded me of the French classic movie “King of Hearts,” in which the inmates are let out of the local asylum.

The acrobats performed with military precision and discipline as they flew through the air swinging from trapezes they then transferred to colleagues. Other Cirque du Soleil shows were sold out, including “O” and “Le Mystere.”

Tip: Do visit the concierge for discounts. The Cirque show we attended was 30 percent off that day because it started late, at 9:30 p.m. Celine, the concierge, warned us not to take the Vegas monorail tour, because you could see more riding a bus down the Strip.

If you go to Viator.com and search “Las Vegas,” you’ll find lots of outdoor activities. One can sign up for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon for $344 or a scooter tour of Red Rock Canyon for $249.

Las Vegas presents so many choices, but the Liberace Museum isn’t one anymore – it closed down a few years ago. At any rate, it’s one of those places where you can never get too much of a good thing.

For more information, visit Venetian.com or lcva.com.

Autry National Center describes the West, both cowboys and Indians

Museums delight kids, too

If you’re visiting relatives in a strange city over the holidays, take advantage of the local museums. Most hire family education directors whose job it is to come up with ways to entertain you and your children while encouraging the kids to soak up the exhibition.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, we mixed up a stop to the Gene Autry National Center with stops at the Spice Station in Silverlake District and Flick’s Papetrie.

Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park

Right across from the LA Zoo sits this museum dedicated to the American West: the Autry National Center. Currently there’s a nostalgic Route 66: Road and Romance exhibit to capture your imagination.
Other exhibits include the Floral Journey: Native North American Indian Floral Bead Work, running through April, 2015, and “Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead.”

If you grew up watching television and motion picture Westerns, you will be delighted to see costumes worn by John Wayne, Paul Newman and Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” I was surprised to see life-sized versions of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

The large museum is no amateur outfit. It has 500,000 artifacts and pieces of art from the West and includes two research libraries.
Check the calendar for lectures and family fun days. Coming up next will be a class on “Planning Your Route 66 Trip,” with photographer and road historian Jerry McClanahan and Jim Ross on Sat., Dec. 6 at 2.
Families are invited to American Indian Games at the Autry on Sun. Dec. 7. Free with museum admission, which is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors 60 and over. Check out new exhibits at http://www.theautry.org.

The Spice Station, Silverlake District

The Silverlake District has a certain urban grittiness, but there are some amazing finds here like the bulk spices at the Spice Station.

It takes five minutes or so to find 3819 Sunset Blvd., because first you have to meander through a path, the lovely impressionistic courtyard covered with trellises and a fountain and then you get to the actual spices in apothecary jars.

Owned by husband and wife team Peter Bahlawanian and Bronwen Tahse, the store carries 140 spices, teas, and tissanes.
I took home jasmine tea and Himalayan salt in packets. The small cottage is lined top to bottom with jars of spices.

DTLA art galleries and museums

More than 100,000 pieces of art in Los Angeles County Museum of Art 5905 Wilshire Blvd., guarantee that you’re not going to see all of them in this lifetime! But pick and choose and take in the ones that call to you. Free admission happens the second Tuesday of every month, otherwise it’s $15 for adults $10 for seniors 62 and older.
Temporary exhibitions include one on Samurai armour, another on Pierre Huyghe, and a third on the Hudson River School. Visit lacma.org for additional information.
The streets around LACMA also contain lots of art galleries.

The Four Seasons in Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico: It’s a jungle out there

“Uno, dos, tres,” counts Miguel, the water aerobics instructor at the Four Seasons’s Nuna infinity pool in Punta Mita, Mexico.  He nudges the guests to hoist their floating  barbells in the air, calling out, “come on, we’ll do a Spanish lesson, too.”

I feel for Miguel, whose real name is Inty Perales. He asks me to take the noon aerobics class but I don’t want to go by myself. Soon, two blond women swim over, though, then an Argentinian man shouts that he will take the class, one of many on tap at the resort daily.

It wasn’t easy convincing this group to join in. Just a few minutes earlier, for example, I  was floating in the crystal-clear water, clutching a frozen mango smoothie – all that I wanted to hoist in the air. And yet, there were the “chocolate delights” we received from room service the night before adding calories to my frame.

Waiters intermittently  brought swimmers and sunbathers water bottles, frozen chocolate cappuccinos and cool rolled towels. It’s easy to eat healthy here, since the four restaurants, Asamara, with a Mexican – Asian fusion, Bahia, right on Cuevas beach, Ketsi, a casual cafe, and Tail of the Whale, the a la carte eatery upstairs at the golf clubhouse.

The resort makes a good family venue, since there’s a kids’ camp, as well as the Lazy River and other activities the little ones can do while the adults play.

With triple digit temperatures producing high humidity, sluggishness reigned last Labor Day, producing very little labor.


Lots of choices, even during low season

The 45-minute drive from busy Puerto Vallarta International Airport takes you past Nueva Vallarta and Banderias to the gate for Punta Mita, which actually means ” gateway to paradise.”

Other resorts in the area include the St. Regis Hotel where you can dine in the award-winning Carolina restaurant.

The world-class Four Seasons resort spans 17,000 square feet and sits next to two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses with ocean views. Besides the “adults-only” Nuna pool, two others exist for guests’ pleasure.  Parents and children can navigate the Lazy River on inner tubes. Two fine sand beaches feature  bamboo “nesting swings” and canopied double beds. Ten tennis courts and a 55-foot yacht charter round out the recreational possibilities.


September marks the low season — high season starts in November — so nights often included intense showers and thunderstorms after sultry weather. We watched the choppy Bay of Banderas from the hammock of our oceanfront casita, a room I highly recommend.

The casita showcases Mexican hand-crafted items, like the blue embroidered bedspread.

Citing rough weather,  tour operators canceled our plans to visit the Marieta Islands, an archipelago and UNESCO MAB Biosphere  reserve.. The uninhabited islands were formed by volcanic activity but in the 1900s the military began test bombing. In the 1960s, scientist  Jacques Costeau led a successful fight to stop the explosions.

The Hidden Cave Beach lands on many “best beaches” lists. The bombing caused lots of caves and tunnels.Vallarta Adventures (www. vallarta-adventures.com) sponsors whale-watching, scuba-diving and fishing trips and a popular tour of the Marieta Islands. Vallarta Adventures also sponsors canopy trips for some extreme zip-lining.

You can also watch dolphins, whales, and sea turtles sleeping in the sun. The national park allows snorkeling, diving and kayaking. The boat ride to get to the islands takes an hour.


Enrique Alejos, a gastronomic and ecological enthusiast who claims to be the world’s only cultural concierge, hosts history lectures   and tasting classes. He explores Aztec and Mayan contributions to chocolate and tequila.


Concierge Enrique Alejos pouring Sangria for guests attending one of his lectures at the Four Seasons Hotel, Punta Mita

At a tequila tasting, guests sip from shot glasses to see if they can sense tobacco, eucalyptus, apple or pear notes. A wilder, more intense Napa Valley experience, complete with Sangria.

Alejos tells the group,  “my job is to make guests fall in love with Punta Mita.”

He also teaches the history of chocolate, which comes from Mexico.

The concierge also manages the resort’s turtle-release program, a particular favorite with families. A staff member described Alejos as “a sponge” with an encyclopedic knowledge of Huichol art and healing traditions. On any given day, Alejos discusses the history of Mexican chocolate or mescal and the Mayans.

Tequila must come from blue agave plants registered in one of five states, including the highlands of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. “The plants must be grown above sea level. Each agave will take ten years to grow.”

Apuane Spa pours on the tequila

The on-site Apuane Spa features beauty treatments like the Mayan Mud mani/pedi and the “Man for All Seasons”men’s 50- or 80-minute facial.

One can also choose the Punta Mita manicure, which uses tequila to exfoliate and soften hands. Stressing the healing properties of the spirits, Linda says, “some grandmas rub tequila on your body if you have pain.”


Signature treatments include the “Timexpert” anti-wrinkle, collagen and face-lifting facials; and the “Hakali” massage, which uses the local Huichol Indian floral hakali or nopal, cacti known for their healing qualities.

Guests might also enjoy a massage on the beach, an amazing experience on the newly revamped Manzanillas and Cuestas private beaches. Canopied day beds provide shade from the heat, woven swings invite couples to share . There are tables for snacks, served at the beachside surf shack.  At night, the resort sets a bonfire on the beach.

The palm trees, thatched roof and tiki lights add to the ambience of a tropical vacation. General Manager John O’Sullivan said the team wanted “to elevate our oceanfront address with a paradise experience on the beach.”

It’s probably one of the few places in the world with secluded suspended nests, a place to take in the tiki torches and candles.

For more information, visit fourseasons.com/puntamita or

Tossing the dice in Vegas

As you land in McCaren International Airport, you see a line of buildings rising out of the flat desert.

The last time I was here, Hunter S. Thompson had just written ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’ My ex and I were driving cross-country from Boston,escaping the chains of weekly family dinners that would one day seem like a good idea.

We settled in a campground on Lake Mead.  My makeup melted in my purse, which was on the front seat of our car. The heat was suffocating and I spent the whole time in a blue bathing suit my younger sister had sewn for me from scratch.

The “strip”  was then located on Fremont Street, what they now call the old downtown.  Dark, smoky casinos seemed shabby and filled with small-time criminals trying to roll their way out of whatever trouble they were in. I didn’t much like gambling, so I just played the slot machines for hours while my ex logged time on the blackjack tables.

It wasn’t glamorous like it is now, so I never came back.  Today’s strip is in an unincorporated area with an ironic name: Paradise.

As soon as we ambled down the jet walkway, carry-ons in hand, shiny neon machines greeted us, as if to let us know we were in Vegas.

A man at the Taxi sign told us we could buy shuttle tickets to the Venetian. We stopped at Caesar’s Palace, where cartoonish statues of Greek statesmen dotted the grounds.  Looking at the map, I saw New York New York and Paris, Las Vegas hotels.  We passed the Eiffel Tower.

Crowds thronged on the streets in the relentless sun. People seemed sweaty but they kept going. Maybe they were just taking walks on the famous strip.

According to Wikipedia, Frank Sinatra and his gang broke  color and ethnic barriers here.  Sinatra wouldn’t perform unless Sammy Davis, Jr., was given a room in the hotel.  Dean Martin performed here, too.  Now, the Venetian runs a Frank musical most nights.