Travel Diary: Celebrations in the Golden State

In case you missed it (though I’m not sure how), I’m a California girl. Born and bred, for the most part, though once I turned nine, I split my time between the Golden State and the Grand Canyon one. I’m lucky enough to consider them both home. However, most of my family still dwells in the golden hills of the wine country or the Sacramento valley. So, every year around my birthday, I head back there to hang out and celebrate.

This year was no different. (Okay, this year was a little different. Most years include a stop in Tahoe, but that trip’s happening later this time. That’s not really the point, though.)

This was less of a touristy trip than my last one to California, but it was filled with just as much good food and good wine as ever.

Where We Ate

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LemonGrass 
Maybe it’s because I never get to eat it at home, thanks to a boyfriend who is not so much a fan, but I will leap at any opportunity for Asian cuisine. Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean… I love ’em all. My grandparents took me to a Thai restaurant they love called LemonGrass, and it did not disappoint! Let alone the fact that they offer mini bottles of Mumm Brut (and I believe bubbles are essential to any birthday celebration), but they also have a to-die-for ginger ice cream for dessert. Yes, I know that sounds odd. I thought so too. Just trust me on this one.

(There was also a delightfully sassy elderly couple seated behind us. The man talked too loud and we heart all their romantic woes. They’ve got quite the love triangle happening! He escorted her out by the arm for another drink at her place, so I’d say he’s the front-runner in the race for her heart.)

Jack’s Urban Eats
Guys – I was SO excited to go back to this place! I used to love Jack’s when I was a kid. It’s a Panera-style restaurant that started out in midtown Sacramento, and I practically lived off their mac and cheese for an entire summer. We met my cousin for lunch here, and though I’ve grown up to enjoy a big salad for lunch, we of course had to get a side of mac and cheese and cheesy bread.

East West Cafe
The family Saturday morning breakfast club meets promptly at 8:00 a.m. at East West Cafe in Santa Rosa. Unless, of course, someone’s in town to convince the president of the club (aka my uncle) to push it back an hour. 😉

Regardless what people say about the food – and my family certainly has varying opinions there – there’s something to be said for being an out of towner and still feeling like a part of a weekly routine. While half of our rowdy bunch now orders off the menu, if you’re ever in the mood for a quasi-healthy breakfast and don’t mind not having your toast buttered, I wouldn’t not recommend it. Just tell them you know the Nelsons.

What We Did 

Yao Family Winery

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This was more of a me thing than anyone else, but you can’t go to the wine country and not taste some new wine!

On my dad and my’s commute over to Santa Rosa, we diverted through the picturesque wine town of St. Helena due to traffic on 80 (yes, Arizonans and So-Cal pals, the northern part of the country doesn’t put the word “the” in front of their freeways). My dad asked if I wanted to pop in for some wine tasting – to which the only answer should ever be a resounding yes! Of course, we ended up at the only winery in town owned by a basketball player. I guess because the boy couldn’t join this trip, it was only fitting. I tried the sauvignon blanc, rosé, and the sparkling wine. The bubbles, as you can probably imagine, were my favorite. The gigantic cutout of Yao Ming was my second favorite.

The Sonoma County Fair
Guys, this is probably my FAVORITE part of being in Sonoma County during August. While the fair is pretty much the same every year, you can’t not be sucked in by the small-town charm. This is so vastly different from the state fairs I’m so used to. There’s a little carnival that my family rarely rides on; there’s a hall of flowers that was dedicated this year to the firefighters that fought back against the Santa Rosa firestorm; there’s a whole room dedicated to crafts made by some super talented kids. This year, there was even a whole Harry Potter exhibit – which you know I had to take a seat in, and read a few pages.

Backyard Barbecues
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the big benefits of California summers – outdoor dining. My dad and his girlfriend spoiled us with a barbecue one night, and my family put on another barbecue for a little birthday party. It was a week of porches and sunsets, and even through the sadly smoky haze from the nearby fires, it was absolutely perfect. I already miss being able to sit outside without sweating.

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In fact, I already miss a lot of things about California. I often joke that I get into a post-trip “funk” no matter where I go, but the truth is that it’s worse when I come home from being at home. Maybe it’s that paradox that does it.

Granted, I did get a little extra time at home this time around, if only due to a massive dust storm in Phoenix that cancelled my flight. It all worked out in the end, though, and I got an unexpected, but much-needed evening with my cousin. (In case you’re reading this… only feet!)

I’m just so grateful that home is so close, and that it’s not too difficult to hop on over for whatever the occasion may be.

See you soon, California.

Travel Diary: Sacramento for 60 Years

Last weekend, I made my way back to the homeland (aka, the capital city of California), to gather with my family and a plethora of family friends to celebrate an incredible achievement for my grandparents: 60 years of marriage.

60 years.

A part of me is in complete awe by that inspiring number, but another part of me is just quite simply, inspired… and, frankly, always has been. It was mentioned throughout the weekend how my grandparents so fiercely set an example of love & aloha for our family, and that could not be more true. If there is one consistent with us (besides, of course, an affinity for good wine, which they also instilled in us), it’s the spirit of aloha.

I was born in Sacramento, so going back never quite feels like travel… a bit more like a homecoming. (Yes, I get this same feeling when I go back to the wine country, too. Is it spoiled to consider so many places home?)

Still, this particular trip turned us into tourists — literally, we went down to Old Town Sacramento, the small section of city alongside the river that clings on to the charm of when it was truly a train stop town.

The perks of being in town for celebrations — the anniversary coincidentally coincided with Father’s Day, which allowed me to sneak out to see my dad and his side of the family, too — is also the chance to indulge, more than you might normally on vacation. We were treated some very delicious Sacramento cuisine.

Where We Ate

I’m highlighting 2 of the places we went in this post, primarily because I forgot to get pictures of the crab melt at the third place (Rio City Cafe, if you’re curious).

Il Forno Classico

My grandparents are regulars here — so much so, that they actually knew the waitress we had in the back wine room, which we’d reserved for the party. Granted, this isn’t the only place they know the wait staff — their friendliness with everyone they meet is one of the many reasons we all love them.

As mentioned, our family rented the back wine room for the dinner party. The wine flowed, so did the bubbles, and the food. We had three delicious courses. The first of burratta, calamari, and bread, followed by the most delicious salad. My mom and I both got the ratatouille — and yes, I did request a cute little rat in the chef’s hat to accompany the dish.

But let’s talk about the dessert. I’ve got a family of sweet tooths (teeth?) — my stepdad and my grandfather in particular, and my aunt is always down for a good chocolate cake. We couldn’t decide, so plates of tiramisu and chocolate cake and creme brûlée made their way around the table.

Localis 

I went here with my dad’s side for Father’s Day brunch and I’ll use my dad’s words here: this was one of the best meals I’ve had since Italy (and I eat a lot of good food). Localis is, as the name might imply, a locally-sourced restaurant with an everchanging menu based on what’s seasonal and fresh. There’s a set menu for things like Father’s Day.

That set menu included a stone fruit salad, which just might have turned me into a fruit-in-salad convert.

Then came the vegetable hash, which was served with a side of roasted potatoes and the best green beans I may have ever eaten.

And let’s talk for a second about that dessert (there’s a theme here, if you couldn’t tell… I like dessert). The beauty of a restaurant that knows exactly how the play up flavors is that dishes don’t need a lot of show or spices or sugar. It’s simple. And simple food, if you ask me, is most often the best.

Localis had a sign in front when we were there:

Good vibes. Good food. Good Service. That describes Localis, and it describes the weekend. And, just maybe, it might describe the secret to my grandparents’ 60 years.

Good vibes… what will be, will be.

Good food… well, that one’s self explanatory.

Good service… to one another, to family, and to love.

60 years is a heck of an accomplishment, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be there to celebrate any other way.

Travel Diary: The Happiest Place On Earth

In case you (somehow) missed it, the boy and I took a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth this past weekend, Disneyland! Before we left, I posted about why I still love Disneyland at 23 and likely always will, and let me tell ya: this trip did not disappoint.

*Note: The rest of this post contains affiliate links – if you click through any of the links marked with an asterisk in the post below & make a purchase, I may receive compensation, at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

We got there for the first full weekend of PixarFest, which celebrates the soon-to-open Pixar Pier and all of the fantastic Pixar movies that Disney has come out with. As a die-hard Pixar fan with a particular fondness for Nemo (I’ve got a little fin, too!) I loved it. We aren’t the parade sort of people, but I dragged the boy over to watch part of the Pixar parade and it was totally worth it.

The only downside was that Pixar Pier is not quite open. It’ll be open this summer, which means I’ll have to wait until next year to experience it. But everything I’ve heard and seen so far promises that it will be worth the wait. They are revamping California Screamin’ to be the Incredicoaster, and the whole pier will have a new Pixar theme. I’ll put up with one weekend without for a whole lifetime of Pixar Pier goodness, I suppose.

For the first time, I brought along my digital camera. (I took the serious-about-blogging plunge and invested in a Sony HX80*, and I’m loving it.) There’s something about being able to capture the magic of Disney without being distracted by the pop ups and notifications on your phone that just made it all the more wonderful. Well, that, and I got some really good pictures, too.

What I Wore

Okay, so this isn’t what I usually put in my travel diary posts, but I feel that it is essential to showcase my Disney style. I like to stay comfy, but cute, at the parks, which means that slouchy soft tees and leggings or shorts are absolutely essential.

Now, I can’t totally remember where I got my jersey tee, but there’s a similar one here*. I love mine – it’s just flowy enough to keep you cool, but the extra sleeve length helps when those California events get chilly.

(Also, yes, I do the pin thing. I don’t trade them, though, but I do buy one or two pins for each trip I take. It’s a simple, sweet way to commemorate them. This trip, I got the Aztec Gold keychain that hangs from the bottom of my lanyard, and an Yzma pin. I got Kronk last year to signify the first year that I went with the boy – we really like The Emperor’s  New Groove – and figured I’d stick with that theme.)

Oh, and a pair of ears. You can’t forget the ears.

Where We Ate

So anyone who knows Disney knows that the food there is expensive – it’s kind of part of the experience, right? 😉

That said, we accept the prices and eat in the parks – partly for convenience, and partly because there are certain items that I must have every time. Like a Mickey pretzel.

Other places we ate include:

Alien Pizza Planet
Now, I’ll admit that this place isn’t my favorite, food-wise, at least. I love the atmosphere and feeling as if I’ve been transported into a Toy Story film, but the pizza isn’t the greatest and it’s extremely overpriced. That said, it’s a buffet-style which makes for a short wait time, and there’s plenty of seats, which as anyone knows, is really hard to say for a Disneyland restaurant.

Churro Carts
This one is a given. Churros are like their own food group at Disney, am I right?

Galactic Grill
Surprisingly, I’ve never eaten at the quick-serve restaurant that also serves as seating for the Jedi training experience in Tomorrowland. We ended up there because we got hungry right before the fireworks and didn’t want to risk a trip to Main Street post-Matterhorn. They were out of the veggie wrap I wanted, so I ended up with a salad and a free side of fries – plus, again, tons of seating! We even got a pretty good (partial) view of the fireworks as we ate.

Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe
Okay guys – I LOVE this place, more for its Mary Poppins theme and Mickey macarons than anything else. However, I also feel like this is one of the few places in Disney where you get a good bang for your buck when it comes to portion sizes. Settled right at the end of Main Street, it’s also a great place to people watch as everyone takes pictures by the Walt & Mickey statue.

Smokejumpers Grill (California Adventure)
Honestly, we picked this place because we were hungry before our Soarin’ Fast Passes, and they gave us a free cup of water one time and we liked them for it. We stayed for the waffle fries and cheesy croutons.

Our Game Plan

This is the important part, right? Everyone does Disney differently, and I’m lucky to go with someone who does it close to my way. We go for 2 days, so our goal is to get as much as possible done the first day so we can relax a bit on the second. That said, we also plan our mornings accordingly. The first morning we always hit Frontier/Adventureland first – we grab Indiana Jones Fast Passes, then hit up the only-short-in-the-morning-and-at-night line for Pirates, before making our way to the Haunted Mansion. Depending on how cold it is, sometimes we even hit Splash Mountain that early! The line is much shorter at 9 am, let me tell ya.

The second morning we go for Tomorrowland. We grab our Star Tours Fast Passes and jump right in line for Space Mountain – somehow, this always works out really well timing-wise.

After the morning mania, we kind of just go where the lines let us.

This was the first time we’ve ever used the app to check wait times. We could have paid 10 extra dollars a day, per person, for the Max Pass, and used it to get Fast Passes more easily, too, but both of us are sort of against that concept. There’s enough people on their phones at Disney – why did we need to add to that? Plus, we personally believe that part of the fun is playing the Fast Pass game… aka, running from ride to ride to see if you can get the right passes at the right time. Luckily, we’re pros at that game.

Honestly, though, I wouldn’t care if we stood in line for 3 hours or 3 minutes. There’s just something magical about Disneyland that makes you forget about being an adult for a second. And being there with someone you love – be it the boy, some friends, or family – makes it all the more magical.

Oh yeah – and we saw Kris Jenner getting off a ride. Well, I was trying to get a picture of Big Thunder Mountain as the train came around the bend, but everyone around us saw her. And screamed. Loudly. So there’s that.

Why I Still Love Disneyland at 23 (And Always Will)

I love Disney. This isn’t news at all to those who know me, and likely isn’t very surprising for anyone who has spent any time on my various forms of social media. Our Friday night movie nights have slowly turned into Friday night Disney night, and one of my favorite workout playlists (or, frankly, just favorite playlists in general) is my “Disney Hits” compilation.

Now, I personally don’t think it’s all that strange to have such an unending love for Mickey and all of his friends at my age, especially considering the generation I was raised in. I mean, come on. My childhood was smack dab in the middle of the Disney Renaissance. (Well, technically, it was at the tail end of them, if you feel like getting really specific, but I don’t.)

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I’ve heard, however, that some people think being so in love with Disney in your twenties is odd. I’ve even had some unsolicited opinions targeted in my direction, which, while I don’t take any offense to them, I’m still a bit baffled by. What’s the harm in finding joy in something that is meant to do just that?

The boy and I will be in Disneyland tomorrow. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition, if you can consider something you’re doing 2 years in a row a tradition, which I’m choosing to do. We chose the end of April very specifically: last year, it was because he was working in tax, and a post-April-15th trip to a place that is designed to bring back the magic of childhood was exactly what the doctor ordered. We realized that it was also a really great time to go: right after the spring break madness and before school lets out for the summer. The lines are (a tad bit) shorter, and there’s (relatively) more breathing room. Not that the crowds would bother us regardless, as we know perfectly well what we’re getting ourselves into with a trip to the parks, but it’s a good perk.

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That said, we made a pact to come back again the next April. Granted, there’s no more tax deadline prompting us to do so, but we made a deal to do it, and here we are, going back to the happiest place on earth almost exactly a year after our last trip. And I am so stoked.

Because the magic of Disney has nothing to do with the commercialism. I don’t love it because it’s highly Instagramable, or because there’s really cute rose gold Mickey ears. I love it for the smell of churros wafting from the gates, for the anticipation that builds the second you hear that chiming Main Street music. I love it for the lack of responsibility, for the thrill of Space Mountain, and for the genuine excitement I feel when I track down (and subsequently run after) Peter Pan.

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Fun fact: I owe him 500 churros for taking this picture with me. And he, of course, had to be in front. Because he’s Peter.

I love it because it’s nostalgic, and I think that in that nostalgia is exactly where Disney finds its magic.

Now, I realize that my attitudes towards Disney will likely change as I get older and life changes. If I ever go with kids, I’m sure I’ll experience the frustration of toting a toddler around. But seeing a child squeal with pure elation because they’re about to give Tigger a hug is a feeling like no other — I get excited when it happens now, and I’m nowhere close to having kids! It reminds me of my own visits to the parks before I was old enough to know there was a human hiding in that costume.

And the thing is, Disney’s dynamic draw goes beyond just the parks. Watching a classic Disney movie, or listening to the music, or going to see how the Imagineers have reinvented something that came out when I was a kid… it’s all heartwarming. It makes me feel so happy, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I’m pretty sure, that’s exactly what makes it so great.

So yes, I love Disney at 23. I loved it at 2. And I can’t wait to love it even more when I’m 83.

See you tomorrow, Mickey.

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Travel Diary: City of Angels

Los Angeles is the city of angels, beautiful weather, an unfortunately blue baseball team… and traffic. I went this last weekend and was reminded that no matter how long I have to spend in the car getting from place to place, I’m always infinitely happier when I cross the state line.

What We Did

We were mostly there for a girls weekend. One of our friends had her 25th birthday party, another was home from Denver, another is starting law school soon, and a third is about to leave for Spain. It was just a good time for us to get together.

I also snuck in a short visit with my cousin while everyone else was sleeping Sunday morning. Her and I did the “quintessential LA hike” – aka Runyon Canyon. And let me tell you… the views were absolutely gorgeous. I get why people fall in love with this city.

Where We Ate

Jinky’s Cafe
This has become a bit of a staple for my LA trips, because who says no to table tots? They also call their avocado toast guacamole toast, and I completely respect that they make no attempt to hide what it truly is. It’s literally guacamole on toast, and it’s delicious.

Boomtown Brewery
This was the site of the birthday party, and it’s got a really chill vibe and a very Instagrammable wall (priorities). There’s also a food truck outside that serves up a variety of fries. We accidentally got ours with buffalo cauliflower instead of buffalo chicken, but let me tell ya – that’s the best order mess up we’ve ever had.

Wurstkuche
Apparently, this place is famous. I’m not the biggest sausage fan, but they had a vegan option, which was oddly delicious.

Pro tip: there can be a bit of a line, though, so get there early or be patient!

The Bellwether
Good food, odd concept. Everything comes out as it’s ready, which can be great for grazing, but for us just meant that 2 of us got our avocado toast before the others got their respective French toast and chilaquiles. That said, I’m looking forward to going back when I don’t have a 6 hour drive ahead of me – the cocktails looked delicious!

So, there you have it: a quick recap of my quick trip to the second best city in California 😉

Next trip across the state line will be to Disneyland – you already know that I can’t wait!

Thank You, Tahoe

If you know me personally (and, for some of you, even if you don’t), you know that my family has been going through a bittersweet transition. We’ve had a place at Lake Tahoe for nearly 50 years, and it has come to the point to make the decision to sell the condo.

My mom and I went into our visit this past weekend with a positive mindset. Partly because, you can’t not be excited to go to Tahoe. And partly because, well, realistically, Tahoe isn’t going anywhere. The lake is large, gorgeous, and people are making a constant and consistent effort to Keep Tahoe Blue. We have the condo for two weeks at Christmas, and our family has plenty of friends that have – incredibly kindly – offered to let us stay, whenever we want.

I’m grateful for that.

And this weekend was absolutely lovely. It always is. The Lake is our “happy place” and it is virtually impossible not to enjoy yourself while you’re there.

I mean, just look at it. It’s breathtaking.

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And Tahoe has given me, and my family, so much.

From Wet Woody’s on the deck at Gar Woods…

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To learning (at a very late age) how to (pathetically) build a snowman…

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(Hey, I live in the desert. Give me a break. )

To bonding over, and devouring, the best dessert known to man. (If you’re ever at Jake’s/Kimo’s/Dukes, get the Hula Pie. You won’t regret it.)

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The family acquired a taste for wine at an early age at canoeing at a more appropriate one…

My aunt and uncle met on the beach there…

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I got carded by the waitress who has known me since before I was born…

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And no matter what happens between our visits, Tahoe never changes. (Well, the shoreline occasionally does. And sometimes, you know, there’s snow.)

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter who owns a condo or where we end up staying. It doesn’t even really matter if we make it back again – although, of course, that’s blasphemy. The Arute blood can’t stay away from those crystal waters too long.

Sure, the beauty of Tahoe is certainly something. There is an air of magic about the place. And that is definitely a tantalizing quality.

But the most magical part of the whole place?

It’s where our memories were made. And our memories aren’t going anywhere… and beyond that, there’s a plethora of future memories waiting to be experienced.

Again.

Tahoe isn’t going anywhere. So thanks, Tahoe, for everything we’ve gotten from you and everything we’ll continue to get.

(But I would appreciate if the pier would reopen.)

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