Culinary Classics in LA

On a recent vacation to Southern California, my wife and two children and I explored Los Angeles. I’m not impartial when it comes to “LA.” While many think of the City of Angles as just an endless spider web of gridlocked freeways, I love everything about it: the arts, the culture and, especially, the food. Los Angeles is a true melting pot of the world’s cultures. Where else can you find such neighborhoods as “Little Ethiopia,” “Little Armenia,” “Koreatown,” and “Little Tokyo?” This recent trip included visits to two new favorites: Canter’s Delicatessen and Clifton’s Cafeteria.

Canter’s is located on Fairfax Avenue near Hollywood and is one of several “24-hour” deli’s spread among the neighborhoods of LA. Opened in 1931, Canter’s is one of the only delis in the US that brines its own pickles in house every morning. It’s most famous for its signature sandwich “The Fairfax,” piled high with pastrami and corned beef. During a late dinner, we dove into sandwiches, matzo ball soup, and fresh made desserts. Next door in the lounge, the sounds of a jazz trio wafted into the restaurant and complemented the already friendly atmosphere. Really, jazz and corned beef…what could be better than that? Look for a stop at Canter’s on an upcoming Sports Leisure Vacations tour.

Clifton’s Cafeteria is located on Broadway, just east of the core of downtown LA. Long before Rainforest Cafes, Hard Rock Cafes, and other themed-based restaurants, there were Clifton’s Cafeterias, each with its own theme. Clifton’s coincidentally also opened in 1931. Downstairs there are a few tables surrounded by a mountain atmosphere including a moose, redwood trees that cover the steel columns of the dining room, and a 20-foot waterfall that becomes a meandering stream on the main floor. Tiered seating leads you to the second level including a bridge over that waterfall. On the third level, a large dining room holds the display cases containing many pieces of history including mementoes of a sister restaurant, Clifton’s Pacific Seas, which had a tropical setting, and closed in 1960.

One of the unique items I saw in a showcase upstairs was a small personal-sized pewter teapot next to a letter recently written by a woman who had passed through LA on her honeymoon in 1945. The woman described eating at Clifton’s as her husband was preparing to return to the Pacific Theater during the war. She told him how much she loved the teapot. After they left the restaurant he pulled out the teapot, which he swiped when no one was looking, from underneath his coat and presented it to his wife as a wedding gift. Years passed and the teapot from Clifton’s remained a cherished part of the couple’s teapot collection. After her husband passed away about a year ago, she decided to return the teapot to Clifton’s. She closed the letter with a final sentence asking if her husband was forgiven!

Clifton’s is indeed a true “cafeteria-style” restaurant that requires you to take a tray through the selection of 100 items available daily. Might be a fun lunch stop while on tour in LA someday soon, or a place to take friends next time you are in southern California.

Ashland or Bust, Our 2010 Christmas destination is born…

I love it when people say to me, “How in the world did you find this place?”  It’s like earning a merit badge or a military stripe; a verbal accommodation for a job well done.  Tours don’t just happen.  They don’t create themselves.  Of course, we attend conventions to learn about destinations and meet the suppliers we later hire to provide components for your vacation experiences.  We study brochures, guidebooks, visitors’ guides and pour over countless websites to learn as much as we can and limit the vast field of choices to what looks to be the best of the best.  But even then, we aren’t quite ready to start soliciting contracts.

No, there’s one important component that’s still missing: Personal experience.  Here in Sports Leisureland, nary a multi-day tour hits the road without the planner or escort (usually one in the same) going out on a “dry run” to personally inspect the hotels, restaurants and attractions that will be a part of the itinerary.

We call these scouting trips, but they are far from being a vacation.  On the average scouting trip, we might visit 15 restaurants, ten hotels and five attractions in a single day to find the one or two that offer the best combination of value, hospitality, location, historical significance, beauty and/or local flavor.  These trips are not inexpensive in terms of staff time, nor actual hard costs.  Whether we drive or fly, transportation is going to be a significant line item.  In many cases we could work with our friends at the local convention and visitors bureau to “beg” a hotel and meals, but we usually elect not to do this.  We don’t want to feel obligated to use one supplier if another proves to have a better offering.

Now you know why Sports Leisure staff members are such fiends for earning air, hotel and credit card points.  We don’t use them for personal holidays in Bermuda!  More often than not, we cash them in to defray travel expenses on scouting trips.

So I just spent a long weekend scouting trip in Jackson County, Oregon, visiting the lovely communities of Ashland, Medford and Jacksonville.  “Wait just a second,” you may rightfully say, “Sports Leisure visits this area many times each year.  What about tours to the Shakespearian Festival, Crater Lake and Klamath Falls?  Surely you guys must already know it all.  And hey, aren’t you the East Coast guy?”  Good questions!

And of course, I have answers.  Because of my willingness to travel on the happiest and holiest holiday of the year—Christmas—and because these tours tend to be shorter and stay a little closer to home, I have to reevaluate destinations like Jackson County.  We all know it’s a great place to visit in the spring, summer and fall, but is it a solid destination at Christmas time?  Will it be beautifully decorated?  Will there be restaurants open to feed us?  Will there be attractions and entertainment venues wanting our business?  The very best destinations at other times of the year might be terrible at Christmas if too many suppliers close their doors.

Scouting trips for Christmas tours simply have to be done during the holiday season so that we get an accurate feel this year for what the town will hopefully look like next year.  Thus, this weekend has me in the Ashland area, whilst Mark is in . . . oops, I almost let the cat out of the bag.  Mark’s out scouting next year’s “Christmas Lights Mystery Tour.”  And may I say it’s going to be much closer to home than this year’s Massachusetts and Rhode Island trip, but chunk-full of the wonderful holiday experiences you’ve come to expect on this annual vacation.

Mark and I have been lucky this weekend.  Our travels have not been in vain.  Both destinations are picture perfect around the holidays (except I can’t tell you his).  Ashland and Jacksonville are breathtakingly beautiful, bathed in an ocean of twinkling lights and other holiday offerings from theatre to food.  And in Medford, we’ll enjoy a particularly flavorful Christmas treat, thanks to the hospitality of my friend Leigh Johnson, vice president of Harry & David, fruit and candy purveyors extraordinaire.  If there’s anything better than one of their Royal Riviera pears, I want to taste it!  Unless, of course, it’s their signature popcorn confection called Moose Munch, flavored with dried cranberries and gingerbread this time of year.  So much to savor.  So little time!

And so it goes.  I’ve toured and eaten my way through yet another wonderful destination.  Will it work as our over-Christmas-Day trip for 2010?  You betcha!  And I just spoke to Mark.  He reports that his scouting trip is proving to be a wonderful success; his destination unknown will host the best Christmas mystery tour ever next year.  For us, it’s just another day at the office (so to speak); another day of making your travel dreams come true.  We wouldn’t have it any other way!

A 12 Week Travel Odyssey Comes to a Glorious Conclusion; or, scratch one from “The Bucket List”

Back on September the 12th, I embarked on a tour to the Oregon Coast, highlighting the picturesque lighthouses and the wonderful seaside village of Newport.  I knew at the time, just from looking at the calendar, that the next 12 weeks were going to be busy.  They were.  Now that a pause in traveling has allowed time to reflect on the last three months, all I can say is, “wow.”  Here’s a recap…

From Oregon I made a quick trip to Kansas City to see my father, who is battling cancer.  Then back to Sacramento and off on a scouting trip to make final arrangements for our Paths of the Presidents tour and to explore some possible additions to The Lincoln Highway – Part II, slated for next summer.  Next was another scouting trip, this time for our Route 66 adventure next fall, finishing with a day of business meetings in Chicago.  After a day in the office, it was back on a plane, this time escorting the trip to visit the presidential libraries.  What a wonderful group we had and we learned much about our great country and our past leaders.

Back to KC to watch the first game of the World Series with dad on TV before taking off with our Real Hawaii group the first ten days of November.  It was an incredible trip and I hope you’ll consider joining us on this remarkable adventure when it is offered again in November of 2010 and 2011.  The night after I returned from Hawaii, I was back at the airport, flying to Klamath Falls to join a busload of Oregon tourism folks headed for the annual National Tour Association convention in Reno.  Since we do so much business in Oregon, it was a great chance to get some new ideas for next summer…and I did!  Watch for Organic Oregon, Just Newport and Mark’s Berry Special Weekend to be added to the schedule soon.  We also found the perfect destination for our annual Christmas Lights Mystery Tour in December of next year.  Not in Oregon though…

After six days of appointments and networking with our peers, it was back to Sacramento to pick up 34 travelers for our annual Thanksgiving in New York tour.  Awesome, as always, and the weather was kind to us.  We were even in the “audience” for The Early Show one morning.  (Yes, outside in the cold in the early morning, waving at the camera.)  From Reno, there was a speaking engagement in West Hollywood, then home again for a night in my own bed before more business meetings in Portland, Dec. 1-4.  Back to Sactown and off the next morning on the Mystery Tour, which took us to the Berkshires, the mansions of Newport and finally, to a spectacular Christmas with the Boston Pops concert on Friday night.

So now, high over the Sierra Nevada mountains, as we descend into Sacramento, there is a moment to look back on what might have been the busiest three months I can ever remember.  Two scouting trips, two business conventions, two visits to dad, Tour Director for four trips and a couple of speeches to tourism groups.  Not one cold, no H1N1 flu, no serious airline delays.  (I think I probably washed my hands at least 10 times a day.)  I estimate about 55,000 miles in total.  As Yakov Smirnoff likes to say, “What a country.”  From Honolulu to New York City, it was a grand adventure.

Five days home, then off to scout next year’s Christmas Lights Mystery tour. Christmas with dad and then (don’t tell anyone), a ten day vacation.  Not complaining, just sharing.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  It’s an incredible way to enjoy life’s journey.

So what does a man who takes people on vacation for a living do when he gets some down time?  He’s on the lookout for more great places to take you to, of course.

My special thanks to Ryan Quinn, who created this wonderful new web site, and served as a traveling companion for much of the last 12 weeks, as he learned about what makes this unique company tick, so he can take us gently down the technology road.  Thanks to my staff, who did all the work I wasn’t around to do.  And thanks to you, for reading this missive, for supporting Sports Leisure through the years, and for your friendship.  It’s been a great ride.  But maybe we could spread it out a little next time.  And so it goes…

My Very First Mystery Tour

“One of the best Christmas mystery tours of all time,” said Mark at this years annual Sports Leisure Preview Day in Sacramento.  While I can’t vouch for that – this was my very first mystery tour with the company – I can say that it was without a doubt a memorable and worthy contender.

Our trip started with a light snow fall in the postcard-perfect town of Stockbridge, MA; the setting of one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous winter scenes.  With the exception of a few name changes and new paint jobs, the town is identical to Rockwell’s original interpretation.

Luxurious house tours, summer “cottages” in Newport (which rival any palace I’ve ever stepped foot in), incredible meals in unique locations (Prime rib over an open fire with live entertainment anyone?), and a stunning holiday performance by the Boston Pops make this itinerary a real gem.

This isn’t to say it was perfect, look for next year’s itinerary to be a day shorter with a little bit less food and a smoother pace to each day.  With a little refinement, we know this will prove to be a trip that is a part of the tour calendar year after year.

The Berkshires, Newport Beach and “Holiday Pops” performed by the legendary Boston Pops Orchestra; you really couldn’t ask for a better Christmas time excursion!

Below is a quick slideshow of our trip.  Enjoy!

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