Chirped by Tina
Wine tasting is obviously an adult activity (and one that we really enjoy), so we scheduled a big “adults-only” trip to California for last fall, when our kids would be back at college. (Don’t feel too bad for them – we all spent a week in the Galapagos at the very beginning of the summer! Check out our Galapagos Getaway in an earlier post.) I’ve also always wanted to see the giant redwood and sequoia forests, and we’ve never been to Yosemite National Park, so my awesome hubbie, the family vacation planner, worked out a trip that would encompass all of that and more. Take a gander at our photos, flit through my descriptions, take note of the Hubster’s scheduling tips, and decide for yourself whether to add this particular “flight path” to the list of destinations you might like to soar to some day!
Day 1 – Welcome to California!
The first leg of our journey took us nonstop from the Philadelphia airport to San Francisco International. Happily, we were able to convince another couple to accompany us on our trip, which always makes for livelier banter at cocktail hour and on long road trips than when it’s just the two of us! It was about a 4¾ hour scenic drive from the airport to our hotel in the heart of Yosemite National Park, so the four of us entertained ourselves in the rental car with rousing games of name-that-tune/artist while channel surfing between Classic Rewind and Vinyl stations. We stopped for a great lunch at a Mexican diner in Escalon called Cancun Restaurant, and occasionally stopped to stretch our legs at spectacular pull-offs like the one above. That’s the aptly named “Half Dome” mountain in the distance.
At long last we arrived at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly know as the Ahwahnee Hotel (apparently there was a legal dispute…?). Built in 1927, the hotel nestles right in the middle of the Yosemite Valley, with awe-inspiring peaks all around. The public areas are gorgeous, with Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts & Crafts Movement influences – think high ceilings with log beams, granite columns, stone fireplaces, stained glass, and colorful native tapestries.
Drinks on the back patio and a twilight stroll around the grounds were a great way to wind down after a long day of travelling. We had picked up a bottle of wine beforehand, but the hotel has a full bar and patio service that we took advantage of the following evening. Our first dinner of the trip was in the Majestic Yosemite Hotel Dining Room – the food was very good, though not particularly inventive, and the service was surprisingly poor for an award-winning restaurant. Maybe they were having a bad day? The room itself was beautiful!
Pro-Tip #1 from the Hubster: The grand old historic hotels inside national parks tend to book as much as a year in advance. Start planning early if you want to experience the real deal, with prime locations you could never build on anymore.
Day 2 – Vernal Falls Hike & Yosemite Village
Our first full day in Yosemite started with a bobcat sighting at breakfast! My husband spotted the big cat padding around the perimeter of the lawn outside and ventured out to get a closer look as it veered off under a foot bridge. We hear they don’t really mess with people. It sure didn’t seem fazed by the hotel guests out for a morning walk – with their dogs and strollers… though we thought it gave the stroller an overly thoughtful look!
The hotel has a free shuttle service that can get you to lots of destinations around the park, including the trailhead to the Vernal and Nevada Falls. We hiked the three mile round trip Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls, considered “moderate” but we found it to be “think I’m probably gonna die” strenuous. You gain 1,000 feet in elevation, and the last hundred feet or so are steps carved into the cliff wall. In October the crowds weren’t bad at all, but based on photos, I’d say the falls were only putting out about five cubic feet per second of water, versus 3,000 cfs during high spring and summer runoff! Views were still incredible all the way up, so the trade-offs between tourist density, water volume, and the bonus fall foliage we admired could be debated.
After our climb we grabbed another shuttle to Yosemite Village, got lunch at a deli, and checked out the Visitor’s Center and Ansel Adams Gallery before heading back to the hotel to relax. We finished up the day with cocktails on the patio and an excellent dinner at the Mountain Room in Yosemite Valley Lodge. Highlights included filet mignon with tomato coulis, lobster beignets, a nice charcuterie board, a ridiculously large ice cream cookie sandwich, and white chocolate crème brûlée. Yum!
Day 3 – Mariposa Grove and Glacier Point Outlook
After a quick continental breakfast in the lounge, we drove out to the newly restored Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. You have to take a short shuttle ride in from the Mariposa Arrival Area, and there are lovely boardwalks throughout the forest that protect the trees’ roots from the millions of visitors that would otherwise be trampling them every year. The trees are insanely big of course. The “Grizzly Giant” is a fan favorite. That’s my hubbie standing 50′ in front of it in the blue shirt, waving… We strolled the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, about 2 miles and 1.5 to 2 hours long, and much more accurately labeled as a “moderate” hike, with only a 300′ elevation gain. Informative plaques in front of significant trees and tree groupings explain things like why they grow in little family circles and the effects of forest fire damage. While some trees are cordoned off, you can still get up close and personal with other mammoths at different points on the trail – in case you’re really hankering to give a giant tree a hug (as was one of our companions)!
After grabbing lunch at a general store in Wawona, we journeyed on to Glacier Point for spectacular views of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding peaks. Waaaay down at the base we even identified our hotel! A side note: folks out west don’t seem to fancy guard rails as much as maybe they should. Some of the roads had rather precipitous drop-offs!
The binoculars came out at cocktail hour as we watched intrepid climbers scaling the cliffs above the hotel. We returned to the Mountain Room for dinner, since it impressed us so much more than the Majestic Dining Room. This being a change from our original plan, we passed the time in the adjoining bar until a table became available.
Day 4 – El Capitán & Napa Valley
Our last day at the Majestic, we decided to have a proper breakfast in the dining room – and were treated to two bears wandering by! We swarmed to the windows, along with all the other diners, which made it difficult to get a good photo. You’ll have to trust me that that’s a bear’s back and ear over those tall grasses. We had a much better view of a mountain coyote on our way out of the park, as well as three young mule deer.
The rock-climbing devotee of our foursome suggested we stop to watch the climbers on El Capitán for a few minutes. “The Nose” takes seriously fit climbers multiple days to climb, requiring them to strap themselves to rock ledges overnight to sleep! Had to get out the big lens to capture this group perched on a boot-shaped outcropping…
It was another four hour drive to get to Napa and wine country. We stopped for lunch in Stockton, CA at Fat City Brew & BBQ for some tasty rib sandwiches we’d seen recommended on Yelp. Actually passed a brush fire being contained by a couple of firemen – that was the closest we came to the forest fires that ravaged CA this past year.
Finally we arrived at Carneros Resort & Spa in Napa! We had a whole cottage to ourselves in this gated resort community, and made good use of the outdoor fireplace for pre-dinner drinks in the courtyard. The onsite restaurant, Farm, features vegetables and herbs grown in their own culinary garden, as well as eggs from their chicken coop, and regional wines. We opted for the tasting menu with a wine pairing. One of our favorite courses was the foie gras on French toast with huckleberries. Delicious!
Day 5- Napa Wineries & The French Laundry
After a light breakfast in the cottage, we played a round of bocce ball at the resort before heading off to our first winery tour and tasting. Originally my husband had scheduled a driver to shuttle us to three winery tours in one day, but we decided we really didn’t want to start drinking at 10am, so we cancelled the first one, which turned out to be an excellent decision. Our driver, Nathaniel, knew a lot about the wine business, and shared his expertise with us between tours – everything from protecting the grapevines from birds to differences in microclimates and soils between Napa, Sonoma, and France… He was a fountain of information!
Pro-Tip #2 from the Hubster: Hire a driver to get you from one wine-tasting to the next, and don’t try to do more than two in a day. Hotel concierges can often recommend knowledgeable local drivers.
First stop: B Cellars. We began with a tour of the property, including a taste of the grapes in the vineyards, the winery itself, the gardens and the wine cave. This winery brings in most of their grapes from select nearby growers, putting their energy into the wine-making itself. Apparently this is not an uncommon division of labor. The main event was a wine tasting with food pairing in the Hospitality House. With more than 2,000 wineries in California, the trick is to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack in some way. B Cellars does that with food. The chef plans what herbs to grow (not buy!) based on the wines they plan to showcase each season – and scrambles to rework the menu accordingly if the wines get changed up. Truly a gastronomical art form! Our menu included a togarashi crusted cod with yuzu pumpkin puree and toasted pepitas, presented with a 2016 Star Vineyard Chardonnay, and a chicken brochette with a blueberry-chili barbecue sauce and cheddar grits, partnered with a 2016 Zinfandel. All done in perfect little sample-sized portions. Delightful!
Nathaniel drove us around the Napa countryside and bestowed some more knowledge, then dropped us off at our second winery, Keever Estates. Ashley Keever, the daughter of the owners, was our guide at this family-run establishment. She gave us an insider’s take on the wine-making process, including the family’s assembly-line-style hand-picked removal of MOGs (Materials Other than Grapes – like rocks and lizards!) As true “estate wines” must be, the Keever wines are made entirely from grapes grown in the Keever vineyards, and never leave the property during the whole wine-making process. No food pairings were on offer at this one – which was all part of the plan. We had to save room for dinner!
Ahhh, dinner! The French Laundry – widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world! Nine courses, if you only count the ones listed on the menu. That doesn’t even include the amuse-bouches they bring out to tantalize your tongue at the start of the experience, or the multitude of dessert-y extras that arrive at the end (including a goody bag to take home)! This is a jacket-required, break-the-bank, extravaganza of the highest order. Hours of enjoyment for all five senses – ok, maybe four, I don’t recall anything particularly memorable in the auditory realm…? I didn’t pull out my phone to take any pics at the table (was trying to play it cool), but we got invited back to see the kitchen, so at least I have these memories of the artisans at work… Describing the dishes, even word-for-word from the souvenir menu, just doesn’t do them justice. You need to see, taste, smell and feel them on your tongue. Really should have taken pictures, dang it!
Pro-tip #3 from the Hubster: The French Laundry is a really hard reservation to get. New two-month blocks of reservations are released two months in advance, at 10am PST on the first day of every odd month, and only on the French Laundry’s reservation website. Right now, in February, they’re booking through the end of April, but on March 1st new dates will become available in May and June. Even concierges at really fancy hotels won’t help you with this, you just have to mark your calendar, set your alarm, and get on the website as soon as the blocks open to get a date you can work with. Good luck!
Day 6 – Historic Sonoma and Sonoma Valley Wineries
After another light breakfast (hey, something had to be light!), our new driver, Andrew, drove us to historic Sonoma before our first winery appointment. We visited the Sonoma Mission and Barracks and learned about El Camino Real, the 600 mile “King’s Highway” that connected the missions during Spanish colonial times. We also had time to check out some art galleries. The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art had a powerful collection by artists who experienced the devastation of the big California wildfire of 2017.
Our first Sonoma Valley winery was Patz & Hall, with a food pairing that served as our “elevenses” lunch! This tasting was the first time we were put together with another small group at a long table that comfortably sat eight. Patz & Hall specializes in Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, using grapes sourced from selected regional growers, like B Cellars. They had a beautiful outdoor space to enjoy our favorite wines in afterwards, and fantastic pinots!
The last winery stop was Scribe, with an outdoor tasting and food pairing in the hacienda. It’s possible we signed up for the wrong thing, because there was not much in the way of a tour, and no one really explained the wines to us, but they had good chardonnays and made for a nice second lunch in a beautiful setting. It was interesting how different our four wineries were from each other! That’s probably a credit to the hubbie’s due diligence in selecting them. (-:
We rounded out the days’ eating and drinking at TORC, a restaurant and bar back in Napa. Some Keever selections were on the wine list, which was cool to see! TORC was a much more high-energy, happening place than most of the other restaurants we’d dined at, while still delivering a creative and first class menu. Then back to the cottage for a nightcap by the fire in the courtyard… (I’m noticing a recurring drinking theme for this trip, are you?)
Day 7- Muir Woods & the Fairmont on Ghirardelli Square
The last checks for our bucket list were the giant redwoods at Muir Woods. Only an hour’s drive from our place in Napa, they were well worth the trip. We hiked the two mile loop trail and caught part of a ranger talk along the way. Redwoods are even taller than sequoias (up to ~370′ vs. ~310′), but not as wide (up to 22′ in base diameter, vs. 40′!) and don’t live as long (only 2,000 years instead of over 3,000!)… You actually need a reservation to visit in order to protect the woods and limit the crowds, so plan ahead!
After a quick stop to admire the view at Muir Beach Overlook (off the Pacific Highway), we headed for San Francisco and the last leg of our amazing trip. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to get into the city, and continued on to our suite at Fairmont Heritage Place on Ghirardelli Square. Mmmm… chocolate! The picture windows in the living room looked right over the water to Alcatraz! We took a leisurely stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf, then headed back to the hotel for drinks around the firepit on a veranda overlooking the square. We have friends in Oakland, so our first night we caught an Uber to their house and dined at a neighborhood restaurant nearby.
Day 8 – San Francisco MoMA, Chinatown & Coit Tower
Our last full day in California! We’d all toured Alcatraz on previous visits, so our first stop was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: giant spider sculptures, Chuck Close portraits, screaming red bathrooms, and a cafe lunch were some of the highlights.
Next we walked down to Chinatown. We’d recently listened to a podcast about its origins, so it was neat to see it in person. We took a car up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower as our last stop of the afternoon. The views from the hilltop were terrific. Three of us are into birding, and we’d read about a flock of wild parrots that live near the tower, descended from some escaped (or released?) pets long ago. The line was too long to go up the tower itself, so we focused on slowly patrolling the perimeter, binoculars and zoom lenses at the ready, on the hunt for the cherry-headed, mitred, or hybrid conures. We were disappointed. Dejected, we were taking the Filbert Steps down the hillside when the sharp-eared birding pro of our group heard a call he’d never encountered before. Just when we’d lost hope of seeing them, three parrots landed on the telephone wires above our heads. Mission accomplished!
Our last dinner of the trip was at a great seafood place on the docks called Scoma that prides itself on pier-to-plate dishes, sourced right off the docks from local fisherman. A little Ben & Jerry’s shop satisfied our sweet tooth for dessert, and we stopped in at a gallery featuring Dr. Seuss artwork just for kicks. Feeling a little unwilling to let the vacation end, we had one last drink at the Buena Vista Cafe – the bar credited with introducing Irish Coffee to the United States in the 50s. Unfortunately we all had to catch an early morning flight the next day, so none of us actually ordered the coffee!
After eight delightful days in sunny California, it was finally time to head home. The good news for us? Our boys are a little jealous that they missed out on the giant tree portion of the trip… Maybe once they turn 21, we can do it all over again!
Related Post: Galapagos Getaway
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