The Melody of Sunshine

As my ride cruised toward the Hillcrest neighborhood in San Diego, the twelve-bar blues refrain of an up-tempo Beatles tune bestowed its happiness on my ears like audio confetti. “It’s so fine, it’s sunshine. It’s the word love,” John Lennon proclaimed.

I looked out my open window to see a white Mustang convertible in the other lane with a small, very pleased-looking dog sharing the front seat. “Do you like the Beatles?” I asked my driver, as another classic from the Rubber Soul album began to play. “Oh, I love them! This is my soundtrack all day long,” he replied with a smile. Perhaps the Beatles were right after all—sunshine is love, and I was ready to dig into the happiness of this sun-soaked city.

Flora and Food The car pulled up to my Airbnb, a pink paradise in the form of a Spanish Colonial building with meticulously landscaped grounds. Succulents and assorted fronds cuddled with wildflower blooms in fuchsias and corals. The inviting vignette was shaded by a pair of gently sloping trees, whose foliage resembled seaweed more than leaves. After dropping my bags inside the adobe wonderland, it was time to scout out the food scene.

I was grateful that I had planned to meet up with a friend when we arrived to our dinner spot because there was an hour-long wait. Unfazed, we hopped across the street to a bar-restaurant called Kindred. Inside we found white marble, a gridded ceiling of mirrors, and an iconic sort of patterned wallpaper that looked like the inside of a very posh handbag. We also found a summery pink cocktail with elderflower and Aperol. We shared a freshly baked farinata (chickpea flour) flatbread artfully topped with hearts of palm, mushrooms, and cilantro, drizzled with chili oil.

Tide Pools and Tacos I woke up early the next morning, excited for the tide pool tour I had planned. The idea of peering into nooks and crannies and identifying sea creatures appealed to my nerdy sensibilities, no doubt shaped by childhood summers enrolled in educational museum camps. (Thank you, Mom and Dad.) I met our tour guide, Matt, a former marine biology teacher, at the tide pools in La Jolla, twenty minutes up the coast from the pink adobe. (If you want a slice of paradise, the La Jolla coastline is marvel-worthy, especially when the sunshine burns off the morning fog.) On this day, the low tide was a -.1, which Matt explained means one-tenth of a foot below sea level.

The cratered landscape revealed by low tide is what I imagine it might be like to walk on other planets—the rocky beach slippery in spots and full of both shallow and deeper pools of water, depending on the zone. “Touch this,” Matt encouraged us, as we gently stroked what appeared to be a collection of shell pieces. Underneath the coating of shells was a sand-colored, doughnut-shaped object, and when we poked it, the squishy doughnut creature suddenly contracted as our group collectively exclaimed, “Ack!” The doughnut creature was a green anemone, which covers itself in the shells to avoid desiccation (or drying out) when the tide is low; the beach was also filled with hundreds of thousands of another species of anemones called aggregate anemones.

We were examining acorn barnacles when we heard Matt’s enthusiastic cries of delight a few craters over as he motioned to a large, black, gelatinous blob. The blob inched its body forward, and we could see it was a sea slug—specifically a California black sea hare, named that because of its resemblance (and I use that word loosely) to a rabbit. Because they taste disgusting, they have few predators and are mostly free to grow into even bigger blobs. Bending over to examine sea creatures is a great way to work up an appetite, and I was on a mission to find tacos, specifically the fish variety. I chose my route up the coast, wanting to catch a glimpse of the seals at the Children’s Pool Beach. The beach was closed to people because of harbor seal pupping season, but the observation walkway was a great way to view them.

A few minutes later, I arrived at my destination, Puesto, which was easy to sneak into as a party of one despite the crowd. Unvexed by the lunch rush, my waiter went above and beyond to accommodate my request for grilled fish tacos and suggested a mango-límon agua fresca to wash it down. After feeling inspired to pen a one-line thank you note to my waiter, I headed down Girard Avenue in search of Trilogy Sanctuary to reconnect with my friend. This rooftop cafe, complete with silks for aerial yoga under the sunny skies, was the perfect place to relax with an orange blossom matcha.

Paraglider Pals I had starred the Torrey Pines Gliderport on my map, not knowing if it was a place we could even get to. We pulled into the dirt parking lot to check it out, surprised to see that parking was free. “Can we just walk up there?” I asked my friend, as we nervously surveyed the grounds. But the magical thing about the Torrey Pines Gliderport is you really can just walk up there. And suddenly you’re among these paragliders, who very well may be part bird, as they run toward the edge of the cliff, their brightly colored parachutes filling up with air. Watching them float over the cliffs and Black’s Beach is equal parts terrifying and peaceful.

I introduced myself to Ira Hayes, a frequent paraglider and the COO of a tech company. He likes the sport because it’s portable—the parachutes and equipment fit into a (albeit large) duffle bag. He joked that he and other paragliders carry their emergency parachute onto commercial flights in case something goes wrong. “If I can get out of the plane, I’m good,” he joked.

Old Town Origins When I woke up the next morning, I entertained the idea of solely eating tacos for the rest of my trip. I knew a history lesson would be more valuable, though, and our tour guide, Deborah Seitz of Experience San Diego Tours, certainly delivered with her engaging stories and contagious enthusiasm for the subject matter. Most of our tour took place in the Old Town State Historical Park, which is within the Old Town neighborhood. The park is a collection of buildings and homes from the nineteenth century, either original or replicated, that give visitors a glimpse into what the original square might have looked like and how the community operated.

In fact, San Diego is one of the oldest, most history-rich cities in the country. Historically home to the Kumeyaay Nation, it would eventually become the first colony in California. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the coast of California, in search of gold and a rumored water route that would connect the North Pacific to the North Atlantic oceans. However, colonization of San Diego was eventually prompted by Russian fur traders, who were working their way along the coast from Alaska. The king of Spain ordered the Spanish settlers in Mexico to start moving north in order to mark the territory. In 1769, the first colony was established, and the first mission on top of Presidio Hill was built.

Deborah led our trio to an impressive, white adobe building known as La Casa de Estudillo, one of the most famous buildings built during the Mexican era in the early 1820s. The Estudillos were a very prominent family in the 1800s and early 1900s, as evidenced by the virtual adobe castle that was situated in front of the main square. They hosted parties, community events, and even Catholic Mass here. The original structure still stands and is free to tour. It’s also one of the settings of a famous novel written in 1884 by Helen Hunt Jackson, a passionate advocate for the Mission Indians. The success of Ramona made La Casa de Estudillo a popular tourist attraction.

Fajitas Al Fresco After thanking Deborah for the tour, I made my way to Miguel’s Cocina for a late lunch. As I sat on the front patio, shoveling tortilla chips and salsa into my mouth and gazing adoringly at the sizzling vegetable fajitas in front of me, the lyrics of that Beatles song came into my head. The beauty of La Jolla’s coast, the fresh seafood, the rooftop coffee with a view, the happiness from my tour guides who have been able to make a career out of enjoying their city—I admire the way locals inhabit and share their inner happiness so freely with others. In the words of another Beatles song, “Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right.”

The Art of Gingerbread

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For many the sights, smells, and tastes of the holidays instantly remind them of happy memories and make the season even grander. Gingerbread certainly falls into this category—and one place that celebrates it like no other is the National Gingerbread House Competition, which has been delighting competitors and visitors alike in Asheville, North Carolina, since 1992.

When this event started, though, it wasn’t a competition: the gingerbread houses were created for display. However, someone ended up asking who won, so a winner was declared.

Twenty-seven years later, a lot has changed—including a very specific set of rules now in place. For example, each display must be made of edible materials and constructed of at least 75 percent gingerbread. Entries sitting on their base can be no larger than twenty-four inches tall or wide. And, despite the moniker, you don’t have to create a house.

Competitors can enter their creations into one of four age-based categories: adult (18 and older), teen (13–17), youth (9–12), and child (5–8). The entries are then judged on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision, and consistency of theme. Thirteen prizes, worth over $25,000 in total (including over $10,000 in monetary prizes) are awarded: first, second, and third place in each category, plus one for whoever traveled the farthest. The adult category’s grand-prize package includes $5,000 and a complimentary stay at The Omni Grove Park Inn, where the competition is held.

In 2018, that was the reward for North Carolinians Julie and Michael Andreacola, who took top prize with their entry “Gearing up for Christmas”—which featured working gears made of gingerbread. Catherine Beddall of Ottawa, Ontario, earned second place with her intricate “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” clock, and third place went to Grier Rubeling, also from North Carolina, who created the whimsical “Reindeer Playing Poker.” The first-place teen winners, Courtland High School German Club from Virginia, won for the fifth time with its “Old Towne Trolley Tour.”

Beyond the Battle Overall, the twenty-sixth annual National Gingerbread House Competition was another smashing success, with 190 gingerbread creations entered and the event being covered by media outlets like NBC, Food Network, and NPR. Every year, though, the competitors and The Omni staff both put a lot of effort into it, and it shows—in many ways.

“Five thousand dollars is amazing, but you don’t give that much of your life, your holiday time, and your passion if you don’t love gingerbread—and these people love it, live it, and breathe it,” says Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations and community outreach for The Omni Grove Park Inn. “Some people dedicate four hundred or five hundred working hours to them. It’s similar to dog shows or horse shows or Comic-Con, where there’s almost a subculture; in fact, they created their own private Facebook group called Gingerfriends. They have to be part of this culture, and that passion shows in the work.”

Johnston-Crum concedes that, for this reason, it’s easy to experience the highs and lows with the competitors. “The hardest part of the entire competition is getting the gingerbread creation here,” she reveals. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a few that didn’t make it through the door. It is devastating, not only to the competitor but to all of us because we know the competitors. We have a vested interest in them—we’ve watched many of them grow up.” For such emergencies, The Omni has a triage area set up with things like royal icing and candies so competitors can try to fix their displays before walking them into the ballroom.

Specific rules also apply to the staff involved with the competition. “We are not allowed to pick up the houses at any time, and we are not allowed to move them for the competitors,” says Johnston-Crum. “But I do escort the competitors in because there are certain things in the hotel they have to walk around. And I like to talk to them and learn more about them.” The folks at The Omni also help the competitors by keeping the ballroom cold (which is better for the displays) and keeping the entrants anonymous for the judges.

Credibility and Validity Judges have included renowned cake artist and chef Nicholas Lodge, who has made cakes for Britain’s royal family and is the call (or lead) judge, and Cheryl Forberg, who’s the nutritionist for The Biggest Loser and a James Beard Award winner. But others outside of the culinary field also judge. “We’ve got educators and authors. We even have Nadine Orenstein, who’s a curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who’s one of my favorite judges. She looks for different things than the chefs may look for,” Johnston-Crum shares.

To help with the scoring, the judges carry flashlights so they don’t miss any of the intricate details the competitors painstakingly add to their creations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Johnston-Crum reveals that “our experts know what people try to get away with, so Chef Nick always brings his tool kit so we can drill into houses that we have concerns about.” (And for good reason: one time they even discovered that a PVC pipe ran through the center of a piece.) The judges will also occasionally break things off to eat them, just to make sure they meet the edibility requirement of the competition.

But it was a new judge, celebrity chef Carla Hall, who may have made the most impact in 2018 by expressing just how impressed she was by the quality of the event. “Chef Carla told me, ‘I’ve never been to a food competition that took care of their judges, integrated them, and made them feel like they were part of the competition the way that you do.’ Our whole goal is to make this an enjoyable experience for everyone involved—that is truly what makes this competition different,” Johnston-Crum says. “So it was validating to hear her, coming in with a fresh perspective, say that we do it for everybody, not just the competitors.”

The Secret Ingredient: Joy The National Gingerbread House Competition has become a tradition for many families, who come year after year to view the winning displays during the holiday season. “Most hotels empty out during the holidays, but we’re the exact opposite,” Johnston-Crum states. “We sell out every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day. For many, Grove Park becomes Christmas personified.” The event also helps Asheville economically by drawing business from near and far, and The Omni’s holiday parking program gives a portion of the holiday season’s parking proceeds to the community. Over the past six years, over $430,000 has been given to local not-for-profits.

Johnston-Crum was there again this year, welcoming every competitor to The Omni for the 2019 National Gingerbread House Competition, held on November 18—with the winning creations to be on display through January 4, 2020. “The inventiveness and the passion impress me every year, but it’s also a hard competition. People take it very seriously, and we take it very seriously,” she concludes. “But we also truly believe that it should be fun and that everyone involved is touched positively by it. We want you to find that little piece of nostalgia that takes you back to a simpler time and rekindles something in your childhood that made you joyful—because, when you get down to it, that’s what gingerbread houses do.”

Road Tripping with Grandparents

End of Summer Road Safety

Next to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Labor Day is one of the busiest driving days of the year. As families pack their cars and head to the beach for some last-minute summer sun, the roads can become quite busy.

Here’s how to make the most of your trip, and get to your destination safely and efficiently!

Prepare for the unexpected. 
It seems no road trip is complete without a few bumps in the road, but whether or not you do encounter any hiccups, you’ll be glad you were prepared with an emergency kit full of essentials, like pliers, a tire pressure gauge, and water.

If conditions aren’t right, postpone. 
There’s nothing worse than trying to force yourself to drive, despite bad weather, lack of sleep, or other dangerous conditions. If you aren’t feeling up to the drive, don’t get behind the wheel, or ask someone else to takeover.

Allot plenty of time. 
There will be traffic—it’s unavoidable in some cases. However, you can plan ahead by checking if any major roadways are under construction and try to find an alternative route. It’s also a good idea to check your GPS an hour or so before you leave for an ETA. Keep in mind, roadways are busiest between 4PM–10PM.

Avoid the busiest travel days. 
Without a doubt, Monday and Friday are the busiest travel days of Labor Day weekend. If you can help it, avoid heading out during the daytime on these days. Instead, head for your destination late on Thursday and pack up late Sunday or Monday.

Make your own adventure. 
Sometimes a trip to the beach or lake isn’t worth the hours spent in bumper to bumper traffic, especially when there’s bound to be an exciting adventure right in your own backyard. A staycation is a great alternative that doesn’t involve the dreaded task of packing.

Traveling this Labor Day? Make sure you’re road trip ready with an arsenal of travel snacksgames, and other tips.

These are the US Gardens Everyone Should See

If you’re a gardener or you just enjoy looking at beautiful flowers, it’s fun to tour gardens for inspiration and entertainment. These gardens across the US are sure to stun even the most seasoned horticulturist.

Atlanta Botcanical Garden, Atlanta, Georgia

Featuring over 30 acres of land, the Atlanta Botanical Garden has a beautiful variety of gardens to explore. Take the family through the award-winning Children’s Garden or go on a stroll through Storza Woods, which features a beautiful canopy walk. You can also admire the Skyline Garden.

Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee

This 55-acre garden and art museum, built on the Cheek Estate, offers stunning art exhibitions, gorgeous gardens, and historical education. The garden hosts festivals to celebrate each of the different seasons and offers classes and family activities.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

Though Desert Botanical Garden sounds like a paradox, it features beautiful trails in keeping with its climate. This garden highlights cacti and other plants that thrive in the desert setting. They also offer special activities, like flashlight tours on summer Saturdays. Visitors can enjoy the night blooming plants and nocturnal animals by flashlight.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

This education-based garden has field programs in over 20 countries to protect botanic garden development all over the world. The garden itself boasts the Lougheed Spiny Forest of Madagascar for some of the garden’s most unique plants. Simons Rainforest takes visitors on a path complete with streams and waterfalls along with stunning trees and orchids. These are just a few of the paths offered at this large garden.

Ladew Topiary Gardens, Monkton, MD

Harvey S. Ladew began Ladew Topiary Gardens, putting together 15 garden rooms across 22 acres of his property. He also restored the Manor House, which guests still visit today. Now, visitors to Ladew Topiary Gardens have access to these themed gardens, nature walks, and a butterfly house.

Lotusland, Montecito, California

Located on the preserved estate of Madame Ganna Walska, Lotusland focuses on conservation and education. Featuring 22 themed gardens, Lotusland highlights a number of different cultures along with different types of plants and flowers.

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark and features the oldest landscaped gardens in America. They’re committed to historic preservation and using research to educate. When designing the garden, Henry Middleton followed the classical garden style and focused on rational order, geometry and balance, vistas, focal points, and surprise features.

Portland Japanese Garden

Committed to representing authentic Japanese culture, this Washington Park garden overlooks the city and features 12 acres and 8 different garden styles. The garden also has a Japanese Tea House, streams throughout its land, walking paths, and a view of Mt. Hood.

United States Botanic Garden, Washington, D.C.

Take a trip to the United States Botanic Garden, founded by the US Congress in 1820 to demonstrate the importance of plants to the people in the US. Doubling as a museum, the United States Botanic Garden is one of the oldest botanic gardens in North America and focuses on providing visitors with botanical knowledge, conserving plants, and aiming for sustainability.

The next time you take a vacation or road trip, make sure you visit one of these beloved US gardens to admire the plants and learn more about the horticultural world.