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Swimming, The Best, Most Fabulous, Sport Ever

I love swimming.  I started competing at 6 years old, swam in college, and transitioned to open water marathon swims in the years before starting medical school.  As a resident I don’t get to swim as often as I would like, but I take every opportunity available to get a dose of chlorinated endorphins.

Initially going to swim practice was a drag.  I wanted to play with my friends after school, not go to swim practice.  I used to try to get out of it, but my dad was firm and I dutifully, though a little resentfully, went to practice every day.  When I started to get a taste of success by the age of 8, Dad didn’t need to push me anymore.  I started double workouts (2 sessions in one day) when I was ten years old.  People told me I would burn out, but here I am in my 30s, still at it.  In the water I feel strong, powerful, and beautiful.  The rest of the world melts away, narrowing to the sound of my breath, the water flowing past, and making the next interval.  A lot of creativity and problem solving blossoms during a swimming workout – in fact, it was during a swim session that I had the idea for starting this blog.  No matter what else is going on in my life, swimming brings me joy and perspective.  My mother once commented that, “You never look as happy as you do when you are in the water.”

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Smiley Swimmer!

With that introduction, I am going to share why I think swimming is The Best, Most Fabulous, Sport Ever.  Hopefully I’ll make a convert out of you…or at least talk you into getting your kids involved in this amazing sport!

Reason #10:  It’s not a popularity contest. 

Swimming is an egalitarian sport.  Beyond the clock, there are no judges in swimming.  There isn’t a points system or subjective evaluation criteria.  There is no “selection committee” for the US Olympic Swim Team.  There is no situation where two athletes compete dazzlingly well and someone else decides the winner.  It doesn’t matter how pretty you are, how popular you are, where you train, who your coach is, or how smart you are.  All that matters is who gets their hand on the wall first.

Reason #9:  Swimmers are nice. 

Maybe it’s because we spend a lot of time in our own heads, and therefore crave human interaction.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been beaten into submission so often by killer workouts and the only thing that got us through was camaraderie.  Or maybe it’s because the nature of the sport involves sharing space and getting over the occasional foot tap or arm whack with a “sorry dude!” and an “it’s cool!”  Whatever the reason, swimmers are a really friendly lot.  We will strike up conversations with pretty much anyone.  Complete strangers end up doing workouts together.  When we join a new team or training group, we are immediately part of the family.  And we love sharing the joy of swimming and getting new people to try this awesome sport.

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Denver Dawn Patrol! My training group in medical school.

Reason #8:  Swimmers are fun!

Work hard, play hard.  When you don’t get much time off, you tend to make the most of the opportunities that arise.  Moreover, you have to have a playful disposition to get through the hours of training.  Swimming tends to breed outgoing people who aren’t afraid to be a little silly.

Reason #7: Swimming teaches valuable life lessons.

Success in swimming is all about what you put into it.  Again, there are no judges or selection committees.  Popularity, socioeconomic status, and appearances can’t help you in this sport.  If you want success, you have to work hard.  You have to overcome obstacles, push through setbacks, and pick yourself up after failures.  There’s no one who can do it for you.  Swimming teaches you how to set goals and go after them.  Swimming teaches mental tenacity, determination, and perseverance.  It fosters ambition and competitiveness, the audacity to dream big and the patience to take the multitude of small steps required to get there.  It teaches camaraderie and teamwork, trust and faith.  Swimming, especially while growing up, is a practice run at life.  By the time you arrive on the threshold of adulthood, you have experience setting goals, working hard, balancing commitments, shouldering discomfort, dealing with failure, and refusing to give up.  You have grit.

Reason #6: Swimming prepares you to be a Resident.

Honestly, after 15 years of getting up at 4am to dive into a cold pool and workout for 2 hours, waking up at 5am to round is relatively cushy.  What, all I have to do is go to work?  And I get to keep my warm clothes?  Sweet!  My husband, also a resident, frequently grumbles about how alert and oriented I am at 5am just moments after my alarm goes off.  If you want your kid to be a doc, swimming isn’t a bad way to prepare her for #residencylife.

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OB/GYN Residents: we work a lot, but still have time to smile!

Reason #5.  The pool isn’t a bad place to meet people.

I will refer you back to #9 and #8 as a way of explaining that I have been asked on more dates on the pool deck than any other venue.  Swimmers honestly are interesting, nice people.  Moreover, when you meet a fellow swimmer, you know you are meeting someone who shares your values and understands your lifestyle.  It’s much, much better than meeting someone at a bar.

Reason #4: Swimming lets you travel.

Whether for national competitions, international meets, training trips, or open water swimming events, swimming is definitely a way to see the world.  Because of swimming I had visited the following places by the age of 25: Alaska, England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Aruba, Maui, and France.  Some of my friends who achieved even greater success in competitive swimming had traveled even more than I by the time they hit their mid-20s.

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Hiking in Maui after the Maui Channel Swim.

If you get into open water swimming, you also get to see things most people don’t see.  One of the neatest experiences I had was swimming around Treasure Island and under the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay while training to swim the English Channel.  Looking up at the underside of the bridge I thought to myself, how many people really get to appreciate this view?  One of my 10 year vacation goals is to do a swimming tour of the Greek islands.  You can check out an example of these aquatic vacation opportunities here.

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Swimming by Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay.

Reason #3: Swimming just feels good. 

There’s something special about being in the water that is truly restorative.  Maybe it’s because our lives begin in the salt water of our mother’s womb.  Maybe it’s the fact that swimming is a total body workout that gets the blood pumping and the endorphins flowing.  Maybe it’s just the peace that comes from shutting out the rest of the world.   Whatever the reason, finishing a swim leaves you feeling wonderful and refreshed, whether you are pushing yourself hard or just doing a few leisurely laps.  I enjoy all sorts of exercise and activity – running, high intensity interval training, hiking, yoga, lifting – but nothing leaves me with the same feeling of simultaneous vibrance and languor as swimming.

Reason #2:  Swimming is a family sport.

My grandfather was a swimming legend (more on him below).  My father swam in college and went on to become a triathlete, and my uncle was also a triathlete, completing IRONMAN Kona despite being worn down by chemotherapy.  My mother learned to swim while she was pregnant with yours truly.  My sister swam until she transformed into a rowing prodigy in high school.  When I was a kid we would show up at open water events and all of us – my grandfather, my dad, my uncle, my sister, and me – would sign up for the races.  My childhood revolved around weekends at swim meets, which were basically big social events interspersed with bursts of competition. The younger siblings of my friends were all friends, and the parents of my friends were my parents’ friends.

My husband does triathlons and sometimes comes to the pool with me.  My parents still swim, and I often meet up with them at their sports club on weekends.  My mom and I grab lanes next to each other – we are ridiculously adorable – and swim next to each other.  I am destined to become a swim mom who takes her kids to swim practice and then works out with the master’s team a few lanes over.  It’s all in the family 🙂

Reason #1: You can, literally, keep swimming until you die.  

As swimming is a low-impact activity, you can continue to swim and even compete well after most other athletes need to give up their sport (how many 90 year old gymnasts do you see?)  My grandfather, Gary Weisenthal, was nationally ranked in his prime, and would have competed in the 1940 Olympics as part of the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, were the Olympic Games not cancelled in that year.  He competed in Masters Swimming well into his 90s, and was still participating in distance open water races into his 80s.  I remember that the first year I competed in the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim 3 mile event at age 13, he completed the 10 mile race at age 81.  He was a Masters Swimming All American 20 times.  He still holds world records in Masters Swimming for the 100 meter and 200 meter backstroke for age group 95-99, and he was still swimming the week he died at 101 years old.  He was an amazing man, beloved by all who knew him, and a true inspiration for me.  I always wanted to be like him, and I, too, intend to keep swimming for the rest of my life.

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My Old Grand Dad circa 2013, age 99.  He was the brightest light in any room.

In conclusion, swimming is The Best, Most Fabulous, Sport Ever.  It does wonders for the mind, body, and soul, and it is something you can keep doing forever.  If you aren’t a swimmer yet, I hope you give it a try sometime – maybe I’ll see you in the water!

 

 

Stoic & Genuine

The Denver restaurant scene has always been impressively good.  Most of my favorite dining experiences have been in Denver, and it’s hard to fight the urge to go to the same favorites whenever we visit.  Still, Denver seems to have been stepping up its culinary game ever since we left, and there are a number of delicious-looking new places cropping up.  As such, we have been making ourselves branch out more often.  While it is almost painful to skip over classic favorites such as EDGE, Il Posto, Root Down, and Shanahan’s, we have for the most part been rewarded in these endeavors.

We keep wanting to check out Beatrice and Woodsley, but this popular joint was fully booked on Thursday when we got around to looking at reservations for Saturday night.  Perusing the various offerings on Open Table, I chose Stoic and Genuine, a seafood restaurant that opened in the newly renovated Union Station.  I was attracted by their offering of caviar and an extensive oyster list, but further examining the menu I discovered I would gladly sample virtually everything on it (which, being someone who doesn’t eat any red meat or pork, is saying something).

Saturday night was the night of a Rockie’s game, so we opted to take the light rail into Denver instead of slogging through traffic and circling aimlessly for parking.  It was a pleasant experience and made for excellent people watching.  Our train deposited us at Union Station, and it was a pleasant stroll through the warm Denver night to arrive at Stoic and Genuine.

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On the light rail to Stoic and Genuine.

So how do I say this nicely…Union Station used to be a little bit of a…dump.  The last time I was there was maybe 3-4 years ago, when other than some construction there wasn’t much happening.  Needless to say I was utterly shocked when we rounded a corner and the facade of Union Station came into view.  The place is now utterly gorgeous!  The main building soars majestically overhead, with several restaurants complete with outdoor dining areas dotting the walkway.  A pretty and fun series of jumping fountains graces the sidewalk, and kids were chasing each other around the jets of water laughing merrily.  People bustled about or simply lounged, taking in the surroundings.  Apparently, Union Station was now a happening place to be.  Well done, Denver!

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The new Union Station at night.

Stoic and Genuine was one of those restaurants with a patio seating area looking out at the bustling walks and jumping fountains.  We entered to find the kitchen area and raw bar ahead with a relatively intimate dining area to the left and a nautical-themed driftwood bar to the right.  Dark wood tables lined a wall with a blue couch and pleasant, soft, blue-tinged lighting.  The decor accents included old timey diving attire, metal chandeliers, and rusted mirrors that looked as though they could have been pulled out of the sea.  It was casual and yet elegant.

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Stoic and Genuine interior.

We were seated promptly and selected a Patz and Hall Chardonnay from their wine list.  I wanted to start with the caviar, which we ordered first and then continued to peruse the delectable menu.  I should at this point present my one criticism of Stoic and Genuine:  the service was unimpressive.  The caviar took forever to plate (what, did they have to go harvest it fresh from the sea?); I had to ask for a wine chiller for our bottle of Chardonnay (I mean, isn’t that Wine Service 101?); they couldn’t seem to get straight which oysters they had and which they were out of (I had to change my order 3 different times because they kept making mistakes); and empty plates were left to sit in front of us for far too long (we had to finally flag someone down to please clear them).  So that aspect was annoying.  The food though…

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Black River Oscietra caviar served with lemon crème frâiche.

The caviar, while it did take literally 30 minutes to serve, was beautifully prepared.  Unfortunately by the time it arrived we were borderline desperate with hunger, and the delicate morsels didn’t last very long.  A more polished me would have savored them with less haste.  I can comment, at least, that they were tasty.  I loved the twist on the crème frâiche – I think lemon just makes everything better – and admittedly I was scraping it off the plate with the mother-of-pearl spoon.  And I don’t apologize 🙂

We next sampled the Spanish Octopus appetizer.  I love octopus – raw, grilled, fancied up, it’s hard not to like.  This particular dish was grilled and flavored with molé, cilantro, and lime, and while not my favorite octopus dish ever, it was definitely in the top 5.  We moved on to salads next; I had the Panzanella, bursting with flavor from the heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, and smoked Ricotta, while Brian selected the S&G House.  Both were artfully plated and delicious.

For his main course, Brian chose the Alaskan Halibut with English peas and black truffle crème fraiche.  They did a fantastic job with this dish.  The fish was golden and flakey, and paired beautifully with the black truffle and peas.

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Alaskan Halibut. Brian was actually jealous of me – note his two oysters on the side.

Brian’s dish was attractively plated and I was almost jealous.  Almost.  Until our server brought me my main course: a dozen oysters that I didn’t have to share with anyone!   While I will admit, I have seen more attractive presentations, these were some of the best oysters I have ever tasted.  They were fresh and sweet, and the champagne mignonette was perfectly balanced.

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Sometimes, you just gotta have a dozen oysters.

Brian, envious of my oysters (which I staunchly refused to share), ultimately ordered a few of his own.  We finished the meal by sharing an angel food cake dessert with fresh berries and basil meringues.  It was light and delicious, and the basil meringues were surprising and delightful.

I loved the ambiance of the restaurant space, and I thought the food was excellent.  All in all, it was a pleasant dining experience.  I would definitely recommend checking out Stoic & Genuine, with a few tips:

  1. Don’t arrive starving.  Maybe their service will improve, but in case it doesn’t, be prepared to be patient.  A glass of wine (or a bottle) definitely helps with this.
  2. The portions are very small (which is how we were able to sample so many things comfortably).  As such, most of the dishes at Stoic and Genuine are not very share-worthy.
  3. Get the oysters.  If you do nothing else…get the oysters!
  4. It is a popular restaurant, and reservations are a good idea.  However, there appeared to be space at the bar, so even without reservations a couple would probably not have a problem.

 

An Unexpected Colorado Mountain Escape

Soo….August, not such a good month in my little blogging world.  The balance of my life tilted more toward work and less toward, well, anything else.  September promises to be better, so I’ll kick things off with my discovery of a lovely little retreat in a little corner of the Colorado mountains.

I grew up in Southern California, and while I’ve lived a lot of interesting places – Bath (England), Boston, and San Francisco – I’ve never felt at home away from the sunny beaches and majestic palm trees of my youth.  That is, until I moved to Denver, Colorado for medical school.  I fell in love with the beautiful mountains and ubiquitous parks, the outdoorsy spirit of Coloradans, and the relentless sunshine that lightens the heart even in the middle of winters mild enough for my frail Southern California constitution.  It was also in Colorado where I fell in love with the man who became my husband and his wonderful, welcoming family.  Colorado now feels as much my home as SoCal, and while I’m happy to be back in Southern California for residency, I look forward to every opportunity to return to my second home.

The most recent opportunity came in the form of the best of celebrations, a wedding!  Brian’s cousin was getting married in Granby, Colorado, and we looked forward to the trip with alacrity.  We merrily made our travel plans for the last flight out on a Thursday night, thinking, what could possibly go wrong?  This is how we came to find ourselves at 3am the morning of the wedding at the Advantage Rental Car agency at Denver International Airport- after a full day of work, a 3 hour trek to LAX in rush hour traffic, a 2 hour flight delay (because LAX, alas, is the antithesis of “efficient”), and a 2 hour flight to Denver through turbulence – facing our vehicle for the next 2 days:

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The Tank. (Photo taken hours later – the full scale was difficult to appreciate in the dark).

 I raised an eyebrow at Brian.  He gaped back at me in exhausted consternation.  “I swear, I ordered a Camry!” he exclaimed.  Well, obnoxiously large as it was for the two of us and our 2 carry-on bags, The Tank was at least spacious – and we came to appreciate it.  Regardless, it was 4am before we finally crawled wearily into bed, waking up 4 hours later to drive the 85 miles from Denver to Granby.  Needless to say, not the most graceful way to start the weekend.

Anyway.  Granby is a tiny rural mountain town just past the ski resort Winter Park on US-40.  It’s a beautiful drive through the Arapahoe National Forest along the windy roads over Berthoud Pass.  It would likely be a great place to flee in order to wait out the Apocalypse, but at first glance Granby doesn’t exactly scream “vacation destination.” In terms of lodging options, there aren’t many.  Most places are vacation rentals primarily utilized during ski season, requiring a 2 night stay in order to book.  Unwilling to pay for a night we wouldn’t be present to inhabit, I went on my trusty Airbnb account and booked a room at a bed and breakfast called Aspen Hollow.  The reviews on Airbnb were very good, and Marilyn and Tommy looked to be a jolly couple from their photo.  However, as we drove off the paved road and onto a gravel path with signs stating “caution, cattle may be on road,” I started to get a little nervous.  We seemed to be driving off into the wilderness along a lonely road away from civilization…which was confirmed for me when my cell and internet connections abruptly died.  Undaunted, we drove on, and I was suddenly grateful for the perceived security of The Tank.

We stumbled upon Aspen Hollow almost by accident.  There is a gate barring the road onto the property in order to keep cows off of their land.  We opened and closed the gate and drove up the driveway, which opened onto a beautiful house overlooking Frasier Valley. The door opened and Marilyn, a perky little white-haired woman with the sweetest smile you ever saw, greeted us in a strong Southern accent, welcoming us into their home.

We entered into the Great Room and my jaw dropped.  It was gorgeous.  The high ceiling soared gracefully overhead, adding drama to the first impression of the room.  One wall was floor to ceiling windows looking out over the valley.  Deep, rich wood gleamed everywhere.  Plush sofas faced a striking fireplace and the most beautiful table I have ever seen.  Made of an inverted stump of a 4000 year old pine, tiers of glass floated on the polished roots with 2 eagle heads carved into them.

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Furniture as Art.

Clever, tasteful details of décor added to the luxury of the surroundings.  It was the sort of room begging for a roaring fire and a bottle of wine with lively conversation while lounging on the couches with friends.

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Aspen Hollow great room. The picture really doesn’t do it justice.

We were shown into our room on the main floor which opened with a numerical punch code – no keys to keep track of here!  The room was large, luxurious, and beautifully decorated in turquoise and copper accents.  A king bed stood in the center with a huge closet and an en suite bathroom tiled in stone.  Downstairs was a common room with a big screen TV, more plush, comfy couches, a small workout area, a Jacuzzi, a pool table, and a kitchenette with a refrigerator stocked with soda and beer.  Going back upstairs, we walked out onto the deck with that spectacular view.  It would be a lovely place to sip coffee on a crisp morning or a glass of wine on a warm evening.

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The deck overlooking Frasier Valley.

Marilyn and Tommy built the place themselves, and it is obvious to see that a lot of love and pride have gone into their home.  The place boasts 6 guest rooms and an attached 3 bed, 2 bath condo with a full kitchen and a separate entrance.  It’s just spectacular!  Marilyn was beyond attentive to our every need.  Anything we asked for she produced instantly.  The hospitality was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

We hurried to get ready for the wedding, which was a lovely event.  The ceremony took place at the top of a mountain on Granby Ranch – we took the chairlift to the top!  The backdrop for Drew and Tyler’s ceremony was breath-taking, and we managed to get a few photos of our own taken prior to the start.  It was easy to see why they chose to hold their wedding in Granby!  We rode the chairlift back down to the event center at the bottom for the reception, which included drinks and delicious food and dancing – and the painful realization that I am terrible at the game of Corn Hole.

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The summit, and the backdrop for the ceremony – just gorgeous.

Tired from our travels, we retired early and made our way back to Aspen Hollow.  Marilyn and Tommy were waiting up for us, and we spent some time chatting in that beautiful great room before turning in.  We awoke in the morning to the aroma of fresh coffee and a gentle stream of peaceful, quiet music beyond our door.  We went out to breakfast with the other guests of the B&B.  I swear, Marilyn and Tommy brewed the best coffee I have ever had.  Marilyn thinks it’s the quality of the water, as she assured me the coffee itself is nothing fancy.  She served dainty fruit cups with a side of a caramel yogurt sauce that was delicious drizzled over the fruit.  This was followed by berry muffins, southwestern frittatas with homemade salsa, and melon.  And of course, fresh orange juice and more coffee!  Marilyn’s cooking was delicious, the food plentiful.  I enjoyed getting to know the other guests, as well as our hosts, who chatted with us as they passed around more food and filled our juice and water glasses.  I was actually a little sad when breakfast ended and it was time to pack up our things and head back to Denver.

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View from the deck in the morning sun.

Aspen Hollow is the perfect mountain retreat for those who want to unplug and unwind while still being surrounded by comfort and beauty.  Initially, I thought Granby would not be my choice for a vacation destination; however, I can see myself returning to Aspen Hollow in the future for a longer stay.  There looks to be excellent hiking right outside their door, and I would love to spend some time on their deck, reading or writing or just taking in the view.  Of course, there are also other things to do in Granby – there’s a golf course down the road and some pretty intense-looking mountain biking trails on Granby ranch.  And then, of course, there is winter time.  In addition to downhill skiing, Granby would be a great place for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.  It’s worth a trip, and I highly recommend staying at Aspen Hollow.  Just be sure to tell Marilyn and Tommy I say hello!

 

Post-Call/Pre-Call Saturday Fabulousness

Call is a necessary evil in the world of medicine.  Patients don’t stop delivering, problems don’t disappear, and consults don’t stop coming in just because it’s after 6pm or a weekend. In a hospital, someone has to be around to take care of patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Enter the concept of “call,” which is basically covering any duties beyond the Monday through Friday 7am-6pm normal work day.  In my world of OB/GYN “call” is a bit of a misnomer – we aren’t hanging out at home “on call”, waiting to be called in.  We are at the hospital when we take call, readily on hand in case a patient needs an emergent cesarean section or a trip to the OR for a ruptured ectopic.  You may not always see us doctors, but someone is always there, haunting the halls, making sure everyone on the service is doing okay.

Usually we try to space out 24 hour calls, taking turns at the responsibility of living in the hospital, in order to ensure the maintenance of sanity.  There is only so much sleep deprivation and stress a human body can handle.  While some of our senior colleagues bemoan the advent of work hour restrictions and the more humane treatment of residents, I have to say these are good developments in medical training.  As someone who has been awake for 36 hours straight, I can confirm there is a certain point of fatigue at which I become unsafe to practice medicine.  Incorporating a degree of balance into medical training keeps patients safe and residents happy, decreasing errors and burnout alike.

Sometimes, however, you just gotta deal with a lot of call.

This is how I found myself on Saturday, post-call from a 24 hour shift on Friday, and pre-call before another 24 hour shift on Sunday.  In these situations, I find it is important to make something fabulous happen to avoid spiraling into the depths of despair.  If life becomes a dreary slog of work – sleep – work, it’s easy to feel unhealthy, unbalanced, and depressed.

Step 1 of my Saturday fabulousness was, indeed, sleep – you can’t feel fabulous when you are tired!  I showered off the hospital, closed my black-out curtains, and kicked my husband out of the apartment for 5 hours of glorious, undisturbed rest.  (Don’t worry – he went off to do “man tasks” and did not resent the temporary eviction).

Step 2 was to work out.  Whenever I wake up from a nap post-call I feel pretty awful, my brain fuzzy and my body stiff.  Some sort of physical activity to get my blood pumping and endorphins flowing always, without fail, makes me feel dramatically better.  My local gym is closed on Saturdays, so I pulled up a 60 minute HIIT workout on Fitness Blender and got my body moving.  By the end, I was sweating, sore, and alert.  It felt wonderful!

Step 3 for battling the depression of call-overload: get pretty.  Shower, put on real-people clothes, put on a touch of make up.  Maybe go crazy and wear heels, even if you’re just in your own house.  I want to feel like a normal person, even if it’s only for a few hours before I need to head back to bed for additional pre-call sleep.  It’s hard not to feel good when you look good!

Step 4 – now that you feel fabulous again, do something fabulous!  We could have gone out, and sometimes we do, but this Saturday it seemed like too much work.  Instead, Brian and I decided to turn our apartment into a fine-dining establishment.  We love to cook, and we really love to cook together.  So we threw on some music, lit all of our numerous candles, and got to it.

As an appetizer, I created a cheeseboard for the two of us to nibble while we were cooking.  Among other things, I was starving, having not eaten since breakfast and also having worked out – I needed food ASAP, and few things make me happier than good wine with good cheese!  I usually try to serve at least 3 different cheeses on my cheeseboards, and I like to have yummy accompaniments, like fruit, nuts, and different crackers.

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Cheeseboard for two!

For this particular cheeseboard, I selected a sheep milk cheese (bottom left – Mitica Cordobes from Whole Foods), a Roth Kase Private Reserve cow milk cheese (top right, also from Whole foods), and a goat Chèvre from Trader Joe’s served with a blackberry-walnut jam (top left).  I added some grapes, blackberries, and pistachios, as well as a wheat cracker and an olive-fig cracker.  We opened a bottle of Merlot from Paso Robles to sip as we enjoyed our cheese and prepared the rest of our dinner.

I made a salad of arugula and spinach with tomatoes, cucumber, pistachios, dried currants, and crumbled goat cheese.  I find the best way to do salads is to dress the greens and plate them first, then add the remainder of your ingredients.  This makes sure your salad looks attractive, and keeps all the additional goodies from collecting at the bottom of your mixing bowl.  For the dressing, I drizzled EVOO and aged balsamic from The Olive Press over the greens and tossed in some sea salt and fresh ground pepper.  If you use high quality oil and vinegar, you really don’t need much more for a truly delicious salad dressing!

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Spinach and arugula salad with EVOO and balsamic.

While I was preparing the cheese and the salad, Brian was working on our main entree.  He prepared a soy-ginger glaze that he poured over some beautiful salmon filets, and took them out to grill on a cedar plank.  I tossed some asparagus spears in olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and added some finely chopped shallots.  The key to good asparagus is to turn off the heat before the asparagus is fully cooked; it will continue to cook in the hot pan while you are waiting to plate, and you end up with a flavorful, crisp asparagus as opposed to a soggy, mushy mess.  When we were done, we had a restaurant quality meal that we had prepared ourselves.

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Grilled soy-ginger salmon with asparagus.

We added some fresh bread warmed in the oven with more of the delicious Olive Press EVOO and balsamic for dipping, and poured more of our lovely Merlot.  It was from a winery in Breckenridge, Colorado, though the grapes were sourced from Paso Robles.  The wine was very fruit-forward with prominent notes of blackberry and black plum.  It was soft on the palate and pleasant to drink, and it went well with our meal.

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A date at home!

We sat down for our home-prepared meal and enjoyed each other’s company in the warm glow of candle light.  We had a lovely evening, and I felt relaxed, loved, healthy, and happy.  I felt as though balance had been restored to my life, and I felt ready to tackle another 24 hour call with grace and good will.  When you work a lot, you have to make fabulous happen, whatever that looks like for you.  The next time you are feeling downtrodden and overworked, take a moment to do whatever you need to do to feel normal again, and keep your inner spark sparkling!

Discovering HIIT

I have spent the majority of my life as an endurance athlete.  I started swimming when I was 5 years old, and as a distance freestyler I averaged 8,000-10,000 yards a practice, 9 – 10 practices a week, starting when I was 12.  I always loved running, and when I injured my shoulder at the age of 13 and needed to stay out of the water for a year, I took up cross country.  Until I started Residency 3 years ago, I was still swimming 90 minutes 5-6 days a week and running here and there for fun.  In my mind, a workout wasn’t a workout unless it took at least an hour.

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Swimming, my favorite thing!

Enter Residency.  For those who have never had the privilege to experience it, Residency is basically modern day indentured servitude.  You pretty much lose control of your life.  You work insane hours for meager pay (once, as an intern, I calculated my hourly wage – it was barely above the state minimum).  You are regularly criticized and rarely praised.  Most of your time off is spent studying, performing required research or quality improvement studies, or sleeping.  Finding time to swim or run for an hour a day?  Ha, right.  I think maybe the most dedicated, who don’t live with a significant other, potentially could.  Despite my endorphin addiction and pretty determined dedication, though, I found I couldn’t.  I was getting older and 4 hours of sleep a night wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I was newly married and actually rather liked spending time with my husband.  And I was so terrified of screwing up and hurting someone that I spent any residual time reading about medicine.

I swam when I could and ran when I could, but I started to feel depressed.  Exercise has been such a huge part of my life that without it, I just feel gross and unhealthy.  The one good thing about being a resident is that your job is not sedentary – you run around all over the hospital – so I got a FitBit and felt a little better about myself when I realized that I was walking so many steps and getting in so many flights.

As I moved through residency and graduated from internship, things got a little better.  I became a more confident and efficient doctor, and I passed the torch of intern scut to the new batch of bright-eyed and eager recent medical school grads.  I started having a bit more time to workout, and on certain rotations I was actually able to get back into decent swimming shape.  At the end of 2 months of swimming 1 hour 4 days a week, for example, I was actually starting to make repeat 100s freestyle on 1:10!  I would feel amazing – healthy, vital, fast, strong, and happy.  Then, however, I’d be back on a really hard rotation with more demanding hours, and I would lose that wonderful feeling.

Like all good 30-somethings of this modern era, I spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook.  Standing in line at the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, brushing my teeth (yep, guilty!), I “like” and comment and post pictures with the best of them.  It was on Facebook that I, the endurance athlete who scoffs at the idea of a 24 minute “workout,” started to see a lot of adds for this new exercise concept called HIIT – high intensity interval training.  Things like Body Boss kept popping up on my feed, promising better fitness and body tone with just 24 minutes, 3 days a week!  I initially ignored it, but it was so relentlessly in my face that I eventually decided to see what this HIIT stuff was all about.

The concept of HIIT has been around forever.  But for those of you who are new to this concept, the idea is that you pretty much kill yourself with short bursts of really hard exercise with active recovery in between for an average duration of 25-30 minutes.  Because the activity is very high intensity, it’s an efficient way to work out: you burn more calories in a 28 minute HIIT workout than you do in 1 hour on the elliptical.  Best of all, the majority of HIIT workouts require little more than a small rectangle of space to perform, so you can do the workouts, well, anywhere.  According to the American Society of Sports Medicine, HIIT training has been shown to improve:

  • Aerobic and anaerobic fitness
  • Blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Insulin sensitivity (in fact, there are tons of publications advocating HIIT training for Type II diabetics)
  • Cholesterol profiles
  • Abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass

Hmm…a highly effective workout routine that I can do at home in 30 minutes?  I had to try this!

Unwilling to pay for something I wasn’t yet 100% sold on, I went to the internet.  Just google “HIIT workout” and you will find hundreds of free workouts for your body-destroying enjoyment.  I pulled up a 28 minute workout from Fitness Blenderinwardly still not entirely convinced.  After a 5 minute warm up, I spent the next 20 minutes performing explosive movements for 20 seconds at a time with 10 seconds of active rest (such as a boxer shuffle) in between.  I squatted, lunged, jumped, and pushed-up until every muscle in my body screamed in protest, my heart pounding in my ears and my breath coming in ragged gasps.  At the end I stood hunched, hands on my knees, dripping sweat onto my living room carpet.  I couldn’t believe it had only been 25 minutes – it had felt like forever!

Okay, I admitted as I obediently performed the cool down portion of the workout.  That was hard.  And I was hooked!  HIIT has become a way for me to feed the endorphin monster, to maintain that strong and healthy feeling, on a minimal time budget.

I created a *free* account on Fitness Blender, which was started by a husband and wife team of personal trainers who thought that fitness should be accessible to everyone, no matter what their income (how can you not already love these people?!).   Fitness Blender has a TON of free full-length workout videos ranging in difficulty from 1-5 and in duration from 20 – 90 minutes.  You can pull up workouts that use equipment, but there are hundreds of workouts that require nothing more than an internet connection and an 6 x 4 ft rectangle of floor space.  I love their workouts because 1) they are both really encouraging instructors, 2) they have a visual and audio timer so you know when to go hard and when to do your active rest, and 3) they have the decency to also get a little tired at the end of a grueling level 4 or level 5 workout.  It’s just nice to know, when you feel like you are about to die, that even the uber fit personal trainer leading your workout is a wee bit winded.

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Kelli and Daniel, egalitarian founders of Fitness Blender.

I believe it is still important to do other forms of aerobic exercise.  I haven’t given up swimming, for example – swimming is still my #1 choice for exercise and always will be.  Whenever I have the time to swim, I greedily snatch the opportunity.  Running, too.  However, on those days when I don’t have the time, or when it’s 100 degrees in Redlands and running would put me at risk for heat stroke, I happily log on to Fitness Blender and get my HIIT on, feeling awesome and exhausted 30 minutes later.

If you haven’t given HIIT a try, you really should, especially if you are low on time and want to improve your fitness level.  Let Kelli and Daniel of Fitness Blender make you a convert!

 

 

 

 

 

Building A Beautiful Vegetable Crudite Platter

Confession: I have a slight obsession with cheese boards.  From designing them to serving them to eating them, cheese boards make me very happy…especially when paired with a delicious bottle of wine.  But I’ve been doing a lot of them lately, and decided to try my hand at something new.

Not only are vegetable crudité platters a very healthy option to serve at a party, they can also be edible art.  What better way to wow your guests than a beautifully crafted, colorful spread to be nibbled and munched at, guilt-free?  Added bonus?  Super easy!

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One of my recent creations. Attractive, delicious, and healthy!

A successful crudité platter requires 2 key elements:

  • Fresh veggies
  • Tasty dips

You can always throw on some extra goodies, such as crackers, pita chips, Greek dolma, dried fruit, nuts, even (of course) cheese!  I think a herby chevre is a great option in this case as it can be spread on crackers and topped with veggies.

For the veggies: think “color” and “fresh.”  You probably want at least 1 selection from several color groups.  Then just go to the market and purchase whatever looks the brightest and freshest.  Here are some options:

  • Green: cucumber, celery, sugar snap peas, asparagus, broccoli
  • Red: cherry tomatoes, red pepper
  • Yellow: yellow carrots, yellow pepper
  • Orange: orange carrots, orange pepper
  • Purple: purple carrots, radish (watermelon radishes are especially lovely), red Belgian endive
  • White: cauliflower, endive, fennel, jicama

For the dips: you could whip up some Green Goddess dressing from scratch…or you could make life easy and hit up your local Trader Joe’s.  With an impressive array of colorful hummus options, you can take care of this part in a snap.  I recommend selecting 2-3 different color hummus options for your crudité platter.  Some examples:

  • Trader Joe’s Beet Hummus (purple)
  • Trader Joe’s Edamame Hummus (green)
  • Trader Joe’s Tomato Basil Hummus (orange)
  • Trader Joe’s Eggplant Hummus (tan)
  • Trader Joe’s Original Hummus (tan)

Now, some tips for assembling your platter:

  • I use a mandolin set at the thickest slice setting for things like cucumbers, fennel, radishes, and carrots. You get a uniform slice and it gets done fast.
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Mandolin slicer. I suggest setting it to the thickest slice for veggie crudités.
  • You can add some extra flavor to veggies like broccoli or asparagus by doing a quick sautee: toss the veggies in olive oil, salt, and pepper and sautee for 1-2 minutes so they are still crisp but slightly cooked.
  • To take your dips from basic to “wow!” you can do some simple garnishes. Top Beet Hummus and Edamame hummus with lemon zest.  Top Tomato Basil hummus with a few Trader Joe’s sundried tomatoes and some shredded basil.  Top Eggplant Hummus or Original Hummus with some fancy olive oil and pine nuts.

Now just place your dips on the board and arrange the veggies around them.  Add in your extras and serve!

 

Hiking in Palm Springs

First off, my apologies for the cyber silence!  I had two consecutive very busy weeks on service with a whole slew of call smack in the middle, and as such my blogging endeavors were temporarily abandoned.  Let us put an end to this drought with my review of hiking in Mount San Jacinto State Park!

Due primarily to the incredible mentorship of Dr. Yevgeniya Ioffe and Dr. Linda Hong in the department of Gynecologic Oncology at Loma Linda, I had a poster accepted at the Western Association of Gynecologic Oncologists annual meeting held in Rancho Mirage June 14-17.  With the meeting coming to a close on Saturday, my lovely friend Eliza and I found ourselves looking for something athletic to do in the area.

I must briefly digress for a public service announcement.  Palm Springs is a super cute town that is at once old-timey and modern.  There are beautiful resorts, golf courses, and tons of excellent restaurants.  There’s a lot of great mid-century modern architecture and lots of outdoor activities.  However, if you haven’t been to Palm Springs in the summer, be warned that it is hot.  Like, really hot.  Like oh-my-God-my-skin-is-on-fire-and-I-think-I-might-die hot.  This is truly the desert, where temperatures of 120 degrees are common during the day, and at night maybe it cools into the 90s.  You feel like you are wilting merely lying by the pool immobile, much less attempting anything remotely resembling exercise after dawn.

There is, however, this gorgeous national park just 10 minutes away, over 8000 feet above the desert floor, where the temperature is about 30 degrees cooler.  You can go hiking, camping, and horseback riding without feeling as though you might keel over from heat stroke after 5 minutes in the ambient air.  And you get to take this really fun/slightly scary tram ride to the top.  Brilliant!  Decision made, we were on our way to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Mount San Jacinto State Park, air conditioning set to Maximum Stun.

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The desert as viewed from the Palm Springs Aerial Tram.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world’s largest rotating tram car.  It travels 2.5 miles from the desert floor to Mountain Station at 8,516 feet and takes about 8-9 minutes.   As you travel, the tram switches cables at each of 5 towers along the route, which sends the tram car swinging and evokes mild screams from any children aboard.  If you visit Palm Springs, it is an experience not to be missed!

When you arrive at the ranger station on the road to the tram, there is an attendant who directs you to a parking lot based on availability.  Some of these lots are a little ways away from the tram station, and there is a bus that will take you to the base of the tram.  However, Eliza and I are pretty fit chicks, and we couldn’t abide standing in the heat waiting for said bus.  This is how we came to be dripping with sweat when we rolled in 10 minutes later – though we did beat the bus and the masses it carried!  We picked up our tickets and boarded the tram, marveling at the views as we traveled.  The air grew blissfully cooler the higher we went, and when we arrived at Mountain Station the afternoon sunshine felt pleasant as a light breeze played across our skin.

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Looking down from the tram.

We had decided to do the 5 mile Round Valley hike, and we set off toward the Ranger Station to pick up our hiking permits.  They take safety very seriously around here; when you go out on the trail, you have to first fill out a form stating where you plan to go, how many people are in your group, the type of car you drove, etc.  One copy stays at the ranger station.  The other copy you take with you, returning it only when you are back from your adventure.  At the end of the day if they are missing that second copy, the park rangers go looking for you.  It’s reassuring to know that if something happens to you, help will soon be on the way.  Safety first!

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Hiking through the forest.

We set off along a little creek, hiking up a path shaded by tall pine trees.  Within 10 minutes we were well away from civilization, the only sounds our voices and the burbles of the creek to our left.

There we were, minding our own business when we were set upon by a literal swarm of lady bugs.  From a distance they looked like gnats, but as they landed on various body parts I saw that I was, happily, mistaken.  The polka-dotted little critters were everywhere!  Tickling our arms and legs, swishing by our ears, and getting a little fresh with Eliza as one or two tried to fly into her sports bra.  What was this, lady bug mating season?!  I had never seen so many in one place!  We hurried along, swatting lady bugs out of our faces, finally emerging from the swarm and flicking the last of our erstwhile passengers off of our skin.

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Eliza, shortly after our harrowing lady bug encounter.

Having escaped the lady bug hoard, we continued traveling upwards, clambering over boulders and rock formations, greeting the occasional fellow hiker along the trail.  We crossed over the brook and the trail led away from its burbling course, curving along a gentle slope through more pine forests dotted with the occasional green meadow.  A few times we had to stop and look around when the trail seemed to disappear, always figuring it out eventually.  I was always very reassured when we came upon signage – I really did not want to end up lost out here!

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Signage! Yay!

About 3 miles into the hike the terrain changed a little.  We temporarily left the forest and found ourselves walking through a chaparral with stunning views of the surrounding mountains.  Without the shade of the forest trees it was much warmer, though still nothing like the desert floor below!  We sipped from our water bottles frequently as we took in the beauty around us, amazed that a place so peaceful and majestic existed mere minutes from the bustling resort town below.

 

The trail dipped back into the forest, and we were struck by a very loud rapping sound echoing around us.  It almost sounded like someone chopping into a tree, but there was no one in sight.  Eliza looked up and found the source of the noise – a wood pecker!  I had never seen one before.  The relentless bird rammed its pointed beak into a sturdy tree over and over again, the sound reverberating around us.  I couldn’t help but laugh in delight!  Soon other wood peckers, unseen in more distant trees, joined in, creating an incredible acoustic environment for us as we walked along.

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The beautiful Round Valley trail.

The trail eventually wound back and deposited us at the ranger station 2 hours after our departure.  We turned in our form documenting our successful return, then trudged up a steep concrete set of switchbacks leading to Mountain Station.  We enjoyed the tram ride back to the desert floor, though neither of us were particularly excited to return to the sweltering 114 degrees that had transformed our car into a sauna.  Once we had the air conditioning blasting in our hot faces, we both felt a wonderful fatigue that comes from a good athletic experience…and realized that we were absolutely famished!

We hurried back into town, desperately in search of food.  We burst into Lulu California Bistro like women on a mission, eschewing the seating hostess and making a beeline for the seat-yourself bar area.  Fresh ceviche with lime and cilantro, ahi tuna tatar served with a seaweed salad and pickled ginger, and a delicious hummus with veggies and pita were washed down with multiple glasses of ice water.  Perfection!  Lulu is one of these wonderful Palm Springs establishments that has a prolonged happy hour – meaning it’s happy hour for most of the day – and I was astonished by how inexpensive our meal was!  The food is tasty and healthy, the decor is eclectic, the service is speedy, and you can’t argue with the price.  Lulu California Bistro is definitely worth a visit the next time you find yourself in the area.

Our energy stores replenished, it was time to head back to our hotel for a much needed shower – we were both covered in a fine layer of dust and parts of our clothes were stiff with dried sweat.  We were very pleased with ourselves, and we felt wonderful!  Hiking in Mount San Jacinto State Park was an awesome way to spend the day, and I will definitely be back for more wilderness adventures in the future.

 

Proposal: A New Wine Rating System That Makes Sense

I recently discovered Topochines Vino, a blog started by John and Irene Ingersoll after they moved to Wine Country.  They recommended I check out their review of VGS Chateau Potelle, and I was interested in what they had to say about it.  I visited VGS Chateau Potelle during my Napa 2016 visit with my parents, and let me tell you it is a fabulous experience not to be missed!  I found the Topochines Vino review to be very good, but what was even better was their proposed new rating system for wine based on their VGS Chateau Potelle stop…and I just had to share it with you!  If you are not familiar with VGS Chateau Potelle, you probably won’t get it, in which instance I refer you to the complete article (click the link or see below).  For those who already know the “VGS” story, I have the following excerpt for your immediate thoughts:

“We’re not sure a new rating scale for wine will catch on, but we would like to propose three levels for wine quality:

“S” – for truly shit wine, the wine that you regift as soon as you get it, or use it for cooking.  Not even good enough to be a “Tuesday night wine.”

“GS” – for wines that are good shit; not very good, just good.  Definitely worthy of Tuesday night but also good enough to take to a restaurant for date night.

“VGS” – for the very good shit wines that you drink for special occasions and hide from  friends or family that can’t tell the different between S, GS, or VGS.”

What do you think?

Check out their full website below!

Source: A Wine Rating System That Makes Sense To Us

Napa 2017 – Day 4

“Wine is bottled poetry.” – Robert Louis Stevenson 

Day 3 had been a big day for us in Napa, so we took it a bit easier on Day 4.  We slept in and spent some time exercising, finally making it out of the hotel around noon.  We headed first to the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, a wonderful mecca of shops and cafes.  You can sample olive oils and balsamic vinegars, explore cheese shops and fresh produce from nearby farms, sip an espresso or indulge in some pretty amazing ice cream.  They have chocolate and brewery offerings, as well as some tasty restaurants.  No trip to Napa is complete without a stroll through Oxbow.

We hit up the Hog Island Oyster Company for some deliciously fresh oysters paired with a bright Sauvignon Blanc.  We then strolled around and sampled oil and vinegar at The Olive Press and purchased a beautiful, light dipping EVOO and some excellent aged balsamic.  I perused the cheese selections and we relaxed over a positively velvety cappuccino at Ritual Coffee Roasters.  We then drove up the beautiful Silverado Trail to St. Helena, where we met Steven and Yevgeniya at Hall Wines.

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The silver bunny greets you as you drive onto the Hall Wines estate.

Hall probably ranks in the top 3 of my favorite Napa Valley wineries for two reasons.  The first is, of course, the wine.  They specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, though I have to say their Sauvignon Blanc is really, really good as well.  The second reason is that Hall is just a super cool place to hang out.  The elegantly modern estate is basically an art gallery interspersed with clever witticisms.  Kathryn and Craig Hall, the founders of Hall Wines, select each piece of art themselves, and many of the pieces are reproduced on their wine labels.  There is one piece made entirely of index cards, a light installation in which you can see birds fluttering past, and multiple sculptures and installation pieces scattered across the grounds.

Hall does not require a reservation for tasting, and it’s one of the best tasting experiences to be had in Napa.  You can get your taste, then meander about their grounds as you sip.  You can play corn hole or lawn bowling.  You can walk through their vegetable and flower garden.  You can lounge on the Ocean View Terrace (lifeguard off duty!) or on the deck outside the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards.

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Looking out from the tasting room deck.

 

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The boys taking a stroll.

When you are ready, you stroll back up to the tasting bar and get your next pour, then you can head back out again.  Most of the walls in the tasting room are floor to ceiling windows, and at certain times of the day hanging panels catch the sunlight and project a myriad of colors onto the main tasting room wall.  I realize I’ve said this already, but the whole experience at Hall is just fabulous!  What more could you ask for than excellent wine paired with acclaimed art and lawn games on a beautiful sunny afternoon in wine country?

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Relaxing outside at Hall.

We enjoyed our wines thoroughly, comparing the different Cabernets as we drank in the wonders of the Hall estate.  My only wish is that they could do wines by the glass.  The only way the Hall experience could be even better would be if you could finish your tasting, purchase a glass of your favorite, and continue to enjoy the grounds.  Alas, they legally are barred from offering such a thing, which is probably a good thing; otherwise people like me would most likely hang out here all day and never leave!

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Brian and me, all smiles at Hall Wines.

Wrapping up our afternoon at Hall, we realized we were hungry again – the oysters, while delectable, were not particularly filling, and several hours had passed.  We made our way to Goose and Gander for an early dinner.

Goose and Gander is located in St. Helena a short drive from Hall Wines.  It is a rustic public house with a seasonal menu and a casual vibe.  They have a hip basement bar and a beautiful patio shaded by trees, umbrellas, and vine-woven trellises.  They also have a menu with something for everyone, and making our selections was a tough process as everything looked so good!  Our server was attentive and personable, and he made some good recommendations when it came to our selections.  We started with some delicious cheeses and the lamb tartar – again, I don’t personally eat mammals but everyone else ensured me it was tasty.  I had the grilled Spanish octopus, which was divine, and I found Brian’s duck breast perfectly prepared and delicious.  We paired this with a Cabernet Sauvignon recommended by our waiter, and were very content.

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Patio dining at Goose and Gander.

Our main courses concluded, we headed down the street to PRESS for dessert.  The cozy dining room at PRESS opens onto a patio with vineyard views, and their menu looks yummy.  I vowed we would have a meal here the next time we come to Napa!

From here we returned to the Marriott.  The sun was now setting on our Napa 2017 vacation, and we decided to relax by one of the fire pits in the twilight, recounting our experiences.  The next day we would all get up early for the long drive home to Southern California, but for now we were content to smile and laugh together over one more glass of wine.  It really was a wonderful and memorable trip to Napa, and I can’t wait for our next one!

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Best friends together on our last night in Napa!

 

Napa 2017 – Day 3 – Sonoma Continued

“And wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.” — Alexander Pope

Our morning at Jordan complete, we traveled south to our next Sonoma stop, J Vineyards. I was intrigued by J Vineyards due to its history.  It was established in 1986 by Judy Jordan, the daughter of Jordan Winery founder Tom Jordan.  It started as a project to produce sparkling wine, but has expanded to include other excellent varietals.  We pulled into the parking lot and immediately I knew I had chosen wisely – the tasting estate was gorgeous.  You walk over a bridge with a series of arched vines overhead, flowers blooming and lush vegetation all around, to enter a spacious modern main room with branching salons to either side.

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The walk up to J Vineyards.

There are multiple tasting options at J Vineyards.  You can walk in without a reservation and do a tasting in this main room, or take a tour, or do an elaborate food paring in their Bubble Room.  When planning our trip, I elected to make an appointment for the J Legacy Tasting in the Legacy Reserve Lounge.  For one, I am somewhat obsessed with pairing wine with cheese, and this afforded the opportunity to order what turned out to be a gorgeous cheese board.  More importantly, however, the J Legacy Tasting actually includes 3 different options: a Pinot flight, a bubbles flight, or the Legacy flight with the opportunity to try the J Pinot Gris and J Chardonnay in addition to three J Pinot Noirs.  I figured with four people, it might be nice to allow for some individual options.

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The J Vineyards Legacy Reserve Lounge.

We were led into the Legacy Reserve Lounge, a beautifully appointed room with an entire wall of windows looking out over the lush property.  Like the main room, the windows and the light and the high ceilings made for a modern, airy, and relaxed ambiance that I found completely enchanting.

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Yevgeniya, a vision at J Vineyards.

We settled in and made our selections.  I opted for the Legacy Tasting – I do enjoy my white wines – while my three companions opted for the Pinot Noir flight.  Something I should mention at this point – the glassware in Napa is always immaculate.  Most wineries serve your wine in Riedel stemware – always with true wine glasses and never in those accursed stemless vessels.  J Vineyards was no different, and I admired the graceful stemware our waiter, Izzy, lined up in front of me.  I usually scorn Pinot Gris but I was pleasantly surprised by the J Vineyards version, and I found the Chardonnay lovely.  The Pinot Noirs, though, stole the show.  Given J Vineyards started as a sparkling wine concept, I wasn’t expecting high quality Pinots here (and I am very, very picky when it comes to Pinot Noir).  However, all three of the Pinots in my flight (and the two others in Brian’s Pinot flight, which by spousal privilege I did, of course, sample) were excellent!  Our cheese board was something of a work of art, each of the unique cheeses topped with some sort of pretty garnish.  Izzy was attentive and informative, rounding out the perfection of our visit.  I would definitely recommend stopping at J Vineyards if you find yourself in Sonoma, as the entire experience was fabulous.

Our two Jordan family experiences completed and satisfying, we started heading back towards Napa.  Lest anyone consider us irresponsible, my husband, ever the sophisticated pragmatist, carries with him a breathalyzer.  Not because he has ever been convicted of driving under the influence – quite the contrary, Brian has a sense of duty and honor that cannot be questioned, which is one of the reasons I admire and adore him so greatly.  He simply never wants to get behind the wheel when he would be unsafe to drive, not trusting the self-assessment of anyone who has imbibed.  We confirmed that both he and Steven were still well below the legal limit (we females in the group were borderline, so goes the losing battle of the BMI) and proceeded to our final destination of the day, Bouchaine Vineyards.  It was rather perfectly situated for our day, being located in the Carneros region on the way back to the Marriott.  It’s one of the wineries you can walk into without an appointment, which was nice given that, with the afternoon Sonoma traffic, it was impossible to predict exactly when we would arrive.

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The grounds at Bouchaine.

We turned off the main highway onto a pastoral side road, past sun-soaked vineyards, leading to Bouchaine.  We entered their quaint tasting room, where we received some of the best of the already excellent service to be had in Napa.  Their hours are only until 4:30pm, but though we showed up at 4 o’clock there was no rushing us.  The two personable and cheerful women pouring at the tasting room bar chatted with us as though we were old friends as we moved through their tasting menu.  The Bouchaine rosé was the only rosé wine we purchased on the entire Napa 2017 trip.  Moreover, their Pinot Noirs are wonderful, the Carneros region with its cooler climes well suited to growing this varietal.  I definitely want to go back sometime and relax on their patio, which overlooks the idyllic grounds at Bouchaine.  This was another of Marcia’s recommendations, and per usual it did not disappoint.

It didn’t take long to wind our way through the Carneros countryside back to the Marriott Napa Valley.  Our day was not yet complete – we still had dinner to look forward to!

When we came to Napa last year we were blown away by a food and wine paring experience at Chateau Potelle (also a Marcia recommendation – have you noticed a trend?)  The wine at Potelle was so fabulous, it was the only wine my parents deemed worthy of purchase during that trip.  The food part of the pairing was prepared by the chef from La Toque, a Michelin star restaurant located within the Westin Hotel in Napa.  The food was so lovely I vowed to to have dinner there during our next Napa trip.  As such, it was to La Toque that we headed for dinner this night.

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Dining room at La Toque.

There is one word to describe dining at La Toque, and that is “fabulous”.  The entire experience, from being greeted by the hostess, to our intimate table by the fireplace, to the immaculate service, to the exceptional food, was just amazing.  La Toque is the essence of fine dining, and is very much deserving of its Michelin star.

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Seated and excited for dinner at La Toque!

We elected to do the 5 course tasting menu, which included desert.  We both ordered a glass of Chardonnay while the sommelier decanted our recently procured Jordan 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.  To start we were offered an amuse bouche, a lovely little bite to “entertain the mouth.”  We followed this with a roasted baby beet salad, served on a slate board and looking more like a piece of art than something you would eat – though it was delicious, the morsels of roasted beet melding with the tendrils of mascarpone.  From here we moved to a grilled Pacific sablefish floating on a lush mouse studded with gems of sunchoke.  At this point our Jordan Cabernet was poured, just in time for our next course, a Spanish octopus served with olive puree and Romesco.  I love grilled octopus, and this was mouthwateringly delicious.  For our final course, I elected for a tortellini stuffed with mint and Mascarpone served in a broth with English peas.  The little pasta purses burst with flavor, the mint and the peas a smashing combination.  I really must try pairing mint and peas in future culinary endeavors.  Brian had some sort of steak, which he assured me was exquisitely done.  For dessert, Brian elected for some sort of chocolate concoction that, of course, was a work of art.  I wasn’t really in the mood for anything sweet, so I went with their cheese selection which I found a decadent end to my fabulous meal.

La Toque was probably the second-best dining experience of my life, to be surpassed only by the Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil, another Michelin star restaurant in Napa Valley.  Please, friends, make a point to dine at La Toque on your next Napa excursion – you won’t regret it!  They even have an all-vegetarian tasting menu, which I am sure is outstanding.

Sated and merry, we headed home to the Marriott.  It was a wonderful day.