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Because Missing Out Is Never Fun!

Ironstone Vineyards

This place is barrels of fun!

Murphys, CA

It’d be a damn shame to pass through Calaveras County without making a stop at Ironstone Vineyards.  But if picturesque views, tasty eats and historically significant artifacts aren’t your thing, so be it.

Belly up to the bar inside the gorgeous tasting room and learn about its surprising connection to the Brunswick Bowling Ball Company.  Munch on sandwiches, salad and other treats in the Delicatessen while you wait for your free winery tour to begin.

Daily tours leave from the tasting room and are led by knowledgeable guides who will take you through the history of the winery.   Chilly caverns house hundreds of oak barrels containing any number of varieties currently being produced.  You’ll stroll through rich, colorful gardens and park areas perfect for a picnic and see why the Amphitheatre is an obviously popular summer destination for music lovers of all genres.

Before heading to the Alhambra Music Room to view the exquisitely restored Alhambra Theatre pipe organ, or to the Museum to check out a 44-pound gold leaf, linger outside a bit longer.  If you’re lucky, you’ll meet resident miner, Mario, who teaches gold panning techniques.  While he wouldn’t divulge the location of his biggest gold find, you can’t argue that he’s found a pretty choice location for his current gig.

Winchester Mystery House

Lovely and creepy at the same time!

Winchester Mystery House
San Jose, CA

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is a lot of things: a mecca for tourists, a destination for the architecturally curious, a probable location for paranormal activity, and a place I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole while I was in my twenties.  Now that I’m slightly more mature (ha!), I decided to book a Mansion Tour to see what the hype is all about.

Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, experienced the great misfortune of losing both her husband and young daughter; legend has it that a medium told her she must build a house…and never cease construction.  If she did, the spirits of those who lost their lives to Winchester rifles would come after her.

Sarah inherited millions of dollars upon her husband’s death.  Those funds, coupled with roughly $1000 a day she received through partial ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, afforded her the ability to construct a sprawling mansion with over 150 rooms and provide room and board to her extensive staff.

Tours offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Winchester’s eclectic taste in color, design and materials of the highest quality.  You’ll learn why there are staircases leading to the ceiling and why doors open to reveal brick walls.  Tackle your claustrophobia as you’re guided through narrow passageways leading you past guestrooms, staff quarters, and even a séance room.

Don’t bring strollers, and more importantly, don’t stray from your tour group; even experienced guides admit it’s easy to get lost in this labyrinth.  If just the thought of spirits gives you the creeps, why would you want to?

Loleta Cheese Factory

You're going to want to stay a while.

Loleta, CA

I recently spent a weekend exploring Humboldt County, and Loleta was on my list for one reason: cheese. 

I was not disappointed. 

I never expect to see factory workers in full swing on a Saturday, so I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped inside the charming storefront of the Loleta Cheese Factory and found employees scurrying around enormous steel vats of milky curds in the middle of the cheesemaking process.  I was also pretty excited at the prospect of unlimited cheese samples; I mean, who wouldn’t be?

Large picture windows let visitors watch the entire process, from milk to cheese to equipment cleaning and sterilization.   Staff are on hand to answer all of your questions, such as “What do the cows eat?”, “What variety is being made right now?” and “Exactly how do you define unlimited cheese samples?”  All the while, workers are stirring curds, squeezing out whey and performing lots of other activities I’m probably not naming correctly.  On this particular day, they were also likely wondering how long I’d be staring into that picture window.

With dozens of varieties available, from cheddars to jacks to cheese curds, you’re sure to find a favorite.  Pick up a few flavors, pair them with some crackers and beverages (also sold on-site) and head outside to an expansive garden and picnic area.  Then, head back in for some last-minute tasting before hitting the road again.

Gourmet Walks

Pace yourself.

Gourmet Walks
San Francisco, Napa and Healdsburg

Because I’m an adult, I make a point of being punctual at all times.  I typically show up early to social functions, only to become frustrated with latecomers who hold up impending festivities.  So you can imagine the horror I felt as traffic came to a screeching halt miles before the Bay Bridge on my way into San Francisco FOR A FOOD TOUR!  Although I gave myself an HOUR of driving-time cushion, I sat as precious minutes ticked away, and I imagined every morsel and crumb I was missing out on.

I did what any sensible traveler would do: I called Gourmet Walks and told them that unfortunately, I was running late.  They happily gave me the tour guide’s cell phone number so I could catch up with the group when I made it into the city.

I spotted my (also late) friend in the parking lot and we called the group to catch up.  Luckily, we had only missed one stop on the tour; our conscientious guide, Shane, handed us a to-go box containing a slice of Chicago-style pizza that we had missed, and we proceeded on.  We were off to a great start!

Food tours are the best way to explore a city since guides typically live in the area you’re touring.  They know where to eat, what to do, how to get there, and little nuggets of trivia along the way.  It’s really the best education you can receive while systematically stuffing your face.  Our NoPa/Alamo Square tour was a feast for the senses exploring the neighborhood ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­near Golden Gate Park.

Don’t bother with lunch, people.  A very light breakfast will suffice as you’ll gorge on several items on an evolving tasting menu.  In addition to pizza, this particular Saturday offered expertly grilled fish tacos, artisan cheeses and fresh-baked breads, strong alcoholic beverages, and not one, but TWO amazing dessert courses.  Along the way, you’ll learn that most of the ingredients for these treats are locally sourced and why it’s so important to support nearby food producers.

Gourmet Walks offers tours in San Francisco, Napa and Healdsburg, running the gamut from savory to sweet.  Three tours are dedicated solely to chocolate, with one that pairs the sweet stuff with wine and cocktails.  Tours fill up quickly, so wipe the drool from your chin and make your reservations today!

Star Eco Station

Keep your fingers out of this squawkbox if you know
what's good for you.

Star Eco Station
Rocklin, CA

If you’re one of those people who thinks the illegal pet alligator living in your bathtub is in perfectly capable hands, it’s probably not the first bad life decision you’ve made.

Also, you’re probably a little crazy.

Illegal, abused and abandoned wildlife are the focus at Star Eco Station where they receive the highest care and serve as educational tools for the general public.  While most of the residents are housed in species-appropriate cages and tanks (no bathtubs), a few of the residents can be handled, making for an exciting hands-on experience.

Naturalists provide guided tours throughout the facility and offer a barrage of facts about the reptiles, fish and other creatures that call the museum home.  You’ll learn how everyday human life is taking its toll on our planet.  You’ll also quickly learn your personal tolerance for multiple screeching birds within a confined space.

Through Star Eco Station’s camps, mobile exhibits and field trips, it’d be tough to avoid learning something new at each event.  Did you know an iguana can spray its urine 15 feet?  Take a cue from the historical evidence on the floor and stay back.

Tillamook Loaf Love Tour - 03/08/13 - 03/17/13

Bring me bread, butter and a griddle.  STAT!

Tillamook Loaf Love Tour
San Diego Area, CA

Just because I occasionally enjoy bumming around the house in my bathrobe on a perfectly nice little Saturday, that doesn't mean all productivity or class goes out the window.  As I write this, feet up on my coffeetable, I am contemplating what's left of my Tillamook cheese supply in the fridge, and am feverishly finishing this article so I can cook up a mouth-watering grilled cheese sandwich...or three.

If you haven't tried Tillamook Cheddar, step up your game.  While you may have grown up on Kraft singles on Wonder Bread, you'd be surprised how a change of ingredients can transform a decent snack into an "oh my Goooooooood" meal.

Tillamook certainly enjoys an established fan base, and these loyals will no doubt plan on making a stop to check out one of many buses touring the country during their Loaf Love Tour.  Kids will enjoy taking photos next to the bright, colorful buses, and parents can join in the fun while learning how the popular cheese is made.  The best part?  Chowing down on cubes of the famed fromage.

Check out the schedule and pay a visit.  It'll be like a classed-up version of a Costco sample station - without strangers elbowing you in the gut!

Santa Cruz Food Tour

Vinegar as an ice cream chaser - don't knock
it till you try it!

Santa Cruz Food Tour
Santa Cruz, CA

When ideal weather and my insatiable appetite collide, I am unstoppable.

Whether you're a tourist like me always looking for new ways to feed my face, or a long-time resident curious about everything Santa Cruz has to offer, this culinary adventure won't disappoint.  Unlike some food tours that drag you from restaurant to restaurant only to sample and nibble, with little else to see or do in between, the Santa Cruz Food Tour is a true gem.

Bring your appetite - and comfortable shoes.  Your 3.5 excursion is peppered with locally owned and award-winning spots offering scrumptious American and international fare, sweet treats, and frothy beverages...and it doesn't stop there!  Between caramelized onion-laden gourmet pizzas on homemade crusts and organic cupcakes using locally sourced ingredients, you'll learn about the founding of Santa Cruz and its first settlers.  Enjoy a waffle cone from the only shop in town that makes their ice cream completely from scratch as you embark on a fascinating lesson in local architecture.

Never done shots of olive oil?  Take this tour.  Never tried a balsamic vinegar soda?  Take this tour.  Never tasted blood orange anything?  TAKE THIS TOUR!

No need for dinner plans.  The leisurely 1.8 mile trek is hardly enough cardio to work up another appetite.  However, I do admit to revisiting the ice cream shop later that evening for one last treat.  After all, the tour provided additional discounts and coupons to all attendees.  I didn't want to seem rude!


Pace yourself, folks!

Folsom, CA

Pub Crawls are much like progressive dinners...but faaaaaaaar less sober.  They're also great options for those who like to enjoy their beverages while being led by the hand to the next cocktail special.

Appeteasers tours have a little something for everyone.  Along with several stops during a multi-hour walking tour, there will be complimentary appetizers and dessert bites as well as discounted beer, wine and cocktails.  You'll visit local art galleries, dive bars and wine cellars all while sampling tasty cuisine; tour guides point out historical references and landmarks along the way, but that all goes by the wayside around stop number four (or three, if you're a lightweight like me).  As an added bonus, you'll likely make new friends with your fellow tour participants who hail from all over Callifornia...and beyond!

Personal tip: if you find yourself devouring chocolate mousse cake after the tour to satisfy your sweet tooth, star far, far away from the Tuaca shots at the Folsom Hotel and Saloon afterwards - even if an old man is buying.  I learned the hard way, people.

The Serpentarium

I can't save you 15% on your car insurance.

The Serpentarium
Lodi, CA

You'd think that after watching Perseus and his crew battle giant scorpions in 1981's "Clash of the Titans" at least four dozen times, I'd want to avoid the anthropods at all costs.

Well, maybe.

Lodi's "reptile superstore" is a mecca for fans of tortoises, lizards and frogs and provides feeders like mice (ick) and crickets (double ick!).  Reserve a spot on their Guided Tour and you'll have the opportunity to photograph and hold creatures like tarantulas and hissing cockroaches.

The Serpentarium also offers a myriad of services for your pets.  Beak filing, nail trimming and gender determination are offered; health inspections and advice are given if your snake is shedding in multiple pieces.  Hoping to keep your pet close forever?  Ask them about their taxidermy services.

Admission is only a couple of buck and can be used towards the purchase of anything in the store, including scorpions!  Aren't you lucky.

Jelly Belly

This may be the happiest bus on Earth.

Jelly Belly
Fairfield, CA

Ah, Jelly Belly...an iconic product as well as the name of the condition you'll develop if you eat too many of these pint-sized treats.

A trip to this candy factory is a feast for the senses.  Once out of your car, you'll be hit with the scents of flavors being concocted that particular day (typically no more than ten) before even stepping foot inside.  Enter, and you'll discover a colorful wonderland of their signature jelly beans, luscious chocolates, and candy art that will dazzle the imagination.

Jelly Belly offers free factory tours; if you arrive early, you may be as lucky as I was to enjoy a practically private tour before throngs of field-trippin' grade-schoolers arrived.

Your tour guide will review the history of the company, explain its importance in Presidential culture and guide you through each phase of bean creation, providing samples at several stages.  Large windows allow you to witness all aspects of the factory, from raw ingredients on pallets to shipping.  Watch as machinery stamps Jelly Belly logos onto beans at the rate of 20,000 per minute, a necessity since they also produce 240 bags in the same amount of time.

At the conclusion of your tour, enjoy your complimentary Jelly Bellys and be sure to ask which two works of candy art they're forbidden from ever displaying again (I'll take them!).

Borax Visitor Center

Not meant for human consumption
(in the U.S.A.)!

Borax Visitor Center
Boron, CA

Believe it or not, there are times when I'd rather take a tour that is not food-related. When, you ask?

Right after a big lunch!

The Borax tour fits the bill, as there is nothing appetizing about borax deposits.  The subject matter is fascinating, nonetheless, if you consider the fact that the same mineral used as a fire retardant and anti-fungal compound can also be found in cosmetics and used as a food additive - outside of the United States, of course.  Bon appetit!

The museum contains information about borax mining, processing, distribution and usage in a number of familiar products.  A brief film explains the Borax story; the pit unveiled thereafter allows visitors to witness ongoing mining activities.

So the next time you find yourself lost along the 58 because you took a wrong turn to Disneyland, or you're trying to avoid Disneyland altogether, enjoy an education pit (ha!) stop at the low price of $3 per carload.  Cheap thrills for the entire family!

Hearst Castle

Some things haven't changed much.

Hearst Castle
San Simeon, CA

As children, my brother and I had matching briefcase-looking containers which held our Legos.  They were large, made of thick, sturdy and rough red plastic, and, in the case of my container, held all of the pieces needed to construct my Lego Garage.

I remember getting that particular set one Christmas, and I was ecstatic.  I don't think the type of set was as important as the fact that it was a higher level of difficulty compared to previous sets.  There were numerous tiny, single-studded pieces, and little did I know the advanced instructions would be good training for assembling Ikea furniture nearly three decades later.

My point is that the assembly and anticipation of the finished product was the most satisfying part of the experience.  When I was finished, it bummed me out.  Sure, I could tear it down and rebuild, but it would be with the same parts, producing the same final product.

Now consider William Randolph Hearst, who also appreciated the building process to an extreme: not only did he have grand visions of building his dream home upon the nearly quarter-billion acres he had inherited from his mother, but he spent decades building, tearing down, and rebuilding time and time again until the property grew to over 150 rooms and more than 125 acres of gardens, walkways and pools.  Housed inside the castle is a phenomenally extensive art collection, along with other amenities such as an indoor pool and movie theater.  You know, just like your parents' house.

The castle's tours allow you to explore the main rooms, suites, cottages and kitchen, along with the extensive grounds and luxurious pool area.  Feel free to take all the photos you'd like.  Before boarding the buses to travel up the hill, Hearst employees will take a photo of you in front of a green screen, then offer you a "magical" portrait with the Castle in the background...for just around thirty dollars.  Ack! Photoshop anyone?

Budweiser Brewery Tour

Budweiser, the King of...OOH!  A horsey!

Budweiser Brewery Tour
Fairfield, CA

When the tour guide mentions that the Budweiser brewmaster's job is to sample each batch of beer at least five times during the brewing process, inevitably some jackwad in the crowd will yell, "Are you hiring?!"

Be prepared for it.  Then stare down the idiot until he sinks in his seat, allowing the guide to continue his or her spiel.

The Budweiser Tour includes a short video explaining the history of the company, importance of their ingredients and other fun facts, all to be enjoyed over pretzels and two complimentary beers of your choice, so long as you're 21 or over.  Soft drinks are available for designated drivers, loyal Coors fans and skinny brown girls with empty stomachs for whom one glass of beer would leave her sloppy on the floor.

After getting "warmed up", you'll be taken to a 40-something degree cold storage area to view endless rows of massive tanks and identify those female tour participants regretting they had dressed so scantily.

Grab a piece of souvenir beechwood on the way out, and consider that the wood scrap was likely instrumental in some of the 2,000 cans produced each minute at the brewery.

The "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown!" Tour

A culinary wonderland!

The "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown!" Tour
San Francisco, CA

I've been on this tour not once, not twice, but FOUR TIMES!  Obsessed much?  Why, yes.

If you love to eat, and you love to eat, this tour is definitely for you. Celebrity chef and author Shirley Fong-Torres takes you on a magical 3-hour tour of Chinatown, where, in addition to learning about Chinese food history, you'll eat, shop, eat, drink, and eat your way through restaurants, tea shops, markets and bakeries.  Then, just when your stomach is at capacity, the tour will conclude with a gianormous Chinese banquet where Chef Shirley encourages you to try dishes you'd never had before (chicken feet, anyone?).

With all of the knowledge of local cuisine you can imagine, coupled with high-energy delivery, Chef Shirley will leave you with a lasting impression of the local neighborhood and some fond memories of the first time you took your first spoonful of rice congee.  Now, excuse me while I hunt down some Peking Duck...

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