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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mendoza: We Cannot Stay Away

When we found out that some of our closest friends, the Newhooks, were moving back to the US, we knew that we needed to take one last trip with them before their move date.  The choice was simple, we needed to return to Mendoza.

Since this is our third time to wine country in Argentina, it was easy to decide what kinds of wineries to  visit.  We knew that we wanted to go to the smaller bodegas, and that one day we wanted to venture to the Uca Valley, an area that we had not yet visited.  Considering the sheer amount of wineries in Mendoza, somewhere around 1,100, we still looked to a tour company to help us narrow down the options. 

Our buddy Javier was on vacation for this trip, so we booked through Uncorking Argentina, and they put together a tour that was precisely what we wanted.  We visited 3 wineries each day, all of which are sized between boutique and low production (less than 1 million bottles produced per year). 

We started the trip at Mendel, a winery that we visited back in July and loved.  They have a lower line blend called Lunta that is a great value for your peso and their 100% Malbec is a great Malbec option.  The Malbec vines at this winery are almost 100 years old, and are some of the only vines that haven't been grafted with other varietals to resist a certain bug that ravaged the Malbec plants back in the 1940s.  The property was preserved because it was abandoned by the original owners - and recovered by the current owners after 25 years of disrepair.  The highlight of their wines is a Malbec/Cabernet blend called the Unus. If you see this on a wine list, it is an easy choice.

 They have this great sculpture on the property of a man harvesting grapes, constructed solely of machine parts.  He's a really cool representation of the vineyard.

We had a full tasting this time around, with a recently married couple from the US on my right and an Argentine couple living in Australia on Milena's left.  It turns out that the Argentines have mutual friends with the Newhooks - a very small world indeed.  And the groom was all grins as he posed for this picture.

Our next visit was to a relatively new winery to the area, Piattelli, which is actually owned by an American.  It is an organic vineyard and has one of the only female wine makers in the area.  This was our lunch spot on day one, and the food was very good, though the service was a bit disjointed.  After the winery tour, there was no explanation of the individual wines that we had with lunch, so I don't have much to share on that front.  I really liked their Chardonnay and they served a Rosé of Malbec that was too sweet for my taste.

The lunch was epic, I think we were sitting for over 2 hours. For a portion of the time, they had the sprinklers on right next to us, spraying Milena, which was just strange.  It was as if we had arrived too early for our reservation, though they knew well in advance when we were coming.  Interestingly, they are planning to open a winery in Salta, very close to where we all vacationed in December 2011.

We ended the day with a blending session at Renacer, which might have been the only winery that I would skip next time.  We were given four different pure wine types, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2 others, and we blended our own varietal. None of them were particularly great, but Jon's blend was given the honor of "Grand Reserva".

The following day is when we ventured to the Uca Valley, an area 1.5 hours south of the town of Mendoza. We started the day at Pulenta Estates, which is the maker of some of our favorite wines. The Pulenta Estates bodega is owned by two brothers, who are also related (I think there is a third brother in there) to the owners of Vistalba winery.  It's a funny thing, because the two wineries are both beautiful, and the tours were knowledgable and thorough.  The difference is at Pulenta, you can choose between 3 different tasting levels, each with a difference in price, but all of them consist of the higher quality wines that they produce. At Vistalba, they only offered their lowest level wines, which weren't all that great, and they hope that you will go out on a limb and purchase their higher lines (which aren't cheap at an average of US$50 per bottle).  It seems like a poor marketing move to me - we'll stick with Pulenta.

The next stop was Andeluna, ironically, one of the first wines we tried in Argentina.  They have gone through some changes, they renamed the different lines and changed their labels, but it is still a great, affordable option among Argentinean wines.  We had lunch at Andeluna, which offered a great 5 course pairing lunch.  The tables are set right next to the open kitchen, it was really great to see exactly what the chefs were doing.  They served a gazpacho soup with cucumber that was outstanding.

The last winery on our trip ended up being our favorite new find. La Azul is a boutique bodega that has a whole lotta land.  They sell over 80% of their grapes to other wineries, then they keep the chosen 20% to make their own wines.  They have a Malbec, Cabernet, Azul Reserva and Azul Grand Reserva (both blends).  The prices are on par with Domaine St. Diego, AR$40 for the lower lines and up to AR$120 for the higher lines, and the quality is incredible. Even if you live in Argentina, you won't find this wine very often... yet.  If you do, give it a go, you'll be glad that you did.

During the tour, we tasted the Grand Reserva right out of the barrel, generally a neat thing to do but at this stage, wines are not necessarily ready to drink.  This was smooth and bottle worthy, and it still had some months to mature.  

We had our tasting outside, which was a great place to sit for a drink in the afternoon.  The Uca Valley is much higher in altitude than Mendoza city, so the sun is extremely strong, but they tend to have a nice breeze.

For dinner on our last night in Mendoza, we followed our friend Chef Mun to his new location in the Casarena bodega.  He and Carey have such a great thing going for themselves, the location is beautiful, the dinner is held right in the barrel cellar of the winery, and the food is Asian-Argentine Fusion, not a mix you see every day here.

We had a great time, the dinner was outstanding, as expected, the only sad part is that is no longer have Casa Mun as an option the Capital!  If you are in the Mendoza area, make an effort to get to Mun@Casarena, it is unlike any other meal you will have in Argentina.

It was a great "farewell" trip with our friends.  While we were gone, Gretchen and Talia got together and played - they were having just as much fun at home.  And, even though we were only gone for a weekend, the best part is walking in and seeing this face again!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Costa Rica: Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

The last full day of our trip we decided to visit the enormous national park that was right on our front doorstep.  The Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Costa Rica, but is visited by large amounts of tourists annual due to the biodiversity and the beautiful beaches in the park. The park entrance tickets were US$10 each, and we paid an additional price for a guide at the entrance of the park.  The park guides are willing to negotiate, though we found that after the negotiation, the guide was still able to make a few extra bucks by adding other people to our "private" tour.  The guide was great at pointing out animals, birds and reptiles that we never would have seen on our own, but didn't offer much of a "tour" of the park.
 We certainly never would have spotted the sloths that he showed us during the tour.  Even this guy that was only a few feet above us in the trees would have been a challenge to spot.  This is a 3-toed sloth that looks remarkably like the friendly, docile 2-toed sloth - though we were told that this one will kill you if you cross him.

We have been told that there are a limited number of visitors allowed inside the park on any given day, this was not an issue for us, but it certainly can get crowded as the day goes on.  We arrived around 10:00am, and there were times that the path was full of folks trying to see whatever animal the guides were pointing out.  Another reason to go early is that it is incredibly hot and humid during the day. Gretchen was ready for a bath and a nap as soon as the tour was over.  She was remarkably well behaved on the tour, though she did NOT want to get inside the backpack carrier we had borrowed for her.  So, she walked:

And at times was carried by various members of the group:

I'm not sure who is hotter in this picture, baby or Daddy...

 At the end of the hike through the park, we came to some remarkable beaches.  Beautiful sand, crystal clear water, and hardly a person to be seen.  The difficulty is that you need to do the hike to get to the beach - needless to say, less people come here.
Our Family Christmas Shot
The park is truly beautiful, so much green space, lush forests and a coastline to dream about.  We saw monkeys, sloths, many different birds, crabs and a nasty looking iguana, so we certainly were right in there with the wildlife.  At the end of the hike, there was a very small creek that some kind locals were able to "ferry" you across (for some sort of tip) or you could walk across a few yards down.  We all walked across, we all ended up with wet shoes, but no one was worried about it.  Especially my mom and Kyra, who were either having a great time, or really excited about the margaritas we had waiting at home.  


Chris is deep in thought...
 And after a hot day's tour, we all enjoyed lunch at El Avion, the bar made out of an airplane that we had been hearing about all week.  The airplane part was cool, but the view from the restaurant over the water made it a perfect lunch spot.

After lunch and a full morning hiking in the hot air, we were all ready for a bit of this:

What a great way to spend our last day in Costa Rica.  The only place that I have not mentioned in a previous post is where we ate our Christmas Dinner, the restaurant of a hotel called Arenas del Mar.  If we ever return to Manuel Antonio, I will seriously consider staying at this beautiful hotel.  The restaurant was great, we were picked up in golf carts, driven through the pitch black forest into an open air bar and restaurant that was really great for a night out.  The servers were attentive, the menu was full of delicious fresh seafood options and it worked out perfectly for our group of 10.

We had a wonderful trip, and we are so grateful for our families that spent the holidays together with us and helped care for Gretchen throughout the trip.  We look forward to many more amazing vacation trips together!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Costa Rica: The Water

Costa Rica is a country with lots and lots of coastline, both on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  We were staying on the Pacific side, so all of our water time was in the Pacific - which despite it's reputation for being cold, it was the temperature of bathwater. 

The last excursion we booked through the concierge was a fishing trip for the guys.  The trip was a 3/4 day private tour through Luna Tours and honestly, it was a bit underwhelming.  The guys running the tour was great, but the lunch was a generic sandwich and though though drinks were provided, they ran out after only a hour.  

They were out on the water for a LONG time and nothing was biting.  Low and behold, Jon's line had a bite.

And what a bite it was!  A sailfish that was almost 10 feet long and estimated at 120 pounds.  And he was a feisty sucker!  It took close to a half hour to reel in the first fish of the day.

And he made a great picture!  Sailfish are protected in Costa Rica (maybe elsewhere as well, I only know what the boatmen told us), so this beauty went right back in the water to enjoy another day.  

The fishing trip was not over yet.  Just as they were pulling in the lines to call it a day, another line snagged...
Ted spots something on the horizon
 During dinner the night before, my brother Chris stated that he planned on not fishing at all, just taking pictures - and guess who's line caught? Of course, it was Chris. The fish gave him quite a fight, and after 40 minutes of reeling, he pulled in a blue marlin!

The fish was estimated at 300 pounds! They pull him onto the boat, for fear of killing him, and blue marlin are also a protected species. He sure was cool though - and Chris was one unsuspecting fisherman!

We also spent a day at the Mar & Sombra beach, which was a 5 minute drive from our house.  There are a couple of small beaches to choose from in Manuel Antonio, but this particular beach has Erik, a guy that will set up umbrellas and chairs for you, as well as bring drinks and food.  He was a really nice guy, working for tips, and has been at this spot for 10 years (so he tells me).  One of the greatest things about Erik is that he used a bucket of seawater to keep a cool path to the ocean from our chairs, the sand got crazy hot during the day.

The beach had all sorts of fun things to do, like renting a wave runner,
Ted and Kyra riding into the sea
Hanging out and eating snacks with Grammy,

Finding rocks, and then throwing them back into the waves,

And... Parasailing!  The idea started with my mother-in-law's lifelong wish to go parasailing, and continued with the constant string of parasailers visible from our living room. By the time we got to the beach, we knew we weren't leaving until someone was pulled behind a boat.

You can fly in pairs, so Lornie and I partnered up and got ready to go!  It was easy - walk down the beach until you take off!

Flying High!
Next up - my mom and Chris.  There were a few extra nerves on this trip, but soon enough they were up in the sky enjoying the breeze!

Everyone used the same company, Aguas Azules, and they were great.  We had lots of fun, and I can say that we thoroughly enjoyed everything that the water in Costa Rica had to offer!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Costa Rica: Ziplining

The other excursion that we booked as a group was the canopy tour (better known as zip lining), with the exception of Papa Mas and Gretchen, who spent some quality time together at the house.

The canopy tour was booked through Canopy Safari, and again, it was a great experience.  The tour was on the outskirts of Quepos, the medium-sized town nearest to Manuel Antonio, so it took about 40 minutes to get there from the town of Manuel Antonio. Again we were expecting a much less extensive tour, and were surprised to find a full hot lunch, a drive through tour of a palm oil field and a butterfly garden.  None of the additional items were necessary, but certainly made the tour more interesting.

The tour was fun, though a bit more extreme than anyone had anticipated.  We all completed the course, 10 zip lines, 2 rappels, and 1 Tarzan swing.  We ranged from complete confidence to total fear - but everyone completed the course - and was glad they did.

The only person we're missing is Jon, who was the photographer for the day.  The tour was great, though I have no idea how high up we were, it felt like 200 feet.  The scariest part for me, my Mom and Kyra might agree, was that the first two zip lines ended on really small platforms built around a tree.  There was little room from where we stood to the edge of the platform - and all 9 of us along with 2 guides were up there together at the same time.  This is when a guide spotted a toucan, though I was too scared to look around.  Don't get me wrong, we were secured to a line through the entirety of the tour, but it was unnerving for this heights-phobic.
Robbie was told it was a formal affair
Our group of zipliners
For those that are considering zip lining in Costa Rica, it is really a great time.  That being said, it was more advanced that I had expected, and had other people in our group not been so scared, I would have been the one freaking out.  The Tarzan swing was literally a rope attached to your harness that swung you from one platform to another, easy and safe enough, but I was terrified.  I'm pretty sure the guide ended up pushing me off the edge.  So, this is not a walk in the park, if you are seriously afraid of heights, or death by zipline, you may want to skip this tour.  If anyone asked me 6 months ago if my mom would ever go zip lining I would have said no - but alas, she conquered it!  Congratulations to our group!