The Big Island: A Week In Kona

Aloha! Wait, can I still say that after being back for nearly a week?
palm trees | hilton waikoloa |
Sure, why not? Because my mind and spirit still feel like they’re relaxing on a soft, sandy beach somewhere on the beautiful island of Hawai’i- The Big Island–and specifically in Kona. These palm trees are my new screen saver.  They remind me to breathe….and let the breezes of life pass through me.

This post is not only a visual travel log of my recent trip, but also a way of introducing a new feature of the site: a dedicated Travel page. Here you’ll find links to posts focused on travel destinations, whether near or far, cold or sunny, beaches or backpacks…..but always guaranteed somewhere worth exploring. These posts will be a bit longer than usual as they’re mainly photos.  Scroll and escape with me to parts unknown. Never fear, I’ll always tie-in food and drinks somehow.  Whether it be meals I’ve enjoyed, interesting culinary finds, or simple strolls through a local farmer’s market, like in this post. Maybe I’ll include a quick cocktail recipe too?  My eats & drinks bag is always packed and ready…. so, off we go!

sitting buddha | hilton waikoloa |

sitting buddha | hilton waikoloa

real dolphin | hilton waikoloa |

real dolphin | hilton waikoloa

dolphin statue | hilton waikoloa |

not real dolphin | hilton waikoloa

behind a waterfall | hilton waikoloa |

behind a waterfall | hilton waikoloa

hilton waikoloa | Big Island |

hilton waikoloa | big island

Spending a week in Hawai’i is always a special trip, but this visit in particular was even more memorable as we celebrated my parents 50th wedding anniversary. Yes, 50 years, can you believe it? What an accomplishment. Congrats Mom and Dad! Something we can all aspire to. We had family from WA State, Oregon, Tennessee, California and England join us in Kona to mark this momentous occasion. Lots of sun, surf, snorkeling and fancy drinks with little umbrellas!

DSC_0053-1papayas | big island |

papayas | big island


bananas | big island |

Had such a fun time at the Kona Farmer’s Market. It’s open Wed- Sunday 7am- 4pm and is in the center of Kona- you can’t miss it. They offer local artisan crafts, jewelry & apparel, flowers, ukuleles (in case you forgot to pack yours) and of course, lots of tasty tropical fruits and veggies. A foodie’s paradise! Got some great shots; even a Day Gecko!
mango | kona farmer's market |

guava | kona farmer's market |

guava | kona farmer’s market


lychee | kona farmer's market |

lychee | kona farmer’s market

rainbow papayas | kona farmer's market |

rainbow papayas | kona farmer’s market


green mango | kona farmer's market |

green mango – I think? | kona farmer’s market

"apple bananas" which the locals call "cooking bananas" | kona farmer's market |

“apple bananas” on top shelf which the locals call “cooking bananas” | kona farmer’s market

rambutan | kona farmer's market |

rambutan | kona farmer’s market

dragon fruit | kona farmer's market |

dragon fruit | kona farmer’s market

dragon fruit | kona farmer's market |
tropical fruit at kona farmer's market | big island |

gecho and melons

anthurium | kona farmer's market |

anthurium | kona farmer’s market


tropical protea | kona farmer's market |

tropical protea

I have no idea what this is, but it’s gorgeous!

On the day we visited the Volcano, we stopped at Ailani Orchards on the way back to Kona. Got to try fresh….and I mean *fresh* macadamia nuts…. right out of the shell. The farm is owned by Barney & Elizabeth Frazier who were so nice to us. Barney cracked opened several macadamia nuts with his nifty nutcracker. He explained how macadamias are grown and processed. They don’t bake theirs like most farms do. Instead, they slowly dehydrate their nuts over a 4-5 day period at low temps, thereby retaining the creaminess and the nut’s inherent oils. Amazing. The BEST macs you’ve ever eaten. We also tried their coffee… good! Oh, and up the road a ways….we saw these guys.

alilani Orchard | big island |

macadamia nuts |
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Exploring the Kilauea Volcano and the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was so neat. This was as close as we could get, due to the toxic gases that were emitting from the caldera. But still, what a sight to behold. I hear it’s even better viewing at night….next trip! And look at the gorgeous flowers & ferns we found at the overlook spot. That day we also did a quick detour over to Punalu’u Beach or Black Sands Beach. Boy, was that sand hot!
kilauea volcanoDSC_0066-1 kilauea vocano | big island |
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click to enlarge to find out what plaque above means ;>)

We had lots of other adventures including visiting a rare honey producer in Kumuela (near Waimea) and a vanilla bean farm in Paauilo. Those stories coming in future posts. But back in Kona: fishing, surf-watching, dolphins, beer, more drinks, and gorgeous sunsets. Mahalo for reading!
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sunset 7.10.15-1

DSC_0073-1-2first night sunset






#picturebygrace. kona sunset first night. no filters.

p.s. this is not a sponsored post–just me giving a special shout-out and big mahalo to Gerrit and the folks at for their awesome website and personal recommendations to me for this trip. Their site is so comprehensive and made planning our activities so easy. Can’t recommend them enough!

Wine Tasting In Mendocino County ~ Saracina Vineyards

A little piece of Tuscany in my own backyard.
saracina vineyards | whiskandmuddler.comWell, geographically speaking,  perhaps more akin to a neighbor a few blocks over as the beautiful & tranquil Saracina Vineyards is located in Hopland (the southern end of Mendocino County), a scenic 45-minute drive straight up the freeway from where I live in Sonoma County. I’ve driven past this winery dozens of times and have never been able to stop in. So last week, whilst I was doing some work up in the area, I finally popped in for a much over-due visit. Picture a long, Cyprus tree-lined drive with lush vineyards on either side. As you turn towards the sloping mountain where the winery has been dug out of the hillside, there, proudly stands, a small grove of ancient olive trees that make up the over 500-tree collection on site–some close to 110-years old. Surrounding the property are majestic willow trees that casually drape over the buildings and frame the view to the large pond out the back. The vineyards behind the tasting room rise from the ground level up several terraces, seemly stretching up the benchland soils into infinity. Upon arrival, the property immediately gives you a feeling of serenity, as if you’ve been transported to a secluded estate in the hills of the Italian countryside.

saracina cottage sign |
olive trees at saracina |
weeping willow trees at saracina |
weeping willow over building |
pond at saracina |
pond at saracina vineyards |
saracina vineyards |
Saracina is owned and operated by the legendary John Fetzer (of the Fetzer family) and his wife Patty Rock. The ranch is named after a centuries-old farmhouse and vineyards in Tuscany where they spent their honeymoon. Together, John and Patty have dedicated serious time and effort over the years into manifesting their vision of farming the land with a hands-on approach and in the greenest method possible. All with the intention to preserve the land & grapes which have been a part of the family’s heritage for decades. They practice traditional organic techniques on their head-trained vines (although their wines are not classified as ‘organic’) such as tilling under the vine rows to eliminate weeds and other vegetation instead of relying on harmful chemicals, planting cover crops to add natural nutrients back into the vines and composting to create a diverse ecosystem for the soils. Modern practices are also employed to create a healthy biosphere for the ‘beneficials’ (the good bugs that eat the bad bugs) such as cultivating olive and pomegranate orchards, sunflowers fields, and heritage grains. They also have over 3 million bees in 69 hives on the property. Their goats roam the hillsides to eat all the invasive weeds and owl boxes have been installed to control any rodent populations.

The architecture is modern, with a clean lines and lots of natural light in the tasting room –welcoming visitors in a warm and relaxed style. Our ultra-hospitable hostess Bernadette (we had so much fun with her) walked us through an *amazing* selection of wines from the Saracina label (varietal wines) along with a few from the Atrea range (proprietary name for their blended wines). Seriously everyone, I loved EVERY wine I tasted. Yes, you heard right. And for those who know me well, you can attest that never happens. Kind of sound like a wine snob don’t I? But really I’m not–pinky swear! Being in the wine biz for so long, I’ve just been fortunate to have tasted a lot of wines. So by now, I know exactly what I like. And this is a rare opportunity for me to give a shout-out & well-deserved kudos for solid winemaking across an entire portfolio; well done !  What I liked most about their wines was their varietal-correctness, simplicity, and superb quality for the price. Honestly, if you blind-tasted these, you’d peg them easily $10-15 higher per bottle than they are. The winery isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here with some crazy winemaking. They simply allow the expression of vineyard coupled with varietal’s characteristics to, in the immortal words of Jackie from RHOMelbourne, “shine, shine shine”. Highlights of what we tasted coming in just a minute. We also sampled their wonderful estate grown olive oil (traditional Tuscan blend of Leccino, Pendolino, Frantoio and Maurino olives) and the delicious wildflower honey that comes from the estate’s thriving bee colonies.
saracina tasting room |
interior tasting room at saracina vineyards |

saracina wine caves |

saracina vineyard's wines |
Okay, now the best part— the wines!
I’d typically say “here are my standouts”, but in this case, all were fantastic!

2014 Saracina Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County $23.00
Everything you want an SB to be, but only very few can achieve. Elegance throughout; subtly with notes of citrus, grapefruit, minerality and Jalapeño pepper. Long, limey-lemon finish with the right amount of austerity. Fabulous!

2014 Saracina Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County $18.00
I confess; I’m not really a Chardy fan. You all know that. But this one was really good. Clean, with citrus and apple up front, and soft, round on the palate—even with just the SS fermentation. Purity of fruit with an even, lingering finish. This could possibly make me a Chardonnay drinker (ssshhh, don’t tell anyone!)

2012 Atrea The Choir, Mendocino County $13.00 (no, that price is not a typo). And does this wine sing! An ode to Rhône-style wines indeed. 61% Viognier and 39% Roussanne. Talk about a summer-sipper. Heck, a spring, winter or fall drop too. Lively acidity, bright, clean, and fruit-forward with just enough floral and mineral notes to keep it all in balance. Amazing quality for value.

2014 Atrea Skid Rosé, Mendocino County $20.00
Think sweet strawberries, citrus rind and rose petals. The balance of fruit to acidity is spot on. And what’s unusual about this wine is its blend: 94% Malbec, 6% Grenache. The “greener” aspects of Malbec are no where insight…just the lushness of the varietal and the Grenache lends a wonderful aromatic component. Perfect sipping from Spring through to late Fall.

2012 Saracina Skid Row Vineyard Malbec, Mendocino County $28.00
(this link is for the 2011 but my notes are for the 2012 that was poured). Okay, no question….the BEST Malbec I’ve ever tasted. And I used to work for two wineries that made Malbec, (sorry!). The typical vegeatle notes were so well integrated,  they didn’t over-power. Deep aromas of black fruits like black raspberry and plum partnered with soft vanilla  & savory herb notes. And the finish was incredibly soft and long. There were tannins present, yet so well balanced. Divine!

2012 Saracina Klindt Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley $38.00
(Again, vintage change over- link above to 2011, but notes on 2012 that was poured). Amazing price for this Pinot, would expect to pay $15-20 more. Just the kind of Pinot I like: dark fruits up front with earthy aromatics. On the palate, firm and rich tannins that are in perfect sync with flavors of black cherry, tart fruits and black currants. Strong finish and just the right amount of oak to keep it all in balance. A winner for sure.

To visit:
Saracina Vineyards

11684 US-101 | Hopland, CA | 95449
(707) 670-0199
Open daily 11am – 5pm
To book a tour or tasting
saracina wine collection |

Note: although you’d think this was a sponsored post (due to my prolific gushing about this winery) it was however not. In fact, I owe them money. Joined their wine club for shipments starting this fall you see. Yep, the wines are THAT good!  :>)

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“Have Fun Storming The Castle”

For all of you 80’s movie buffs, you know exactly what scene that line is from and how wonderful the now iconic movie is.Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

It’s one of my all-time favorites. I even own this one—and nope, not afraid to admit it either. Bet this is secretly one of your favorites too. Great, so we’re in good company then. Watching it once or twice a year still makes me giggle, laugh out loud, tear-up, and well, what can I say…. it’s just a plain old good time getting reacquainted with each of the characters we’ve come to love so much. I never seem to tire of the infamous quotes & one-liners this movie created. Not sure which movie I’m referring to? Keep reading. But if you get stuck–spoiler alert–movie title at bottom of post.

Well, last week I got my Buttercup on and had a blast storming this castle over in Napa Valley. Okay, “storming” may be a wee bit of an exaggeration perhaps. There were no Cliffs of Insanity to scale, no Pit Of Despair to escape from— just a gorgeous drive on a spring day through the back roads of Sonoma County, over Calistoga Summit dropping down into the northern end of Napa Valley.  All the vineyards throughout the valley are in full-leaf right now, making it the perfect day for a special VIP / behind-the-scenes access to one of wine country’s most well-known landmarks– Castello di Amorosa Winery in Calistoga. Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Moat at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Castello di Amarosa, Napa Valley
I lucked out on this exclusive, private tour through a chance meeting with Patrick (formerly of Castello, now with its sister winery V. Sattui), at a recent wine industry event. Patrick had been with “The Castle” (as the locals refer to it) since it opened in 2007 and he graciously invited my dear friend, Miss LJ, and I up for a visit. Since both of us are in the wine biz and have only heard tell of this amazing place–we were very excited to finally see the winery in person. Patrick knows every square inch of this place inside and out. He shared with us all the mind-boggling details of how a piece of Italy was reproduced, stone by stone, here in California wine country. It was 14 years in the making and no matter what other winery folks tell you– it’s definitely well-worth a visit. Do yourself some favors though and 1) get there early to beat the crowds (opens at 9:30am daily), 2) book the tour and the tasting ($35/pp) otherwise you’ll miss out on most of the castle if you only do the self-guided tour and 3) wear comfortable shoes. It’s a real castle people. And it’s huge! There are heaps of stone stairs, narrow cobblestone walkways, sloping pathways into four levels of dark cellars….you get the idea. So much fun! Oh, and bring your camera too. The views of the valley from the turrets are stunning.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa ValleyDSC_0084-2
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Where to begin- there is so much to share. I’ll give you the highlights and then you’ll just have to hop on a plane to experience the rest of this majestic place for yourself. The Castello was built to period with a combination of 13-14th and 16th century castle architecture. There’s not one specific castle in Italy it was modeled after,  rather a collection of Tuscan villas, castles and alike that owner Dario Sattui found inspiration from. There are eight levels (four above-ground, four underground) with 107 rooms. In total, 121,000 square feet of medieval artistry. He has recreated every detail with incredible accuracy and (needless to say), expense. All the iron work for the doors, walls, hinges, light fixtures was hand-forged by Italian artisans. The mural in the Great Hall is a replica from a fresco in Siena; hand-painted by artists he flew in from Umbria. The centuries-old salvaged cobblestones near the draw bridge (yep, told you it was a real castle) were shipped over in hundreds of containers from Italy. The upper courtyard (the bailey) has beautiful natural Carrara marble walls and bar-tops. The rectangular gaps (crenels) in the walls were engineered to the exact angle a guardsmen of the day would have needed to deftly launch his deadly arrow through to kill an enemy, yet protect himself from return fire.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
We walked through a myriad of wine cellars, the Armory, the Torture Chamber, Member-Only tasting room, fermentation and barrel aging rooms. In all—four levels down from the main courtyard, about 70-80 feet beneath the earth. We even got to meet Lancelot (the cat). His sister Guinevere was off sunning herself on one of the outer walls. The entire property is in keeping with a real working-castle of the day with their stable of animals– chickens running in & out of vineyard rows, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks and geese in the moat, and a stately peacock near the entrance to greet you.

Private Tasting Cellar- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
After a 1.5-hour journey underground, we finished up in the large main tasting area for a sip or two (or three!) of their signature releases. Patrick offered his suggestions from their expansive collection of wines- ranging from sweet whites and reds to dry, aromatic white blends to several well-made reds and a few tasty dessert wines. There is a wine here for the novice drinker up to the expert. My favorites were:
2014 Castello di Amorosa Gewürztraminer, Mendocino County– amazing spice and rose petal on the nose. Dry, mineral-laced and bright stone fruit on the palate. Vinified in an Alsacian-style. A nice drop. $25.00

2014 Castello di Amorosa Pinot Bianco, Sonoma County-you don’t see too much of this varietal produced around here. Light, crisp, tropical fruit but not heavy-handed. Would be ideal for a brunch or just for sipping on a lazy summer day. $26.00

2011 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese, Napa Valley– all the bright acidity you’d expect from a Sangiovese. Loaded with cherries, dark berries, mocha, bit of earthiness too. Perfect with an antipasti plate. $29.00
Family Tasting Area- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Patrick & Miss LJ at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Many thanks to Patrick for the expert tour and his wealth of knowledge. We now have a deep appreciation for the talents and hard work contributed by the hundreds of skilled artisans that constructed this jaw-dropping and unique winery. In admiration of their work, all we could say was “inconceivable!”.

What’s your favorite line from the movie? ;>)

To visit:
Castello di Amorosa
4045 St Helena Hwy, Calistoga, CA 94515 |  (707) 967-6272
Several tour, tasting, food pairing options available. Tour & tasting information
Open daily 9:30am-6:00pm March-Oct | 9:30am-5:00pm Nov-Feb

-Movie title= The Princess Bride (1987)
-Header Tag Line= scene with Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane) wishing Westley good luck as he embarks on a journey to save Buttercup from Prince Humperdink.
-Plan to spend at least 2 – 2.5 hours here. You will need every minute of that if you are doing the tour & tasting, plus you’ll want time to wander the grounds.
-Scenes from Adam Sandler’s movie Bedtime Stories (2008) were filmed here. Their production crew scouted 19 sites world-wide before discovering Castello.