St. Paul Pioneer Press

Jan 28 2017

East or west, sunshine is best! I think this is one thing we can all very easily agree upon. So sit back … grab a cup of coffee and start planning your winter getaway.

Recently I was invited to visit two spectacular places that you may want to consider as you plan your cold weather escape. One may come as a bit of a surprise, and the other, well, just may make you want to replace that cup of java with a nice glass of pinot noir. Join me as we explore Alabama’s Gulf Shores and California’s Sonoma Valley.


Alabama’s Gulf Coast was once known as the “Redneck Rivera” but, boy, have things changed. During my visit, I wanted to experience all things local, but also allow time to explore fitness options available. The Gulf Shores (, with its 32 miles of white sandy beaches, are on Alabama’s southern border on the Gulf of Mexico.

I stayed at Turquoise Place (, one of many condominium buildings on the beach catering to snowbirds. The place had all the modern amenities of a luxury condo that you would find in places like St. Paul’s Lowertown … swimming pools, a top-notch fitness facility and something you may not find in St. Paul — a huge hot tub on every balcony.

My exploration of the Gulf Coast included taking paddleboard lessons from the pros at Water Warriors, ( a boot camp class at the Fitness Factory ( and a day kayaking with the dolphins, guided by GOGO Kayaks (

But of course when you engage in a bit of fitness, you have a license for a bit of fun, right? A trip to the Gulf Coast is not complete without paying a visit to the legendary Pensacola bar and grill Flora-Bama ( Often considered one of the last great roadhouses in America, Flora-Bama consistently makes national lists in the “Best Of” category. Straddled on the boarder of Florida and Alabama, this place is a natural mix of countless bars, music stages, dance floors, attractions and locals arm-in-arm with visitors signing, “Save a Horse — Ride a Cowboy.”

For a taste of Alabama charm, and home cooking, check out Lu Lu’s at Homeport Marina ( Owned by Lucy Buffett for the past 17 years, Lulu’s is know for its laid-back approach to food, live music and a beach vibe that won’t disappoint fans of Lucy’s legendary singer-songwriter brother Jimmy Buffett. Clearly the coconut doesn’t fall far from the tree, as entering Lulu’s feels like entering the lyrics of Mr. Buffett’s infamous song “Margaritaville.”


If you favor a wine glass over a beer stein, then I recommend heading west to Healdsburg, Calif. (, nestled in the rolling hills of Sonoma Valley. My trip to this treasured nugget was met by splendor and surprise — from the beauty of the rolling vineyards to the quaint charm of the central downtown plaza.

During my visit to wine country, I stayed at the historic Healdsburg Bed and Breakfast — Honor Mansion ( My daily challenge was motivating my self to leave this amazingly appointed property, set in a postcard-perfect setting. Honor Mansion is an intimate hotel with 13 unique, luxurious rooms and modern cottages spread over a 4-acre property. The property’s amenities include a lap pool, competition croquet, PGA putting green, tennis, spa services, and basketball and bocce ball courts.

Before you begin the day exploring the vineyards and the charming town of Healdsburg, spend the morning at SHED, a Modern Grange ( SHED is, not surprisingly, a 2014 James Beard award winner for restaurant design. The sleek, clean, fresh lines of the space create a relaxed and peaceful environment to begin your day. SHED is part market and part café, providing guests the opportunity to experience dishes prepared with hyper-local ingredients. I couldn’t resist preparing for a day of wine tastings by indulging in the “stick to your ribs” heirloom-grain Belgian waffle with maple syrup and a slab of applewood smoked bacon.

Thus fortified, I was ready to take on what Sonoma Valley and Healdsburg is best known for – the vineyards. My travel companions and I decided to combine a bit of exercise with the pending decadence. We ventured to Wine Country Bikes ( to rent bikes for a day of exploring the vineyards by peddle.

We visited four wineries including Martorana Family Winery, which was like crawling into a charming medieval cave. The day’s itinerary included a wine tasting and picnic lunch at Dry Creek Vineyards, where a casual “vines to wines” discussion took place with the growers.

The biking was all good in theory, but the return trip was challenging and ultimately exhausting after a day of “raising a glass” in the valleys of Healdsburg.

Desinations Southeast Southwest Travel Writing United States West

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