Celebrating family with a get-together in Temecula Valley, California

It’s near impossible to get my extended family together for Christmas, so a few years ago my cousin Christine and I instigated a tradition of getting everyone together a couple of weeks prior to the holiday.

When Christine first suggested Temecula Valley as a destination, I was excited at the prospect of escaping the chilly Northwest winter. Half a beat later, I remembered Temecula Valley is wine country, and a lot of us (ourselves included) would have kids along. I wondered aloud if it’d be family-friendly.

“Don’t worry about it,” Christine answered, “There’s plenty for everyone to do, starting with staying at a great resort.”

I looked it up online and realized she was right. We put the word out, and the plans were made within a couple of days.

Uniting and dividing

Troy and I, along with our elementary-school-aged kids, Riley and Greyson, checked in to Pechanga Casino Resort and met up with extended family. We talked about who wanted to do what and reorganized ourselves into subgroups. Items on the agenda included wine tasting, golfing, and getting pampered at the resort’s spa. My dad said he needed grandkid time, so he’d go wherever Riley and Greyson were going. Christine invited us to join her crew at Temecula Valley Museum. We were game.

Splitting up like that might look like we don’t know how to get together, but that’s how we connect. We don’t do the giant reunion with matching shirts. We mix and mingle. So, our subgroup of eight headed out for history.

The museum featured ancient artifacts, old photos, and records documenting the area events including Native American history and the development of the city. The second floor was a hands-on experience that the kids (not to mention my dad) went nuts for. In putting on the apron at the General Store, my dad instantly enlisted Troy in the fun with a sort of improv play. They got into a very silly mock barter (“No, good sir. The clock is not for sale, and your left shoe is not legal tender!”). It had all the kids (not to mention the adults) cracking up.

Later, Christine and her husband offered to take Riley and Greyson along with their daughter to Temecula on Ice, an outdoor ice-skating rink set up just during the winter. Since there would be food vendors at the event for them, Troy and I took the opportunity to set up a dinner date with my parents.

Dynamite bites

On our way to pick up my mom, Troy did a quick search on his phone and suggested Cork | Fire Kitchen at Temecula Creek Inn.

“It’s farm-to-table,” he said with a grin.

Artistic wrought-iron light fixtures hanging from a bare wood vaulted ceiling and a wall of windows gave the restaurant an ambiance like a chalet, but instead of snow, the dusk view included evergreen trees and a pond on a gorgeous golf course.

My parents, Troy, and I relaxed into the evening with fabulous local wines, and got caught up and recounted that day’s adventures.

I’m usually pretty decisive, but I was struggling to pick from the alluring options on the menu. I called upon an old habit from my childhood and asked my mom to order for me.

She set me up with garden-herb-marinated grilled lamb chops accompanied by strawberry, lime, and almond chutney and cardamom rice. While I don’t deny my mom’s talent, in tasting a bite of her balsamic-glazed short rib, Troy’s grilled burger, and my dad’s orange-tamarind-glazed pork tenderloin, in this case, she couldn’t miss.

The evening ended with reconnecting with our kids back at Pechanga and hearing them excitedly recount their time on the ice. Riley talked about the holiday lights and Christine doing hockey stops, and Greyson talked about skating backward and the dinner they had.

Our flight was followed by a light breakfast and a mimosa (or orange juice) toast to our new status as “aeronauts.”

Grape expectations

On the morning of day two, we came as close to a complete gathering as my family has gotten (so far). Most of us woke up early to at least watch the hot-air balloons and explore the winery, if not actually take the sunrise flight.

“They’re huge!” Greyson pointed out when we first approached the balloons at Europa Village Winery, the meeting spot for A Grape Escape Hot-Air Balloon Adventure. I’d never strongly considered the proportions, but at around 70 feet tall, yep, they’re huge.

The pilots and crew met our group and showed the utmost in professionalism, expertise, and hospitality.

In our typical fashion, the family mixed up into smaller groups for flights. Troy and Riley joined some of my cousins. Greyson decided to ride along with my dad and a couple of teenage relatives. And I joined a group including my mom and aunts.

There was a lot of chatter in our basket at liftoff, but it dwindled in relation to our altitude. The more of the dawn-drenched landscape we saw, the more attentive to it we were.


The sun made its fiery orange and yellow entrance. Long shadows from rows of grapevine trellises, buildings, and mountains gave the wine country scene a dramatic touch. At one point, I noticed I’d been holding my breath.

Our pilot seemed apt in his timing of silence and conversation. In addition to guiding us comfortably through the air, he served as a docent to the area, pointing out interesting landmarks (including our resort) and identifying birds. I imagined the landscape across various time-periods based on knowledge I’d picked up from Temecula Valley Museum. The hour-plus ride passed quickly and serenely.

Back on the ground, I asked the kids about their flights. Their enthusiasm burst forth like floodgates opened, practically narrating their experiences all over again.

Our flight was followed by a light breakfast and a mimosa (or orange juice) toast to our new status as “aeronauts.”

Wrapping it up

Afterward, most of us went back to the resort to enjoy some lazy time—reading, playing games, socializing, and filling up on snacks and coffee.

In late afternoon, a group of us went to Pennypickle’s Workshop. The kids were all about it!

Pennypickle’s Workshop is a children’s museum that turns science into play. And during the holiday season, it transforms into Winter Wonderland—and that includes real snow. In addition to exploring the interactive exhibits, we visited with Santa in his cottage and learned that Professor Pennypickle had a major role in solving the mathematical challenge of delivering gifts to a world-full of children in one night. We also got some very cute photos of the kids with Santa.

Too soon, we found ourselves packing up and parting ways. As Christine and I were chatting our lengthy goodbye, she pointed out that we could make a summer reunion a tradition, too. Genius.

Visit Temecula Valley for more fun things to do

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