an average of 27,000 steps walked per day (photo here just to prove it)
hundreds of hand shakes
14 glasses of highly-caffeinated iced tea (we don’t do coffee)
less than 6 hours of sleep per night
3 packed suitcases of gadgets and trinkets that will either change my life or trash up my garage
I am receiving more items from companies who announced or launched products at the annual Las Vegas convention. I continue to talk about and review them on my radio show (11a-1p Saturdays, KPRC/iHeartRadio) and TV appearances. Here is a recent clip from “Great Day Houston” (KHOU, CBS) with much more to come:
My 20th year covering CES in Las Vegas. It only gets larger and crazier, at least in terms of the product launches and offerings. Sex “toys” are the thing this year after being dissed at the tech trade show in 2019. I’m still waiting for samples to arrive for full review.
Smart homes, cars, 8K TVs, 5G, AI, Google and Amazon are all over the place. Tune in to my radio show on KPRC 950AM and iHeartRadio for live reports from the show floor.
After test driving the 2019 Jaguar F-Pace for a few days I couldn’t help but notice a black wristband sitting in the glove compartment. I thought it was a fitness watch that was left behind by another auto journalist. On closer inspection I saw the word “Jaguar” printed on the black, rubber band and then did some digging in the thick manual.
As it turns out, this buckled strap is an add-on feature in newer-model Jags along with certain Land Rovers – Jaguar’s sister-company. It’s called the Activity Key and offers a solution to a problem I have had for decades. I am a runner and often drive to training grounds, parks and races. I don’t like carrying my car key when I run for fear I may lose it as I traverse up hills and bumpy paths. So I generally hide the car key somewhere around my parked car and hope no one finds it during my run.
The Activity Key takes my worry away. An RFID chip is embedded in the strap which is then worn on your wrist when you are away from the locked car. In fact, you can lock the actual car key inside the vehicle. Once the driver’s door is closed you have 30 seconds to walk to the back of the car and place the Activity Key atop the letter “J” in Jaguar. A small antenna receives the wireless signal from the strap and locks all the doors. You are now free to run, hike, picnic and even swim (the Activity Key is waterproof up to 30m) knowing that no one will find a hidden key in obvious places such as on top of a tire (my usual hiding spot).
To unlock the vehicle, press the trunk release just above the license plate and then touch the Activity Key to the letter “J” again. Boom. All of the doors – including the trunk – are unlocked.
The Activity Key is a $410 option on the F-Pace I tested.
I just want to know where this technology was back in 1995 when I was training for my first marathon. See how it works below:
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.
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.
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.
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:
During a recent swing up-and-down the SoCal coastline I made a point to find unique spots to dine and stay. I travel so often I wanted to experience things other than chain hotels and eateries that dot the rest of the U.S.
The South Bay of Los Angeles is a beautiful place to play on white, sandy beaches and watch the sun fade into the Pacific Ocean. It’s even better when you have a cold cocktail in hand and delicious food to begin a breezy, summer evening.
Redondo Beach can be a busy place this time of year with visitors, beachgoers, boaters and traffic, but just a few hundred yards off N. Harbor Drive – across a basin filled with eye-popping private boats – sits the Portofino Hotel.
My plans to stay at the waterfront property were scuttled at the last-minute but I wanted to experience the area and see the premium luxury hotel for myself. Part of the Noble House family of hotels and resorts, the Portofino boasts breathtaking scenes of the water from almost view.
Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon I heard some commotion a few yards away from the hotel’s grand entrance. The open windows of a restaurant were inviting me with laughter, chatter and the smell of fresh seafood. So in I went into BALEENKitchen.
The open-air setting and light mood first led me to the large bar. Good looking, happy people (are there any others in SoCal?) were lounging in comfy chairs holding colorful drinks. Happy hour was in full swing and I helped myself to a Pineapple Express.
Justin King, General Manager of the restaurant, wanted to personally make sure my drinks was made to standard, so he popped behind the bar and started pouring and shaking.
Plantation pineapple rum, Bacardi coconut rum, ginger liqueur topped with coconut, lime and basil. I closed my eyes and thought I was in the tropics.
After opening my eyes Justin led me into the spacious dining room to a white-clothed table by the window. I knew at that point I wasn’t going anywhere for hours. I certainly did not want to miss that west coast sunset.
The menu offers a lengthy list of small plates and shareables. Ahi tuna tacos with fresh guacamole was my first stop followed blistered shishito peppers and then a beautiful charcuterie and cheese board. By the time I was halfway through the olives and grapes on the board I was sipping on a Pat’s Ol’ Fashioned.
As a bourbon lover I make sure to sample specialty drinks made with that Kentucky brown water. Angel’s Envy bourbon is the base along with demerara sugar and orange bitters. I got my Uber app ready as I finished two of those.
The presentation was exemplary as heads turned when the waiter placed a plate of pan-roasted diver scallops in front of me. Surrounded by pee wee potatoes, mushrooms and blistered cherry tomatoes, I wanted to savor this for a while. Alas, the miso-glazed salmon was coming.
It was cooked as perfect as can be atop a bed of soba noodles and baby bok choy. Justin snuck back to my table with a serving of sweet potatoes as he wanted me to know that was one of the more popular side dish choices. I quickly realized why.
As the sun began to fall into the water and I finished snapping 3 dozen photos of the gorgeous view, a sampler of bread pudding, apple tart and gelato was within reach of my spoon. Perfect desserts to finish a perfect evening.
BALEENkitchen offers a top-notch waitstaff who readily answer questions about the menu and who owns which boat just outside of the expansive restaurant.
My only wish would have been to walk back across the driveway into what I believe would be a glorious hotel room and quickly drift into a deep sleep dreaming about those scallops.
Alas, my Uber arrived to take me up the coast a bit, but I vow to return one day for the full Portofino experience.
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.
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.
Good morning from the set of “Great Day Houston” (CBS) where it’s time for another show-and-tell segment. Today I brought along some products to make life and the outdoor experience a bit easier. Watch my segment HERE where I talked about these cool products:
I was a mere pup when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The only thing I remember from those days was my astronaut-themed lunch box adorning the metal container and Thermos, though I can’t recall if my mom put Tang in there. I loved that lunch box. And we all still love and enjoy the technology that NASA developed for those space missions because many of them still exist today.
Here is my recent appearance on Great Day Houston (CBS) where I discussed some of these technologies and products including baby formula, GPS, the Dustbuster and memory foam. The computing power on those space capsules had less power than our smartphones have today. But make sure to have battery chargers to keep your phone and all your devices powered up.
A special thanks to myCharge for supplying HubPlus Universal portable chargers to the TV show audience. These 6700mAH chargers have built-in Lightning and USB-C cords and they recharge via built-in wall prongs. There is a special 20% discount on the HubPlus Universal for Amazon Prime Day – if you buy through the myCharge seller Amazon page, you can get $5 off each charger and double up with this 20% off promo code (20OFFPOWER).
With the recent news from Amazon that it allows constant monitoring and “listening” from its Echo devices to help with home security, I discussed this new feature on “Great Day Houston” (KHOU-CBS). Other products that also help with home monitoring include: