Dress Code Decoder: What is Napa Chic?

Social events in the Napa Valley are a blast whether you’re invited to a private tasting or big bash winery party. But deciding what to wear to said soiree can be a bit of a chore, especially when you get an invite with the ubiquitous yet impenetrable “Napa casual” or “Napa chic.”

Basically, Napa Casual, Napa Chic, Dressy Casual and Cocktail Attire mean you can wear pretty much whatever you like short of mud-stained jeans or a ballgown. (Although I have seen both of those are Napa Valley events.) For men, it’s time to pull out the chinos-polo-shirt combination that never fails and ladies can rely on nice dresses or pants with an interesting top (but be sure to add a shawl or jacket because wine country evenings can be quite chilly.)

For a tongue-in-cheek look at the perils of cracking the wine country dress code, I put a few questions to a man who has saved me from a few sartorial stumbles. Let’s call him the Wine Country Wardrobe Adviser. Continue reading “Dress Code Decoder: What is Napa Chic?”

TSA: No corkscrews with blades in carry-ons

klm-landing-airplaneAttention wine lovers: The TSA has retracted its decision saying it’s OK to carry corkscrews that have a foil-cutter attachment in your carry-on luggage.

Corkscrews never were banned (neither were knitting needles or nail clippers, despite reports you may have heard) but under previous rules you could only take the fairly useless kind with no handy blade attachment. The good models, which have a tiny little knife that swings out and can be used to cut the foil covering the top of the bottle, were a no-go. As the TSA put it in a 2009 blog post, “Fancy schmancy corkscrews with knives, no. Cheap corkscrews with no knife, yes.”

But under new rules announced in March, “fancy schmancy” corkscrews got a pass.

The change, which was to have taken effect April 25, 2013,  was part of a general relaxing of rules intended to allow TSA agents to focus on the big things and stopping sweating the small stuff.

Unions representing flight attendants didn’t agree, saying even small blades could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Here’s the complete list of things that were briefly off the prohibited list: Knives that do not lock, and have blades that are 2.36 inches or 6 centimeters or less in length and are less than 1/2 inch in width, novelty-sized and toy bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and two golf clubs.

For more on what the TSA will and won’t allow, go here.

Four 4 Free: Venice

View from the Academy Bridge
View from the Academy Bridge

Looking for free things to do in Venice? Here are four.


Entrance into the Basilica de San Marco is free, although there are charges to see the museum and other areas. In the square, window shopping, people-watching and posing with the pigeons, if you dare, is free.  http://www.basilicasanmarco.it/ Entrance to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute — St. Mary of Health — is completely free. The church was built after an outbreak of the plague in the 17th century and has an ornate dome and artworks by Titian and others. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_della_Salute

grand canal sunset 2 LA BIENNALE

This is cheating a bit because the Biennale is an art festival held only every two years. But if you’re visiting Venice you should definitely check to see if it’s on. The main exhibit costs money, but there are scores of ancillary exhibits scattered throughout the city that are totally free and a lot of fun to explore. I found some very interesting exhibits in the 2013 free showings, especially the Azerbaijan exhibit which featured lots of interactive pieces. This art work shown consists only of a relatively small frame of twisted wire, the light shining through it creates the elaborate drawing projected on the wall. http://www.labiennale.org/en/biennale/index.html


I stumbled on this on a rainy November afternoon and it was perfect. Warm, not too crowded, and filled with the sound of beautiful music. Might not be quite so fun on sweltering summer day, but if you are into classical music, you will be intrigued by this collection of instruments from the 17th to 19th centuries. The museum is in a beautiful setting, the Church of St.Maurizio, about a 15-minute walk from St. Mark’s Square, and celebrates Venice’s musical history. http://www.interpretiveneziani.com/en/museo-della-musica.php


This one gets mixed reviews. Kind of depends which guide you get, how much you like walking and whether you were able to find the meeting point easily or not. However, bottom line, it’s free, people! Go to the website to sign up and expect bookings to be heaviest during peak season. http://freetourvenice.com/

St. Mark's 2

BONUS TIP: For a good map of the city, visit http://www.veniceonline.it/Maps/Maps.asp .

Four 4 Free: Edinburgh


The Scots are said to be a thrifty lot and you can follow that example with this list of four free things to do in Edinburgh.

1. The Writers Museum: This museum in a charming old house celebrates the lives of the great Scottish writers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. You will find rare books, portraits and personal objectsi including Burn’s writing desk and Stevenson’s riding boots.

Lady Stair’s Close. Tel: 0131 529 4901. Hours Monday to Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm (during August only). http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/The-Writers–Museum

2. Arthur’s Seat: This is the main peak in in the middle of Holyrood Park, a huge open space at the bottom of the Royal Mile and across the street from Holyrood Palace. There are a few ways up, the easiest way is from the east where you start with the grassy hill rising behind Dunsapie Loch. It’s fairly easy going; I am not in the greatest of shapes and I made it with generous rest times. The good news is that if you don’t feel like making the whole climb, just rambling around the mountains will take you to some fine views of the city and a blue water vista across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Try saying that three times quickly.

Hours: Open daily. Here’s a detailed map; http://www.docs.csg.ed.ac.uk/EstatesBuildings/Transport/walks%20holyrood%20park.pdf

3. Royal Botanic Gardens: Over 70 acres of landscaped grounds, these gardens are world-renowned. There’s a fee for visiting the glasshouses, but the grounds are totally free. Look for the Scottish Heath Garden, the Rock Garden, home to more than 5,000 alpine plants and the 165 meter-long herbaceous border.

Inverleith Row. Open daily except Christmas and New Year’s 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March-September, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. November-January and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Februrary and October. http://www.rbge.org.uk/home

4. Museum of Childhood: This unusual museum was the first in the world to celebrate childhood. There are toys and games from across the decades and visitors can play with the toys or get hands-on with dressing up costumes and games. Not just for children, this is the kind of place where adults can wallow in the pleasant nostalgia triggered by the sight of an old favorite toy. The Stanbrig Eorls dolls house has 21 rooms containing over 2,000 items.

42 High Street, Royal Mile. Open Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm. http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/Museum-of-Childhood


Related post: Edinburgh photo gallery

Travel by the Book: Steinbeck’s Positano

Amalfi coastI’m typing this on a leather-inlaid writing desk while listening to the Tyrrhenean sea slap against the craggy rocks beneath my open window.

It’s one of those pinch-me moments.

I feel as if I really should be pecking out the final chapters of my Great American Novel on a Royal typewriter, but since all I’ve got is this blog entry, let’s go with that.

I am, if you haven’t already guessed, on the Amalfi coast of Italy, which is a very cool place to be _ fantastic scenery, nice people and some very tasty food.

The Amalfi coast is famous for making limoncello, lemon-infused liqueur, and hand-made paper. I’ll let you figure out which industry has brought me here.

My hotel, is the Best Western Hotel Marmorata, or as our group has already dubbed it, the Bestest Western. It’s set in an old paper mill and is simply awesome, from the nautical-themed decor _ Hello portholes! _ to the aforementioned cliff top setting.

I can’t quite decide if I want to go all Hemingway _ and I sat and listened to the crash of the sea waves, and it was good _ or emulate F. Scott Fitzgerald and liberate the minibar. Or maybe I should just listen to Steinbeck, who really nailed the ambience of Amalfi in an essay he wrote about the nearby village of Positano,

It is, he wrote, “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

Travel by the Book: Hemingway’s Botin Feast


BotinWe lunched upstairs at Botin´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles [Ed. note: Three!]  of rioja alta.–“The Sun Also Rises”

Paris may be a moveable feast, but Madrid is the place to satisfy a literary appetite,

On a trip to Madrid, I read “The Sun Also Rises” as prep and was inspired to check out Botin’s restaurant after reading about Jake Barnes’ giant meal of roast pork at Botin’s restaurant. 

I set off bright and early at 8 a.m. and found the place tucked into an alley leading off one of the many impressive squares of the city. It wasn’t hard to spot, one window was decorated with illustrations of the works of Graham Greene, who mentioned Botin’s in his book, “Monsieur Quixote.”

Looks like the author of “The Third Man,” and “The Old Man and the. Sea,” both like their pork.

I did a little research and discovered that Botin’s was founded in 1725 and is listed as the world’s oldest restaurant by the Guinness World Book of Records.

Speaking of Guinness, while wandering back to my hotel, I came across a “genuine Irish pub,” with a tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses. I never got past Chapter One of that book, but I was pleased to see another tribute to an author of renown,

If you’re interested in learning more, Elizabeth Nash has written an interesting literary guide to Madrid.

You’re probably wondering, did I try the pork? Of course not, it was eight in the morning and the place was closed. But I have done a good deal of eating in Spain, most of it carnocentric. This is what Hemingway had to say about Spanish cuisine. “The first meal in Spain was always a shock with the hors d’oeuvres, an egg course, two meat courses, vegetables, salad and dessert and fruit. You have to drink plenty of wine to get it all down.”

What he said.


Where: Calle Cuchilleros, 17, Madrid. Tel. +34 913 66 42 17

Website: http://www.casabotin.com/?q=en

Don’t miss: If you go and don’t order at least some pork you are dead to me.

Review: Hotel Saturnia, Venice

Canal at sunset
Canal at sunset

The Hotel Saturnia & International, Venice, has got it going on location-wise. It’s close to St. Mark’s Square, sits on an upscale shopping street and has its own little canal dock for when you need to get a water taxi to the airport in a hurry. Added to that is a tasty and filling breakfast included in our rate and a handy little bar/restaurant that is fun to duck into on your way out or when coming home from a night on the town.

In summer, breakfast is served outside in a little garden court and there’s also a sunroof with a nice view of the city.

Set in a charming century-old building, the hotel has a variety of rooms at different prices. Ours was one of the humbler rooms and wasn’t exactly spacious. A double, it had the requisite two beds but there was only just room for them and an antique dresser, wardrobe and narrow desk. I liked the furniture, no cookie-cutter Holiday Inn here, and really enjoyed the fabulous chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The bathroom was adequate and both bathroom and bedroom had windows opening to a decorative balcony. WiFi was not lightning fast but did work and didn’t cost extra, a big deal in my book.

For the rate we paid (about $250/night through Booking.com) this was a good deal. Staff, by the way, were awesome and, in some cases, handsome to boot.

I would say for the money, this hotel can’t be beat. Just one caveat: Bring earplugs. This has got to be the creakiest hotel I ever stayed in. Floors, beds, stairs all set up a symphony of squeaks, but since I NEVER travel without industrial-strength earplugs plus comfy eye mask I slumbered peacefully through it all.


  • Where: 2399 S. MARCO, Venezia Tel. +39 041 520 8377
  • Website: http://www.hotelsaturnia.it/
  • Don’t miss: An aperol spritz in the La Caravelle restaurant.


Eiffel Tower

Tour1-600x381Like the pyramids of Egypt and the Colosseum of Rome, the Eiffel Tower is one of those immediately recognizable landmarks. I remember the first time I was driven into Paris (we were actually stuck in the mind-blowing congestion of the 5 p.m. rush hour on the Peripherique road that circles the city) when I looked up and realized I was finally looking at the actual tower. Such a thrill.

Since then I’ve visited the tower in sun, rain, early in the morning and at night and I never fail to get a charge out of it. It would be nicer without all those other people — and the ubiquitous signs warning of pickpockets are a bit of a downer — but it is still a lot of fun. Winter is always better than summer, although you will need to keep an eye on the weather, conditions can lead to restrictions on where you can go.

The tower was built as the archway to the 1889 World’s Fair. You probably know it’s named after engineer Gustav Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. But you may not be aware that it was quite controversial. A number of people, including the writer Guy de Maupassant, a protege of Flaubert’s, hated the idea of plonking a huge metal oil derrick in the middle of elegant Paris.

Eiffel, in typical modest, retiring engineer fashion, blandly compared the tower to the pyramids and the project steamed ahead. The plan was to take the tower down in 20 years but Eiffel came up with the idea of encouraging using it for scientific experiments, including radio communications, and it survived. At 1,050 feet tall (somewhere near the equivalent of an 80-story building) the tower ought to be completely out of place. And yet, with its soaring arches and elegant narrow lines, it is quite beautiful, whether viewed up close or from a distance.

If you would like to visit the structure, go here for more information. You can take the elevator to the top, which costs €15 (about $20) or take the stairs to the 1st or 2nd floor for €5. (Note: 1st floor France = 2nd floor America. The official “3rd floor” is at the top.) Elevators run from the North, East and West pillars, going to the 2nd floor where you switch for the elevator to the very top. South is stairs only. Check the website before visiting for info to scope out weather conditions, possible elevator outages, and approximate wait times.

If you are reasonably hale and hearty you may want to consider taking the stairs to the 1st and/or 2nd floors and then catching the elevator to the top if you want to go higher. The lines are shorter for the stairs, sometimes much shorter, tickets are cheaper, and the climb is not too arduous at about 700 stairs with places to rest. The stairs between the 2nd floor and the top are closed to the public so if you want to go higher it’s time to jump in the ascenseur.  There are exhibits on the 1st floor, panoramic views from the 2nd and more view at the top as well as Eiffel’s office complete with the gramophone Edison gave him.

There’s an app available for smart phones with a guided tour of the tower. If heights make you peckish, you can pick up a snack at the 1st floor buffet, eat at the brasserie on that floor, book a table at the very expensive Jules Verne restaurant on the 2nd floor or sip on bubbles at the Champagne Bar on the 3rd floor at the top.

The tower can also be enjoyed from the ground — be sure to walk up the steps of the nearby Palais de Chaillot, which offers good views of the tower and the skyline.

You’ll probably walk away a fan of the tower. Unlike de Maupassant. His dislike of the structure never abated. In fact, he is said to have routinely eaten lunch at one of the tower’s restaurants, remarking tartly that that was the one place in the city he could be sure of not having a view of the structure.


  • Ticket info: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/en/preparing-your-visit/planning-your-visit.html
  • Don’t miss: Seeing the tower at night. Crowds drop a bit, the tower is lit up like a Christmas tree and the views of the city glowing beneath the night sky are magnificent.

Review: Francois Premier Hotel, Cognac


If you are visiting Cognac, a good place to stay is the Francois Premier Hotel. It’s convenient to everything, you can stroll to the grand Cognac houses like Courvoisier and Hennessey, and it’s a pleasant place to hang out as well, rooms were renovated in 2012 and there’s an indoor pool and steam room.

The hotel is set in a 19th-century building, which makes it an elegant place to come home to. And the renovations mean you get the best of both worlds with up-to-date bathrooms and luxurious mattresses. There are 21 rooms and four suites, private parking and a small bar where you can stop for a drink, ask to try some of the new cognac cocktails. All rooms feature high-quality linens. Go here for the full run down on room types. Rack rates start at around $400, but there are weekend specials for quite a bit less and deals on the various booking sites are around $300. Staff are pleasant and accommodating.

Cognac, of course, is the region in France that producers the fine brandies that go by that name. (And can we pause for a moment to consider how cool the wine region thing is? Wouldn’t it be a boost to tourism if Kentucky, for instance, was renamed the State of Bourbon?)

In addition to visiting the Cognac houses, you can stroll around town, stopping and eating every few blocks as one does. If you brought a car you can explore the Atlantic coast. Ile de Re is a good spot to visit, you leave your car at the outskirts and can rent a bike here and pedal your way up and down the coast. Here‘s a helpful post on bike rental shops.

Closer to home, the Charente River in Cognac is a lovely spot where you can stroll along the riverpath or book a boat trip.