People who live in California must have good karma. That’s what my husband, Peter, and I decided after spending two weeks trekking along the West Coast this summer. While I’ve been to the Golden State a half dozen times in as many years, Peter’s last visit was in 2001, when we took our sons for a Northwest vacation that included a family reunion in Santa Rosa and a night or two in San Francisco. Back then Peter wasn’t especially impressed—but after this summer’s visit, he’s smitten. He told me if he’d visited California first, he would never have stopped on the East Coast. He would have just kept going.
There’s a different feeling in California, something that sets it apart from the stodgy Eastern Seaboard. A free spirit, perhaps. All I know is each time I’ve visited in recent years, I have vowed to return and show Peter some of my favorite places. This summer we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Since a trip to Europe wasn’t in the budget, we decided California would be a perfect substitute. And it was.
From Napa Valley’s cozy, small towns to Santa Barbara’s trendy, sophisticated vibe, California seems like many states rolled into one—and just as many states of mind: from breathtaking hikes on bluffs high above the raging Pacific to Greek-inspired wineries overlooking lush rows of grapevines on steep slopes. This month and next, I’ll share our California adventures in a two-part story, so find a comfy chair, pour a glass of California wine, and come along on our journey!
Speaking of karma, I must have done something right somewhere to find myself staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay a third time. This resort, resembling a Scottish manor, perches on landscaped grounds above the Pacific and features sweeping views, especially at sunset when folks gather around the fire pits, sip cocktails, and hope for a good show.
Of course, summer in Northern California means fog is ever present along the coast, so sunset viewing opportunities were limited. Instead, Peter and I opted to take advantage of the resort’s free bikes and tour the coastline on wheels. We wove through neighborhoods and then followed a winding bike path along the Pacific, where we passed joggers, hikers, and horseback riders. The fog felt cool and moist on our faces, and the crash of waves and the caw of the occasional seagull provided a peaceful soundtrack to our ride. Afterwards we felt refreshed and energized, ready for our evening feast at Navio, the Ritz-Carlton’s stellar restaurant.
Our visit coincided with a once-a-month event called the Seafood Experience, a buffet featuring an astonishing array of shellfish, sushi, and seafood dishes that stretched the length of the entire dining room. After enjoying a lobster tail, we concentrated on our favorites: raw oysters, crab claws, sushi, and smoked fish. It was a veritable feast and the perfect venue to toast Peter’s and my 25th anniversary.
After a visit to the spa in the morning for a soak in the hot tub and a steam bath, I joined a free yoga class in a beautiful glass atrium surrounded by tall pines. Attended mostly by local women who welcomed me warmly, the class was challenging, but just the release my body needed after having traveled from the East Coast the day before. I also enjoyed being in the company of other women, who are never strangers for very long.
After a quick tour of downtown, Peter and I said goodbye to Half Moon Bay and headed north to Sonoma County. Our first stop was Spring Lake Village, a retirement community in Santa Rosa, for a visit with my lovely aunts, whose welcoming smiles and hugs made Peter and me feel right at home.
Our accommodations for the next two nights would be in Napa Valley, just over the Mayacamas Mountains, at Meadowood, an elegant resort in a hidden valley near St. Helena, known for its golf and tennis facilities. Peter and I stayed in one of the gorgeous Treeline cottages that dot the hillsides, each with a private veranda, wood-burning fireplace, and stunning view. When we arrived, the sky was blue, the sun hot, and I looked at the fireplace longingly, wondering if we’d get to use it. I didn’t wonder long. As evening fell, temperatures followed suit, and the toasty, crackling fires we burned in our cottage added warmth and ambiance.
Dinner our first night was at the Restaurant at Meadowood, which boasts two stars from Michelin. No wonder. The chef’s tasting menu, which I ordered, was a visual and gastronomic symphony from beginning to end. Peter chose to order off the regular menu, so altogether we tasted 14 amazing dishes throughout the evening. First, we enjoyed refreshing champagne in the bar, where the windows revealed an enchanting view of redwoods and green meadows. After being seated in the restaurant, Peter and I felt as if we were in Wonderland, where every wish was gratified. What sets restaurants like the Meadowood apart—and what earns them Michelin stars—is undoubtedly the gracious, knowledgeable service. Our waiters’ expertise and enthusiasm ensured we understood the preparation of and the ingredients in each course of our wondrous meal.
Some of the meal’s highlights included Wagyu beef cured in Meadowood pine, a melt-in-your-mouth morsel with a hint of dill. The accompanying 2000 J. Schram Rosé from Calistoga celebrated the flavors of the beef perfectly. Bright green and reminiscent of spring, the next course—a chilled pea and yogurt soup with wild mint ice—was a flavor explosion enhanced by a touch of curry. Fish dishes included a smoked Spanish mackerel, served with a light crème fraiche perfectly complementing the fish’s dense woody flavors, as well as a steamed black cod, whose simple preparation brought out the fish’s inherently rich flavor. The fish courses were paired perfectly with the delicate citrus flavors of a 2008 D.R. Stephens Chardonnay from Carneros.
As we dined, the dusky evening light settled over us, and in the distance the sky changed colors, like a painting in motion: blue, pink, orange, lavender, and then night fell, and our view disappeared, making us feel isolated in this heavenly place, where our perfectly orchestrated dinner, like a ballet, flowed effortlessly. Amazing dishes marched out from the kitchen at appropriate intervals, like toy soldiers in The Nutcracker, and as the evening waned, Peter and I took delight in such delicacies as suckling pig served in three different preparations (confit, anyone?); earthy, flavorful morels lightly tossed in foie gras butter; and warm, whipped brie with roasted garlic.
As the food grew heartier, the wines paired with the dishes did as well. My favorite was the 2007 Outpost Zinfandel from Howell Mountain. Desserts included a lemon sorbet, bursting with flavor; chocolate almond fudge; and Angwin strawberries with popcorn (!) ice cream. Needless to say, this was a meal fit for royalty, and that’s how we felt as we sashayed out of the restaurant, ready to drift to la-la land on our feather-topped beds.
An early morning treadmill run followed by a heavenly stone massage at the Health Spa at Meadowood helped me return to my senses, and Peter and I spent some chill time by the resort’s sparkling pool before taking a hike on the hillside trail, which meanders through the woods, affording phenomenal views of the valley below. That afternoon, we explored St. Helena, a quaint, colorful town close to Meadowood, where a thriving Main Street offers plenty of opportunities to shop. Sugar Loaf State Park was our next destination, where we followed trails across golden meadows, up sloping hillsides, and through shady forests.
Unlike the coast, where fog hovers all day along the ocean’s edge, in Napa Valley cool, comforting clouds of fog greet you each morning but dissipate before noon, revealing stunning blue skies. California’s low humidity and cool temps were a refreshing change from the East Coast, especially after the sweltering summer we experienced. Some days I needed a jacket and long pants to stay warm, not exactly typical attire for early August in Virginia Beach.
Further south in the cute town of Napa we lodged for two nights at AVIA Napa Hotel, one of a small chain of boutique hotels that offer cutting-edge amenities amid relaxed, comfortable surroundings. Our room featured a sitting area, a gas fireplace, two TVs, a jetted tub, and trendy décor. Before dinner, Peter and I strolled around downtown Napa, currently undergoing a major facelift with new condos and lofts sprouting on every block. Along the waterfront, an evening concert attracted all ages, and we watched a group of kids perform heady 60s and 70s songs for an appreciative audience.
Dinner that night was in AVIA’s Kitchen+Wine Bar, where tapas-style plates offer an array of tantalizing food combinations, some familiar, some not so much, but all of it terrific. For example, the first course—warm mozzarella atop colorful heirloom tomatoes, bathed in a basil-infused vinaigrette—impressed us with its simple presentation and subtle flavors. Next we tried grilled Alaskan salmon served with bacon foam—you gotta try it—and fresh peas and asparagus. For our entrée, we each ordered the grilled flat-iron steak, livened up with a cabernet jus and served with crushed potatoes and sautéed spinach. Each dish seemed to exemplify a careful balancing act, which allowed the simple flavors of the ingredients to shine through. Needless to say, Peter and I also enjoyed some delicious wines with each plate—all from Napa Valley, of course.
Bright and early the next morning we drove north, crossed the Mayacamas Mountains once again, and joined an intrepid group of adventurers for a Pedal and Paddle excursion. Guided by our fun and fearless leaders, Tom and John, our group would bike through Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County, stopping for a couple of wine tastings and a gourmet lunch before jumping into colorful kayaks for a float down the Russian River. Talk about a perfect way to spend the day!
It was another dazzling day of clear blue skies, puffy clouds, warm sun, and gentle, lilting breezes, just enough to keep you cool. I’d never ventured up to Alexander Valley before, a quiet, peaceful destination, somewhat isolated from the more touristy parts of wine country. Before becoming a successful wine-growing region, Alexander Valley was known for its prodigious plum crops. In fact, one winery we visited, Robert Young Estate Winery (no relation to the actor) was the first to make the switch to grapes. The region’s soil and climate (called its terroir) produced exceptional grapes, which of course translates into lucrative wines—provided a knowledgeable winemaker is part of the equation.
We found the Robert Young wines exceptional, especially the magical Chardonnay—as were the wines we tasted at the next winery a few sublime miles down the road. In the spacious tasting room at deLorimer Winery, we sipped Malbec, Meritage, and Merlot, three of my favorite varietals. To be honest, I don’t think I tasted a wine I didn’t like the entire time I was in California. Prices are high, however, with most bottles selling for $25+. We splurged on a glass of wine to accompany our delicious lunch—sandwiches, homemade salads, and chocolate cake for dessert—served with smiles by John and Tom on a lovely patio overlooking deLorimer’s lush landscape.
After a walk through the vineyards, we found ourselves at the edge of the sparkling Russian River, where our float commenced. Besides the occasional Class 1 rapids, our trip downriver was sedate and slow—just the way I like it. Of course, the occasional rapids added excitement to the afternoon, particularly when one gal got tangled up in a low-hanging tree and overturned. She was fine, just a wee bit embarrassed, and I paid close attention to low hanging trees from that point forward. The Pedal and Paddle excursion was a highlight of our visit to Napa and Sonoma Counties, the perfect combination of fresh air, exercise, stunning scenery, flavorful wines, and tasty food.
For more information:
Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay – Visit ritzcarlton.com or call 650-712-7000.
Meadowood – Visit meadowood.com or call 800-458-8080.
AVIA – Visit aviahotels.com or call 707-224-3900.
Pedal and Paddle – Visit getawayadventures.com or call 800-499-2453.