Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Riding Easy

Anyone who's been to Taos, New Mexico certainly appreciates what a great escape it is no matter the season. In the winter, you can hit the slopes at Taos Ski Valley. In the summer, it's a variety of festivals and one mellow day after another.

This summer, the festival spirit will still ring true. It may be a bit more boisterous, however, with the Taos Summer of Love 2009 hitting town.

No doubt that Easy Rider reigns as one of the most supreme biker flicks of all time. The brilliance of writer, director and actor Dennis Hopper paved the way for "The New Hollywood" by sparking independent filmmaking fever in 1969. And, more importantly, the film showed the country what it meant to be a free spirit in the late 1960s.

Film and theme fanatics can re-live the psychedelic era as they blaze a trail to Hopper's home at the time of filming and the location of many of the movie's most famous scenes during this one-in-a-lifetime experience.

From May through September, the Taos Summer of Love 2009 will feature an array of events, art, film and music. Not only will you be able to indulge in everything artistic and free about Taos, but you'll also be able to ride the same roads filmed in Easy Rider. And you could potentially meet Hoper himself, as he'll be cruising around town throughout the summer.

Festival events actually include two Hopper-related shows - "Silver Gelatin Prints by Hopper" and "Hopper Curates." The latter features artwork by five artists who are also Hopper's long-time peers - Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis, Ken Price and Robert Dean Stockwell.

You can also join thousands of fellow bikers May 22 - 25 at the 26th Annual Memorial Day Motorcycle Rally & Run to Taos' Vietnam Memorial. The weekend will feature live music and food, and a mobile Matanza on the Taos Plaza that will commemorate the town's 75th anniversary. The Red Driver Classic Car Show will be held June 5 - 7 and the Toast of Taos Wine Festival launches July 3.

Events aside, any motorcycling fan will drool over the rugged, scenic landscapes and wide-open spaces that make Taos famous. Stretching more than 1,200 feet from rim to rim, the Rio Grande Gorge offers visitors views of astonishing lava flows that extend to the Rio Grande Canyon. At 806 feet, its bridge is the fifth highest in the U.S.

So dust off the love beads and pack your fringed leather jacket. Then roll on to Taos for The Summer of Love!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Yard House Taps Temecula

I've tasted my way through the Southern California wineries of Temecula more times than I care to recall. On my last visit, one of my buddies finally fessed up that he was no fan of exploring the reds and whites of this grape-growing region. He simply joined us to share a little quality time. All he really wanted was a dose of hops and barley, which was naturally missing from our winery tasting menus.

With the grand opening of Yard House on March 22, he has relentlessly hounded me to head back to Temecula this weekend. And since I've loved my suds much longer than wine, I'm definitely in. In fact, I'm such a Yard House fan that I may even be tempted to opt out of chardonnays and cabernets entirely on this visit.

Why bother when the alternative is a tempting fleet of 130 brews. I've frequented San Diego's Gaslamp Yard House after Padres games. And I've spent many a happy hour at the Yard House in my old Honolulu neighborhood that's now home to the Waikiki Beach Walk. So I'm curious as to the type of crowd Temecula's version attracts on a sunny spring afternoon.

Oh, and then there's the tempting menu packed with American fusion fare. With more than 100 items, it includes a creative culinary roster of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, steak and seafood. I'm a huge fan of the Hawaiian Ahi Stack, which is consistently mouthwatering every time I order it.

Some two-dozen plasma screens are strategically placed throughout the restaurant so guests can enjoy the latest sporting and news events. With my alma mater still battling in both the mens' and womens' divisions of the March Madness NCAA Basketball Tournies, it's a sure bet where my eyes will be glued.

This weekend, I will definitely skip the wineries. It's a Hollywood Blonde and a Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale while watching basketball, baby!

Yard House is located in The Promenade off 1-15 at Winchester Road in Temecula, CA. Hours are from 11am. Call 951-296-3116 or visit www.yardhouse.com.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beauty, Banos & Big Name Golfers

My fingers are crossed. When visiting Huatulco, Oaxaca last week, I was told by various visitor industry contacts that Mexicana Airlines plans to launch much-needed nonstop service from LAX to HUX this summer. The destination certainly warrants the convenient West Coast access with its emerging eco-tourism options, remarkable cuisine, sparkling bays, rich cultural diversions, roster of fine accommodations and commitment to continue development on a very well-conceived path.

For me, the only downside to this destination is that lack of accessibility. If you live in Houston, you're in luck since nonstop service is operated via Continental out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport several days a week. The schedule fluctuates with the season.

From the West Coast, however, it makes for a very long day of traveling. I had to change planes in Phoenix, and switch from the International to Domestic terminal in Mexico City (an airport I purposely avoid when I have an option) before finally reaching this jewel some 13 hours after my initial San Diego flight departed. And that's a shame since I arrived at the Crown Pacific after dark and was unable to soak in all the beauty of the setting for another 12 hours.

Bear in mind that the distance is a mere 1,756 miles. I can fly 2,600 miles from San Diego to Hawaii in about five hours. There needs to be an easier way to experience this sliver of Mexican paradise!

On my first visit in 2004, I fell in love with Huatulco for so many reasons - but especially because it wasn't over-developed and it was void of American fast food franchises. Sure, it has definitely grown since then. But it's still very much under control. And it's still franchise-free. I recall going to another Mexican resort area after being away for eight years and not really recognizing my haunts from the previous adventure. If they still existed, they were now buried behind some new shopping strip or restaurant. The charm was missing. That's not the case in Huatulco.

All this said, I did have two memorable experiences during my much dreaded layover at Mexico City International Airport. The first occurred when I asked a finely clad woman in my finest Spanish "A donde esta el bano?" And she remarked in even finer English "I don't speak English." I now realize I didn't have my A game going. Had I, I would have likely said something unpleasant. And had she reacted, I could have confirmed she was not being honest about her lack of ability to speak English. If she said nothing, I could have gloated in getting away with one. By the way, she could have easily pointed to the bano since she definitely knew that word and it was directly behind me.

A much more pleasant experience came while checking in for my flight to Phoenix. In line in front of me was Lorena Ochoa, the pride of Guadalajara and the top player on the LPGA's Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings. Close up and in person, she looked just as clean and fresh as she did on a billboard I had passed earlier outside the check-in area. I've always been a fan, but I'm an even bigger one now. Seeming very humble and grounded, she was free of an entourage. It was just Lorena filling out a tag for her behemoth golf bag.

After clearing customs and immigration in Phoenix, I was checking the flight board for the final leg of my return. Lorena was coming through the deceptive revolving doors with her behemoth golf bag sideways on a luggage cart. I say deceptive because the entrance is wide, but the exit is much more narrow and somewhat awkward for squaring off. So she found herself in an airport rough of sorts. With a little help, Lorena tweaked the direction of the cart and made her way through. I'm sure she'll be just as unrattled in tight situations when she shoots for a three-peat at the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International by Mirrasou Winery in Phoenix March 26 - 29.

Temple Tripping in Taipei

Was it the blonde hair or the doe-eyed look of bewilderment that tipped her off? Regardless, hearing a stranger say "I will help you. Follow me," was as sweet to my ears as the sound of the chimes twinkling in the breeze.

A temple newbie, I obediently tagged along attempting to mirror my new mentor's moves as we maneuvered through the smoke shrouded chambers of Taipei's colorful Lungshan Temple (211 Guangzhou St., tel 886 2 2302 5162).

Originally constructed in the 18th century as a temple for Kuan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, Lungshan welcomed more than one hundred other deities as new settlers transported their local gods when migrating from Mainland China's Fujian Province. Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea, and Kuan Kung, the God of War, are the most prominent among these.

Often referred to as the "meeting place of the gods," the 271-year-old sacred shrine has seen tough times. Yet, it always bounced back. It was resurrected after being leveled by an earthquake in 1815, and damaged by both an 1865 typhoon and wayward Allied bomb during WWII.

Time has been gentle since the edifice's last restoration in 1957. Kuan Yin survived each devastation, as if to show the world that it is a place where kindness ultimately prevails.

Unloading a riot of ornate decor, the temple's Ching-dynasty style architecture had my head spinning with its ceramic dragons, detailed woodcarvings, exquisite bronze work and stone sculptures. And no doubt, the burning incense intensified that condition.

Following my temple tutor from one deity to the next, I was amazed at the calmness in a setting that was buzzing with worshippers chanting, bowing and shuffling about. Lungshan is typically packed with a large crowd offering incense, fruit and spirit money to the multi-denominational deities. And on this particular day at the end of Chinese New Years, the activity was amplified.

As we jousted for position around a huge yellow lantern with our joss sticks in hand, I prayed that the stranger's goodwill was more than a random courtesy. And it proved to be. This was just a taste of the warmth and hospitality I encountered throughout my eight-day sojourn on "Ilha Formosa," the beautiful island of Taiwan.

Friday, March 6, 2009

French Connection

For years, New Caledonians have used the catch phrase "France In The Pacific" to promote their country to primarily Aussies, Kiwis, Japanese and Europeans. It's certainly that, as fashionistas cross paths with the more casually-clad locals in brightly colored clothing reflecting an island lifestyle.

That softened Pacific attitude makes this destination even more appealing, especially among travelers into warm tropical weather, captivating culture, inspiring landscapes and water that's as intensely turquoise as it is rich with marine life.

For a little perspective, New Caledonia is composed principally of the Isle of Pines, Loyalty Islands, and mainland divided into Northern and Southern provinces. The archipelago is tucked amid a trio of better-know getaways - Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. So it's a perfect destination for travelers heading to any of these more prominent destinations. But for those into diving, there's little need to go elsewhere. The mainland is cocooned in the world's largest lagoon, with water temperatures that range from an inviting 70 to 82 degrees.

Upon arriving at Tontouta International on my Aircalin flight from LAX, I hit the ground running. I took in the Tjibaou Cultural Center, which paid off in trumps since it gave me a solid background on New Caledonia's Kanak people and what I'd be exposed to on the trip.

After a healthy does of local insight, I headed back to the colorful capital of Noumea. This scenic peninsula city definitely reflects diversity that was fashioned throughout the past by sailors and missionaries, governing French military and the U.S. Army during WWII. Today, Noumea emits a distinctive European feel with its colonial buildings, town square, gardens, markets, designer boutiques, patisseries and sidewalk cafes. For handy sightseeing, a small train makes a scenic circuit that stops at key sites between the city center and the main tourist area of Anse Vata.

Tight on time but determined to explore the Southern Province's interior landscapes, I opted for Caledonia Tours (caledoniatours@lagoon.nc) excursion to Blue River Park. Our host was perhaps the most well versed guide I've ever encountered. The 22,350-acre forest reserve is home to a plethora of native plants and wildlife, including the territory's rare cagou bird.

While my stay was brief, it was certainly filled with a satisfying taste that will lure me back again. Be sure to upgrade from economy to at least business class on the flight, as it's a long haul. And you'll want to be sure to be well rested once you arrive since there's so much to see and do.