Monday, October 19, 2015

Our California adventure

For what was originally meant to be a travel blog, I have, ironically, done a very poor job blogging about my travels. I'm going to try to do better - and first up is a recap of the nine days Austin and I spent in California in early September. This was not an adventure in that it was very far off the beaten path - but we did do a lot of moving around and made a lot of decisions on the fly.

A few months back, Austin and his parents started talking about meeting up for a long weekend in Napa over the summer, and were kind enough to invite me along. I mentioned that as long as we were on the West Coast, I'd like to combine it with a visit to my sister in Southern California, since I'd been hoping to make it out her direction this summer anyway. Austin was game to join me - and so the idea was hatched of doing a mini-road trip down the coast from Napa to Newport.

Lonely Planet recommended you take a week or two to travel down the coast. I scoffed a bit at that suggestion since Google Maps only showed seven or eight hours of driving time between San Francisco and Newport Beach - a trip that could technically be knocked out in one day that we would be taking a leisurely route on over two or three. Oh man, have I seen the light. Sure, the driving time is one thing, but there is so much to stop and see along the way. This was a fantastic trip but I would love to go back and hit some of the spots we missed.

We landed at SFO early on Saturday morning and made our way to Fisherman's Wharf, where we stayed at The Argonaut hotel. That was a San Francisco highlight for sure - it was converted from an old cannery with some of the original wooden beams still showing (and the best and only octopus wallpaper I have ever seen). After Irish coffees and a bit of wandering around the piers, we hit Zuni Cafe (I believe on a recommendation from Tom Sietsema, who can do no wrong in my book) for roast chicken and several glasses of rose in the hour it took them to roast the chicken. (No complaints here.) We hit City Lights bookstore and the cable car museum, and then the bar at the top of the Mark hotel for happy hour. We had been wondering whether it would be a better stop by day or by night - the obvious solution is to stay for a few hours and several drinks to watch the sun set and the city lights come on.

We capped off Saturday with dinner in Chinatown and an impromptu driving tour, including Lombard Street and a stop at Coit Tower. I had never heard of it but would definitely recommend it for the fantastic views - though there seemed to be no shortage of those, what with all the hills. It's a cliche but they were SERIOUSLY SO STEEP. And it wasn't like the city was just a tilted plane, they went up in all angles in all directions with no discernible pattern - hard for us swamp-dwellers to wrap our heads around.

On Sunday morning, I went for a walk along the Embarcadero to see the sea lions at Pier 39 (spoiler alert: seals and sea lions were my absolute favorite thing about this trip). Before heading across the bay bridge, we stopped at the Ferry Building for lemon-lavender-charcoal juice and artisanal mushroom jerky. Similar vibes to Union Market in DC but pretty cool that it is still a working ferry terminal.

We stopped in Berkeley for fantastic Mexican food and a quick self-guided campus tour, then continued on to Napa - just in time for happy hour at Mumm, where the two-drink limit was a source of some disgruntlement among our party. We then embarked upon the first of several vineyard photo shoots. Let the record reflect that I would have been happy with a few profile pic-worthy snapshots, but Austin egged me on into an extended session featuring a number of jumping photos. (Foreshadowing.)

We continued just a few more minutes down Silverado Trail to our airbnb. We had opted to stay in St. Helena since it seemed a bit less congested than more southerly areas of the valley, and it ended up being a great location - we could have drunk for weeks without ever going beyond a five-minute driving radius. Austin found a fantastic two-bedroom airbnb, of which everyone's favorite feature was a palm tree in the middle of a vineyard. Doesn't get more California than that.

On Monday, we hit Sterling Vineyards for its tram ride to the top, had a nice lunch in neighboring Calistoga at Solbar, got inspired by the idea of port and hit Prager Winery and Port Works, and capped it off drinking a lot of cabernet sauvignon (including some of the really good stuff) at the beautifully-designed Hall Wines - of which my favorite feature was the rabbit sculpture. This was, predictably, the site of another jumping photo session - the results of which I will spare you.

Tuesday morning, my back started bothering me. Some back story (do you see what I did there?!) - my lower back has been hurting on and off since April (the hilarious thing is, I remember that's what it started because I made a daily card the first day it was bad enough to leave work early). It flared up the week before we left, but I was hopeful that I would be over it by the trip. It never felt 100% back-to-normal - the cross-country flight didn't help - but it didn't feel like a big deal until Tuesday, when it appeared that all the jumping photos came back to bite me.

Nonetheless, we had a great wine-tasting at Frog's Leap and learned about the perks of growing organic grapes and not irrigating your vines (so they grow deeper, hardier roots) - the community gardener in me was totally fascinated that the same principles that apply to my vegetables apply to wine. But it got harder and harder to stand up, and by the afternoon I was yowling every time I had to get out of the car. Since we kept passing the turn for the St. Helena hospital on the way to and from the wineries, I put in a request for a quick emergency room visit. I left a few hours later with a bunch of drugs and a new lease on life for the rest of the trip. It sucked to spend part of vacation at the hospital, but it did have the nicest views of any I've been in.

Wednesday morning, we got an early start to drop Austin's parents off at the airport, passing through Sonoma and over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then drove to Palo Alto to pay Stanford a visit.

We made it to Monterey by late afternoon and checked into a fantastic airbnb, about ten minutes in the hills surrounding the town with fantastic views of the area. We had gone back and forth on the idea of staying in Monterey - initially we thought we'd spend Wednesday night in Big Sur - but it looked like most places in Big Sur were inland, and Austin was adamant about staying someplace with views and NOT staying in the woods. We walked around the wharfs as the sun set and then had fish at a Tiki restaurant in town - the first of a few restaurants with a "water only on request" because of the drought. We would have liked to visit the Monterey aquarium, but it didn't quite work in our schedule - that's top of the list for a future trip.

On Thursday morning, we did a quick driving tour of Monterey to see Cannery Row and the Middlebury Institute, and then headed onto California 1 through Big Sur. It was everything Instagram promised and more. We pulled over every few miles to take in the view and saw some whales along the way. We skipped Nepenthe and ate an impromptu picnic lunch of the various foods we'd accumulated during our stay. We took the can't-miss-it trail (a little over a mile round trip) in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see where the waterfall hits the sand. Probably one of the most Instagrammed parts of the park and worth a visit for sure.

This photo makes me laugh - I love the composition (nice eye, Austin) and the pictures of just me in front of the ocean are a little misleading. (I actually didn't mind the throngs since hey, it's cool to be around people who are just as excited as you, and it was a good way to pick the "best" scenic viewpoints to stop at.)

After leaving the Big Sur area, it's a short drive to San Simeon, where the elephant seals joust on a beach near Hearst Castle (which we didn't hit - it wasn't top of my list but I'd definitely be curious on a future trip). We made something of a mad dash to Morro Bay to watch the sun set by Morro Rock. On a recommendation, we hit Taco Temple for shrimp and swordfish tacos that did not disappoint. (But tortilla chips that did. Somehow none of the tortilla chips in California were up to par.) If there's one contribution I have to what is an amply-covered part of the country, it is that Morro Bay is a super-worthwhile stop.

We knew Friday was going to be A Lot of Driving to get to Newport Beach. (We'd given some thought to spacing it more evenly, but based on where we were interested in stopping for the night - and the fact that Big Sur seemed like the part of the drive we'd most want to linger on - we gave into a longer drive on Friday.) If we'd had more time on Friday, we would have kayaked around Morro Rock - but we satisfied ourselves with gazing upon it from the shore. We got coffees in a charming bakery - full of salty dogs and bread in the shape of various sea animals - on the embarcadero and then hit the road. We ventured away from the Pacific Coast Highway (I think) in the interest of efficiency, but the views through Santa Barbara were surprisingly scenic. I think we dipped into the Santa Ynez Valley - another place I'd love to go back to for wine-tasting and more fantastic views.

When choosing the airbnb for Newport, the two front-runners were a room in a beach house on Balboa Peninsula by Newport Pier, a couple blocks from the beach, and a room on Balboa Island facing the harbor. We ended up opting for the latter and oh man, was it the right call. Our room had French doors opening onto a little terrace, and then right across the sidewalk there was a private beach where we flouted the rules a bit to have some sunset chardonnay.

After sundown, we took the ferry across to the peninsula for a private Ferris Wheel ride and a fantastic sushi dinner. We sat at the bar at San Shi Go in Newport and, like the proper hipsters we are, asked what fish were local and in season - which led to course after course of delicious sushi being presented to us and a much higher bill than anticipated. It was well worth it though and a huge highlight of the trip.

Saturday morning, we had frozen bananas for breakfast on Balboa Island and geeked out at staying where Arrested Development was set. We then picked up my sister and kayaked for a few hours in the harbor between Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island - we even pulled onshore across from our airbnb and lounged in the sand for a bit. There were more sea lions there - swimming around and hanging out on the backs of boats and honking when anyone got too close. We got more fantastic tacos at Sancho's tacos and leaned into SoCal life with acai bowls for dessert. After chilling on our little beach that afternoon, we had dinner with my sister in Huntington Beach.

Sunday morning, we were up at 4:45 to drive to LAX - foregoing the smaller, closer Orange County airport for the promise of a nonstop flight back to DC. We were a little nervous about tackling the traffic and figuring out how to return the rental - but at that hour, there were very few people on the highway and the airport was a cinch. And it was cool to drive into LA as the sun came up.

So that's it! Overall thoughts: I could probably vacation in California for the rest of my life and never get bored. And I have a newfound appreciation for the fact that a road trip is a tricky thing to get right. It's hard to balance the on-the-move parts with let's-explore-this-locale parts with let's-sit-and-drink-wine-and-enjoy-the-view parts. And to balance the fun of spontaneous adventure with the stresses of last-minute planning. I wish we had had the time to spend two nights at our stops down the coast - so we could explore the aquarium and the castle and do more relaxing in our lovely airbnb spots and to not have to pack up and drive several hours every day. If we did it again, I'd want to stay longer or try to cover less territory.

In summary, the big winners: Airbnbs, tacos, views, wine, sea lions, and health insurance. The losers: tortilla chips and sciatica.

...and if you made it to the end of this post, we both deserve a nice glass of California wine. Even if in my case, it's from the nearest grocery store. Cheers!

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