Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

sheep cheese Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.



[Photo credit: Kate Arding]

Highway 1 in photos

My first drive down Highway 1, properly called State Route 1, was during the summer of 2007. My two best friends and I constructed a loft bed in our van and we took off driving down the coast… from the tip of Oregon and, eventually, down to San Diego. Images from the trip, in my mind and in my photo albums, have regularly sent me into a west coast reverie. Now that my most recent birthday is fresh under my belt, I think I spent the celebratory weekend well: driving up Highway 1 this time.

I didn’t get to go far, but the picturesque drive is one for the savoring, no matter how short. So I savored what I could get. My first attempt at driving up the Highway 1 was cut short because of flooding. When I approached the highway the second time, I nervously drove my uninsured rented car through a foot or two of moving water and I crossed my fingers, hoping that’d be the last of the flooding. And, for the most part, it was. And then I spent a day driving up the coast, trying to keep my eyes on the road.
For the sixth day in a row, incessant rain had been predicted. But the sun came instead of the rain that day and photographer Ben Britz and I drove. And we stopped to take photos. And we continued driving and stopping until the sun went down. Here are some of the photos from the trip.

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Photos by Ben Britz

Virgin America lets loose in Cancún

Virgin America Cancun Launch

Virgin America just can’t sit still these days. In the past two months, they’ve launched service to Dallas/Forth Worth (and added frequency from both LAX & SFO), placed an impressive order for 60 new A320’s (to be delivered starting in 2013), said adiós to Toronto for the time being, and launched service to two cities in Mexico; Los Cabos and now, Cancún.

Everything about Cancún seems like a good fit for the airline. It’s sunny. It’s flashy. It’s exotic. It attracts a young crowd and has high seasonal traffic with a significant need for competitive nonstop options from the West Coast.

But Cancún is a destination that has a way of polarizing travelers. For most Americans born after 1975, it’s notoriously synonymous with Spring Break, loud nightclubs, and excessive resorts as far as the eye can see. For some vacationers, these are the only reasons to go. For others, they are the reason to never even consider going. Yes, the beaches may be spectacular and the attractions plentiful, but the rush to develop and commercialize both has left most of the city devoid of a single trace of ‘authentic’ Mexican culture – a fact that managed to earn Cancún the top spot on Gadling’s list of places not to go in 2011.

With that in mind, allow me to be the mediator here and tell you exactly why you should go (or at least fly to) Cancún in 2011…

Simply put, Cancún is an affordable, accessible, and a safe gateway to the larger Yucatán peninsula. Yes, it may be an overdeveloped tourist mecca with little soul or culture in the eyes of true travelers. But the vivid blue waters, white sand beaches, and Mayan ruins of the outlying areas offer an entirely different world that’s only six hours away.

Before taking Virgin America’s inaugural flight from LAX to CUN, the farthest I’d ventured in Mexico was Puerta Vallarta. I didn’t really have high expectations for the Mexican Riviera, since my association of it was a blur of generic beach scenes from a decade-old MTV Spring Break broadcast. Which is ironic in hindsight, considering that our flight was the backdrop for an episode of VH1’s Top 20 Countdown; complete with an in-flight performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

The 5 hour flight itself was great. The margaritas were festive and the atmosphere was as playful as all Virgin America’s inaugural launches are. The only hitch that passengers will encounter in the ‘complete’ Virgin America experience is the lack of in-flight WiFi after crossing the US-Mexico border – an issue that Gogo and Aircell will hopefully address with coverage expansion in the coming years.

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Upon our arrival, our Virgin-worthy accommodation was the gorgeous and brand-new Live Aqua. If you’re accustomed to hotels with two white Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside, chic interiors filled with hip ambient music, extensive spa services and an array of tasteful eateries, then this is the place you’ll want to stay. It is plausible that you could forgo leaving the hotel grounds and be perfectly content with relaxing by the beach for your entire trip. And for the price of an all-inclusive stay, that’s exactly what I would do.

But, it turns out there are actually things to do around Cancún besides lounging and clubbing. Escape the herds of tourists and head south to quieter beaches at Playa del Carmen, where you can hop across to Cozumel and explore Mayan ruins. Or venture west and check out the ‘authentic’ colonial town of Tizimín on your way to catch a boat to the tiny but charming Holbox Island (and swim with whale sharks in the summer).

If you’re short on time but looking for adventure, then look up one of Cancún’s best day trips; Selvatica’s zip-line & ATV jungle excursion. In the span of a half day, you can fly through the trees on seven different zip lines, drive your own ATV, and swing from ropes into a beautiful blue cenote (Spanish for giant swimming hole).

I can understand why people dislike Cancún. It’d be very easy to come expecting authentic Mexican charm and leave never wanting to lay eyes on another beer-toting American again. But keep your time in the developed area of Cancún short, and you won’t be dissapointed.

Needless to say, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore the outlying areas of Cancún. For a sub-$500 flight that’s just under 5 hours from LAX, or roughly 6 hours from SFO, it’s an easy trip that I certainly plan on making again. Especially if Virgin America can keep their fares low, which they usually do for recently launched destinations. Better yet, enter to win one of three VIP trips that the airline is giving away right here.

If you have your own crazy stories or suggestions about why or why not to go to Cancun this year, leave them in the comments section below!

Holiday trip? Consider rail travel

rail travelUnlike Europe and Japan, the United States isn’t known for its high-tech, efficient rail travel. Which is a shame because, as I recently discovered, taking Amtrak is sometimes a better way to travel this big country of ours, and generally speaking, it has a lower carbon footprint per passenger than driving or flying.

You definitely need to have time to spare for long distance trips, although with the epic waits at some airport security checks, you may well come out ahead on shorter routes. Amtrak offers a lot of promotions and deals on its website, and children two to 15 ride half-price. The train can also be more fun for kids, and help save the sanity of parents who dread the airport schlep and subsequent whine-fest.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I’d sometimes take the train from Berkeley to my brother’s place in Truckee, in North Lake Tahoe. Given that it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive in perfect weather, assuming you leave at the crack of dawn to avoid traffic, the five-hour rail journey isn’t a bad idea for a winter trip. Note: Depending upon route, make sure your trip doesn’t have a connection by bus, which can considerably lengthen your trip and detract from your comfort. That said, I’ve ridden Amtrak’s motorcoaches in the past and found them pretty nice. They’re a far cry from the filthy, stinking, hell-on-wheels that is Greyhound, and at least there are increasingly excellent options on the East Coast for short-distance bus travel.

rail travelStill, I’d never done an overnight on Amtrak, mainly because I hate to take 17 hours to travel somewhere that’s a two-hour flight away. But on a recent trip from Chicago to Washington DC, the train was running $85/o/w for a coach seat. At the time, even with the additional cost of a sleeper, it was cheaper than airfare, so I went for it.

The only part of the Midwest I’d visited prior to Chicago was Wisconsin, so the train also provided a great way for me to see a new part of the country. And it would be relaxing…a mini-vacation, if you will, where I could escape traffic and the electronic leashes of Blackberry and computer (Amtrak’s AcelaExpress commuter trains are currently the only ones equipped with Wifi).

The Capitol Limited route took me from Chicago’s bustling downtown Union Station, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Getting a ticket is as simple as booking online, which I recommend doing in advance if possible, although you can also purchase them at the station from an agent or kiosk, and over the phone or your mobile device. Long distance routes have various sleeping options, ranging from one-to-two person roomettes to bedroom suites that accomodate four adults. For future reference, I suggest you book at least a month ahead on the more popular routes, to ensure you get a sleeper. I selected a 3’x6″ x 6’x6″ “Superliner Roomette ($128 additional fee, including meals).” The Superliner is a double-decker; the roomette a private cabin with sliding doors and curtains, windows spanning the length of the compartment, climate control, a garment rack, fold-down table, and two very comfortable reclining seats that fold into upper and lower berths. Unlike the single-level Viewliner car roomettes, there is no sink or toilet.

Compared to the airport, the train is a stress-free snap. Arrive at station, print out ticket, go to private waiting room, check bag, read, eat free snacks. When it’s time to board, you’re led to the correct platform, and you climb aboard. Tip: If you’ve gotrail travel a lot of luggage or a really heavy bag, get some assistance. Trains are a lot longer than you’d think, and my back was giving me the metaphorical finger by the time I staggered to my car, lugging my corpse-size duffel.

The friendly conductor showed me to my cozy roomette on the second floor. There was a clean bathroom just steps away, as well as a coffee/water/juice station (included with fare). The shower was downstairs; I was expecting the worst, but it was clean, the water hot and plentiful.

The sightseer lounge cars have huge windows and tables, so I spent the first couple of hours watching the sun set over Indiana. FYI, some routes, like the West’s Coast’s Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Amtrak Cascades, and the California Zephyr in the Rockies, are justly famous for their scenery. Amtrak also provides a stop-by-stop guide for its routes, so you can learn the historical and cultural significance of each.

As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I harbor a repressed childhood trauma from an airline chicken breast, because while I think nothing of eating dog, goat testicles, or witchetty grubs (or, probably, human flesh), I can’t deal with meals produced for mass transit. So I bypassed the dining car, because it just smelled unappetizing, and the plates of food didn’t look much better. Instead, I brought my own travel picnic with me. To do otherwise in a city with dining and grocery options as fantastic as Chicago’s would be a shame..

What I really love about Amtrak is the fact that it lets me enjoy transit for transit’s sake, which is something I don’t often experience domestically (probably because I’m always flying or driving). Like riding the bus in foreign countries (my favorite wayrail travel to travel, and inevitably a fascinating cultural immersion), the train allowed me to just zone out. I had the time and privacy to read, doze, think, daydream, and watch the world go by. At 9pm, the conductor came to turn down my bed. I slid between the sheets, and watched the starry Midwestern night slip by. The rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, I sipped my coffee and marveled at the brilliant fall foliage in Maryland and West Virginia. I arrived at DC’s centrally-located Union Station feeling far more relaxed (and free of neck-kinks) than any flight has ever left me. Thanks, Amtrak. rriving

A weekend of Mammoth proportions

I glance at my watch; it’s roughly 11am and I’m halfway into the flight from San Jose to Mammoth Lakes, California. The turboprops on Horizon Air’s Bombardier Q400 churn less than 27,000 ft above the immense snow-covered Sierras. The view is remarkable, and the gradual transition from green rolling hills to sharp white ridges is memorable.

Over the drone of the propellers, a husky voice belonging to our bleached blonde flight attendant moves down the aisle with a strange choice of words: “Can I get you to drink?”. A quick survey in the cabin reveals a mixture of young, savvy professionals with shirts and bags that show the markings of Google, Sun, and Adobe. Further down, there’s a smattering of couples with small children and a father-son pair. 11am does seem a little early for drinks, but the mood is festive and a few passengers oblige to the attendant’s propositions in an attempt to usher in the weekend on the right note.

The flight is quick and easy, and just two hours after touching down at Mammoth Lake’s quaint airport, I’m in full snow gear and comfortably admiring the fresh powder from Mammoth Mountain’s Panorama Gondola. Board in hand, I unload at the top of the 11,053ft peak; a height that qualifies Mammoth as the highest ski resort in the state of California and lends itself to an average of 400″ inches of annual snowfall.

The views from the top of the peak are nothing less than picture perfect. The mountain is nestled 3 hours south of Yosemite National Park, 2 hours north of the highest mountain in the 48 states, and is officially part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness area; named in the famous photographer’s honor due to his involvement in inspiring the federal protection and preservation of the land.

By the time night falls on my first day, I’m whisked to the quaint lakeside Tamarack Lodge for dinner with the rest of the journalists that have been assembled by the mountain for the weekend. The dining room glows with soft light; there are a limited number of tables, no more than 12, which adds to the restaurant’s charm and cozy atmosphere. The wine is only trumped by the tender bluefin tuna and delicious blueberry pie, and the meal ends with a farewell from the enthusiastic French Chef. He’s a man that obviously loves his work and takes pride in catering to such an intimate set of diners.

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The next day proves to be even more eventful than the first. The morning is spent hopping around the mountain, looking for the best untouched patches of last week’s snowfall. For lunch, a private snowcat tour has been arranged to take us to a vista that overlooks Mammoth’s postcard-friendly peaks known as the Minarets. It’s stormy and gusts of snow threaten to spoil our lunch, but a few brave souls embrace the cold and eat a spread of marinated chicken and salad at the scenic area’s picnic tables. Through the breaks in the low clouds, we catch glimpses of the peaks and imagine what the scene would be like in all its glory on a clear day.

In the afternoon, we’re led on a guided snowmobile tour that weaves through cleanly carved trails to an open snowfield where the group is encouraged to let the throttle rip, bouncing through crisscrossed tracks in six foot deep snow. After drinks and snacks at the Yodler, a local favorite for aprés ski, I force myself to shake off the burn in my legs and bundle up for the evening’s full moon snowshoe hike.

As tired as I was, I really wasn’t expecting too much out of the hike, but it turned out to be the pinnacle of the entire trip. An older couple that run the cross-country skiing center were our guides for the night; Uli (from Switzerland) and Robin were extremely charming and knowledgeable about the Sierra region and had facts at the ready around every corner.

I was taken aback by the stillness of Mammoth’s forests at night; the intensity of the brightest full moon of the year; the view overlooking Mammoth Lakes and the village far below. All of it came together to be a completely relaxing but genuinely memorable outing.

I thought I could get away with ending the day there, but was mistaken by the fact that we still had a round of nightlife hotspots to see. One of the great things about the nightlife in Mammoth is that most of the popular gathering spots are all in walking distance from one another and from the Village; the residential / commercial development that the Mountain has established in the last few years as the pseudo-hub for mountain activity and social activity.

By the end of the weekend, I exhausted and impressed that Mammoth could offer so much activity in to one weekend. The town has still managed to retain the feel and personality of a small mountain community, while readily establishing itself as a major destination for outdoor action. If you haven’t given Mammoth a second thought due to its location, then check out Horizon Air’s flights out of Los Angeles and San Jose.

You may come away sore, but you won’t leave disappointed.

Stephen Greenwood ventured out to Mammoth Lakes on a trip sponsored by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. No editorial content was guaranteed and Stephen was free to openly report on his experiences (pending his survival of the outdoor winter activities that demand motor skills he generally lacks).