Category: Travel

Catalina Island Offers At Least A Full Day of Fun, Relaxion and Adventure

I have traveled to California most all my life. As far south as San Diego and up north past San Francisco in the wine country. Los Angeles and Orange County have been my sweet spot for decades as I enjoy the hustle of Hollywood and the nearby sunny beaches.

I’ve spent countless years staring out at the Pacific Ocean wondering how far it is to Hawaii, in my mind the closest land mass to the west of SoCal. But how could I forget another famous island where people go to play and enjoy the sun, but just 22 miles away?

Catalina here I come.

The only things I really knew about Catalina Island were from a Beach Boys song and a memorable scene from the Will Ferrell movie “Step Brothers.” It seemed beautiful (though most of that scene was not shot on the island) but it was presented in a way that one must visit the lush, mountainous landmass with sparkling blue harbors.

During a recent swing to the left coast I decided to make a trip to Catalina to see what all the hubbub was about, if not to find remnants of that (explicative) wine mixer made famous in that 2008 film.

Getting There

I suppose the rich and famous take their private helicopters across the water to Catalina. A helipad sits about a mile south of Avalon, the largest community on the island. There is even an airstrip for planes up near the highest point. However, most visitors come by boat.

Catalina Express operates the main charter service to-and-from Catalina Island. Departing from three ports – San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point – the company offers up to 30 daily departures to Avalon and Two Harbors. According to a company spokesperson, Catalina Express transports nearly one million passengers annually.

Ticketing is like booking a flight. I logged on to the website and booked a few tickets from Long Beach to Avalon in a matter of minutes. There is even a higher “class” of seating called the Commander Lounge that offers a quieter and comfier experience than a standard ticket. The lounge has retractable seats with an attendant who serves a drink (alcohol or not) that comes with the ticket.

We arrived at the Long Beach terminal about an hour before our morning departure. Parking was convenient – if not pricey at $19 per day – in a covered garage.

Though we were going only for the day equipped with a small backpack, several passengers were wheeling luggage into the terminal. These were travelers who were staying on the island for a few days in some of the private homes and hotels. Each passenger rolled their luggage onto a storage area on the boat and retrieved them upon arrival.

Our vessel held around 400 passengers and departed right on time. It was a smooth cruise across the Pacific as a I sipped a Bloody Mary, watching the sun rise and keeping an eye open for dolphins that sometime swim near the boats.

We arrived in Avalon about an hour later ready to soak in the atmosphere that looked so inviting in the Catalina Express brochures.

Best Way Too See The Island

As we stepped off the boat onto the long dock, we could see how tall and hilly this 76-square mile rock really is. Large, leafy trees crept up the slopes with colorful houses and apartments popping out of the green scenery.

This is an ideal place for hikers and we saw many of them. I’d recommend a good pair of walking boots, a hiking stick and lots of water should you journey his way.

We opted for an easier mode to explore and traverse the steep terrain by renting a golf cart. Automobiles are scarce on Catalina so many residents get around via these gas-powered vehicles. They are the perfect size for the small streets and certainly easier to park in the tiny town.

Catalina Island Golf Carts rents 4- and 6-seat carts for about $50 per hour. It is a good idea to make a reservation before you arrive especially on a weekend. I signed in at the kiosk near the dock and off we went. Up, up, and up.

We headed south to follow the scenic tour signs to be sure and catch the most picturesque sites on Catalina. The convenience of a golf cart allows you to go at your own pace and stop as often as you’d like. Within 10 minutes we were perched on one of the highest overlooks of Avalon and the harbor. It was breathtaking and gave us bearings for the rest of our day.

Hundreds of feet below us, dozens of private boats were floating in the calm harbor water. It seemed as if they were anchored there overnight, if not for days. And why not? Catalina has long been a getaway destination to lounge in the sun and splash in the crystal blue water. If I lived in SoCal and had a boat this is where I’d hang out on most summer weekends.

Beyond the boats sits probably the most iconic landmark of Avalon, the Casino. Built in 1929 at a cost of $2 million, no gambling takes place – or ever took place – at the enormous, round auditorium. The word “casino,” it seems, means “a gathering place” in Italian. The building is used for events and shows movies regularly.

After snapping a ton of photos, we hopped back on the golf cart to continue our tour through town. Another hill led us past a golf course to the picturesque Wrigley Museum. The same Wrigley family as in the chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs held their spring training camp on Catalina Island from 1921-1951, except for a short break during World War II. The Wrigley name still has a large presence everywhere you go.

We passed several hotels and some over-the-top homes wondering if people lived here year-round or just used them for leisurely escapes. Most all of them have wonderous views of the harbor down below.

We finished our island excursion in about 90 minutes as we returned the golf cart back to the waterfront just in time for lunch.

Eat, Drink, Enjoy The Views

There are many options to dine in Avalon with most centered around the harbor and dotting the nearby streets. Small cafes serving crepes and sandwiches were crowded with visitors and locals soaking in the sun on flower-filled patios. Sounds of laughter could be heard drifting out of bars that offer exotic drinks and cold beer.

We wanted to find a place with a perfect view of the water to enjoy the nice breeze on this Sunday afternoon. The Bluewater Grill was the perfect destination. The only true waterfront restaurant in town, this centrally-located building has a large deck that juts out over the harbor. We didn’t bother opening the menu for at least 10 minutes as we stared out at the water on a picture-perfect day.

The restaurant is part of the Bluewater Grill group on the Mainland and sources the globe for the freshest seafood. It’s a casual, fun setting with a large, open bar area, sushi and oyster bars and great hospitality.

Our waitress recommended some of the more popular cocktails and appetizers. Within minutes we were sipping and snacking to our hearts’ content. The artichokes with lemon butter tasted like they were picked fresh that morning and the chicken wings had just the right spice. I was talked into the menu favorite – lightly fried shrimp and fish with a large helping of French fries. I was on vacation, after all. Deliciousness.

The lobster tail was tender and there are vegan and child options. We were told we couldn’t leave without trying the bread pudding, so we had to oblige. The memorable meal left us feeling like fat, happy cats, but we knew we would work it off with the rest of the day’s activities.

Catalina From Above

While we saw most everything on land during our golf cart tour, there is another angle worth seeing. From high above the harbor. 800 feet high to be exact. While being pulled from a boat with a large parachute above your head. Yes, it was time to parasail.

I have parasailed a few times during trips to Mexico, but this “flight” was extra special. Catalina Island Parasail offers the experience of floating through the air while a speedboat navigates in-and-around the harbor. And the view is spectacular.

It’s a surreal experience. A two-person harness is launched from the boat’s deck to let you float in almost absolute silence. The panoramic view of the island is something you don’t see every day and certainly can’t see from land.

The experienced crew safely guided us up towards the sky for a 10-minute tour that could have lasted for hours. We opted to purchase photos they took from the boat so we could prove to everyone that we floated in paradise.

More Activities

We didn’t want to leave Catalina without experiencing a little more adventure. We then walked north a bit past the Casino into the Descanso Canyon. Catalina Aerial Adventure is set up here complete with zip lines that crisscross the mountains and a thrilling obstacle course suspended in trees.

We harnessed up and spent the next hour laughing like kids as we negotiated wood planks and slides that led from treetop to treetop.

All Ashore

Our daylong trip to Catalina Island was coming to end so we scurried through town towards the Catalina Express. But not before stopping at Lloyd’s of Avalon. The line stretching out the front door sensed something good was being served.

Lloyd’s has been making salt water taffy, caramel apples, peanut brittle, fudge and chocolates in the window on Crescent Avenue in Avalon since 1934. The sweet smell of sugar was wafting throughout the deep store, but our snack of choice was hand-dipped ice cream cones. Families gathered outside with all sorts of tasty treats, possibly to reward themselves of a day well spent.

Our boat was right on time as the sun was still in the sky. Passengers were starting to board, headed back to Long Beach from at least an overnight stay somewhere on the island. We fell into our Commodore Lounge seats with barely enough energy to order one final round of beer during the hour-long trip to the Mainland.

Halfway through the voyage we watched the sun begin to set into the Pacific Ocean through the large, tinted windows of boat. I took a stroll outside on the large, open, back deck to make sure I got a few last photos of the water and took in a final breath of the clean, sea air.

And just like that, we were back at the Catalina Express terminal.

There are many things to do and see on Catalina Island. Had we stayed another day or two I probably would have got in a round of golf, camped in a tent overnight, and hiked across the rugged wilderness. But our one day visit to this beautiful piece of land gave us something to look forward to the next time we head out to west to California.

After all, I still did not find that (expletive) wine mixer.

LISTEN to my recap here as heard on my radio show:

Resources:

Catalina Express
www.catalinaexpress.com

Catalina Island
www.visitcatalina.com

Catalina Island Parasail
www.parasailcatalina.com/

Catalina Golf Cart
www.catalinaislandgolfcart.com/

Bluewater Grill Avalon
www.bluewatergrill.com/

Catalina Aerial Adventur
www.catalinatours.com/

Lloyd’s of Avalon
www.catalinacandy.com/

FOUR SISTERS INNS OFFER BOUTIQUE STAYS WITH EXOTIC LOCALES

By Michael Garfield

I’m not really a bed & breakfast-type guy. I don’t usually stay in small, quaint hotels during my travels as I prefer the amenity-filled, affinity point-driven hotel chains. I know what to expect and I usually get it.

So during a recent swing through southern California I opted to check out (actually check in to) a few of these “boutique” hotels to see if I was missing out on something other than all those frequent stayer points.

My conclusion – I should have kept an open mind a long time ago.

I spent weeks searching for places to stay in or around Los Angeles. I saw inland motels starting at $99 per night and stopped looking when I found beach hotels and Beverly Hills locations. My nightly budget does not allow for four figures. Maybe I should not have chosen to visit during the busiest time of the year for local stays – summer.

Upon readjusting my standard “how many Bonvoy points can I get for staying here” thoughts, I decided to look for places that didn’t first pop up in OTAs. And I found the Four Sisters Inns website.

Cool photos. Easy process to check rates. But I was lured in by the company description of its collection of “boutique inn and hotels located in the best areas of California.” Time to check in.

INN AT PLAYA DEL REY

Not far from LAX sits Playa del Rey, “the last small beach town in Los Angeles” according to the city’s website. Overlooking the protected Ballona Wetlands is the Inn at Playa del Rey, an inviting two-story, Victorian-style building.

The hotel is within easy walking distance of beaches, shopping and restaurants. My normal routine after checking into a hotel is to bounce around the neighborhood to see the sights. But once entering my marina view guestroom I did something out of my norm. I sat on the balcony in the cool LA breeze just gazing out.

The room was well-appointed with a king bed, couch, chairs and a desk. Though some features were a bit dated such as the bathtub and telephone wall jacks, I found everything to be clean, roomy and comfy.

But I quickly realized the reason that many travelers opt to stay in cozy hotels like this. The friendliness and warmth of the staff. It was like visiting a family member’s home where you have free range of most everything like the living room and kitchen.

Heather Suskin is the Manager at the Inn at Playa del Rey – employed here for almost 20 years – and enjoys seeing regular guests. Her guided tour offered the history of the inn and showcased the beautiful features like the large gathering room complete with couches, books and board games.

I arrived just in time for evening happy hour – a nice selection of hors d’oeuvres and wine. Heather told me not to fill up too much as breakfast the next morning would have fresh-baked pastries, omelets, and fruit.

Never again will I opt for pre-made pancakes and day-old bread at those other chain places.

Some may take benefits like complimentary WiFi and parking for granted. But parking in the LA area is like searching for gold and then paying the going rate. These included features at the Inn at Playa del Rey made my stay even more enjoyable.

Rates here (according to the card) start at $225-300 for a Cozy Queen Guestroom and increase to a Family Suite from $385-475 up to a Two Bedroom Suite at $545-650.

Accounting for the delightful community, the complimentary amenities (did I mention the freshly-baked cookies, too?), and the comforting, inviting feeling of the staff, the Inn at Playa del Rey will indeed change my travel habits.

Inn at Playa Del Rey
435 Culver Blvd, Playa del Rey, CA 90293
(310)574-1920

www.innatplayadelrey.com

BLUE LANTERN INN

As if I wasn’t already convinced that Inn Life (I need to trademark that) was for me, I ventured south to Orange County to relax in cooler weather near the sandy beaches and tall cliffs.

I checked into another Four Sisters property, the Blue Lantern Inn, and realized the concept the company strives for. Though all related by brand, each of the properties offers a different feel and look yet retains the warm friendliness of the staff and comfort you expect at home.

Featured on Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List and ranked as a “Top U.S. Seaside Inn” by Travel and Leisure Magazine, Blue Lantern Inn is an incredibly memorable venue. Situated on Street of the Blue Lantern in Dana Point, this 29-room inn is breathtaking from every angle outside.

That includes looking straight up from the harbor 165-foot drop-off below. The Blue Lantern Inn is gloriously perched at the top of a bluff with, inarguably, the most scenic point of this most scenic city.

Painted in a light shade of blue that mimics the early morning sky, the inn welcomes visitors with a long patio dotted with tables and chairs. Morning breakfast and late afternoon wine-and-cheese is offered to guests who fill these tables with a breathtaking view of the Dana Point harbor and wharf below.

Lin McMahon has been the General Manager of the Blue Lantern Inn for 25 years and told me the venue is much more than an overnight stay destination. “Our guests have been coming here for years and usually plan their stays for special occasions like weddings and anniversaries. The intimate and relaxing setting we offer brings people from across the world through our doors,” she said.

Those front doors were opened during my stay. Probably to show how inviting the inn could be but also for the SoCal winds to remind you that this is as close to perfect as a hotel can be.

The lobby is large yet feels like a comfortable cabin complete with hardwood floors, a large fireplace surrounded by couches, and more tables to enjoy the buffet-style style offerings in the morning and afternoon.

Beyond the lobby is a large library with another fireplace and more couches. This area can be used for private events or a quiet time reading books about the history of Dana Point (whale watching!) and playing parlor games I had as a kid.

Each room has a queen, king or two beds, fireplace, flat-screen TV, and a large bathroom with a jetted spa. My first-floor room had an ocean view with a walkout patio that wrapped around the hotel for non-stop spectacular views.

Like its sister property I stayed in at Playa del Rey, the Blue Lantern Inn offers complimentary breakfast, afternoon wine and snacks, freshly-baked cookies, on-site parking, WiFi and bicycles to borrow.

Rooms are listed at $200-600 per night with group rates (upon availability) Sunday to Thursday.

I’d like to think I have another good 40 years of traveling in me. As much as I’d like to accumulate more frequent stayer points at those large, worldwide hotel chains, I will undoubtedly be spending a lot of my upcoming years at smaller, boutique venues like the Four Sisters Inns.

After all, there’s no place like home.

Blue Lantern Inn
34343 Street of the Blue Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629
(800)950-1236

www.bluelanterninn.com

Listen to my conversation with Lin McMahon, General Manager of Blue Lantern Inn (as heard on iHeartRadio):

Can Cruising Be The Best Way To Travel?

This space saved for a 1,000 word column and review on the cruising.  Stay tuned for everything you need to know about a Carnival cruise.  Hopefully soon.  – MG

Sea, Sand, and Golf – Puerta Cortes Offers It All In The Baja Peninsula

La Paz, Mexico – It’s a game I play when I play a round of golf at a new course. I call it, “Guess The Signature Hole.” Golf courses generally have one hole that is the most picturesque – or toughest to play – that players remember it by. And I like guessing which one it is.

As I made the turn at El Cortes Golf Club, the first Gary Player designed golf club in all of Mexico, I was debating on this course’s signature hole. Was it #7 with the spectacular 65-foot drop from the landing area to the green as you look out towards the Sea of Cortez (I birdied it, for the record)? Or perhaps the 167-yard, par 3 eighth hole requiring a moon drop landing over a lunar-sized pond (birdie again!)?

Those lush green layouts were breathtaking but I deemed Mr. Player’s evil-minded 14th tract as the spot that golfers will most remember here. For better or worse.

The South African hall-of-famer must laugh at duffers as they stand on the tee box looking out on this beautiful, nerve-racking view he presents. Scary is the best term I can use to describe before taking my driver out of the bag. It’s not the daunting 615 yards to the green – one of the longest holes in Mexico at sea level. But rather the 165-foot drop to the fairway below. Acrophobia be damned.

This hole plays top-to-bottom. Then right-to-left. But very much top-to-bottom starting from an elevated cliff. I would suggest having a spotter or two follow the ball flight to ensure the landing spot in the canyon below. Should it rest in or near the fairway consider this a hole a win.

The weather was magnificent this May morning with a slight breeze coming in from the marina, just beyond Puerta Cortes. Residents and guests of this resort destination have access to the par-72, 7,082-yard golf course via a short golf cart drive. Though not a large clubhouse, the view offers a panoramic shot of the deep blue water dotted with small islands in the distance.

Clubhouse personnel told me that only about two dozen golfers come through each day. That was probably the reason I enjoyed a brisk round in less than 3 hours. My kind of golf.

I can’t remember enjoying myself more on a course. The weather, the scenery and the solitude made for a perfect morning. My score could have been a bit lower but I can always blame the set of rental clubs I used due to my laziness of not schlepping my own sticks to Mexico.

But my Saturday was only just beginning. Lunch with my girlfriend was waiting at Blue Cortes, the signature beach club at Puerta Cortes. She had staked out a table on the white, sandy shore with two frothy, handmade margaritas glistening in the sun. She had spent her morning on a massage table in a nearby palapa with nothing on her mind other than the soothing sounds of the wind and water.

Between both our morning activities we did not need the margaritas to already be relaxed.
The next few hours found us in-and-out of the infinity pool, jacuzzi and the warm, Mexico sun. A fully-stocked bar was never more than a few yards away yet we found the poolside waitstaff was even a more convenient process of getting drinks throughout the day.

Our weekend stay was a fun escape albeit a quick one. The VistaMar condominiums offered a perfect and easy place to post up for a few days or even a few weeks. 60 oceanfront units are positioned to capture the views of the Sea of Cortez. These residences offer eight floorplan designs ranging from two bedrooms with two-and-a-half baths, up to three bedrooms plus studio, three-and-a-half baths, and two-floor penthouses. All of the units have large, marble-tiled terraces.

Most of these units are second or third residences owned by people around the world who come to La Paz to relax like we were doing. When these owners aren’t lounging here at the beach club or marina, many put their spaces in the vacation rental program. Square footage begins at 2,600 square feet ranging up to more than 5,000 square feet. Prices start at $500,000 up to $1,400,000.

For those who prefer scenery with a little less water, the Las Colinas Hillside comprises 72 contemporary, rustic architecture residences located in the middle of the golf course. Four styles are available ranging from two-bedroom plus den, two-bath floor plans, to three-bedroom plus den with whirlpool, three-bath arrangements.

Homeowners can choose to place their property in the vacation rental programs. Unit sizes begin at 2,000 square feet up to more than 3,300 square feet and prices start at $400,000 ranging to $750,000.

Though we could have stayed at Puerta Cortes the entire weekend with all the fun, food and entertainment to be had, I always enjoy exploring cities. Downtown La Paz is a quick 5-minute drive south of the resort. We grabbed a bite alongside the Malecon, the beachside street offering views of the palm tree-lined beach dotted with shops and restaurants.

The evening ended back on the resort property walking along Pueblito Marinero. Considered one of the best in the Americas, this marina has a capacity for 250 vessels. The moonlit area offered a nice photo opp for the docked fishing boats and mega yachts waiting to launch in the early morning hours.

I can imagine having a place here and opting for a boat instead of a car. After all, that deep blue water is inviting and you’ll never know what you will see in the Sea of Cortez. We just missed whale watching season (December through April) but sea lions could be heard barking from hundreds of yards away.

A 2-hour excursion led by Captain Mike of Go Baja Sailing brought us to within a few feet of the loud creatures lounging on a small rock formation. We also set our cameras to quick-focus in hopes of spotting the elusive flying mantas that randomly pop up and seemingly hover a few feet over the water.

As we drove out of the 24-hour secured gates of the large property to head back home, we passed the tee box of that signature hole #14 of El Cortes Golf Club. I tried to think of the signature moment of my stay at Puerta Cortes but couldn’t think of just one.

That signature moment may just be when I log online to make my next reservation to this beautiful place on the Baja Peninsula.                                                                                                                     -MG

HEAR about my Puerta Cortes experience via my syndicated radio show:

New Orleans Jazz Fest – Bringing Music, Food, and Heat

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrates its silver anniversary, once again taking over the New Orleans Fairgrounds spanning the usual two weekends.  My second visit to this iconic festival will find me hopping from stage to stage watching music legends like Santana and Bonnie Raitt to local favorites such as Trombone Shorty and Better Than Ezra.

Anyone who’s paid a visit to this mid-Spring gathering knows that the genre tents, the colorful people and the flavoral, caloric food are a part of the festival as much as the magic.  Make sure to tune into my show this Saturday, April 27, at 11am CT, live from the Shell hospitality center.

UDPATE:  Photos below and broadcast replay below.

 

 

 

Nissan’s AWD Altima Handles Ice Like A Pro

Mont-Tremblant, Canada – If there is one thing I learned from my 28 hours here in the frozen north, it’s that -40 degrees Celsius is the same as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though our group did not see that number on the digital thermometers of our vehicles, we got very close.  But that was the point.  Driving, braking and learning to control a vehicle when on snow and ice.

Lots of ice.  So hello, Montreal.

Nissan invited a small group of auto journalists and enthusiasts from across the U.S. to test the latest technology on its all-wheel drive (AWD) versions of its 2019 Altima sedan and Murano CUV.  The winding, wintry roads here in early March proved to be the perfect proving ground for these tasks that seem simple in normal weather.

The Altima is the first AWD sedan that Nissan has sold in the U.S. market.  This affordable ride starts at $23,900 and has several configurations scaling up to the Platinum version at $31,930.

With gas mileage at 26/36/30 mpg, Nissan says it’s the most fuel efficient AWD in its class. 

We weren’t too concerned about fuel efficiency on this particular venture as we kept the speedometer in check most of the time due to the snow-packed roads around this beautiful mountain village.  But our destination, Circuit Mecaglisse, had more than white fluff waiting for us.

This famed, looped driving track has been groomed since November to pack 8-12 inches of solid ice on top of its paved curves and straightaways.  Nissan figured there was no better place to than bring unskilled winter drivers like us there and let us have our way for a few hours.

Alas, we did have professional drivers in our passenger seats giving us detailed instruction on when to brake, hit the gas and start a controlled turn. 

The Altima handled the icy track with very little sliding and taking off from a stop was not an issue.  There’s an initial 50-50 split front-rear power before the drive shifts to 70/30 when road conditions become slick.  When the ground is nicely thawed the car rolls along in front-wheel drive mode.

This sixth-generation Altima has a 2.5-litre engine and boasts 182 hp – a bit higher than the previous model. The AWD is pretty techy but Nissan’s ProPilot Assist continues to wow me.  This driving aid, found on several of the company’s other vehicles, offers semi-autonomous acceleration, braking and steering.

The heated seats and steering wheel were a bonus and the inside is quite spacious.  An 8” nav/entertainment screen in the center of the dashboard was easy to read.  The other displays and readouts were intuitive.

The look is sharp and sleek with LED lights all around and a floating roof.  I’d call it stylish especially for a sedan – a shrinking segment that many people think has had its time. 

I doubt I will personally need the driving skills nor the new technology in the AWD Altima on a daily basis as my home base of Texas keeps the winter weather in check.  But should I one day move to a cooler climate where I have to learn how to shovel my driveway, I could totally see an Altima backing out of garage.

CES 2019 – 12 Minutes of Everything You Missed

My 15th year of covering CES brought a slew of things I never thought I would see.  Let’s start with 5G…because I didn’t see it!  Rumors swirled for weeks that many companies would be touting new 5G services and products that could utilize the highspeed bandwidth.  Bust.  I saw a few products that wanted to latch on to the 5G hype but nothing solid because there is no actual 5G yet.  I’ll save that story for CES 2020.

What I did see was plenty of companies touting partnerships with Google and Amazon, the leaders in voice assistants. Alexa was the only player here a few years ago but this week was tough to get away from a product that didn’t turn on after hearing “Hey Google.”  The search company which is much more than search built a monstrosity of a booth in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center that was part mansion, part “It’s A Small World” ride.

A Google rep told me they had to pour a slab of concrete – on top of the current parking lot concrete – to construct the temporary shrine to the five colors.  Visitors walked through “rooms” made to mimic a kitchen, living room and even a garage complete with Google-made and 3rd party-made products.  The other part of the building housed a roller coaster-like ride that moved through scenarios of a typical day in a home.  Voice activated curtains opened in the morning continuing to mom asking the Google Assistant how to make a birthday cake.  The queue had a waiting line of sometimes up to 45 minutes; not really worth it save for the Google Home Hub that was given out to all riders at the end (so yeah, I guess it was worth it).

TVs continue to be a big thing and 8K was the winning number-letter combination at CES (sorry again 5K).  LG showed a 65″ TV that rolls up-and-down at the push of a button.  Samsung, TCL, and other manufacturers had so many monitors I was afraid of getting sunburned as I walked by.  8K screens (twice the resolution of 4K) looked great even side-by-side of 4K monitors.  But wake me up when networks and providers start delivering even 4K content on a prevalent basis.  My guess is my grandkids may one day enjoy 8K TVs with content to fill the screen.  Note: my kids are relatively young.

CES has seemingly become the de facto national car show as most every major OEM – from Audi to Mercedes to Hyundai – had massive booths and displays to tout their new vehicles and concepts.  Audi always brings it A-game booth design and tricked out an A8 with front and rear seat video screens along with seats similar to a D-BOX rumble seat found in movie theaters.  A quick screening of “The Avengers” while sitting in the back seat reminded me of a 4D ride at Universal Studios.  All they needed were motion sickness bags.

No new smartphones were announced at the trade show; most companies are waiting to release them next month at GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  Bad news: my travel budget does not reach that far so I’ll have to report from afar.  While smartphones were not found amongst the 4,000+ exhibitors it seemed like half of the vendors were handing out smartphone cases.  I got one for my Samsung Galaxy S9 that apparently can withstand a drop from 5 floors up and continue to work in 10 meters of water.

My main takeaways from CES 2019 were that this massive gathering of tech giants, buyers and media does not seem to be slowing down despite the dearth of new products that are already on the market or planned to be released soon.  But it is OK to dream and ooh and ahh.  Because I certainly did.  Especially when I went to sleep each night after walking an average of 18,000 steps each day (according to my high-tech watch).

For all the highlights, join me in a 12 minute video recap:

Safety Is Job 1 at Shell and Team Penske

6,000 ft above the Gulf of Mexico – Flying aboard a 16-person helicopter back to New Orleans I was still questioning why I spent an entire day sitting in a classroom and being dunked in a pool.  Upside down.  Harnessed to a helicopter simulator chair.  Shell explained it was all in the name of safety just in case there was an issue during the flights to and from its deep water oil and gas production facility in the Gulf we were headed to.  As we are about to land safely at the New Orleans airport there was nary an issue during the 100-minute flight but it was reassuring to have passed the Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) the day before.

I was a part of the crew invited to tour the Turritella, Shell’s Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO) facility stationed 200 miles south of Louisiana.  The purpose of this trip was to demonstrate to media and members of Team Penske how safety and preparation are critical in the offshore environment and on the track.  Team Penske, of course, is a the professional stock car, open wheel and sports car racing team that currently competes in the IndyCar and NASCAR Cup Series, among other racing leagues.  Penske Corp. president Bud Denker led his team members on the trip – he was first in the training pool – which included 3-time Indy Car champ Helio Castroneves.

Day 1 of this 2-day event was spent at Shell’s training facility in Robert, Louisiana, about an hour north of New Orleans.  The 9-hour (yes, 9 hours!) training class taught us safety techniques and procedures of how to escape and survive a helicopter should it ditch in the water.  Teamwork was the theme as all participants learned how to work together to exit the aircraft should it land upright or upside down.  This is where fun came in.

The afternoon found us all in an Olympic-size pool that featured a full-scale replica of a helicopter attached to moving cables above.  After watching several demonstrations of how to enter and exit the chopper we were strapped to the 5-point harnessed seats several times in both upright and upside positions.  Notwithstanding unwanted water rushing up our noses we all passed with flying colors and were presented with HUET certificates we would need for the trip the next day.

 

A 6:00am hotel lobby rendezvous began our busy Day 2 with a bus ride to the airport.  After another safety briefing we were escorted to a helicopter that Shell contracts with PHI.  Liftoff was right on schedule and we were quickly soaring above the Gulf.  Several members of the Shell team briefed us on their Gulf of Mexico drilling and production facilities while we gazed at nothing but water as far as the eye could see.

Carlos Maurer, president of Shell Lubricants America, was quick to point out one of the final products that is produced in the water below us includes engine oil so many of us use everyday.  Helio made sure we all knew that his likeness appears on many of those oil cannisters sold at retail outlets and was the sole reason Shell continue to have record sales numbers.  Knowing that we needed to remain strapped to the seats during the flight no one was going to ague with the gregarious race car driver.

 

 

We approached the Turritella vessel which hovers over Shell’s Stones field in the Lower Tertiary geologic frontier in the Gulf.  Discovered in 2005, it is Shell’s second producing field in this region along with Perdido.

 

 

As we circled to get a good view we could see an oil tanker floating a few hundred yards behind the FPSO.  They were in the midst of off-loading millions of gallons of oil from the Turritella onto the tanker.  This process occurs several times each week.

We landed slowly onto the helipad located a the stern of the vessel.  After unstrapping ourselves we carefully walked down into a holding area where we were given more safety instructions and handed personal protective equipment.  Our tour began as we were clad in coveralls, protective eye wear, gloves and hard hats.  Over the next several hours we were led through the Turritella’s command center, bridge, engineering room, crew bunks and the cafeteria.

120 crew members were on board during our visit, most working the typical off-shore schedule of 14 days on, 14 days off.  The crew certainly eats well as we dined with them during a lunchtime shift.  Homemade hummus, salads, baked cod, pasta, potatoes and dessert was served by the trained cooks and kitchen crew.  The menus change daily which makes for a happy, well-fed crew.

At some point we needed to see the equipment and learn the process of how oil and gas – almost 10,000 feet below us – was being extracted from 27,000 feet below the earth’s surface onto the vessel on which we were standing.  The Turritella is a modified ship with one key feature – an extremely large turret is situated near the bow.  This structure rises several hundred feet above the main deck and extends through the vessel nearly 30 feet under sea level.  This feature allows the Turritella to circle around the stationary turret ensuring the vessel is constantly pointed into the Gulf’s waves to minimize rocking and swaying.

Deep inside the vessel at the bottom of the turret is an incredibly engineered system where a large buoy connects to the ship.  Underneath the buoy are a network of steel pipes that creep almost 2 miles down to the bottom of the Gulf.  Oil is pumped up through these pipes into the massive storage tanks aboard the Turritella where it is held until it is off-loaded onto tankers.

We were told this FPSO concept was created, in lieu of a stationary oil rig, for several reasons including safety, of course.  An FPSO can disconnect the buoy and float away from danger should a hurricane enter the Gulf.  The process of disconnecting the buoy – which floats about 200 ft below the water surface – and reconnecting it to the Turritella takes about 7 days.  To ensure a smooth operation should the vessel be in the path of a hurricane Shell goes through the drill once a year.  An estimated 50,000 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day is produced from Stones field.

Our visit ended with most of the Turritella’s crew listening to Helio and Team Penske members talk about teamwork and the importance of their work.  Helio made sure to let them know their efforts propel his team to race throughout the year and his checkered flag finishes could not happen without Team Shell.

Upon landing back at the airport we realized the HUET certification we received the previous day was but a small percentage of the measures Shell goes through to ensure its employees and equipment remain safe.

 

 

LISTEN TO THE TRIP RECAP AS HEARD ON IHEARTRADIO’S “THE HIGH-TECH TEXAN SHOW WITH MICHAEL GARFIELD”

VIDEO: Summer Tech/Travel Gadgets

Summer is halfway over but you may still be packing up to hit the road.  Here are some smart and sharp products to help you with packing, monitoring your home, sharing your memories, and helping you sleep in those noisy hotel rooms.  I will elaborate on these and more products, as usual, on my High-Tech Texan radio show (Saturdays 11a – 1p CT) on iHeartRadio around the world.

Click screenshot below to watch clip from HOUSTON LIFE (NBC-Houston)

PRODUCTS SPOTLIGHTED:

Eagle Creek/National Geographic Explorer Series Travel Bag
Guardzilla 360 degree video camera
B-hyve WiFi hose faucet timer
PhotoSpring digital photo frame
SleepPhones headphones for sleeping

Living The Dream, Costa Rican Style – A Visit To Reserva Conchal Beach Resort, Golf & Spa

It’s 9:45 in the morning and I’m already starting to sweat. Maybe because the temperature is creeping towards 90 degrees and the humidity is approaching that same number. Or it could be that I’m staring at a small flag 178 yards away surrounded by 5 deep, sandy bunkers.

The par 5, fourth hole at Reserva Conchal Golf Club in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica has me thinking. 5 or 6 iron? A slight fade to avoid the tall, luscious, swaying trees should put my ball solidly on deck. Too much club could carry my new, logoed Top Flite right into the Pacific Ocean.

This moment ends up being the toughest decision of my five-day stay at Reserva Conchal, a 2300-acre planned community in the northern Pacific coast of this beautiful country.  After all there is not much to think about when exploring parts of this Central American paradise, hiking through a wildlife refuge, or taking a cool dip in the blue, coastal water.

I was invited to the property by the marketing staff to check out the many opportunities to live in the land of Reserva Conchal. I jumped at the chance as my lifelong travels had never brought me to Costa Rica.  I wanted to see if there was more to the tales I heard about the howler monkeys and the strong, flavorful coffee.  (note: as my readers know I do not drink coffee so I took the word of my fellow traveling journos…it is good)

This private residential community is about an hour drive from the International airport in Liberia.  The perfectly landscaped, guarded front gates open to winding roads that take off in many directions to unique properties where visitors come to play and others come to stay.

I unpack my bags in a three-bedroom condo overlooking the 3rd fairway of the sprawling golf course.  The Bougainvillea Condominiums are spacious with a two-level dining and living room just off the fully appointed kitchen. A utility room with washer and dryer made me feel at home knowing I will put those to use with my swim and golf gear during my stay.

Though we stayed at these 3-story condos for just a few days you can’t rent them directly from the property management.  They are owned by residents who use them or lease them out during the year.  There are several units  currently available for purchase.

This was just the first of the many living options I would see throughout Reserva Conchal.  Just up the road was Roble Sabana, a more contemporary styled condo with ocean and golf views featuring 1- and 2-bedroom units. The living space was smaller than the condo I was staying in and reminded me a bit of apartment-style living.  Certainly a potential place of ownership for couples and small families who would enjoy walking downstairs to their own picturesque pool and cabana.

Property owners here live around the world and most utilize their Reserva Conchal residence as a second – or even third – home.

Summers in Costa Rica can typically be toasty and keep some owners away until the cooler months. That may have been the reason for the quietness and relaxing, lazy feel of the area during my early June stay.  Or maybe that’s the year-round vibe that drives people to live here full-time or partially.

Condo life is just a part of the eco-oriented property nestled in this hilly, oceanside development.  A drive through more gated subdivisions had me yearning to jump out of the property’s air-conditioned, WiFi equipped shuttles to knock on front doors of the beautiful, custom-built homes for a tour.

We stopped at a privately-owned home that appears in some of the Reserva Conchal brochures.  And rightly so.  This 3-bedroom, 2-story modern wonder could be considered a dream home, much less a second dream home to the couple that built it a few years earlier.  Airy in feel, the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a backyard view of the lot-sized pool with the meticulous, green golf course just behind that. Wood floors and a clean, modern kitchen seemingly await hosted happy hours with friends or breakfasts with the grandkids.

The home is in the Llama Del Bosque subdivision where lots start at $197,000 (US). For those wanting to an immediate move-in a few spec homes dot this secluded area with prices beginning at $799,000.

Throughout my stay I was reminded by the friendly staff that Reserva Conchal is more than just a residential community with resort-style amenities such as a beach club and spa.  The developer makes it a point to be as eco-friendly as possible.

To prove that point we were given a tour of the off-site recycling post that resembled nothing less than a well-tuned factory. Dedicated employees oversee an operation that separates biodegradable products from waste to make sure everything at Reserva Conchal is carbon positive.

Sustainability is a way of life here.  Ownership embraces this philosophy by focusing on three pillars that form the business plan:  economic, social and environmental development.

Plastic wear is not found anywhere in the communal areas which explained the use of paper straws in the ice-cold drinks served at the bars and restaurants.

Towards the end of the week our guided tour continued to a construction site where the Aromo Townhomes are being completed.  A hard hat walk-through of these self-contained, 2-story units offered a peek inside what will soon be contemporary 3- and 4-bedroom residences complete with their own pools.  These start at $629,000 and should be finished by the end of summer.

Just above the townhomes is a groomed patch of dirt marked with stakes and construction tape.  This will be an exclusive enclave of five ocean view home sites.

Maybe I was wrong about that golf shot being toughest decision of the week. I was now wondering where in this beautiful property I would build my dream home. Again, a fun dilemma that kept my mind off the real-world I was about to go home to at the end of the week.

Costa Rica is a popular place to both vacation and live due partly to its easy-to-reach location.  It is a short 3-hour flight from my hometown of Houston and accessible from all parts of the world via non-stop flights from airport hubs nearby.

Reserva Conchal offers so many options of living styles it will probably take some time to decide which one is right for you. My suggestion would be to be visit and stay for a while at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa in the heart of the development.  Guests have the use of the same golf course that challenged me along with its own pools and 10 restaurants and bars. Try the sushi and catch a few games on TV in the sports-themed Pura Vida bar.

Or perhaps go later this year after the grand opening of W Costa Rica.  This hotel will surely be a world-class destination for vacationing jet setters with luxurious suites, grand lobbies and ultra-private beachfront units.

Between golf, hiking, or a relaxing day at the spa, the on-site staff will share all the options that Reserva Conchal offers for primary living or a perfect second home where Central American escapism will pervade your thoughts when not in Costa Rica.

Your biggest decision then will not be whether to use a 5 or 6 iron on that approach shot at the Robert Trent Jones II designed course, but rather whether to build on a lot, move into a spec home, or choose what subdivision within this massive planned community is right for you.

But if you are faced with my similar decision during your time here, go with the 6 iron and drop that ball softly on the right side of the green.  Birdie.

For more information about Reserva Conchal Beach Resort, Golf & Spa, please visit www.reservaconchal.com or call 855-851-5000.

-by Michael Garfield, as published in Prime Living Magazine