Catalina Island, California

I’m sprawled on a deck chair on the Relaxation Deck of the Island Spa Catalina, blissed out after a hot stone spa treatment. Sipping champagne, I take in the spectacular ocean view. I don’t want to move. It’s about four in the afternoon, the sun will soon set, so I call my husband and coax him to laze with me (he’s at the hotel).

Our day began with a helicopter flight from Long Beach to Catalina Island, a 15-minute trip over the Pacific Ocean, which is currently filled with migrating whales. After landing, we drove to the Pavilion Hotel and woke up with coffee and oceanfront view — isn’t that the best way to instantly destress? By 10am, the sun had zapped the chill out oof the air. How different this winter feels to that of the East Coast. Up for some adventure, we hopped into golf cart – the standard mode of island transportation — and were chauffeured s to the zipline camp where, belted up and harnessed, I scaled heights and  revealed my nervous side. By the fifth attempt, my fears had subsided and my body rushed with adrenaline.

Hours later, a “spa” lunch — Caesar salad with avocado dressing — brought me back to earth, as did the Sage Stone Purification Ritual, experienced in the spa’s luxurious two-storey Silver Peaks Suite. I kid you not, the suite was as big as a big-city condo, and I felt like royalty. I sneaked a snooze on the ground-level couch before heading out.

My husband has arrived, and the sun is setting behind us. The Carnival cruise ship anchored ahead of us is slowly losing its gleam. Over coffees and some snacks, we revel in the moment — we talk, laugh, share stories — until a chill beckons us away. But all is not lost: there’ll be wine and cheese  in the hotel library, and California red trout, diver scallops, and chilled Rusack Sauvignon Blanc for dinner at the Avalon Grill. But first, we gather our things and recline by the hotel’s fire pit with a glass of red to continue basking in the moment.

Island Spa Catalina

Island Spa Catalina

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Zip lining (spot my husband on the line)

Zip lining (spot my husband on the line)

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View from a helicopter

View from a helicopter

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A Sunset, An Ocean ~ Panama City Beach, FL

For a town filled with white condominiums, amusement rides and seafood joints, Panama City Beach felt too quiet. I’m guessing it isn’t like that for long…

We traveled in the off-season through Florida’s Emerald Isle, s0 Panama City was a rest stop after about 800 miles of driving.

Awed by the iridescent pink sunset, later waking up to the meditative sound of lapping waves, we felt right at home in the ’70s pink-and-turquoise Casa Loma.

Sunset as we saw it from the highway heading into Florida

The beach-facing Casa Loma in Panama City Beach, FL

Gulf of Mexico, Panama City Beach, FL

A roadside breakfast

An Ode to San Clemente

Beautiful palm trees

When I think back on the two years we lived in San Clemente, I begin to miss it. Living near the beach was always on my wish list, and that wish was granted when we relocated to the ‘Spanish Village by the Sea.’ However, a couple of years later, I felt the pull of the city and longed for the urban sprawl; our move to LA was short lived when a job opportunity came up in New York. I seized it; we moved back. Now, over a year later, I am frequently in a California state of mind. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

View from San Clemente’s Pier

You may have heard of San Clemente through its associations with Nixon and his ‘Western White House.’ Perhaps you have spotted photos of residents such as actor Dominic Purcell, or professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, snapped unawares on their home turf, within the pages of a magazine. You may have even visited, lived in, or driven through San Clemente. After all, it is the midway point between Los Angeles and San Diego, and the final pit stop before you embark on a long stretch of uninterrupted army base. Maybe San Clemente is completely lost on you. Before relocating, I knew nothing of the place. I hadn’t even heard of it.

Ocean view as one descends to the beach

My first impression of San Clemente was that it reminded me of a beach town just outside of Sydney, Australia called Terrigal. About 25 years ago, my family used to pack up the car and set off on a week’s holiday to this beachside spot. But today’s Terrigal suffers from overdevelopment, and has lost its small town appeal. To me, San Clemente feels like Terrigal during its golden years, and I was immediately drawn to that. Until a huge hotel plops itself right across from the beach, San Clemente will continue to be a cute beach town in Orange County.

The start of Avenida Palizada, the main street through the town

San Clemente’s surfers

I loved to catch sight of the ocean on my daily walks. I remember breathing ‘wow’ as its blue would came into view. The Pacific Ocean was always welcoming, especially on sunny days when it would glitter and shine. On most days, the water looked like a still infinity pool, disrupted only by the waves as they lapped the shore. On other days, when the mist would fall thick and the waves would kick up a notch, surfers would suddenly appear on the horizon. They’d lay on their boards, perched like seals, in anticipation of catching the next wave. The haziness of such days was temporary as the sun would eventually peek out.

The ocean view from street level

I also miss taking strolls in and around San Clemente’s maze of gently curving and undulating streets, quiet, except for the sound of an oncoming car or the blare of the train’s horn as it passed through the beachfront station. Each street was punctuated with Spanish Colonial style homes and fully tended-to gardens. On show: robust citrus trees, blooming bougainvillea, cacti, and if I was lucky, a hummingbird hovering over a bottle brush tree (this is when nostalgia would set is in as the bottle brush is endemic to Australia). As symbolic as palm trees are to the city of Los Angeles, San Clemente’s streets are filled with them. They are not the city’s official city tree – that’s the Coral tree — they aren’t even native to the terrain, but they look like they belong and the scene wouldn’t be complete without them.

Rail route through San Clemente

Why all this reminiscing? Well, when I think of San Clemente, three things come to mind. The ocean, the outdoors, and the Blue Danube restaurant, which was the reason we moved to San Clemente. If it wasn’t for the Blue Danube, where my husband was offered a job, we might have never moved to the West Coast. And we recently found out that the restaurant will be closing its doors forever. San Clemente is not renowned for its dining scene; however, it is undeniable that the Blue Danube Restaurant is the grandest of all the dining establishments in the area, spanning 10,000 square feet. Its Austrian-inspired menu never failed to please with Weiner schnitzel, spaetzle and red cabbage. Formerly the site of San Clemente’s first jailhouse, the restaurant includes a number of themed rooms, including two jail cells that were transformed into private dining rooms.

We hold a great many memories at the Blue Danube. I remember feasting on gravy-soaked turkey and my favourite side of mash on the restaurant patio at Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends. I remember attending an elaborate family wedding – just when I had thought it would be impossible to use every square inch of the restaurant space, I was proven wrong on that day. I’ll never forget enjoying a delectable homemade cheese strudel with a Vienna coffee, appropriately surrounded by Gustav Klimt artworks. I’ll never forget the beautiful sounds of the piano, as the restaurant’s owner played classical music upon request. Not having the Blue Danube around means that it won’t be possible to create any more memories there. Aside from the memories, perhaps the thing that sticks out most in my mind is the love and support that the restaurant’s owners – Ali’s family – extended to us during our time in San Clemente. I hope their next adventure will be as exciting as the one of the past decade.

And San Clemente – we’ll be back sooner than you think.

Blue Danube