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Eat, Drink and Be Mellow in Temecula, California

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At this point in its history Temecula (58 miles north of San Diego and 85 miles south of Los Angeles on Interstate 15) is a Southern California town with a decidedly split personality.

The city center, Old Town -- which until recently still had wooden sidewalks --celebrates the days when Temecula was surrounded by vast John Wayne-style cattle ranches. A few miles away you'll find the mega gaming resort -- the Pachanga Casino, Hotel, Golf Courses and Spa.

Take an aerial view of the valley from a hot-air balloon and you'll see where grazing cattle have given way to vineyards resembling Tuscan hill towns. In Temecula you can have it all -- from Texas-style barbecue and line dancing to the freshest farm-to-table cuisine, olive oil, craft beer and wine-tasting as well as the ultimate spa escape.

If you enjoy the everything-in-one-place experience, Pachanga should be your destination of choice. The hotel tower offers spacious rooms with mountain views and every kind of restaurant imaginable accompanied by miles of neon-bright ring-a-ding-ding slot machines. There are gorgeous greens for putting and plenty of pools for plopping.

But Pachanga's greatest treasure -- the perfect escape for body and spirit -- is its spa. From the moment you enter the elegantly designed lobby with its soft, buff-colored stone walls displaying Pachanga tribal basketry, you're in another world. Just put yourself in the capable hands of the gracious staff and immerse yourself in its many offerings: soothing massages, facial and skin treatments, steam rooms, hot tubs and saunas. And you don't have to be staying at Pachanga to enjoy it.

In contrast to the human anthill of Pachanga is Europa Village, located in the middle of Temecula wine country. Rustic and restful, the complex offers a variety of eating, drinking and overnight choices. The central hub is the wine-tasting patio, C'est La Vie, where you can sample tapas accompanied by the varietal flavors of Bolero's Spanish-influenced wines. A complete dining experience can be had at Bolero Restaurante, featuring Spanish dishes prepared by Executive Chef Hany Ali. An alternative to the main complex and its luxury casitas is the top-of-the-hill serenity of the Europa Inn, with its balcony views, fire pit and hot tub for soaking under the stars.

 

As Temecula's wine industry has expanded and matured, so have restaurants offering the freshest in farm-to-table cuisine. After a day of wine-tasting, head for Old Town. There, nestled among the beer-and-burger bars you'll find two of Temecula's finest eateries. Bottega Italia offers a full Italian-profiled menu that includes a most succulent osso buco. Here they serve wines grown on the Prestifilippo family's Poggio Leano vineyards. For dessert there is a selection of in-house-made gelatos and Italian pastries. The air is casual, the vibe is hip.

For a truly creative culinary experience, try Small Barn. In the words of its founders, Dan and Cathy Gibson, "Small Barn restaurant is an expression of our passion for the wine country lifestyle. We have made Temecula our home for over 25 years as greenhouse growers, vineyard owners, vintners and neighbors."

The menu ranges from a charcuterie plate featuring locally produced meats and cheeses to a whole roasted sea bass rolled in turmeric with a spicy cashew sauce. There's a big-as-your-table 32-ounce Westholme Wagyu tomahawk steak to die for. And simple as it sounds, the homemade chocolate-chip cookies are a must.

You'll need a car to travel the 18 miles south on State Route 79 to where it intersects with State Route 371 to reach the ranch-grove of Temecula Olive Oil. Head down the ranch's dirt road and you'll enter a bucolic world of rows upon rows of olive trees accented by lushly blooming gardens. Overseen by master olive-oil maker Thom Curry, Temecula Olive Oil offers a wide variety of fresh-pressed, extra-virgin olive oils, both plain and flavor-infused, as well as a succulent selection of infused balsamic vinegar.

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