Pioneertown and Tapas!

Today we headed out towards an interesting little town in anticipation of finding some grub and good photo ops. Pioneertown was constructed in the 1940s by Gene Autry to house movie folk and to act as the setting when they shot cheesy westerns.


Today it is an unincorporated community of artisans and hippies, living in the old set houses. When we arrive there are a few other tourists wandering around. A few places seem open and others not so much.


The entire place has kind of a weird, unsettling vibe about it. Should I go in this shop? Is it just part of a set? Is that person sitting outside, a home owner Actor? Shopkeeper?


Pappy and Harriet’s is a large building that houses a pub of sorts. It is 3/4 full on this Thursday and more people keep coming. The food is decent but not all that remarkable. Not sure why there is a crowd. We are in the middle of nowhere.

This aft we vegged around the pool sucking back cocktails and enjoying a great conversation with a group of people from Minnesota down for an anniversary. It is sunny and 73 degrees. So pleasant.

Tonight, our last evening in Palm Springs we decide to go down the road to the Saguaro  resort to dine at Tinto, a tapas bar by iron chef Jose Garces.

We opt for the chef selection and wine pairing. It begins with a lovely selection of mixed olives lightly dressed in olive oil and orange, and a dish of smoked almonds. This comes paired with a delicious, bubbly Spanish rosé.


Shortly a selection of Spanish cheeses and chorizo, Iberico and Serrano ham arrives. The cheeses are served with acacia honey and a quince paste, just a little sweet to cut the fat of the cheese. The meat is thin and drizzled with olive oil, and accompanied by a quenel of Spanish egg salad.


Next a cast iron dish of perfectly caramelized brussel sprouts with bacon and manchego arrives as does a wonderful Spanish white.


This is followed by a rice dish with a poached egg. The egg is broken into the rice making for a rich, creamy, decadent dish. There were large pieces of green pepper in the rice which provided a green, fresh flavour.


Shrimp bathed in a garlic butter sauce and served with toasted baguette  for dipping appear as well.


At this point we are very full. A red Malbec arrives and a large portion of grilled steak, accompanied by a well made bright chimichurri , fingerling potatoes and mushroom.


Our server delivers an excellent sherry from chef Garces’ private collection to accompany dessert. We are way too full for desert but who can resist perfectly fried, light, cinnamony, sugary puffs of fried air.  Chocolate ice cream and chestnut foam on flourless something or other round out the plate but I can eat no more….unless there were more donuts.


All in all an excellent meal with excellent wine pairings. I would complain that some of the servings were too large and served near the end rather than the beginning of the meal.


Palm to Pine Highway and Some Vietnamese-ish

After a luxurious sleep in, I roll over and read a few chapters while Rob takes a bidness call, we hop in the KIA and head up to Palm Desert and the Palm to Pine Highway. This winding roadway will take us up three thousand feet past spectacular views of the Coachella Valley at our feet. Further on there will be views of the snowy peaks of San Jacinto and Santa Rosa, and beyond that, lunch awaits at the Paradise Valley Cafe.

IMG_4204Palm to Pines highway is a well maintained, slightly harrowing climb through mountain passes with spectacular views. Don’t look Rob, just drive! We pull into a few turnoffs (which allow faster traffic to pass) to take photos before we come to the main vista point overlooking Coachella.

IMG_4197The views of the Coachella Valley from this vantage are spectacular, marred only by douchebag cretins who think nothing of tossing their trash over the barrier and in the parking areas.  The view of the Valley below and the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains is a symphony of pastels beginning with the azure blue of the clear sky, the pinks, buffs, greys, apricot, rust and mocha of the rocky peaks to the green sage dotting the rock faces and crevices in a bid for a foothold. Teddy bear cholla cactus, agave, century plant and octillo make their home below the 3000 foot elevation. These plants become more sparse, giving way to pinion pines at the higher elevations, where we get the best views of St. Jacinto and Santa Rosa. We left the towering, stately, royal palms at the base of our climb.

IMG_4206After an hour drive to conquer 24 miles of twisting, rising roads, we come upon the Paradise Valley Cafe.

IMG_4509They are only serving lunch by 11:30 which is fine. They are known for their burgers and Rob orders The Harley Davidson,  with a whole green chili and cheese. It was a great, homemade angus burger with fresh toppings. Definitely fit the burger jones he was feeling.

FullSizeRender-2I went with the chicken burrito, spying spumoni ice cream on the menu…maybe later. The burrito comes out the size of a football. It is stuffed with rice, chicken and refried beans, smothered in cheese and enchilada sauce, accompanied by both red and green salsas, each of which have quite a bit of heat.

IMG_4512While excellent, I am not playing hockey 9 times a week anymore. It is a struggle to finish half. No spumoni for me. Although we did not indulge, Paradise has quite an interesting beer menu.

IMG_4510No one however, not even passengers , should be drinking beer and then hitting the Palms to Pines. More caffeine, please!

Back at the Ace for a little photo work and cocktails! Three Desert Facials (vodka, pineapple, cucumber, and mint) in and I decide it is a good time to play some ping pong. Best of three! I won’t say who won…ok I won but it was uncomfortably close. The man has a wicked back spin.

This evening we are headed a short drive from our hotel to dine at  Rooster and The Pig, a contemporary vision of Vietnamese cuisine. Not much to look outside and nestled into a small strip mall, there is a small crowd waiting for seats. We get on the list and are seated within minutes. By 6:45 there is a large crowd waiting. The house front staff, wait staff and from what I can see of the kitchen staff, are not Vietnamese. The resto is sparsely decorated with small mementos from Vietnam and a few favorite cookbooks. Clearly this is a labour of love of Vietnamese food.

The house is full of 40 and 50 year old diners with the exception of two twenty somethings beside us. In Vancouver this place would have a younger vibe, but Palm Springs is an old town and this crowd is “young”.

Our server brings us a amuse bouche of a spicy rice porridge, speckled with a little shredded chicken, scallion and roasted garlic. A delicious way to quick up your appetite for more spicy food. This kitchen as we found, was not afraid of garlic and chilies!


The menu is not very large and that in itself is different than most Vietnamese places. There are starters, mains to be shared and “autumn rolls” which are the same as summer rolls, delicious things wrapped in rice paper and dunked in noc cham. The Rooster and Pig offers a number of fillings in their rolls, all of which are inspiring and unique. We chose one with lemongrass pork, date, cucumber, carrot and daikon glass noodle. Fresh and delicious. Other rolls came with wood ear and green papaya and I wish I could have sampled them all.


Next up we tried the charred brussel sprouts, an unusual ingredient on a Vietnamese menu. Sauteed in tons of fresh garlic and fish sauce and tossed with thin slices of a pepperoni like Asian sausage, they were a standout.


Mains took a really long time to come out but as we were in no hurry, it was nice to have a little down time to digest our starters. We ordered three mains to share which was a bit ambitious now that I think of it.

First up was a crispy beef and noodle. The thin egg noodles were very well dressed with scallions, onion and soy, and tossed with delicious morsels of crisp fried beef. The perfect noodle dish. Full on umami.


The shrimp poppers were well thought out menu item but missed the mark somehow. Delicate cups of a well made bean custard and pieces of shrimp are folded into lettuce leaves with a little red cabbage and noc cham. The noc cham overpowered the delicate custard. Maybe a little citrusy sauce would have been more complimentary.


Our third main was a more classic dish of spicy garlic shrimp and green beans bok choy, onions and chanterelles in a very spicy chili sauce. The shrimp were perfectly cooked but overpowered again by the chili sauce. The green beans however, were the star of this dish and really stood up nice to the chilis.


Rooster and the Pig is an inspired take on Vietnamese cuisine, incorporating classic dishes with new and fresh ingredients. I could return there daily for the sprouts, autumn rolls and the crispy beef noodles.





Joshua Tree, Jaliscan and Italian

Today we decided to let the wind take us. We doodled around the main drag checking out little shops and were frankly kinda bored. So we hoped in the car and headed to 29 Palms. Mostly so Rob could take a photo for some ex-band mates, referencing the Robert Plant song. The drive is very picturesque and enjoyable. The mountains, as all mountains are, are mesmerizing. We pass wind farms and desert scrub while our front vista is the gorgeous Sierra Nevadas. As we ride higher in elevation and the scene changes little, but the mountains envelope you.

On the return from 29 Palms, which aside from the pretty desert drive is nothing to right home about, we decided to check out Joushua Tree National Park. $20 gets you a 7 day pass. The road into the park leads us past humble desert abodes and a few upscale but not over the top, colourful homes built into the landscape. The builders seem to know what they have and use it to the best of their means.

Joshua is a pristine National Park at the center of two deserts, the Mohave and the Colorado. It is a chilly 58 degrees once you leave the valley. The only trees above the scrub are the pointy, prickly poodle tufts of the Joshua. They dot the landscape and oversee the lesser vegetation and small cacti.




It is January and the desert is awaiting its spring burst to life, but there is plenty to see.  Deserts, despite their name, are teeming with life, insects, birds wheeling overhead, small and medium sized mammals and lizards and reptiles skittering across roadways and under bushes. The stone hills, the only relief taller than the Joshuas,  look carefully stacked and like they could tumble at any moment, but in reality they have been formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and weathered by wind and water.

IMG_4185On the return trip we intend to check out a little BBQ place we saw on the way in, but alas it is closed until Super Bowl Sunday. Decision made. Tacos at the scrabbled together Jaliscan Mexican joint attached to the Jaliscan tire mart.


They don’t speak English and we muddle through ordering. How can you go wrong? You can’t really. One look and you know it is authentic Mexican and you will leave with happy mouth.


We ordered up 3 kinds of soft tacos, pork carnitas, al pastor and carne asada with two Modela beers.  The tacos, $1.50 each, came on two 3 inch soft, corn tacos with a little raw, sweet onion and a choice of red or green salsa. Total for 6 tacos and two beers, $13.30. Perfect.

Back at the inn we chill around the pool as the sun sinks behind Mount St. Jacinto, with icy drinks and catch up on the day. Tonight we we will walk across the street to dine at Appetito, for some light Italian fare.

It is a short, pleasant walk to Appetito in the chill desert evening air. The place is half full on this Tuesday evening and we grab what ever table we want. We order a nice bottle of chianti and consider the menu.


Clam linguine for me and spaghetti with Sunday sauce for the man. The linguine was classic, garlic and white wine with perfectly cooked pasta.


Rob’s Sunday sauce was a nice sweet tomato and the pork sausage was tight with  sweet Italian spices and a lot of fennel. We were offered regular or large portions which was really appreciated.


The regular size was perfect and allowed us a little room to share a dessert of Kahlua bread pudding.  Cappuccinos arrive (average) and a piece of excellent, caramelly coffee bread pudding that could easily feed six.


While very good, I am not sure of the point of this. It was far to large a portion for two of us let alone the single it was intended for.

Back to the hotel for a little reading and a little research for what to do tomorrow.

Palm Springs Winter 2016!

We booked this winter escape months ago, before the epic loonie slide and before we realized that winter in BC is completely doable and actually enjoyable despite the claims of friends weakened by years of not living through snowpocalypses and snot freezers.

Our flight to the desert is at a civilized time, 11:10. What is not civilized is an hour drive to the airport. Very spoiled by the 20 minute drive to Ottawa International.

Josie, the spoiler, had us up at 4 am puking in our bed and then insisting on sleeping at the top of the bed between the two of us. Sigh.  I have had less demanding two year olds. Oh well. Up to walk her in 5 degrees under blue skies. Spring has begun in Fort Langley and the chickadees, redwinged blackbirds, crows, towhees and a host of other tree dwellers are singing to each other. I’m looking forward to the desert but I am thrilled that my new life in winter includes pretty frosts, blooms and colourful berries, songbirds and best of all, no potholes and no disgusting spring melt. The only downside to this trip is — we gonna get hosed by the loonie. Oh well, can’t think about it. It is what it is.

First time flying Air Canada Rouge. More casual intimate cabin service. Pilot comes on several times to point out landscape features, Mount St. Helens, Lake Tahoe.


On approach we see the pastel Sierra Nevadas, desert sands, towering Royal palms and Joshua trees.  Sunny, 23, with a light breeze…aaahhhhhh.


The Palm Springs airport is not very large. Luggage is quickly gathered and we are in our rental pretty quick. We are booked in at the Ace where we have stayed once before.  After settling in we walk down to the Amigo Room for a cocktail and nosh, hoping to see our former skateboarding bartender. He has moved on unsurprisingly. Cool, storied dudes like him don’t stay in one place too long, I’m thinking. Or the Johnnie Law catches up.


New guy at the bar is engaging and likes to talk bourbon. Seattle transplant and Sharks fan brings us some powerful cocktails and a queso with a nice zingy heat as well as a dish of roasted shishito peppers tossed smoked chili salt, lime and cilantro.




Perfect pause in a jet setting day.


IMG_4492Tonight we are staying close to home and dining at The King’s Highway here at Ace.


The resto is crowded in anticipation of Monday night bingo with Bella DeBall. Bella is striking, at least 6 feet 5 inches, not including Barbie pink shoes and bouffant hair.


We order a pint of Oskar Blues Brewery Momma’s Little Yella Pils, a very tasty pilsner and a local pear cider. For an appy we shared the house made ricotta with figs, thyme, honey and rustic fruit nut toast. The toast was nicely grilled with a little char. The cheese was creamy and mild. Delicious but a little heavy handed with the serving.


For mains we both ordered the Jidori  Buttermilk Fried Chicken (4 pieces) with Habanero Honey. Jidori is a domestic breed of free range chicken known for its robust flavour.


The crunchy crisp chicken with a sweet heat bite was very tender and juicy and accompanied by celery root mashed potatoes and preserved lemon butter. Nothing but cream, butter and air. Excellent. A watercress salad, lightly dressed, with a very well made quick pickle of thinly shaved onion rounded out the meal.


We stayed for a couple of rounds of bingo, intended to slip next door to the Amigo Room for Trivia night but, alas, waking up to a barfing dog at 4AM caught up to us. Chilling in the room and planning tomorrow.

South of France River Cruise Wrap-up

The Viking Cruise Ship Experience

The Ship

This ship was made in 2012 as with the entire fleet, so it’s new, modern and has the very latest in amenities, including satellite wi-fi (although it’s not screamingly fast).

You will pay for drinks in the lounge but you can purchase a premium drinks package separately. Depends on how much you drink. This is not an all-inclusive get hammered on cheap alcohol kind of cruise. Bartenders are experienced and know how to make a decent cocktail. There is unlimited wine and beer with meals.

IMG_9124There are only about 160 passengers  and amenities are very close by. It’s way more intimate than the floating cities that are today’s ocean liners. Cabins are never more than a two minute walk to dining areas and outdoor decks, quiet spaces and computer centers. We did not have to call down for this or that  except extra pillows, which came in mere minutes.

Vienne 005People have asked what the ship looks like. The answer? Exactly as pictured on the website and in print and television medias. There’s no real-life step down. It’s gorgeous.

The Cabin

Our cabin was a first class cabin and is generally the one pictured on TV. It was spacious and very well appointed. Having the balcony off the cabin for private outside time was  very nice, but there are plenty of areas to be outside if you don’t have a balcony. Showers and toilets worked beautifully. We heard from other passengers that their cabins were less spacious but also much cheaper. Best to check online for your own needs. It was really nice not to be tripping over each other. The room came with a bottle of sparkling wine which we sipped on our balcony on a hot day between ports. Nice.

Having BOTH 110V and 220V outlets in each cabin, as well as USB charging ports were thoughtful additions.

The Staff

We’ve been on other cruises. Service was always professional and fastidious.

We were very impressed by the staff’s interactions with passengers and their overall demeanor. They were comfortably engaging and gregarious, and while professional, they were not formal. Clearly designed to be a Viking differentiator.

Midway through the cruise we were required to change ships due to the fact that our cruise began on the wrong ship because of high waters. It was utterly painless. The team added extra perks: a cheese tasting and a bottle of local wine, for example. When we got back aboard, wet and cold from Lyon, they had prepared some rum-laced hot chocolate for us. It seemed like it was just for us — they were thoughtful and attentive and made it seem like OUR cruise was the only cruise.

A special note: our cruise director, Nikolas, an American-raised Belgian, was everybody’s friend – knowledgeable, friendly, funny and professional. He gave personal recommendations to anyone who asked and also gave daily briefings to all passengers, as well as presentations on wine, art and cheese that were informative, well-researched but never too academic.

The Food

The food on board was pretty much perfect for a large and varied group of passengers. The chefs managed to feed everyone with a fairly varied menu that highlighted the region’s cuisine. Of course the food in southern France is generally more rustic and passengers  expect some fancier fare so, while this is not a complaint in any sense, we found in many cases, the chefs’ hands were tied and probably they focused on presentation and mass appeal in their versions of the local dishes.

Ardeche 010 Beaune 027

Our best meals were rustic and full of local flavour. We ate lunch at a sidewalk café in Avignon and sit rose wine while eating fois gras, roast duck and other local delicacies. And on the ship , the chef surprised us this one day with a special menu featuring the rustic cuisine of Provence: Baguette, olives, local dried sausage, herb roasted chicken and duck and local cheeses. It was the best meal of the trip by far.

Vienne 008Vienne 007Tour Guides

All of our tour guides were exemplary. They were excellent guides that knew their subjects — history, architecture and culture. They also knew so much more, including about the geography and the horticulture or the region. They did a superb job of wrangling large groups of tourists  while never seeming to rush or to corral.

Viking employs QuietVox, the latest in guided tour technology. It’s a small receiver that every tourist wore which was tuned automatically to the tour guides’ transmitter. The perfect tour experience. Guides could speak quietly and respect residential areas and hallowed places while including everyone. We could go further afield of the group and still hear the guide clearly which was especially good for discovering photo opportunities.


This, being our first Viking river cruise, we chose to go top-drawer all the way, which included first-class air travel to Europe and back which ain’t cheap. They were long travel days but at least we had short lines and more comfortable surroundings.

It was a pricey trip, but if you wanted to not spend so much, regular economy airfare and a smaller cabin would still make for a great vacation. There’s lots of hang-out space on the ship, so not a big need for a larger cabin.

Something that never occurred to us — Spring rains make the rivers high, which can hamper river navigation for ships on rivers that include ancient bridges.

Ardeche 007

The crew wasn’t sure that the cruise would make it all the way to Lyon and Chalon-Sur-Saône because of the combination of high waters and particularly low bridges there. As it turned out, we were able to make all of our stops but on a couple occasions we were awakened in the morning  by the crew dismantling all of the structures on the sun deck above us to make under-bridge passage possible.

The Places

The Stops

The stops along the cruise were amazing choices — each was unique and different from the last. We wish had more time in each but had to keep moving. But, then we look back at what we packed into 8 days, we realize the ground we covered. As with many cruises, we discover the locations we will return to on our own (*cough, cough* Beaune.)


Arles was our first stop — a wonderful representative of the colours of Provence – the blues, the yellows. We walked in ancient footsteps among  Roman ruins and saw the inspiration for many of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous works. We took in the wandering ancient streets to the Roman coliseum and the Amphitheater from the first century, built by Augustus in Julius Caesar’s honour. As, well we stopped by the locations made immortal by Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Starry Night, Cafe at Night.

Arles 005


We walked through the narrow streets where Avignon has it’s own  Roman ruins and then the remnants of Roman influence from 1000 years later when Avignon held the seat of the Catholic Church during war. For me, the highlight was a stop at Les Halles at Avignon, a market for purveyors, of cheeses, meats and pastries. We saw lovely sausages, pates, breads and everything for an amazing Provencal repast.

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Leaving our guided tour at this point, we scouted out a French sidewalk cafe from which to  soak in the sun the proper way. A lovely lunch, some rose wine and lovely conversation made for a lifetime memory.

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Leaving Avignon we began the most picturesque part of the river cruise, passing limestone mountains, vineyards and castles, drinking sparkling wine on our sunny balcony.


Our trip through Vienne revealed a stunning view of the city from the church atop a mountain.

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Then the most unexpected thing happened. To show us the quality of the acoustics of the church, our tour guide sang Ave Maria in a pitch perfect, strong and clear voice that transported everyone in the room. It was one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Viennechurch 001

Again Vienne had it’s own Roman ruins, most impressively, the temple of Augustus and Livia.

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At our next stop, Ardeche we boarded a steam train, enjoyed a ride through the country side (don’t wear white. It is a dirty ride) and sampled some of the ciders and juices made from the area’s fruits.

Ardeche 006The train wound around the mountains of the region and gave us views of rivers and gorges and the odd nudist who, I’m sure, figured they’d be totally alone and didn’t count on a train full of tourists going by 100 metres above.

Ardeche 005


Lyon is a large city and we had really only a few hours to spend there. We toured the very old streets and the “traboules” – passageways through the buildings from street to street as old Lyon didn’t have enough room between mountain and river for cross streets everywhere.

Lyon 008We were in search of Lyonnaise sausages and nougat, specialties of the area. We found each of them in quaint shops that sold them and other specialties of the area. It was a cold, blustery day in Lyon, but shopping along its narrow, old streets was fantastic.

Lyon 009


It’s like the trip saved the best for last. We pulled into a more industrial part of Chalon-sur-Saone because the water was too high to pass under the ancient bridge to downtown proper. It was fine, because were were taking the bus to Beaune in Burgundy, wine capital of France, and maybe all the world.

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It had warmed up, the sun was out and we enjoyed our trip through the clos, the stone-walled vineyards of Burgundy, past the mustard factory into Beaune. We walked through the Hôtel Dieu and had our wine tasting in an old cellar.

Beaune 017We poked about for a short time and then had to leave for our last night on the boat. We will definitely be coming back to Beaune, maybe someday, to stay. We liked it that much.
Beaune 024You see the Viking ads on television and the web. As with most things, you don’t believe the real thing can measure up to the idealized version presented there. This is an exception. Seeing the advertising after we’ve returned, our reaction was the same: it’s JUST like that. 100% just like that. It was a spectacular introduction to the South of France. Intimate. Romantic. Historic. Wonderful.