Category Archives: California

Wine Country!

This vacation was our first visit to California, so naturally our visit to California’s Wine Country was our first visit there as well.  It was something we had been planning for a long, long time and as we sailed back to San Francisco from Alaska we were very anxious to get the next step of our vacation started!

Once we disembarked our cruise ship in San Francisco on Wednesday morning our first order of business was to get a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car.  This was sort of bass-ackwards as the airport was the opposite direction from where we wanted to go, but that turned out to be the cheapest place to rent a car.  Plus we wanted to be able to drop the car off at the airport on our return as it was much more convenient.  After an exciting ride with a Greek cab driver (You like my driving, no?”) we made it safely to the airport and navigated the rail system to the rental car desk.  Soon we had our car and were back on the road.

We had Wednesday afternoon, all day Thursday, Friday and Saturday for our adventure, so we wanted to make the most of it.  Our first order of business after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge was to locate Highway 1 and head toward the coast.  Our intention was to stop at Muir Woods National Monument, but for some reason the place was packed – on a Wednesday!  The main parking lot was full, the over flow parking was full, and the overflow for the overflow parking was full and people were parking on the road.  We decided to drive on, and people were parked along the road for nearly a mile from the entrance.  We hadn’t done any research ahead of time, so maybe the place is always that crowded.  I’d sure hate to go there on a weekend if it is even busier.  Amazing!  We’ll have to do that another time.

After a brief stop at the Muir Beach overlook to get a view of the Pacific Ocean from the land side, we headed on North along Highway 1.  What a view!  Nothing like we get along the East Coast, that’s for sure.  We stopped at a little restaurant in the town of Stinson Beach for lunch, then headed inland toward Santa Rosa, where our hotel was located.

We knew that with nearly 4 days, we would have plenty of time but we also knew that we had a lot to see.  We also decided that we didn’t want to have a “death march” through wine country, although how hard is drinking wine, right?  Seriously though, this was less about seeing how many wineries we could visit or how much wine we could drink and more about seeing the countryside, exploring side roads and having plenty of time to enjoy our time there.

We had started planning our visit several months in advance, and with the invaluable advice and assistance of our good friend Jon Dressler of Dressler’s Restaurants in Charlotte, we had arranged private tours of 4 wineries.  Two of our tours were on Thursday and two were on Friday, with one tour each morning and one tour each afternoon.  We purposely left Saturday completely open in order to see what else we wanted to do.  As it turned out we used Saturday to visit Napa, as none of the wineries we visited were located there.  We had an 11:00 flight on Sunday, so that day would be spent solely on travel.

We used the four scheduled tours as the framework for our visit, and I think it worked out very well.  We got an early start each day in order to have as much “piddle time” as possible with plenty of time to get to our first destination.  We left time between tours for lunch, with plenty of time to drive to our afternoon destination.  Our standard practice after the second tour of the day was to head back to our hotel, make a dinner reservation on Open Table, then take a nap.  Like I said, no Death Marches for us!

Three things stand out to me from our visit:

(1) Distinctive geography – we always hear about the differences in climate, soil and terrain and how those differences affect the grapes and ultimately the taste of the wine.  It’s one thing to hear, but to actually the area is to appreciate the descriptions.  When someone describes a wine as coming from grapes “planted on a steep mountainside at 2500 feet” or coming from “the sandy and rocky soil of the Carneros Valley, it really drives home the distinctions that each area has to offer.

(2) Each winery has its own very distinctive character, from the style of the building, the layout of the winemaking area to the design of the bottles and labels.  What I love about this is that it really allows us to enjoy the wine as a unique statement of everything that goes into the product.  Each bottle is a representative of the winery, since every decision about every ingredient and every step of the process has some kind of an impact on the final result.  Just like photography, everyone starts with the same basic set of tools but ends up with their unique expression of those tools.

(3) Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, is the amount of passion that people have for their business, from the winemakers to the tasting room people to the staff in the restaurants we visited.  The people we encountered were visibly passionate about their work, and that passion is contagious.  This made visiting the wineries, dining at the restaurants, and generally visiting the area a very pleasurable experience.

I’m going to have more to say about our experience in future posts, but the time since we’ve returned has slipped by in a hurry.  I wanted to get this post wrapped up so I can “put a bow” on the overview and get back to some specific commentary about other parts of our vacation.  Hopefully this collection of photos will provide a bit of a sampler of the 4 days we spent in wine country.

San Francisco

Skyline from aboard Sea Princess departing from San Francisco, California

With just under 24-hours to spend in San Francisco, we admittedly got a very thin slice of this city.  But we made the most of it, I think.

The Golden Gate Bridge viewed from our harbor tour aboard Blue & Gold Fleet

We had originally booked a hotel on our own near Fisherman’s Wharf, figuring that being in the middle of all the action would be the place to be.  We later heard that due to some construction at the port that there could be some heavy congestion there, so we cancelled that reservation and booked our hotel through Princess, knowing that they would provide the transfer from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the ship.  That turned out to be a very good move, as they had a special lot for our bus to drop us off, and they made special arrangements for our luggage.  Since we were making independent arrangements for after the cruise (more on that later) we knew we would be on our own then, but also knew that would not be a problem.

Wildlife at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

Princess uses the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, which is located at the top of Nob Hill, so the view was great, it was right near a number of restaurants, and a short walk to Chinatown and other interesting venues.  We arrived at the hotel just after noon, so once we checked in we headed out in search of lunch.  We found a nice little Italian restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel, and had a nice lunch of pizza and salad.  Then we started to explore.

Cappuccino, pizza and a good book. Nob Hill Cafe, San Francisco

We had talked about riding the Cable Car around, foolishly unaware that you can’t just “hop on” a cable car any time you want!  Most of them are packed, and since we (a) didn’t want to hang off the side, and (b) knew that if we rode inside we wouldn’t be able to see, we decided to see how far our feet would take us.  We ended up pointing ourselves in the general direction of the bay, and after walking for a couple of hours we ended up at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Famous Cable Car in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

We spent some time exploring the Wharf area, checked out the seals at Pier 39, tried to find Alcatraz through the fog, then bought tickets for a harbor cruise.  The famous fog was in full force, and the tour was windy and chilly, but it was a great way to see the sights.  We cruised under the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz and had a nice over view of the skyline.  At least what we could see of it!  After a nice dinner at The Pier Market, we wisely took a taxi back up the hill to our hotel.

Uphill all the way, San Francisco

Sunday morning came quickly, given the time change, and we did a little more exploring, finding a nice little neighborhood diner for breakfast.  A walk back up the hill was our exercise for the day, so we headed to our room  to pack up for our trip to the port and our ship.

Green Light

My first impression of San Francisco is that it is a clean, vibrant and diverse town, with pride in their community, good food and friendly people with a respect for historical buildings and architecture.  We definitely would like to return and spend more time.  I think we would be hard pressed to do it justice in even a week, but I’d be willing to give it a try!  A return trip is definitely on the Wish List.

Chung King Produce Co, San Francisco, California
“BY FIRE SHALL HEARTS BE PROVEN, LEST VIRTUE’S GOLD CROWN DIM, AND HIS FIRE WAS TESTED IN LIFE’S ORDEAL OF HIM. NOW CALIFORNIA RENDERS THE LAURELS THAT HE WON-DEAD ON THE FIELD OF HONOR, HER HERO AND HER SON.” Dennis T Sullivan, 1852-1906
Aboard Sea Princess departing from San Francisco, California

Back to Reality!

The Golden Gate Bridge viewed from our harbor tour aboard Blue & Gold Fleet

Kathy & I returned home late Sunday after an amazing vacation to California, Alaska and back to a few days in Sonoma, CA to visit wine country.  This was our first time to California, second visit to Alaska, and of course – since we hadn’t been to California before – our first time to wine country.  What an experience!

Famous Cable Car in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

A good time was had by all, the weather was relatively uneventful, with the usual cool weather in San Francisco, a little snow in Alaska, and gorgeous weather in wine country.

Random photos from walking in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

I ended up with just under 3000 photos, but with the 5D Mark III it turned out to be just shy of 100GB of data, so I am now pushing the limits of my storage capacity and am now in the market for a new set of hard drives!

Random photos from walking around Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

I took the MacBook Pro along and did some captioning and keywording, and I even processed some photos, but I purposely decided to “stay on vacation” and not try to post stuff while I was away, since that tends to take me away from enjoying where I am while looking at where I’ve been.

California Street from the top of Knob Hill while walking in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

So here are a few of my keepers from the first several days of the trip.  I plan to follow this with a little summary of the various parts of the journey over the next few days.  Stay tuned!

Aboard Sea Princess departing from San Francisco, California