Escape Artists offers up a global discourse ranging from great finds close to home to adventures far afield. You'll find weekly travel deals here, too. Share your road wisdom, rave about great finds and rant about roadblocks that get in the way of a great trip.

Contributor: Travel editor Kerri Westenberg.

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Belly up to the bar in Napa

Posted by: Bill Ward under U.S. travel Updated: July 10, 2014 - 2:09 PM

Like many others, I first went to Napa for the wine and came away wowed and dazzled by the food. Great restaurants use an astonishing array of fresh ingredients to create wonderful dishes, usually of the simple, vibrant ilk. Every return trip has meant exciting new (to me) venues, including Solbar in Calistoga and Morimoto in the town of Napa last month.

And as swell as it is to savor this gastro-utopia at a table, I actually prefer to eat at the bar, at least when there are just one or two of us. The full menu is available without fail. It’s generally a great perch for people-watching. The person behind the bar is usually a seasoned pro in food service — someone who has made this his or her profession, not the “I’m just doing this until I get enough acting/modeling gigs” types encountered at all too many restaurants. Plus they almost assuredly know how lucky they are to live in such a fabulous place and work at such a cool eatery.

But the big bonus is that this is where the people who do the truly important work in Napa tend to hang out. While the nouveau riche winery owners are regaling one another in the main dining area, the winemakers, vineyard managers and cellarmasters often are just enjoying a nice meal and a beverage (often a beer; as the saying goes, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine”) at the bar.

I’ve had particular luck meeting such folks at two of Twin Cities native Cindy Pawlcyn’s superb restaurants, Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. But I’ve also encountered cool Napa-ites at Press, Bistro Jeanty and downstairs in the atmospheric bar at Goose & Gander.

Oh, and most recently, the octopus seemed a little more tender and the sake a touch sweeter at the convivial sushi bar at Morimoto.
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A rosy view of Portland

Posted by: Bill Ward under U.S. travel Updated: June 13, 2014 - 8:28 AM

People tend to go to Portland for one reason above all others. But that reason varies mightily. It might be the wonderfully wide-ranging restaurant scene (from countless food carts to the don’t-dare-miss-it Thai treasure Pok Pok); the country’s most revered big bookstore, Powell’s Books; the hipster vibe, or as a gateway to Pinot Noir Heaven, the Willamette Valley 30 miles to the southwest.

But in summertime, there’s no better impetus to go than the clunkily named International Rose Test Garden.

Tumbling down a hillside in Washington Park, the garden boasts killer views of the city and Mount Hood. But all eyes should be trained on the myriad blooms. Who knew there were so many shades of orange, pink, red, yellow and violet? Or so many ways to use white to punch up said colors in multi-hued eye-poppers?

The name is actually accurate — new hybrids have been tried out there since 1917, making this the nation’s oldest continuously operated rose test  garden. But there’s also a casual feel to the endless tiers of shrubs and vines, and visitors’ reverence for roses tends to make for peaceful strolls. 

The lone downside for Minnesotans: You’ll never look at that perfectly nice rose garden on Lake Harriet’s east side the same way again.

A rare kudo for an airline

Posted by: Bill Ward under Airlines Updated: May 28, 2014 - 3:40 PM

When it comes to airlines, I have never been able to follow my mother’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all.” With escalating airfares capped by extra fees, serious space shrinkage and endless tarriances on the tarmac (“OK folks, now we have to de-ice the plane before we can take off”), it’s been open season to let ’er rip on these operations.

Until last Wednesday.

That morning, my way better half got a phone call we had been dreading: Her cancer-stricken brother was near death in Nashville. With bereavement fares having all but disappeared — American and United dropped their policies earlier this year — I feared the worst in finding an airfare, especially since this scenario begged for an open-ended return date.

To the rescue came Southwest. I found a one-way fare for that afternoon of $214. I don’t need to know the reason for such a reasonable rate. (Delta’s best fare, by the way, was $570.) I’m just glad we have an airline that still operates that way.

Thank you, Southwest.

Get with the 'Inn' crowd

Posted by: Bill Ward under U.S. travel Updated: May 15, 2014 - 11:16 AM

George Washington slept here, or at least in the vicinity. But the reason to go to the Inn at Little Washington is to eat one of the best meals in the country. In a still-teeny-tiny town that was mapped by a young surveyor named George Washington in 1749, the inn does of course have lodgings ($460 and up), but it’s an easy drive from “Big Washington,” not quite 70 miles to the east.

When it opened on the site of a former gas station in 1978, the closest restaurant was 40 miles away. Before long, the $4.95 dinners got fancier and tastier. The Inn at Little Washington was the first establishment to be 5-star Mobil and 5-Diamond AAA designations.

Today, Patrick O’Connell turns out stunning, thrilling dishes using the freshest local ingredients, from seasonal vegetables to country ham. Our meal started with, technically, our names printed on the menu, but the food included a crabcake “sandwich” bounded by fried green tomatoes with a tomato vinaigrette and prawns with charred onions and mango mint salsa.

It got better from there, capped by a ridiculously cool cheese cart: Faira, a wooden cow on wheels with a bountiful array of selections in a tray on her back.

The late, great New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called this “the most magnificent inn I’ve ever seen, in this country or Europe, where I had the most fantastic meal of my life.” No argument here.

Sun Country launches new deals

Posted by: Kerri Westenberg under Airlines, Deals Updated: April 28, 2014 - 10:35 AM

Want to go to Chicago this summer? Or Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles or a handful of other cities? Don't book until you've checked the fares offered by Sun Country. For instance, you can get to Chicago for $84 one-way, a fare that nearly matches Amtrak rates. To get the "Sun Drop" rate, book by May 8 for flights May 12 through August 31. Travel is valid on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 14 day advance purchase required.

Destinations with discounted fares also include Lansing, Mich., Boston, Mass., New York City, Seattle, Wash., and San Francisco. May 26 is a blackout date; fares may sell out quickly.

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