Food & Wine

Don’t let this year’s summer road trip be “the one that got away.” Opt for a throwback Southeast road trip, kicking back at a few fish camps along the way. Originally a place for fishermen to hang their waders for the night and fry up their daily catch, today’s fish camps . still offer some of the best fishing, but also the best eating. Their no-frills accommodations are often overlooked as great places to stay, offering a place to commune with nature and enjoy some true R&R. If watching a cork bobble on the water isn’t your cup of tea, there’s plenty to do including boat and kayak rentals, hiking and biking trails, and just chilling in a hammock.

Conway, SC

Let’s kick off this backwoods fish camp tour with a stop at Luvans Old South Fish Camp Restaurant, just 25 minutes from Myrtle Beach. As you arrive, don’t worry. This isn’t someone’s rundown backyard shack — you’re in the right place. Just pull on up and park in one of the restaurant’s five parking spaces. Most nights, it’s a one-man show as the owner serves as host, chef, waiter and chief dishwasher (be prepared for a leisurely evening). Luvan’s only serves the best of daily catches so opt for the Seafood Platter, broiled, to truly enjoy the freshness. If you read the reviews, don’t be scared off by the references to the movie “Deliverance” — it’s worth the trip.

nope, this shack doesn’t even have a website

Cross, SC

Here’s where the “camp” portion of this Southeast road trip comes into play. Head on down to Canal Lakes Fish Camp located between Lakes Marion and Moultrie, known as the Santee Cooper Lakes Region, and stay in one of the camp’s full-size houses. These lakes span five counties and are a nature-lover’s paradise with towering Cypress trees and vast swamps. Mac Daddy’s Restaurant, voted Berkeley County’s best restaurant, claims the best steaks and seafood on the lakes. Schedule your stay for a Thursday night to enjoy the famed Chef’s night featuring everything from surf and turf to crab legs. The lakes are dotted with dozens of great restaurants, most accessible by boat, with every type of cuisine from Thai to barbecue, and of course, fresh local seafood. Be sure to visit Harry’s Restaurant in nearby Pineville for their famous Santee Cooper Fried Catfish Dinner. They also serve the best full breakfast in the region and will make boxed lunches if you’re headed out for a day on the lake.

Darien, GA

On the banks of the Darien River, Skippers’ Fish Camp offers shrimp so fresh, you can watch it being unloaded from the boat. Local shrimpers dock at Skippers bringing in wild Georgia shrimp daily. Inside the restaurant, make note of the wood used on the bar and tables. It was salvaged from Brunswick’s famous Oglethorpe Hotel in the late 1800s and floated down the Altamaha River to its new home. Skippers serves Coastal Georgia seafood at its finest including Collards & Q, a combination of barbecued pork and collard greens. Most seafood dishes feature sweet Georgia shrimp, your choice of fried, blackened or broiled. Don’t miss a chance to try Georgia Blue Crabs, second only to Maryland blue crabs.

Jacksonville, FL

You won’t find rustic accommodations here, but you will be surrounded by wildlife. Clark’s Fish Camp is rumored to be one of the largest privately owned collections of taxidermy in the country with lions, tigers, monkeys, bears, giraffes, deer, bobcats, and birds donning the walls. (All of the animals died a natural death according to the owners. No animals were harmed in the making.) Don’t be alarmed by the “Do Not Feed the Alligators” signs on the docks and walkways surrounding this Jacksonville restaurant, but certainly heed their advice. Clark’s features an authentic taste of backwoods Florida including the Swamp Fest Platter piled high with alligator, frog legs, and catfish. But you may have to stay two days to try Clark’s twist on New Orleans seafood, especially the Boudin Stuffed with Crawfish.

New Smyrna Beach, FL

I can vouch for many of these fish camps but J. B.’s Fish Camp & Seafood Restaurant is one of my all-time favorites, for the scenery and the food. New Smyrna Beach is one of Florida’s most beautiful, white sand beaches. J.B.s is across from the beach on a quiet portion of the Indian River, a haven for manatees and dolphins. Rent a kayak or paddle board for the day and head back to The Drunken Clam Over Flow Tiki Bar for a cocktail. J.B.s catches blue crabs right off the dock and serves them steaming hot in buckets. Or try the Oyster Stew served in a broth of corn, cream, and savory seasonings. Be sure to save room for the restaurant’s specialty, authentic Florida Key lime pie.


DeBary, FL

Now it’s time to experience a true campresort (that’s not an oxymoron). Further down the St. Johns River on the western edge of Volusia County is the “Camelot on the River,” Highbanks Marina & Campresort. This 25-acre, wooded RV campground also includes resort amenities — a large swimming pool, clubhouse, and even laundry facilities. The Swamp House River Front Grill and the Happy Snapper Tiki Bar are the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the views of the historic St. Johns River. If you haven’t drummed up the nerve to try fresh Florida alligator, this might be the place to do it. The restaurant’s Tropical Gator Tacos are made with citrus marinated gator topped with mango sauce and shredded cheese, served on flour tortillas.

Santa Rosa Beach, FL

You might not think of gourmet seafood at an establishment called Stinky’s Fish Camp, but that’s what you’ll find here on South Walton Beach on Florida’s west coast. Recently named “Top 10 Places to Eat Like a Local” by USA Today, Stinky’s is a haute cuisine fish camp with one of the widest selections of oysters around at The Chum Line Oyster Bar. Local seafood stars in all of the dishes including Stinky’s Stew of shrimp, mussels, oysters, fish, snow crab, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes in a basil butter broth. And if you’re craving fish for breakfast, don’t miss Stinky’s Sunday brunch and order the Rock Star Crawfish Pie with two shirred eggs.

This article was originally published in The Local Palate in 2015

Ever since I got home from Mexico, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Mexican food. And making Mexican food. And eating Mexican food. I was in Puerto Vallarta on a press trip with the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board for five days of pure bliss (more on that in another post). As part of our tourism program, we took a cooking class with Chef Julio Cesar, owner of Gaby’s Restaurant, who would teach us how to make authentic Mexican recipes.

We’d be preparing a 6-course Mexican menu with three different salsas, Ceviche Vallarta (raw fish marinated in lime juice), Sopa de Tortilla (Aztec soup or stone soup), Mole Poblano (with more than 25 ingredients!), Guacamole (of course), and Chiles en Nogada (stuffed poblano chiles in walnut sauce, the national dish of Puerto Vallarta). For dessert, we’d enjoy Atole – a warm, sweet beverage made with masa and Tamales de Dulce (sweet tamales).

The morning started with a trip the market, where Chef Julio would teach us about the ingredients for the Mexican food recipes we’d need for the day. We made a brief detour to the beach to gather stones for our Sopa de Tortilla. There are a number of stories about where and how Stone soup originated but here’s one I like best from Saveur Magazine. We arrived at the market where the smells of fresh mangoes and pineapples filled the humid morning air.

Chef Julio explained the ingredients and how to properly select the freshest. We selected and weighed numerous kinds of peppers, staples of most Mexican recipes. We gathered fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, and found our shopping bags overflowing with the freshest produce.

We stopped at the Tortilleria to buy masa dough for the tortillas as Chef explained that like gas, masa prices are controlled by the government (yep, there is actually a Tortilla Price Stabilization Pact). Our final stop was the meat and seafood section of the market.

Chef Julio’s staff had arranged the outdoor kitchen into several work stations while we were at the market. I volunteered to char the poblanos over the gas stove (which proved to be a bad decision on a hot day, but the margarita helped). There were tortillas to be rolled and cooked on the flat-top and tomatoes and avocados to be mashed in the molcajete (mortal and pestle), while others busied themselves chopping ingredients.

We prepped and cooked away listening to the sounds of the mariachi band, all the while sipping margaritas. As a person who loves to cook, it was shaping up to be the perfect day!

Chef Julio is famous for his Chiles en Nogada, the national dish of Puerto Vallarta, paying homage to the colors of the Mexican flag. This is his actual recipe. You’ll need to prep the poblano chiles yourself. Here’s a link on how to do it: As for serving size, we stuffed 8-10 poblanos.


12 ounces (340 gr) ground beef tenderloin
Salt to taste
3 tablespoon of lard
4 ounces(180 gr) tomatoes
3 ounces of white onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove
1 pound dry and sweet peaches
1 pound apple, dry and sweet
1 pound of raisins, dry and sweet
1 pound of ripe plantain, peeled and cubed dry and sweet
1/3 cup of pecans
8 poblano chiles, charred, peeled, seeds and veins removed

To decorate:
1 cup pomegranate/ or strawberry
½ cup of flatleaf parley or cilantro, finely chopped

Nogada sauce:
About 60 pieces of pecans, roughly chopped
About ½ cup sour cream or whole milk (raw if possible)
1 once of Jerez or Oporto wine (Port)
125 gr goat cheese or cream cheese
2 tablespoons of sugar

Put the meat into a large, heavy skillet and add the water and salt. Cover and cook over low heat until tender, about 25 minutes. You may need to add a little more water, depending on how tender the meat is. The meat should be moist but not juicy. Add the lard and fry over medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Stir in the rest of the ingredients except the chiles and cook over low heat, covered, for the first 10 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid sticking and continue cooking for about 20 minutes. The fruit should be tender but not mushy. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, stuff the chiles with about ½ cup.

For the sauce, blend the pecans or walnuts with the milk, sugar, Oporto wine and cream cheese.

I also wanted to share the recipe for Atole, because it’s such an unusual, but delicious drink. It would be perfect for drinking on a chilly evening. I’ve since seen other Atole recipes where you add other ingredients like chocolate. Here’s a link to another version:


1/2 cup of masa
5 cups water
1 stick of cinnamon
5 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Place the masa, water, cinnamon and sugar in a blender. Blend until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Pour the contents of the blender into a sauce pan and bring the mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture reaches a boil, turn the heat to low and continue to whisk for 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into mugs and serve hot.

Gaby’s offers cooking lessons on a regular basis and I highly recommend it for your next trip to PV.

If there are two things my husband loves, it’s golf and wine. Or wine and golf. I’m not sure what order he’d choose them in. Me? I just like to drink wine. So when I was trying to think of a great getaway for the two of us, I thought about combining the two.

I scoped out golf resorts located among vineyards where I could sip wine while waiting for him to finish his round and join me at the 19th hole. I found great destinations including the Algodon Resort in Mendoza, Chateau Elan in Georgia (yes, Georgia!), Hotel Peralada in Spain, Dolce Campo Real in Portugal and the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley (we visited this one recently – the location is amazing!).  They’re all such great destinations with luscious wines so it’s a toss up where we’ll go next!

Read my article on Orbitz here: 5 best golf resorts that happen to be in wine country

As a former Italian expat, I was excited to go back “home” and tour some of the luxury wineries and resorts in Tuscany and Umbria.

When people think Italian wine, their first thought might be the robust Chiantis of Tuscany. Having lived in Italy, I kind of felt “been there, done that.” But on my return, I was excited to learn, and taste, how Tuscany is embracing luxury wine travel.

My adventure began at the Baracchi Winery which sits high above Cortona, up narrow, winding roads that even our GPS couldn’t keep up with. It was a constant barrage of “turn right”, “turn left”, “turn right”, as we made the hairpin turns. But the views of the Valdichiana Valley, when we arrived at the top, were all worth the nauseating drive.

Founded by Riccardo Baracchi, the winery is a small, boutique producer of one of the region’s only sparkling wines and some fabulous blends. We were greeted by Benedetto Baracchi, son of the winery’s founder, who started our tour in the sparkling wine room where the Baracchi Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico is produced. A single worker was painstakingly turning each bottle ¼ turn, as he does daily for 45 days, to allow the sediment from the Trebbiano grapes to settle at the top of the bottle. There, it is ultimately frozen and forced out. As a small producer, Baracchi takes great care and pride in this hand-processed production of one of the region’s only sparkling wines. Our tour ended with a tasting of the sparkling wine, paired with pecorino cheese produced at the resort. I enjoyed the Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico tremendously, perhaps because I could really respect the great care taken in its production.

Guests of the winery stay at the luxury Il Relais il Falconiere & Spa resort, part of the prestigious chain Relais & Châteaux, located just beyond the vineyard. There the resort’s traditional Etruscan spa is the spectacle, perched high on a hilltop, surrounded by lush vineyards. I wanted to plant myself at the pool adjacent to the spa and just waste the Baracchi afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the view. Instead, we were then treated to lunch at the resort’s outdoor café where the weather was perfect but views of the surrounding vineyards and valley were even more perfect– location, location, location.

Cortona’s most popular resident, Frances Mayes of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, is prevalent throughout the resort. Silvia Baracchi hosts cooking classes at the restaurant and at their cooking school, Under the Tuscan Sun. Baracchi produces a number of wines from Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet  and Trebbiano grapes, in addition to olive oil and my husband’s favorite, grappa.

We tasted the winery’s most popular wines with each course of our meal. We started with the Ardito, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a great peppery wine to wake our tastebuds. Throughout the rest of the meal, we tasted the single grape Smeriglio wines include a Syrah, Merlot and Sangiovese. A beautifully prepared dessert plate was presented at the end of the meal but we opted for espresso instead of grappa, especially given the winding drive home.

This is Part 2 of  Santa Maria Valley: Where Wine and BBQ Reign Supreme

While the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia Mountains offer some of the most breathtaking scenic drives, the region also offers the most beautiful vistas for wine tasting – and produces some really stellar Santa Maria Valley wines.

The Santa Maria Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the second oldest AVA in California with Napa Valley being the oldest. What makes this region, and its wines, so unique is that its mountain ranges run East to West, one of only two transverse mountain ranges on the entire West Coast of North and South America.  And the cooler climate of this coastal region produces some really flavorful wines with personality.

Riverbench Vineyard

Riverbench is one of those places where you’ll want to take the family, the dog and a picnic lunch and just while away the afternoon sipping wine, looking out at the amazing views, and listening to some live music. The winery hosts BYOB Sundays, Bring-Your-Own-Blanket, where guests can also play bocce and horseshoes. The tasting room is a renovated 1920s craftsman home on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.
Riverbench is named for its location on the banks of the Sisquoc River known as the Santa Maria Bench. The first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were planted here in 1973. The vineyard was growing high quality grapes and selling the fruit to other wineries, but in 2004, they  began producing their own label’s wines. Today, this boutique winery produces wines that take advantage of the cool ocean breezes to bring out the grapes’ tropical fruit flavors under the watchful eye of Winemaker Clarissa Nagy (see below as she also produces her own label). Today, the vineyard grows 107 acres of Pinot Noir and 77 acres of Chardonnay and recently added Pinot Meunier to its portfolio. The winery also produces a number of sparkling Champagne-inspired wines. The Blanc de Blancs is a classic sparkling wine while the Blanc de Noirs is highly complex and the perfect glass for enjoying the beautiful landscape.

Nagy Wines

Clarissa Nagy of Nagy Wines is my type of winemaker. Although she’s the chief winemaker at Riverbench, she also produces small lots under her own name, sourcing grapes from only the best, personally-selected vineyards. She got her start in wine when she and her husband bottled their own wine, a 2002 Viognier, for wedding favors. The response from her family and friends was overwhelming and before long, she had purchased a ton of Pinot Noir grapes and in 2005, she launched her namesake brand. She made her mark at many of the region’s top wineries where she continued to hone her craft. Her namesake label produces Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Viognier.

Ca’ Del Grevino

As you ascend the hill to the winery, one of the most beautiful European villas quickly comes into view. But only certain members of their high-end wine club have access to the property although they do host outdoor summer concerts and corporate events for the public on the surrounding grounds. My advice: attend one of the concerts just to get a glimpse of this magnificent chateau. Ca’ Del Grevino is currently building what promises to be one of the country’s most incredible winery destinations – a $25 million dollar, 35,000 square-foot banquet and tasting facility where visitors can watch the production underground through glass.

The winery produces small lots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Grenache, Dolcetto, Riesling and Syrah and the region’s temperate climate and cool ocean breezes add a depth of flavor thanks to longer hang-time. The winery produces three levels of wine – Element, Grevino and Ca’Del Grevino – with memberships for each level. But don’t plan to become a member of the acclaimed Ca’Del Grevino level as that is by invitation only and word has it that only 12 celebrities are currently part of the membership.


Presqu’ile is one of those destination wineries where there’s much more to do than just taste wines. Sitting high upon a hill overlooking the Santa Maria Valley, the tasting room features floor to ceiling windows with views of the vast vineyards and a glimpse of the Pacific ocean.  The expansive terrace includes a fireplace and bocce pit, while a rooftop terrace is all about the vistas. A private outdoor lounge, for members only, serves light bites.

This small, family-run winery produces exceptional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines, as well as Syrah, Rosé of Pinot Noir and sparkling wines. A large grass outdoor amphitheater hosts outdoor concerts in the summer.

Where to stay: And since you won’t be able to hit all of these wineries in one day, book a room at the Holiday Inn Santa Maria ValleyIt’s centrally locally and amenities include large rooms with kitchenettes, a fitness center, outdoor pool and bar and restaurant.
Getting around: The best way to enjoy your wine tasting experience is by letting someone else do the driving. Gold Coast Limousines will take good care of you.

The Santa Maria Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is known for two things – beef (Santa Maria style barbecue to be exact) and wine – such a delicious combination. And I recently spent a few days there to find the best of the best of each.

First, I’ll tell you that this is one of the most spectacular solo drives through California. Driving the 101 north through the Santa Lucia Mountains is simply stunning. My trip took a bit longer than planned because I kept stopping to take pictures of the amazing landscape.

I’m a Texas girl so I was surprised to find that many consider Santa Maria Valley to be the barbecue capital of the West. When I think about what makes the California coast iconic, I think about wine. And surfing. Or drinking wine while watching surfers. But I never thought of the region for beef, or barbecue. Turns out, Santa Maria style barbecue is quite a secret and only those who dare to explore this region will discover it.

The history of Santa Maria style barbecue

Tri-tip steaks are the cornerstone of Santa Maria style barbecue. The tri-tip is bottom sirloin, cut into a triangular shape. Not surprisingly, it was cowboys who actually came up with this culinary creation while working the ranchland in the mid 1800s. They’d sit around the campfire and hang their cuts of beef over the open flame. The meat is unseasoned and the native red oak is what flavors the beef. Today, many restaurants feature open pit grills – or Santa Maria grills – where guests can watch the process. And just as the cowboys did, most restaurants serve every Santa Maria style barbecue dish with pinquito beans and salsa. Rumor has it that President Ronald Reagan, who owned land in the area, would bring seasoned Santa Maria style barbecue chefs to the White House to satisfy his craving. You can read more about the history of Santa Maria style barbecue here:

Where to eat Santa Maria style barbecue

Far Western Tavern
The Far Western Tavern has strong roots in the Santa Maria Valley serving contemporary California ranch cuisine. The restaurant was established in 1958 and has passed through three generations of the Minetti family and recently made the move from its origin in Guadalupe to Orcutt. Recognizing that the restaurant was famously recognized for its interior furnishings, the owners took great pains to preserve many of the establishment’s iconic features and incorporate them into the new space. The signature antique mahogany bar, antique gas ceiling lamps, stained glass panels and mounted animals all made their way to the new restaurant. A large mural painted by legendary Western artist Ernie Morris was also preserved to hang in the new dining room, as well as other pieces of Western art.  

Far Western Tavern is white tablecloth fine dining with that California ranch feel and a menu that is divine. You can make an entire meal on the appetizers with hearty selections like Mac N’ Cheese Relleno, Filet Mignon Carpaccio and Prosciutto Wrapped Jalapeños. The 8 oz. Oak Grilled Tri-Tip is the menu’s featured selection, served with corn & pinquito bean salsa, garlic mashed potatoes, shishito peppers, and avocado verde sauce. I opted for the Stout Braised Short Ribs with creamy herbed polenta, baby romanesco, and crispy onions, and it did not disappoint. 

Moxie Cafe
This place is where comfy cowboy fare meets healthy. Jay Hardy, owner of Hardy Diagnostics, a nearby biomedical manufacturing company, wanted a healthy place nearby for this employees to eat. So he solved the problem himself by creating the concept for and opening Moxie Cafe. The restaurant prepares wholesome meals using fresh ingredients with no preservatives, no MSG, no trans fats, and reduced sugar. It’s a favorite among employees but locals as well for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The menu favorite is the classic Santa Maria Sandwich made with Angus tri-tip cut of beef, with cheddar cheese, roasted red onions, and hardwood smoked honey-cured bacon. And yes, it’s healthily prepared. For an even healthier twist, there’s the Roasted Veggie Sandwich with eggplant, red bell pepper, zucchini, oven roasted tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, and a cilantro-jalapeno aioli. Or you could just opt for a plate of the sides, like Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Mashed Red Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Gravy. They’re both homey and memorable.

Rooney’s Irish Pub
You might be surprised to find an Irish pub in cowboy country but it’s the perfect complement to the rustic fare found in the Santa Maria Valley. But the owners wanted to bring their love for Ireland, its people, countryside, and “craic,” to residents of visitors of the region.

Rooney’s is a fine dining gastropub with classic Irish dishes like Bangers & Mash, Corned beef, and Fish & chips. “The Lost” shepherds pie with Guiness-braised Angus short rib, celery and carrots atop creamy cheddar-chive mashed potatoes is a must try. And what would an Irish pub be without beer? Rooney’s brews a number of its own ales – Ambers, Blondes, Porters, and IPAs, and also serves a selection of other craft brews.

Shaws Steakhouse
Shaws is one of the original family steakhouses, opened in 1953. You can watch the chef prepare your meal on an open flame grill that dates back to the 19th century. The interior conjures up traditional steakhouse visions – lots of dark wood, brass, and walls lined with western-inspired photos. My childhood memories of family steakhouses were triggered as the waitress set baskets of packaged crackers with butter in front of me, along with a relish tray of sliced fresh vegetables and a bowl of salsa.

Shaws is a meat eaters paradise. The menu offers a wide range of oak pit barbecue preparations including tri-tip, filet mignon, rib eye, top sirloin, ribs and more. There’s also a selection of fish preparations in addition to oak-grilled sweetbreads and linguiça sausage.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on the wines of the Santa Maria Valley