My Kind of Hotel

It was the perfect place for R&R.  A small hotel (11 rooms). Splendid  views of mountains and a lake. A pool amidst greenery and blossoms. A comfortable room, nice staff, good breakfast – and a menagerie of sorts.  Plus, and most important, tranquility.

The view from Suites du Lac, Lake Bourget and mountains.

I loved it all. For my recent “cure” at Aix les Bains in eastern France,  I booked two weeks at Suites du Lac, a hotel outside of the town. I traveled to Aix by train. On the down side, the hotel was not convenient to the spa center without a car.   I took a taxi then bus to reach the spa for my treatments each day.

Never mind.  I had time, enjoyed conversing with my regular taxi driver Eric, as well as bus passengers.

During my second day at the hotel, I heard peculiar sounds while lounging on my balcony.  Maa… Maa  A goat?  Clucking. Crackling.  Chickens? No way. I was not on a farm nor in the country.  Perhaps too much spa water had seeped into my brain.    Later I noticed guests looking over a railing on the terrace at the end of the property.  I must investigate.

Aha. Below at a lower level there they were:  The creatures responsible for the sounds.  Two goats and a bevy of chickens.  I was fascinated. The chickens were beauties, all different and exotic.  The goats were small and cute. I took photos.

The Suites du Lac was built in 2007 by partners Jose and Emanuel.  They share responsibilities for the hotel management.  Emanuel is in charge of administration and everything indoors. Jose takes care  of the animals and the grounds.

Jose knows his chickens and they know him.

I learned lots about chickens from Jose who is an animal lover and passionate about poultry.  He had chickens as a child, he explained, and now likes different races.  His flock consists of 20 different breeds.  He knows the characteristics of each.  “This one is South American.  That one lays white eggs like American chickens…” European chickens lay marron-colored eggs.

The life span of commercial chickens is just 1 ½ years due to their diet, he told me.  But his special fowl can reach the age of 10, unless they fall victim to a fox.  Several years ago, he lost 20 birds to a fox.  “A fox kills anything that moves,” he said.  The fox ate only one of the chickens it had killed.  Jose’s chicken/goat pen is fenced, but a fox can jump the fence.  He has constructed an enclosure under the terrace with an automatic door that closes at 10 pm.  Every evening he goes out to rescue the chickens which have chosen a tree instead of the enclosed hen house  for safety. They fly up and nestle into the branches to hide out.  

I was surprised  to see how easily he captured the chickens – no resistance.  “They know me,” he said.

He has only hens which lay about 20 eggs per day.  He did have a rooster, but neighbors complained about the too early wake-up call.

Two 16-year-old miniature Pinschers and a cat also live at Suites du Lac.  And, for a brief period  of time during my stay, a young injured  pigeon.  Jose rescued it from a bakery where it cowered in a corner.  After a few days of TLC, he released it.

Since I too am an animal lover, the animals were a bonus for me.  

Unfortunately, it was hot, very hot during my June stay in Aix-les-Bains.  Temperatures were in the upper 90s F every day.  The town tourist office offers a variety of interesting walking tours, but there was no way I could  enjoy a walking tour in that heat.  I hung out at the hotel pool every afternoon after my treatments.  Even that was hot, but I swam my laps and took shelter under an umbrella.  I read.  I napped. I relaxed.  I was alone. No responsibilities. It was bliss. 

When I needed a stretch, I walked over to look down at the critters.  The chickens huddled under oleander branches to escape the sun.  The goats found shade along the periphery of the enclosure.

Relaxation at Suites du Lac is very therapeutic.

The ambience at dusk when everyone had left the pool was especially soothing. I watched the sky change colors and mountain silhouettes grow darker.  It was all so quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

Suites du Lac does not have a regular restaurant offering full meals.  After my treatments I usually stopped in town and had lunch at a restaurant.  I tried many and savored some delicious meals.  In the evening I often joined other guests on the terrace and ordered one of the hotel’s offerings: Omelets, pizza, salads.

I had some tasty lunches in Aix les Bains, including above, a French version of Surf and Turf: Salmon and Chicken smothered in a lobster sauce

Unfortunately my spa treatments did not do much for my bodily ailments. However, Suites du Lac therapy was the best for the spirit.

Les Suites du Lac: www.lessuitesdulac.fr

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Coming soon: The mighty Dolomites.

Cat’s Meow in Monaco

They were not impressed, excited, nor interested. Stretched out in their large cages, they did what cats do best: Sleep. The 145 cats entered in the first international cat show of Monaco were quite content to catnap through their two days of glory. That’s how cats spend some 15 hours per day, even as many as 20 hours – snoozing. No need to let a cat show interrupt your beauty slumber.

When it was their turn to be in the spotlight, on the stage to be examined from tail to ears, they were tolerant, seemingly bored. No doubt many of these champions and would-be champions had been down this road before.

Such is the life of fancy cats. I love cats. I have three, but mine are your basic alley-cat variety – all rescues. Nonetheless when I learned of the cat show in nearby Monaco, I convinced hubby (not as enamored of felines as I am) to join me to check out the cats.

Enormous cats. Hairless cats. Long-haired cats. Cats of all colors. Thirty-nine different breeds to admire. I had no idea there were so many kinds of kitties, but I learned that The International Cat Association (TICA) recognizes 71 standardized breeds.

The favorite, most popular breed is the Maine Coon. These cats are big – huge. I was smitten with Pegase de Nikko Coon, a big boy who weighs in at 10 kilos (22 pounds). His proud owner, Christiane Phily, touted that he was still growing. His grandfather weighed 14 kilos (30 pounds), she told me. She has 20 of these giant felines known for their pleasant personality. “They are very impressive. They look wild, but they have an adorable character,” she said. Her starting price for a Maine Coon, about 1,000 euros ($1,170).

Pegase de Nikko Coon, a 22 pound, Black Silver Blackened Tabby Maine Coon.

Years ago, when seeking a replacement for my beloved Buddy, a large and affectionate black cat, I decided after all my years of owning rescue cats, I was entitled to upgrade to a genuine pedigreed pet. I wanted a Maine Coon. Husband Bob, who is more than indulgent of my passion for cats, agreed to drive to a breeder some 3 hours away. I had wanted a male, but there was only one young male for sale. He was pretty, but he cowered in the back of the cage, not exhibiting the extrovert personality of the breed. Price tag was 600 euros.

I thought long and hard. I pictured all those pitiful, homeless cats in shelters. I could rescue one for a small donation. Did I really want to spend 600 euros on a cat? This one did not convince me. We drove home catless. The next day I went to the local shelter and came home with not one, but two tiny kittens – my girls Simba and Oprah. Sisters (twins), they almost look like mini Maine Coons.

No pedigree, but adorable and cute: Kittens Simba and Oprah.

In addition to cats coming from all over France for a chance at fame, the cat show included exhibits of haute gamme cat food, “adapted to the carnivorous diet of cats” (I came home with some free samples), cat toys, trees, beds. One exhibitor offered information on animal communication by telepathy. She claims to communicate with pets and transmit their messages to owners. She also offers courses in “animal communication and magnetism.” If you wanted a portrait of your cat, another offered animal aquarelles.

A flyer for a new breed. Pictured is a female now in heat who was not at the show, but should be having kittens next year. I want one..

I had hoped to take some quality cat photos, but this was beyond my skills. The viewing wall of the cat cages was a sheet of reflective vinyl. The lighting was tricky. The backgrounds were dreadful. When not sleeping (boring photos), the cats were in motion.

It was easy to see the cats behind the vinyl wall of the cage, but not ideal for photos.

I tried. Below are some classy cats, plus my not-so-classy cats.

Pharron of Chanel’s Land, a Scottish Straight.
Simba, one of mine
My boy Filippo
Oprah, sister of Simba.
Bob more than indulges my passion for cats.

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See Today’s Taste for a winning pasta recipe featuring egpplant, one of my favorites.

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My Take on Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano

I may be one of few who is not overwhelmed with Costa Rica. I did not dislike the beautiful country. The beaches are grand. The people are delightful. The food is good. But, I have been to too many other places that are more “me.” I had hopes of sighting interesting critters in the jungle on “safari” treks. I spotted few.

Beach near Manuel Antonio park

The critters are there. I suspect too many tourists have been tromping through the jungle, following guides with telescopes, sending the animals deep into the bush in search of peace and quiet.

While husband Bob spent two weeks with his daughter Kellie who has a holiday home in Costa Rica, I toured – on my own but with pre-arranged transportation between destinations. I joined guided tours through parks and to noteworthy sights during my visit last January

Too many tourists ?

The Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and where I joined my first guided hike. Groups like ours, all dutifully following a guide with a large telescope on a tripod, crowded the trails. Word spread quickly of a sighting. Instantly more guides, telescopes and tourists appeared.

Souvenir cell phone photo thanks to guide’s telescope.

Excitement was high at the sighting of a sloth hidden high in dense tree foliage. With the naked eye it was impossible to see anything but leaves. Those with gigantic zoom lenses (there were many) did manage to spot the creature. The rest of us relied on the guide’s telescope. Yet, even with high powered vision, all I could see was a tuft of fur.

This ritual was repeated time after time. The guide, with trained eyes and jungle experience, would spot a creature– various kinds of birds, lizards, sloths – camouflaged in the dense growth. Each of her followers then had a turn for a telescope view. And then, a keepsake photo with their cell phone camera which the guide placed, one by one, on the telescope.

Find the sloth.

It was steamy humid. I grew impatient and bored. I kept thinking of Africa where majestic creatures are often easy to spot. The tour ended on a beach where hundreds of monkeys frolicked. Monkeys may not be exotic, but they are fun and easy to see. I loved them.

More monkeys, iguanas, a rare lizard, all kind of birds, a deer – I saw them all on the grounds of the Posada Jungle Hotel adjacent to Manuel Antonio park where I spent four nights.  This was better than a guided safari, and at my doorstep.   The beach near the hotel was fabulous, for swimming and sunset viewing.  I spent several evenings aiming for the perfect sunset shot while sipping a mojito.  

Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is a stunning sight. I was lucky. It is often hidden in clouds, but I saw it in all its glory. There have been no regular volcano eruptions since 2010. The surrounding region is popular for hiking and all sorts of rugged,extreme adventure. I opted for gentle adventure, a hanging bridge hike and another hike near the volcano.

Hanging bridges are common in the Costa Rican jungle. I was intrigued. It is exciting, even a tinge scary,  to walk high above gorges  on these structures which gently sway as you cross.

After the near-the-volcano hike, we set off to the Tobacon Hot Springs, a jungle wonderland of hot springs, pools, waterfalls, streams – all a bit kitschy, but crazy fun.

 

Rio Frio near the Nicaraguan border

Birds were the star attraction during my relaxing boat tour of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaraguan border. The guide entertained us with interesting facts about Costa Rica, as well as river wildlife, as we

drifted past lush rainforest and wetlands. In addition to the birds, we saw bats, a few crocodiles, a lizard… but nothing that thrilled me.  I am spoiled.  It’s  hard to beat being up close and personal with mountain gorillas. (See previous post, “Gorillas in our Mist” Dec. 2015)

I was underwhelmed – and freezing – on the Monteverde Cloud Forest guided hike. This time it was cold and rainy. We learned a lot about various kinds of trees and vines, but – even with the telescope – spotted no exciting wildlife.

The van rides from one destination on my itinerary to the next were often long. The scenery, sometimes spectacular, and chatting with other passengers made the trips interesting. I met folks from the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Israel, including several young female backpackers en route to yoga retreats. Costa Rica is big with the yoga set. There were serious hikers and surfers. Costa Rica is also popular with surfers.

However, I did not come to Costa Rica to surf, nor to soothe my soul during a yoga retreat. Unfortunately I am too old for zip lining and canyoning. Spotting an illusive creature through a telescope did not thrill me. Granted, the beaches are super, but I do not need to travel so far for a fabulous beach

So, Costa Rica does not rank among my favorites, yet I am glad I experienced the country. And, tasted Costa Rican ceviche – a memorable culinary delight. Kellie shared her recipe. Click on photo top right.

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See below for  more Costa Rica.

Church at La Fortuna with cloud-covered Arenal.

This sloth was spotted in a roadside tree by a van driver. We stopped for photos.

Ravishing Rajasthan

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I was draped in shimmering scarves. A colorful turban perched atop Bob’s head. We boarded an oxcart, sat regally on pillows, and set off, bumping along a dusty road, en route to “ a mesmerizing, surreal dinner.”

Soon it would be dark, but it was still light enough to admire distant mountains, lonely cows foraging for food and the occasional villager checking on his sheep. We were headed to a 16th century step well  in the hills surrounding Rawla Narlai, an ancient hunting manor turned hotel/resort deep in Rajasthan, India. 

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Kitsch? A gimmick for tourists? Of course, but it was fun

Step wells are just that – subterranean Indian architectural structures, wells accessed by a series of steps down to a pool of water.

Dinner at the edge of this ancient well was good, but it was the ambience that deserves the stars.  Magic and mystical.  Seven hundred oil lamps flickered all around the deep hole. Hypnotic sounds echoed from the eerie darkness. Costumed waiters mysteriously appeared offering us all manner of delicacies on silver trays.

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Jain temple in Narlai

OK. It is all very touristy and not the kind of experience we usually opt for during our travels. But, we were the only tourists. Just us, the waiters, and a few musicians in the midst of this wild and weird setting. When there are more participants (almost always), more entertainment accompanies the spectacle. We had it all to ourselves, and it was indeed “mesmerizing,”as promised in the literature.

Not many tourists visit Rajasthan, India’s best-loved region, in May when temperatures reach 45 C°, (113 F°) – even above. But, after attending Alok and Ankita’s April 2018 Wedding (see previous post June 21, 2018), we wanted to see more of India. It was hot, very hot, but we survived. We did all on the itinerary except the ride on the legendary Kipling Train, “only 3rdclass.” We were told the train was not running, but I suspect the tour operator felt two old geezers would likely succumb on the two-hour “rudimentary” journey in that heat. He may have been right.

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Ranakpur, a 15th century Jain temple

It was a disappointment, but we feasted on so much during our fascinating Rajasthan journey — and I do not mean food. There was plenty of that, but, for the most part, a bit too fiery for us. Palaces, temples, forts, gardens, crafts, folk art, bustling cities, varied landscape — Rajasthan has all.

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A trek to the top is a “must” for Narlai visitors.  We passed — too hot.

The idyllic “holy” village of Narlai sits at the base of an imposing rock hill topped with a colossal elephant statue. We, and an Indian family, were the only guests at Rawla, our 32-room abode that originally belonged the King of Jodhpur and served as a retreat for the royal family.

We followed a hotel employee for a guided village walk, were invited inside a few houses, and marveled at a newly reconstructed Jain temple. We witnessed the daily religious fire ceremony.

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Jainism is an ancient Indian religion which preaches non-injury to living creatures and re-incarnation. Many Jains from Narlai, as well as Hindis, have gone off to work in big cities, but own property in the village and contribute generously to its temples (300 in the village of 10,000).

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Narlai villager

For me the crème de la crème of the Indian trip waited up in the  hills – a sighting of the secretive and seldom-seen leopard. See previous post: “India’s Big Cats.”IMG_3175

Narlai may not be on the average Rajasthan itinerary for foreigners.   Our “morning walk through the pink city,” offered by the Samode Haveli in Jaipur was also off the beaten tourist track. This, like the other hotels where we stayed in Rajasthan, is a heritage hotel, a lavish palace still owned by maharajas but converted into a hotel.

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Sweeping the streets in Jaipur.

We left the hotel at 6 a.m. and followed the hotel manager to places not on the tourist circuit . Most guided tours offer nothing “out of the box,” he said, so the hotel came up with this tour to show visitors more of Jaipur than the city’s top sights, the Amber Fort and city palace museum.

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Jaipur market

We visited the market, stopped for tastings of street food specials, and we learned, about garbage collection, street sweepers, religion and more.

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Palace of the Winds, Jaipur

Hindis believe that all living things have souls and cannot be killed. As an animal lover, I am intrigued with the sacred, ubiquitous cows, stray dogs, and monkeys. The cows that wander freely everywhere usually belong to someone, he said.

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Holy cow

The owners tie up the calves and let the mothers roam, knowing they will come back to their babies. The dogs, he said, usually have homes of sort too. “Everyone makes so much food so they give leftovers to the dogs.” The dogs return and “guard the house.” Beware of monkeys. We noticed a group of the rascals on our walk. “That one is especially bad,” he said, pointing to the “dominant male…. He sends his troops out to scout houses. If the coast is clear, they return and raid the place. They know how to open refrigerators. They are very intelligent.”

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It takes know-how to wrap 15 meters of cloth around your head.

Visiting Rajasthan’s magnificent palaces and forts is impressive, awesome.   We also especially enjoyed a visit to a tiny enclave of Bishnoi, a tribe known for love of wild animals. The tribal leader, a jovial character, showed us how he wraps 15 meters of cloth around his head to form his turban. He insisted we taste Bhang, a very potent brew which “can make you crazy.” Alcohol is supposedly forbidden, but “Lord Shiva likes Bhang so much we offer it to him,” – and have a healthy shot in the process.

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Rajasthan is all about color: vibrant saris wrapped around women; towering vivid, turbans crowning men’s heads; markets bursting with colorful vegetables, fabric and jewelry. Even towns are associated with color, Jaipur, “the pink city;” and Jodhpur, “the blue town.”

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Jodhpur, the blue town, seen from the town’s Majestic Fort which has been enlarged over the years.  The original fort was built in 1459.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” Enough of my words. Scroll down for more picture highlights of Rajasthan.

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Sahelion Ki Bari, Garden of the Maid’s Honor at Udaipur

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Lakeside Udaipur

Jain temple at Ranakpur has 29 halls and 1,444 pillars all distinctly carved.

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Fateh Prakash Palace, Udaipur, now a hotel where we stayed..

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Marigolds are offered to Hindu gods.

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Pool at Samode Haveli, Jaipur

Our fascinating 11-day tour of Rajasthan was organized by Wild Frontiers.  Accommodations in the gorgeous maharaja palace hotels were fabulous. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk

By popular request following a Facebook photo, Today’s Taste features a decadent and delicious recipe. Click on photo above right for details.

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Family Fun in the USA

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Sailing in San Diego Bay with members of my family, from left: Tom, Joan, Steve, Yoshie and Dave.  Capt. Charley at the helm.

First stop, Winchester, Virginia. Stepson Rob and grandsons Samuel and Lang live outside the city in a lovely country location below the ridge of Big Schloss Mountain, part of the Appalachian chain. Their house, which we had not seen, is spacious and tastefully decorated by Rob – with a few treasures from Germany donated by his father.

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Samuel, Rob, Bob and Lang at the bridge.

Rob drove us around the picturesque area with stops at the Muse Winery Swinging bridge on the Shenandoah River and a visit to the Woodstock Brew House in the town of Woodstock,  Va. The artisanal beer was a treat, as was another German favorite,

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Swinging bridge on the Shenandoah River


sauerbraten at a German restaurant 
in nearby Harrisonburg

On the way home from dinner we passed a Krispy Kreme donut store. They were excited. The red light was on. ?? We learned this means donuts are coming off a conveyor belt to be doused with glaze. Purchase them fresh and warm and enjoy on the spot. “You will love these,” they insisted. The boys had more than one each…   Bob and I failed to share their love of Krispy Kreme. We’ll take croissants, merci.  But, good to know about that red light. And, the German dinner was wunderbar.

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Virginia home of Rob, Samuel and Lang

Bob spent several days with Rob and the boys, then flew on to Ohio for a reunion with six of his seven brothers and sisters, as well as many nieces and nephews. They had a belated b’day celebration for Bob, 80 last October.  I flew west to San Diego for a reunion with some of my family.

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Bob, far right, with his brother John and sisters, from left,  Susan, Judy, Kathy and Sandra.  Missing: brothers George and Tim.

My brrother Tom, who now lives in San Francisco, wanted a reunion in San Diego where he had worked for several years. Brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie came from Boulder. Nephew David and his mother Joan came from Kentucky. Missing was brother Dave, Joan’s husband and David’s father, who had work commitments and could not join the fun.

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San Diego from the sailboat

Tom was our guide. He made sure we visited famed Balboa Park, his beloved Coronado, downtown landmarks and more. Thanks to nephew David, who combined business with pleasure, we were fullsizeoutput_14fcchauffeured in style. His rental car was upgraded to a gleaming, cherry red Cadillac. A tight squeeze, but we all piled in for a scenic ride up the coast to La Jolla where we took lots of photos of seals.

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Dave and the Caddy.

More seal photo opps awaited on our sailboat adventure with Captain Charley in the San Diego Bay. We enjoyed superb views of the city skyline, sailed past the Naval Base, and, in addition to seals, watched dolphins training to detect mines. All beautiful, fun and relaxing, until Joan realized her Iphone was missing — not to be found on board. It obviously had disappeared overboard. Although the phone was insured,  most of the photos had not been backed up.  Lesson learned: back up all. 

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I went  overboard with seal photos — too many.  But, I like this one.

Balboa Park, San Diego’s “cultural heart” with 17 museums, gardens, the city’s famous Zoo, plus stunning Spanish-Renaissance architecture, is impressive. Tom recommended a visit to the Botanical Building with more than 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of tropical plants and orchids. Alas, it was closed for cleaning. Instead we went to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

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Japanese Friendship Garden, Balboa Park

Yoshie, who is Japanese, enlightened us on many aspects of this marvelougarden with its streams and pools where vibrantly colored Koi (Japanese carp) swim.PFZfUgbsSI29iZgMpO3x4w

My favorite part of the San Diego visit was the Ocean Beach street fair. It is a regular happening, we learned, a feast for foodies with a range of international culinary treats: Mexican burritos, Chinese steamed buns, paella, lobster rolls, tangy East African specials, pizza – even crème brulee. Plus – lively music — and  dancing in the street. Tom and I joined the dancers.

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Joan went for pizza. This is one slice of a monster.

We ended California family fun at the beach in Coronado watching the sun set with a Margarita in hand. All agreed. We should have these reunions more often.  

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Dancing at the fair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scroll down for more of the family photo album.

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And the winner of the best San Diego sunset photo, brother Steve who shot the scene with a Panasonic Lumix LX100.  “I love this little camera,” says the photographer.

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In Ohio:  Bob’s niece Tammy and husband John.

 

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In California: The “boys”:  My brother Tom, nephew Dave and brother Steve.

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In California: The”girls”: sisters-in-law Yoshie ,Joan…and me

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In Ohio;  Bob’s niece Kim, husband Alan and nephew Jim.

Coming soon:  Rajasthan, the best of India, and then, Costa Rica, which followed this US trip.  If not a talesandtravel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your address is kept private and never shared.

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In Ohio:  foreground, Bob’s nephew John and wife Cindy.

A new taste — trout for fish lovers.  See recipe, click on photo above right,

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