About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.

Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

5 Top Boutique & Ever So Delicious Ice Cream Shops Across America

November 26, 2014 by  


ice cream

To most people, any ice cream qualifies as a tasty treat, but to the ice cream connoisseur, such an unexamined belief and practice is tantamount to blasphemy. Artisanal ice cream is usually made in smaller, more closely watched and cared-for batches, with higher quality ingredients that come from local farms — a detail that adds to the economic vibrancy and sustainability of the region from which the ice cream, its makers, and its eaters hail.

Most importantly, however, artisanal ice cream tastes much better than the mass-produced, commercially-prepared kind, with a flavor, texture and appearance that can rival art. If you love ice cream enough to only eat the best, here are six artisanal ice cream shops you need to take the time to visit.

1. Ample Hills Creamery, Brooklyn, NY

Started by a man who used to write for the Syfy channel, this Brooklyn-based ice cream shop began its life as a humble food cart. These days, Ample Hills Creamery has three Brooklyn locations in addition to a couple of carts, and their made-from-scratch ice cream is selling like hotcakes. Using only milk and eggs from local, hormone-free, grass-fed cows and chickens, respectively, Ample Hills Creamery’s ice cream is crafted in small, painstaking batches that yield exceptional flavor. Try the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake or the Mexican Hot Chocolate — a dark chocolate ice cream flavored with Saigon cinnamon and chili flakes. Visiting Ample Hills Creamery is a must for any ice cream connoisseur, even if it means flying out to New York to do so.

2. Bi-Rite Creamery, San Francisco, CA

While it’s been open less than 10 years, Bi-Rite Creamery has already attained cult status in San Francisco, and it’s hard not to agree with how deserving they are. They stick to using Straus Family Creamery dairy exclusively, which guarantees their ice cream bases are local, fresh and delicious. They also have amazing baked goods that make it into their ice cream from time to time or that can be purchased separately if your sweet tooth needs something other than a frozen delicacy. Try the Honey Lavender, and by all means, the next time you have a party, get one of their ice cream cakes for the occasion.

3. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Columbus, OH

When you ponder where great ice cream can be found, it’s probably not Columbus, Ohio that pops into your mind, but Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams just may change that. Local ingredients like sweet corn, cherries, blueberries and goat cheese are combined in some of the creamiest, most flavorful ice creams that have ever existed. There’s almost always a line out the door — even in the dead of winter — because their ice cream is so exceptional. With sorbet and frozen yogurt available, too, you’ll swoon even if you’re watching your calorie intake or avoiding dairy. Try the Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk or the Sweet Potato With Torched Marshmallows.

ice cream

Photo courtesy of graletta via Shutterstock

Craft ice cream that’s made in small batches in the heart of horse and bourbon country, Crank and Boom got its start when the daughter of Thai immigrants, but who was born in Lexington, wanted to replicate the coconut ice cream she loved to eat when visiting Thailand. Committed to sustainable ingredients and the local food economy, this handcrafted ice cream is deceptively simple. Sold at the Lexington Farmer’s Market, the Berea Farmer’s Market and a handful of fine, local restaurants and grocery stores, if you get a chance to try some Crank and Boom, go for the Kentucky Blackberry and Buttermilk.

5. Pumphouse Creamery, Minneapolis, MN

Pumphouse Creamery buys everything it uses from local sources from the grains in their waffle cones to the dairy and eggs in their ice cream base. In addition to their commitment to locally sourcing their ingredients, their milk and cream are also organic. They’re also one of the few artisanal ice cream makers who provide an ice cream option for dogs. While known for their unusual flavors, the Rum Raisin — as quaint as it sounds — is especially heavenly.

Useful Guide for Travelers: How Safe is Iran Really?

November 26, 2014 by  


Nasir-al-Molk mosque in Shiraz

Nasir-al-Molk mosque in Shiraz

Think you can’t travel to Iran? I chatted with Shara Johnson, who recently returned from a trip through the country. For those interested in going themselves — or just curious about what the experience is actually like and want an answer to the question, ” Is Iran Safe ?” — Shara provides stories, essential tips and safety information for traveling through Iran based on her own experience.

1. Iran isn’t a destination you hear many travelers talking about. What made you decide to go there and what type of traveler do you think would enjoy going to Iran?

I’ve actually always been interested in that region of the world because of my interest in ancient history. In more recent years, I also have taken more interest in architecture. Those two things were primarily what drew me there.

The political climate back in February 2014 when I booked our trip seemed the best in decades, so I decided it was time to go. Frankly, I can’t imagine excluding any type of traveler from enjoying this country. You can travel on a budget or in a more luxury fashion; you can travel independently (if you’re not American) or with a group; the architecture is spectacular; if you like shopping, the bazaars are a delight; the citizens are incredibly friendly – Iranian hospitality is renowned; you can visit ancient cultures like the nomads or modern cities like Shiraz and Isfahan. These activities are combined with that fact Iran is a large country with widely varying ecosystems from the ocean to the mountains, deserts to lush forests.

I think the only requirement is that you leave any fears behind — because they are unwarranted — and clear your mind of preconceptions, because they will only be disproved. If you can do this, you’re the type of traveler who would enjoy Iran. We actually saw tons of European travelers, so I think this applies more to Americans than to anyone else.

Eating hardened sheep yogurt balls with the Qashqaei nomads

Eating hardened sheep yogurt balls with the Qashqaei nomads

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Iran, what do you recommend?

Well, naturally a tea house would be on the agenda, especially one with live traditional music — the locals will be clapping their hands and singing along. Iranians are champion tea drinkers and picnickers. So pack a thermos of tea and head out for a picnic! You should try a hooka — flavored tobacco to smoke — as well.

The real “culture” of Iran is the Persian culture. Some people don’t realize Iranians are not Arabs, they’re Persians who were conquered by the Arabs in the 700s. So perhaps visiting some traditional cultures is my best recommendation. For example, we spent a night with a nomadic family in the Zagros Mountains. We just hung out with them in their camp — and drank lots of tea, of course. They fixed us dinner and we ate with them. It wasn’t a real touristy thing — no special tents set up for visitors or any kind of practiced demonstrations or whatnot. Our guide called them up on his cell phone (yes, everyone on the planet has cell phone … except me) and asked if they were stationed at one of their camps. We got in a jeep and drove there, set up a regular two-man camping tent for ourselves on a flat grassy spot, and just shot the breeze around their campfire for most of the evening. Other old villages such as Abyaneh give you a glimpse at pre-Arab culture as well.

3. For someone wanting a traditional meal in Iran, what would you recommend they try?

The obvious answer is kabobs and tea. Lamb and chicken kabobs with gobs of saffron rice and naan-type bread are really the mainstays. Eggplant (aubergine) is a very common dish, usually in some kind of stew or broth. And if you really want to be Iranian, you will eat a raw onion with your meal. Not onion slices, but an actual whole onion – bite into it like an apple. And have a plate of raw basil or other herbs, this is very common. I made little basil sandwiches by just folding over a piece of naan and stuffing in the leaves.

4. For those wanting to partake in some adventure, what’s something in Iran they can do?

There are things like hiking, climbing and mountaineering as well as some ski resorts. I know that you can take horse-riding tours and travel for weeks through the country on horseback. Whitewater rafting is a pretty new adventure activity in Iran, so you could be one of the first people to do something like that. The most adventurous thing we did was camping with the nomads, as explained above in Question #2. Not exactly adrenaline-pumping, but definitely culturally adventurous and it did require sleeping on a very hard ground in a small tent.

The bazaar during siesta in Isfahan

The bazaar during siesta in Isfahan

5. What tip(s) would you give backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to Iran?

I can’t speak to this very well since we had a relatively luxurious trip, as it’s the only kind of trip an American is allowed to have, staying in 3- and 4- star hotels, which were, incidentally, a very good value for the money. For anyone who is not American (see Question #10 for USA restrictions), I can tell you there is a huge Couchsurfing community thriving in Iran.

Generally, items you buy in the bazaar are cheaper than in a shopping mall, so if you want clothes or other practical items — and of course souvenirs — go to the bazaars.

6. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, what’s one etiquette rule they should remember to avoid offending locals in Iran?

Women have to be the most careful. For example, if your head scarf falls off or you’re walking around bare-headed – this can really upset some people. And follow the other dress codes of long sleeves and a shirt length that covers your butt. Don’t offer your hand to a man to shake it — only if he extends his first. Most men working in tourist areas are perfectly comfortable interacting with women in a Western fashion. But other people on the street may not be.
For both sexes, don’t give a thumbs-up sign with your hand; it means the same as the middle finger does in America. Though, if a foreigner puts their thumb up, Iranians do seem to understand we are just ignorant of what it means.

Caravansary turned into a hotel, the “rooms” consist of a raised bed behind each curtain.

Caravansary turned into a hotel, the “rooms” consist of a raised bed behind each curtain.

7. Are there any local accommodations you would recommend in Iran that reflect the local culture or have a lot of character?

You can stay in old caravansaries — places where people, mostly merchants and traders, in antiquity stopped for food and accommodation. These will most likely be outside of cities kind of in the middle of nowhere along the ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road. But they’re quite an authentic experience of historical culture.

Other cool accommodations are old homes of the elite converted into hotels. Yazd has several of these. This is a growing trend throughout Iran — as tourism increases they are running out of hotel space — and especially in smaller cities, they’re taking advantage of these old homes to convert them into hotels because they typically have many rooms and courtyards.

 Friday Mosque in Isfahan

Friday Mosque in Isfahan

8. What cities or regions in Iran would you recommend travelers to spend the most time in?

I can only speak of the central corridor of Iran, which is the main tourist circuit for anyone with limited time. We had only 15 days, so we stuck to that route. Of those cities, I would most recommend Yazd and Isfahan.

Yazd is a city that has really preserved Persian tradition and innovation – it contains probably the best illustrations of Persian ingenuity when it comes to learning how to live comfortably in the desert (ancient cooling technologies, etc), as well as artifacts of the Zoastrian religion, the original religion of the Persians. Today it is kept alive by only a small number of people — about 20,000 — and a flame that has been burning for 700 years! In Yazd, they even practice a form of traditional athletics used to train for sword fighting.

Isfahan is a beautiful city brimming with splendid architecture in its wealth of mosques and former palaces (Isfahan was once the capital of Iran). Its bazaar is also amazing and huge – so many side alleys and courtyards. There’s an Armenian quarter which has a lovely Christian church in it. One of my favorite activities was walking along the bridges at night, where locals sing underneath them. We stayed in Isfahan four days and nights. If you enjoy architecture and interior design, this is definitely a city for you.

The main ceremonial entryway to Persepolis

The main ceremonial entryway to Persepolis

9. For history buffs visiting Iran, what’s a recommended experience?

Oh boy, there’s a lot of good stuff. The piece de resistance, though, is certainly Persepolis — the ceremonial city of the ancient Persian empire, built in the 500s BC. Also check out the nearby associated necropolis. The Tomb of Cyrus the Great is also located near there. He was the founder of the Persian empire and probably the single most revered historical figure by all Iranians, who are immensely proud of their long cultural heritage.


The ancient mud-walled citadel of Rayen, near Kerman

10. What are some things travelers need to think about BEFORE leaving their home country for Iran?

Most importantly, Iran is a cash-only society. Owing to international sanctions, they can’t have associations with foreign banks and credit companies. So as a foreigner, you cannot access your personal funds from within Iran. You have to carry with you in cash enough money for all your foreseeable travel expenses. Fortunately, things like mugging, pickpocketing and robbery are rare, which helps ease a little of the anxiety of carrying around so much cash. Your ATM card will be utterly useless, your credit card will be useful only if you wish to buy a Persian carpet from a relatively large dealer, which will run you several hundred to several thousand dollars (they process payments through Dubai).

For Americans only, know that you need a minimum of two months and up to two-and-a-half months to obtain your visa. It takes 45-60 days to get an approval number, then you have to mail your passport in to the Pakistan Embassy. You must have your flight booked before applying for the visa. Also, Americans can’t travel alone — they must travel with a tour group or with a private guide. You will have to give the name of the tour agency or guide that you are using when you apply for your visa, and it’s best to simply let the agency handle the application on your behalf. Don’t try to skirt this restriction. Even if you somehow manage to lie your way into the country, it’s actually illegal for Iranians to host Americans in their private homes (which is why Couchsurfing is impossible) and you could get your host into trouble. My husband and I hired a private guide through an Iranian agency and it turned out to be an awesome experience. Our guide was stellar and really made the trip for us.

Peacock dome inside the Imam Mosque in Isfahan.

Peacock dome inside the Imam Mosque in Isfahan

11. Were there any instances during your trip to Iran where you felt unsafe?

Yes! Every time I crossed a street in a city. The traffic is terrifying to a pedestrian. At first I thought I was just getting old and losing my nerve. I’ve crossed many crazy streets in other foreign countries. But then I read other guidebooks and websites that say traffic is the biggest danger to tourists.

Driving on the highways was scary sometimes, too; twice we were almost run off the road by big trucks who didn’t see our little car. Everyone drives in the dead-middle of a road with two lanes. White lines painted on pavement are utterly pointless in Iran.

However, other than around vehicles, no, I never once felt remotely unsafe in any way. So, is Iran safe ? You won’t meet people any more friendly than Iranians. They were even extra friendly if they found out we were American – they were so pleased that we weren’t afraid of them and were visiting their country.

12. For solo travelers heading to Iran what advice would you give? How can they stay safe?

I don’t really see any safety problems for solo travelers. As I said, things like theft are rare, and the locals are ridiculously hospitable. In the major cities tourists are everywhere, so it’s not like you would stick out in any way as being alone. You can’t really rent a car, so you either have to use public transportation or hire a guide to drive you. Public transportation is very cheap, even domestic airfare.

Mirrored porch at Narenjestan in Shiraz

Mirrored porch at Narenjestan in Shiraz

13. What are some misconceptions Westerners have about Iran?

Well, I think probably a whole book could be written on this topic. I don’t even know where to begin or end. One thing about having such a knowledgeable and fluent English-speaking guide for 15 days with whom we got along so well (just luck that we were so compatible with one another) is that he invited us to hang out with his friends and family, so we got pretty unparalleled insights (for foreigners) into the private lives of the average 20- and 30-year old citizen.

Our guide, and therefore his friends, trusted us enough to talk very frankly about their personal lives. The thing is, Iranians must lead double lives – the public life, which is visible to government authorities who can dish out really unpleasant punishment if you aren’t a good and devoted Muslim abiding the ayatollah’s creeds, and the private life, which unfortunately, I can’t really discuss here (nor on my own blog). It’s prudent that I don’t reveal what all we did and talked about out of concern for the safety of those we met.

Just consider one very public example of the conflicting behaviors and ideologies in Iran: the ayatollah is the supreme leader, he is the dictator of religious edicts which take precedence over all other forms of law; he has outlawed all social media in Iran. But not only do practically all the younger citizens have social media accounts anyway, through proxies, the democratically-elected president of the country has a Twitter account and Tweets to an international audience. The revolutionary guard is the ayatollah’s military arm, but everyone we spoke with said they consider the revolutionary guard an embarrassment and wish they would go away. They said it is full of uneducated zealots (most people used more derogatory terms than “uneducated”).

People we just met on the streets, who came up to us as Westerners and asked where we were from, were so pleased we were visiting from America, and asked us, “Why does America hate us?” Or they would say, “See, we’re not such terrible people!” They were genuinely hurt that Americans think so poorly of them. One of our guide’s friends asked me, “Why do Americans think we are all such mindless religious radicals?.” You can imagine the long discussion that ensued. Young Iranians clamor after Western goods and entertainment as much as anyone. They can’t get a lot of it because of the sanctions, but they are very creative in finding ways around both sanctions and laws. There is a healthy black market for a number of illegal material items. Many people have also learned how to procure and hide illegal satellite dishes on their homes.

I think many Americans picture Iranians at home building bombs, plotting attacks and chanting “Death to America” while they pour their tea. The average Iranian comes home from work, changes into more comfortable clothes (women often shedding head scarves and chadors), pops on the TV – likely tuned to an illegally accessed American sitcom — checks their illegal social media accounts, and maybe reads some Persian poetry. Or goes on a picnic with friends.

Also because so very little actual information about the country and its citizens is broadcast or written in the West, we’re all still stuck in 1979 when Iranians took Americans hostage. That was a unique time of upheaval, the beginning of the revolution. A revolution that most citizens had no idea would lead to the current state of affairs, they were simply eager to overthrow the king (shah), and the ayatollah and his minions moved in and clutched the country in an iron fist before the rational people could really blink and grasp what was happening. Post-revolution Iran is like Maoist China and Soviet Russia. If the ayatollah were to be overthrown now, the majority of the population would breathe a sigh of relief. But nobody can say that in public. I recommend reading the book, “The Cypress Tree,” by Kamin Mohammadi for an insight into how the revolution affected many of the normal citizens and stripped away their freedoms.

Standing in front of the tomb of Cyrus the Great

Standing in front of the tomb of Cyrus the Great

*All photos courtesy of Shara Johnson

Have you traveled to Iran? Are you planning a trip to Iran? Please share in the comments below.

Contributed by Shara Johnson 


Learn How To Be A Responsible Traveler: Top Blogs That Share Best Practices

November 25, 2014 by  



responsible travel

Few things in life are more exciting and rewarding than international travel. Travel opens you up to new people, new environments, new cultures and new experiences. But having an authentic travel experience doesn’t mean you have to leave a massive footprint.

Many don’t think about their impact on the spaces around them when they are on the other side of the world, but there are some wonderful resources out there that can help you to be a mindful, ethical and responsible traveler.

The following are ten of the best blogs for traveling ethically:

The responsible traveler logo

1. The Responsible Traveler

The Responsible Traveler doesn’t just boast a beautiful site design and the perfect name; this blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of travel, be it in a city guide, a feature on eco-tourism or a piece on international volunteering.

2. World Travel Market

The World Travel Market is a giant annual UK event for tourists, travelers and expats alike. But their most accessible contribution to ethical travel is their responsible tourism blog, which is filled with advice and apps to put your responsible outlook into practice.

Borders of adventure logo

3. Borders of Adventure

The lovely Borders of Adventure (formally Backpacker Becki) offers a treasure trove of articles on all manner of travel destinations. What makes the site unique, however, is the travel genres section, which gathers together articles on “adventure”, “borderlines”, “cultural insights” and “changing perceptions” and promotes mindful and authentic approaches to visiting new places.

The Culture-ist logo

4. The Culture-ist

The Culture-ist is largely a travel website, with a range of articles exploring every continent. But what differentiates the Culture-ist from so many other travel blogs is its interest in cultural awareness, humanitarian issues and gender equality across the world.

The Travel Word logo

5. The Travel Word

Responsible travel is at the heart of The Travel Word, a site filled with advice on how to see the world while consuming and traveling sustainably and locally. In fact, they have an entire responsible travel section that can help keep you on track.


6. The Planet D

The Planet D offers a wide range of travel advice, from facing your fears to embracing adventure travel experiences, but their helping communities subsection in particular is valuable to any responsible traveler.


7. Green Global Travel

As the name suggests, Green Global Travel’s specific mission is to promote sustainable, green practices while traveling the world. Their Green Tips are particularly useful for learning to minimize your travel footprint.


8. The Everywhereist

The Everywhereist, Geraldine, has traveled all over the world and her witty, humorous style brings her experiences to life. The advice category in particular can help you with travel tips and planning.


9. D’ Travels ‘Round

Diana at D’ Travels ‘Round runs a lovely site dedicated to travel tips and responsible tourism. Be sure to check if she has written a city guide for your destination and read through her packing and flying tips.


10. National Geographic Adventure Blog

Part of the famous National Geographic brand, this adventure-focused blog recounts the world’s most thrilling trips, typically in an the most ethical fashion possible.

Contributed By Gemma King

Top photo credit: Photo courtesy of Dudarev Mikhail via Shutterstock.


Southern Californian Restaurants For Your Foodie Bucket List

November 25, 2014 by  


restaurants in southern california

There are many reasons people choose to visit a certain destination. If you’re heading to Southern California, make it the food. A recent delicious road trip allowed me to savor some of the best restaurants of the megaregion, all focused on using local ingredients to make unique high-quality dishes. To help you plan a delicious trip, here is a guide to creative and sustainable restaurants in Southern California, worth the trip alone.

restaurants in california

Photo courtesy of Vessel Restaurant

1. Vessel Restaurant, San Diego

Located within the Kona Kai Resort & Marina, Vessel Restaurant just had a facelift in summer of 2014. The once tiny bar now offers an expansive space that pays homage to maritime culture with distressed wood and sea glass accents, sailboat photos, moving images of local landscapes, bay views from their balcony and a blue-hued ceiling opening above the bar that gives diners the feeling they are underwater (at least, I felt that way). The menu is New American, with lots of coastal influence, from lobster sliders with fried jalapenos to fresh catch to seared diver scallops served with sweet corn succotash and bacon vinaigrette. Both land and sea offerings typically come with creative twists, and are beautifully presented.

Vessel Restaurant offers daily specials and events to look forward to, like live music brunch and a Blood Mary bar on Sundays, an extended happy hour from 5 to 8pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, and a discounts on wines and BYOB opportunities on Wednesdays.

Recommended Eats: Start with a fresh Arugula Salad topped with contrasting yet complimentary elements like pungent Gorgonzola, sweet candied walnuts and fresh pears, before moving on to a hearty Linguine Bolognese (they don’t skimp on the meat in the sauce!) or the cooked-to-perfection Atlantic Salmon with seared fennel and pea tendrils. Save room for dessert — their sea salt-topped ganache served with toast is rich and satisfying. If you enjoy craft cocktails, their “Anti-Oxidant Mojito” is packed with health — and flavor — with Appleton Rum, lime, raspberries, blueberries, pomegranate juice and mint leaves.

restaurants in southern california

A taste of Cheeky’s. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

2. Cheeky’s, Palm Springs

Bacon flight, anyone? This is the type of innovative offering you’ll find at Cheeky’s, a breakfast and lunch hot spot in Palm Springs’ Design District. The menu aims to take ideas from all over the world and create dishes using local and organic ingredients that have never been done before. On one menu you may find Israeli couscous, Chinese chicken, salad and Spanish tuna, along with American classics like a pulled pork sandwich (with apple cider coleslaw), a grilled chicken sandwich (topped with avocado, argula, pesto and fontina) and a BLT (with jalapeno bacon and pesto fries).

This is one of the most popular restaurants in Southern California, so just make sure to bring a book or game to occupy yourself while you wait for a table. You can also head over to Birba next door — owned by the same people — for a beer in the meantime.

Recommended Eats: The menu changes weekly, although there are certain items that are delicious that can always be savored. Start with a bacon flight, with rotating flavors like Korean BBQ, Lychee and Apple Cinnamon, before moving onto the chorizo-stuffed chilaquiles or a buttermilk and fresh corn pancake with bacon and blueberries. End the meal with a home-made cinnamon roll (if there are any left, as they’re a best seller and only 48 are made per day!).

restaurants in southern california

A taste of Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

3. Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe, Palm Desert

Everything at Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe is made-from-scratch, and you can taste it in every scrumptious bite. I recommend visiting during brunch — served on both weekdays and weekends — when you can enjoy grandmother approved-style comfort foods done in a farm-to-fork fashion in a cozy urban farm space. In fact, the recipes are based on dishes made by owner Kelly McFall’s own grandmothers, named Wilma and Frieda, but with a modern twist added in, bringing nostalgia into the present. Don’t deny yourself the chance to browse their homemade bakery counter, with decadent treats like cheesecake brownie, caramel pecan pie, apple and sour cream cobbler and peanut butter cookie sandwich. If the weather is nice, enjoy your meal on their outdoor patio and soak in the relaxed yet upscale ambiance of the area, known as the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert.”

Recommended Eats: If you’re in the mood for sweet, the Marion Blackberry Vanilla Custard French Toast is more like bread-pudding with accents of dark fruits. For something savory, the griddled meatloaf and eggs or Mark’s Short Ribs Egg Benedict atop homemade homemade English muffins are both standouts.

restaurants in southern california

A taste of E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery. Photos courtesy of E.A.T.

4. E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery, Temecula

Farm-to-table fanatics will be in heaven at E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery, which oozes organic, healthy, locally-sourced, raw, bio-dynamic gluten-free and vegan in every nook and cranny. Founder and Executive Chef Leah DiBernardo loves supporting local and sustainable purveyors, which is immediately apparent on their seasonally-changing menu. Along with the eatery, guests can order market items to take home, sip healthy smoothies and farm-to-cup coffee (including Paleo and organic), and take classes on topics like Organic Wine, Artisan Butters, Raw Cooking and Canning.

Recommended Eats: While the menu changes seasonally, check if their bacon-infused potato salad is being offered, along with the grass-fed beef ribs braised in local Wiens Oatmeal Stout, grain mustard and fennel.

restaurants in southern california

Blue Star Lounge, attached to Rockwood Grill. Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Desert Springs.

5. Rockwood Grill, Palm Desert

Rockwood Grill, located within the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, delivers sustainable dining in a more posh atmosphere than the above-mentioned venues. All produce is sourced from California, with a major partner purveyor being Suzie’s Farms, a USDA-certified organic farm near San Diego producing over 100 crops across 70 acres (28 hectares). Both indoor and outdoor seating are available with the attachment of the Blue Star Lounge, and it’s recommended to make a reservation and ask for a table near the lake or on a plush couch around the fire pit.

Many of the dishes on the menu you’ll recognize as American classics, often with a slight twist — homemade pesto in the Di Stefano Burrata, fried calamari featuring Anaheim peppers and garlic aioli, mussels frites topped with chorizo — even the complimentary bread is served with cilantro-infused butter. Farm-to-glass cocktails and local wines and beers enhance the experience.

This is a great place to also sip a cocktail, enjoy some live music and do some people watching.

Recommended Eats: Start with a crab-laced spinach artichoke dip before moving on to a juicy Brandt Farms Ribeye topped with habanero butter sauce. End the meal with a Warm Valrhona Chocolate Lava Cake sitting under pistachio ice cream and brandied cherries.

What’s your favorite sustainable SoCal eatery? Please share in the comments below.

Top Photo courtesy of Karl Allgaeuer via Shutterstock

10 Immersive Language Learning Holidays

November 23, 2014 by  


In today’s globalized world, one of the most valuable and rewarding skills you can possess is the ability to learn languages and speak foreign tongues. Multilingualism opens you up to authentic travel experiences, new professional opportunities, greater cultural understanding and friendships with people from across the world.

Whether you’re learning your second language or your fourth, whether you want to speak a lingua franca like French or an obscure tongue like Welsh, the best way to learn a language is to be surrounded by it. The following programs not only give you a solid grounding in foreign language skills; they also immerse you in local culture and all it has to offer.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Cooperative School San Pedro.

1. Learn Spanish & Hike Volcanos In Guatemala

Situated in the stunning Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, the Cooperative School San Pedro offers far more than just Spanish language lessons. Grow your fluency in Spanish in and beyond the classroom with salsa lessons, hiking, kayaking, zip-lining and film nights, as well as lots of information on Guatemalan history. Room, meals and classes start at $160 per week.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of the Arabic Language Institute of Fez.

2. Learn Arabic With A Local Family In Fez, Morocco

Study one of the world’s most widely-used and fastest-growing languages in a vibrant Moroccan city at the Arabic Language Instite of Fez. Housed in a Moorish villa, ALIF offers a variety of Arabic language courses, paired with film screenings, Arabic calligraphy courses, Moroccan cooking classes and dancing lessons. You’ll also be lodged with a Moroccan family, an invaluable language building experience. Three-week courses start at approximately $720.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Coto Language Academy.

3. Learn Japanese In The Heart Of Tokyo

In the midst of the Japanese capital, Coto Language Academy offers one of the most reputable Japanese language courses in the country. With a strong focus on building conversation skills, Coto combines language classes with extra activities like Kabuki workshops, café conversation sessions and excursions to the Japanese countryside. Three-week intensive courses run at approximately $700.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Langua Travel.

4. Learn Spanish & Tango In Argentina

What better place to learn Spanish and Argentina’s famous dance than in the birthplace of the tango, Buenos Aires? Langua Travel’s unique course pairs intensive Spanish language lessons with four hours of tango classes per week. There are multiple accommodation options, but the most immersive is the opportunity to homestay with an Argentinian family. Suitable for all levels of Spanish and tango ability. One week of language classes, tango and accommodation costs approximately $650.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Mikadun via Shutterstock.

5. Learn Italian In The Shadow Of The Duomo In Florence

With its rich artistic, literary and political past, Florence is the ideal city in which to learn the beautiful language of Italian. Located in the heart of the stunning red-brick city, the Centro Fiorenza allows you to learn Italian not only through language, cooking and drawing lessons, but also through guided visits to Florentine museums, theaters and cinemas. There are even excursions to nearby cities and specialized classes for over forties. Basic intensive courses cost approximately $300 per week (not including accommodation).

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Photo courtesy of Milan Palko.

6. Learn French in the Latin Quarter of Paris

Affiliated with the prestigious Paris-Sorbonne university, the CCFS offers varied French language and culture courses for all levels. Classes are scattered across buildings in various parts of the beautiful Latin Quarter, and students can also take guided city tours, culture lectures (from French cinema to Parisian history) and specialized French literature courses. Intensive four-week courses are available in the summer, but the standard offering is a semester-long language course, which costs around $3000 (accommodation not included).

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Photo courtesy of CIEE.

7. Learn Russian With A Host Family In Saint Petersburg

Join the 170 million other people in the world who speak Russian by taking a course at CIEE in Saint Petersburg. You’ll be immersed into Russian language and culture through intensive language classes, a wide range of cultural excursions and living with a local Russian family. The course also offers Russian and Georgian cooking classes, museum visits and a trip to Moscow. Courses run on a term basis and sit at around $17,000, all expenses included.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Mandarin Rocks.

8. Learn Mandarin in China’s Most Populous City, Shanghai

Mandarin is the world’s most widely spoken language, with around 2 billion speakers, and therefore one of the most useful foreign languages to learn. Get a grasp of this popular and complex language while immersing yourself in the bustling culture of China’s most populous city, Shanghai. Mandarin Rocks offers a variety of Chinese language courses, as well as an immersive summer camp, workplace internship opportunities and homestay options to practise your Chinese with a Shanghai family. Two-week classes start at approximately $600.

learn languages

Photo courtesy of Nant Gwrtheyrn.

9. Learn Welsh On A Remote Retreat In Northern Wales

Welsh may not be the most widely applicable of languages to learn, but it is a fascinating, rich and complex tongue. Located in the stunning Nant Gwrtheyrn retreat, on the Llyn peninsula in Northern Wales, students can learn one of the world’s oldest languages while staying in Nant Gwrtheyrn’s quaint miners’ cottages. Sample traditional Welsh cuisine and explore the property’s period house in between language classes. Five-day courses with full board are approximately $800.

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Photo courtesy of Gemma King.

10. Learn German In Historic Berlin

Immerse yourself in the rich, artistic culture of Berlin all while mastering the language of German. Located in the trendy East Berlin area of Prenzlauer Berg, GLS offers multiple German language courses with the opportunity to stay on campus, as well as extra activities like bar and gallery crawls, Berlin walking tours and trips to other German cities like Leipzig or Potsdam. One week of standard language classes (not including accommodation) costs around $240.

 Have you studied a language immersively overseas? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

By Gemma King

5 Transformative Stays in the Land of Jordan

November 23, 2014 by  


For those traveling to Jordan, there are an array of experiential hotels that allow visitors a glimpse into local culture in an eco-friendly way. Your accommodation is one of the most influential parts of your vacation, with the potential to enhance your experience in a profound way. To help you plan your trip, here are my top suggestions based on my trip to Jordan.

jordan hotels

1. Captain’s Desert Camp

Located in Wadi Rum is Captain’s Desert Camp, an upscale camping accommodation that allows you to experience authentic Bedouin culture. Bedouins are known for being nomadic desert dwellers living in woven goat-hair tents. Campers will be able to stay in these tents immersed in the dramatic scenery of the Wadi Rum desert. Because there is no electricity, candles light pathways and rooms while food is cooked in a zarb(underground pit) in traditional Bedouin fashion.

A large pit is dug into the ground where a fire is made, with trays of meat and vegetables placed above it. From there, it is covered in foil and sand to trap in heat, leading to a juicy, flavorful meal. This ended up being one of my favorite meals in Jordan. At night, activities I enjoyed were stargazing, traditional music and dancing with Bedouins around the fire. Moreover, the camp can set you up with interactive Wadi Rum experiences, like 4x4ing through the desert, riding camels, hiking, soccer games and more.

feynan ecolodge

2. Feynan Ecologe

Located in Feynan — one of the few places in Jordan where a authentic Bedouin culture still exists — the Feynan Ecolodge is a true ecolodge located at the South Western edge of the Dana Biosphere Reserve. The property features 26 rooms and works on minimal electricity, and running without refrigeration with candles illuminating rooms and common areas and energy being provided mainly by the sun.

Moreover, the ecolodge focuses on four main areas: helping the local Bedouin community, providing guests with unique experiences, contributing to conservation and leaving a minimal carbon footprint. Along with experiencing a sustainable way of life through vegetarian cooking classes, naturalist-led walks and nightly stargazing, the lodge helps guests experience local Bedouin culture.

Some possible experiences include visiting a Bedouin tent to learn about the importance of coffee culture, learning how to weave goat hair or bake bread, taking a sunset walk, having tea with Bedouins, spending a day with a Bedouin shepherd and learning about the kohl Bedouins use around their eyes as protection from the sun. Moreover, because the hotel employs only local Bedouins you’ll have many opportunities to interact with these people.

jordan hotels

3. Evason Ma’In Hot Springs

Part of the Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, Evason Ma’In Hot Springsimmerses guests in a world of sustainability and tranquility. As soon as you walk in, you’ll be greeted with a refreshing towel and a cup of fresh hibiscus juice, before being brought to your guest room with spa music playing. Stand out on your balcony overlooking the nearby waterfalls, take a soothing shower using natural bath products, enjoy traditional meals made with organic ingredients from their onsite gardens or relax in the lobby done in neutral hues and littered with comfortable couches and swings.

The real draw to the property is its prime location next to an array of curative hot springs that promote relaxation, improve skin ailments, boost the immune system and detoxify the body — basically where I spent most of my time at the property. Continue the therapeutic experience in the spa with treatments like a Dead Sea Mud Body Wrap, Jasmine Facial, Bamboo Massage, Henna Flower Hair and Scalp Treatment, or an Olive Grove Scrub.

Additionally, other experiences include a morning hike with breakfast served at a table on the mountain, viewing wildlife at the Mujib Nature Reserve, exploring the dramatic desert wilderness of the protected Wadi Rum, visiting the Hammamat Ma’in Valley and learning about where the hot springs come from and visiting the Dead Sea — the lowest point on Earth — and floating in its curative waters which are said to relieve muscle pain and treat skin diseases.

jordan hotels

4. Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea

Located right on the Dead Sea, Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea is a (surprisingly budget-friendly!) 5-star hotel that will transport you to a world of wellbeing and balance.

The property encompasses lush gardens, boutique shops, 346 luxurious rooms, nine restaurants and bars, over 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) of pools, a beach, tennis courts, beach volleyball, a gym, Jacuzzi and a spa featuring treatments that incorporate the Dead Sea’s curative mud, salt and waters. At night, take in a traditional belly dancing show, grab an al fresco drink and smoke some shisha, or enjoy a gourmet meal with Jordanian flare.

Other experiences available to guests include floating in the Dead Sea, visiting the nearby Wadi Mujib to hike or abseil and going to the site where Jesus was baptized at Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Sidenote: It’s possible to book a room for about $108 a night depending on your travel dates — spring and summer often have cheaper hotel deals — a steal for a luxury property.

jordan hotels

5. Stay With A Local

While not a hotel, per say, those visiting Jordan are given the unique opportunity to enjoy a homestay with a local family for a firsthand glimpse of local life in the country.

*My trip to Jordan was hosted by Visit Jordan. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. As always, all opinions are my own. All photos my own.

How, Why and Where India Will Transform You…

November 22, 2014 by  


India is a land which has a rich ancient history and deep cultural roots. A visit to India is unlike any other place one can visit in the world. Indian customs and traditions have been revered by most of the travelers who have visited the country and the vast range of geographical locations in India has made it one of the top tourist destinations.  It’s also a country that can transform you in a myriad of wonderful ways, from architecture to cultural experiences to spiritual wonders.




India has been inhabited by one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back to the Neolithic period. It has been a home to ancient kingdoms and dynasties with each of their stories more interesting than the others. The ancient books written nearly thousands of years ago provide a deep look into one of the most interesting of all world cultures. Being a part of the European colonies from the 17th century India is a home to major world events and is an essential part of world history.

The Taj Mahal



India is a geographically diverse land that enjoys almost all the physical features and geographical locations, from the monolithic mountains of the Himalayas to the Golden Sands of the Thar Desert, and from the snowcapped mountains to pristine sandy beaches. States of Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala, Goa, Uttaranchal and Tamil Nadu are famous for their exciting attractions and are visited by millions of travelers from all over the world.




The country is a birthplace to few of the major world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism and is known for its vast and dynamic culture. Most tourists consider visiting India as they want to experience the various cultures and traditions which are often unique. The Indian weddings are often few of the most amazing experiences one must try out. Indian dresses like Saris, Salwar Kameez, Dhoti, Lungi and Sherwani are well renowned for their aesthetics.




India is the home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Architecture in India has evolved through countless centuries due to the influence of the various dynasties and civilizations that have flourished in the region. The various historical and archeological sites are simply marvelous and many have been recognized as world heritage sites by UNESCO. The forts, palaces and temples in India are often characterized by some of the most striking architectural designs and display the artistic prowess of the Indian kingdoms and dynasties.




India has a huge number of recipes which are native to the different regions, and most tourists are attracted to this country for its mouthwatering and flavorful dishes. Indians are generally perceived as vegetarians, and there are a huge number of artful and great tasting vegetarian dishes and curries. The arrival of the Mughals in the 16th century saw the introduction of Middle Eastern influences in Indian cooking and is majorly responsible for the amazing non-vegetarian cuisines offered here. The street food is worth trying; however, one must be careful as the food is often very oily and spicy.




India being on the forefront of world civilization is famous for its various performing arts and especially the classical Indian music. Music is an important part of the Indian society and many notable world musicians have originated from India since the ancient times. The Carnatic influence from the 13th and the 14th century AD plays a major role in shaping traditional Indian music. There are, however, various forms of folk music which display a distinctive sound and feel which is specific to their region of origination. The music is usually performed using Indian stringed and percussion instruments which further facilitates the production of a unique blend of sounds.




Indian Dance arts are few of the most complex and expressive dance forms in the world. Each that originated in India follows certain philosophies which exist in the ancient religious texts. Dance forms like Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, Kathak are a few to check out while visiting India.




India is known for its huge market places and most tourists visit the country because of the amazing shopping experience. Textiles, clothing, handicrafts from India has been widely popular in the world due to the unique design aesthetics employed in their making. Many cities like Jaipur in Rajasthan are known for their market places built inside a fortified town. The national capital of Delhi is known for its marketplaces and various handicrafts which can often be bought cheap after a little bargaining.

Festivals And Fairs



India is a home to a huge number of people who belong to a different cultural background, and the Indian calendar is full of various festivals and is famous for its elaborate and colorful fairs. The color filled festival of Holi and the vibrant and enlightening festival of Diwali are few of the most important festivals in Indian culture, and a visit to the country during these is recommended. The massive fairs like the Kumbha Mela and the Pushkar Camel fairattract millions of visitors from all across the globe.

Spiritual Experience



India is the birthplace of various religions and religious philosophies. Many people visit India not for the tourist attractions, but to experience a calm and peaceful environment and get in touch with their spiritual self. Ever since the arrival of the Beatles, spiritual arts like Yoga and Meditation have attracted a huge number of tourists from the world. A visit to the various temples, a look in the religious texts and the stories of how the different legends originated can provide a deeper insight in the Indian culture, and will certainly refresh your senses like no other place in the world.

Contributed by Rohit Agarwal.

Learning All Things Grapes & Wine During Harvest Season in Virginia

November 19, 2014 by  



Sepia-toned movies like French Kiss, Sideways and A Good Year paint a romantic image of life on a vineyard. Who wouldn’t want to abandon beige office cubicles for sunny rows of grape vines? Or exchange suit pants for jeans? After a blissful five-day stay at Antigua Residencia, a lovely hostel on a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, I decided I needed to see for myself.

I contacted (read: cyber stalked) Stinson Vineyards in Crozet, Virginia about volunteering for a couple days during harvest season. A family-run operation, Stinson is an eco-friendly boutique vineyard at the foot of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. As I pulled up the gravel drive, past the old farmhouse overlooking the colorful fields beyond, it was as if life was imitating cinematic art. I quickly shot my boyfriend a text insisting we buy a vineyard.

Two days later, exhausted and sore, I had a hell of a lot of respect for vintners and a much more realistic view of what it actually takes to produce a perfectly balanced bottle of wine. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the dream of replacing office retreats for harvest parties. As Ben Franklin said, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”


Photograph courtesy of Mythja via Shutterstock

Go With The Flow

Rain, frost, sunshine, humidity and temperature are just a few of the things to contend with while managing a vineyard. All affect the quality of the wine and Mother Nature can be a real banshee. Healthy soil, grape type, the fermentation process, and even the way the grapes are crushed affect how the final product turns out. When you harvest is just as important and unfortunately you don’t always have control over that either. I learned the most coveted commodity a vintner can have is a reliable harvesting team. With so many factors to consider and elements outside your control, it’d be easy to become a Type A stress case, but what’s the fun in that? A cool head, a steady hand, and a healthy dose of perspective are what’s required.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger

No sooner had one of the volunteers sliced his hand open with a pair of harvesting shears then the horror stories began. A local guy had snipped his thumb straight off with his clips, a wine maker at a neighboring vineyard caught his arm in a malfunctioning de-stemmer while trying to clean it, and apparently there is a disturbingly high number of people falling into giant vats of fermenting grapes and suffocating from the overwhelming C02 levels. It made me really appreciate the celebratory glass of wine we had at the end of a long day.

No Cake Walk

I once read a job description that required applicants to be able to stand, walk, use their hands, reach, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, sit, climb, balance and regularly lift 10-25 pounds. It was for an office manager position. The day after harvesting the merlot and the malbec, my back, arms and legs were on fire. From hauling lugs to cleaning out giant vats, wine making is not for the sluggish.

The hardest part for me was “punching down,” a glamorous activity that refers to the breaking up and pushing down the solid mass of grape skins, stems and seeds — called the cap — that rise to the top of the vats during fermentation. This helps the wine have a richer color and flavor. You take a long stick with an X on the end and punch through the cap repeatedly a few times a day. By the end, I resembled Carrie on prom night.


Photograph courtesy of Windu via Shutterstock

Perfect Chemistry

After I finished Mrs. Gray’s 10th grade chemistry class, I swore I’d never take another. Thankfully my varied career as a failed actress, waitress, fundraiser, digital strategist and communications nerd never required it. Walking into the wine lab at Stinson Vineyards was like hopping a time machine back to high school science class. There were beakers piled in the large sink, bottles of chemicals, a Bunsen burner, and stacks of binders with figures and measurements neatly recorded. The process of making wine involves a chemical reaction in which sugars are turned to alcohol and carbon dioxide because of the presence of yeast. As it turns out wine making is all about chemistry.

Feel The Rhythm

While it was wildly exciting to try wine making, there was a lot of monotony. Harvesting grapes involves repetition. Day one was the systematic removal of grapes from the vine. Grab bunch of grapes, clip off at the stem, drop into lug, repeat. Day two was de-stemming. While the de-stemmer removes most of the stems from the cluster of grapes, there are thousands of smalls ones that make it through. Once the grapes pass through the de-stemmer, they land on a vibrating metal table that acts as a conveyer belt. Your job is to stand there and pick out as many of the stems as quickly as possible.

Have you ever worked on a vineyard? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

By Abby Sugrue

Top photo courtesy of Deyan Georgiev via Shutterstock

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