San Francisco and Area Trip Diary, Part 1
Added 10 October 2009. Pictures and stories from our trip to San Francisco and area, from September 26 to October 4, 2009.
After doing a couple of trips with the help of travel agents and tour companies, this one, we arranged all on our own. We picked out the exact flights we wanted (had to be direct, had to be at OK hours), then called to see if we could actually use travel points for them. We could! So we were travelling Air Canada (the United Airways partnership didn't seem to mean much) and saving some money.
We booked the hotels and a car rental, for the first part of the trip, through a combination of Expedia and Hotwired, and managed to get reasonable prices there, too. And, we booked our Alcatraz Tour in advance, through their website, as everyone warned us that could sell out in advance. And that it was worth going on. And we booked airport parking.
Despite all the construction, we got to the airport in good time for our flight departing at noonish. Checking in and going through security were also pretty smooth, so we had plenty of time for a proper breakfast at an airport sports bar.
Due to mechanical issues, though, the flight was delayed—by about 2 hours, in the end. That's not a comforting reason for delay, but what can you do? We got a bit more food at one point, since the only food offered on this flight was for purchase. Which we ened up doing also, so the first day of travel was nothing but airline and airport food.
But the flight was fine, and it was cool seeing views of San Francisco as we got closer. The airport seemed really well organized, and we got through pretty quickly and on to the car rental company area. Where we ran into our first problem: We couldn't remember which car rental company we had booked with, and we didn't seem to have written it down.
Jean took a guess at Hertz, but they had no record of us. Perhaps feeling bad that they might have lost our reservation, the clerk was helpful in directing us to Avis, which had better prices. So that's where we went, ending up with a similar car that we had reserved, at a somewhat cheaper price, actually. Though we still felt a bit bad about whoever we had stiffed, there. (We later discovered it was Thrifty.)
The GPS, while not the best GPS service ever, still proved really useful on this trip. Its first order of business was getting us to Jamestown, in the vicinity of Yosemite. The drive there was nice—it was sunny, as it would be the whole vacation—but nothing spectacular. Most interesting was seeing a (live) deer by the side of the road.
We got to Jamestown maybe around 8:30 pm? It was sort of quaint-looking, like a Western movie set, with saloons and antique shops. Our room was fairly basic, but certainly adequate. We settled in and didn't stay up too late.
Sunday, September 27 — Yoo hoo, Yosemite
With the time change and all, it wasn't that difficult to get up early, but we did run into a food problem: the breakfast at our hotel consisted only of a cheap pastry plus coffee, which we didn't feel would be adequate for hiking Yosemite. But we couldn't find anything else open that hour in sleepy Jamestown on a Sunday. So we made do with the pastry, plus an apple each, as they did have that available.
The drive to Yosemite is something of an adventure in itself. The road is very twisty. Though we didn't have a very sporty car—it wasn't overly fond of all the uphills—Jean had fun with the curves. There's no getting there all that fast, though, and it took nearly 2 hours.
We decided to stop at Yosemite Village first, leaving our car in the parking lot there. (Shuttles are available for moving around different parts of the park.) We soon passed the Adam Ansel Gallery and dropped in there. Very expensive photos! And interestingly, some of the hand-made jewelry on display was from an Ontario artisan, who used butterfly wings (from butterflies who died naturally) as her medium. But we didn't buy anything.
Taking a break from admiring the view, we stopped at the Visitor's Center to get a map and an overview of the park. Normally you can see an overview movie here, but today the space was taken for a Catholic mass.
It was already pretty warm and sunny. The day was destined to get to about 37C—so rather hotter than we had been used to this rainy and cool summer in Ontario. Thank goodness it's a dry heat. (And you know, we weren't about to complain about it regardless.)
We walked through the restored Indian village and into the related gallery, with some good exhibits on the history of the natives in the area and some native art works.
And although we were getting a bit hungry by this point, we did want to get one hike in before lunch, so we choose the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. We knew the falls would be dry at this point—they dry up at some point in August—but it was a still a lovely and, for an "easy" trail, fairly arduous. And where the falls would have been was still quite impressive to look at.
Our next stop was at Yosemite Lodge, mainly because it had a few dining options. But the cafe was closed, and while the restaurant sounded like it had a great menu, it was open only for dinner. That left the Food Court, which just wasn't inspiring. So we took the shuttle to the famous Awanee Inn (along with many others who had the same idea). There we were thrilled by a sighting of a small black bear.
The Awanee is beautiful. For some big bucks, you can stay. For relatively big bucks, you can eat dinner. This day, we could have brunch. Expensivish brunch, but there you go. We did save some money when the waiters (who were pretty casual and quite friendly despite their very formal wear) declined to make any interesting drink suggestions, so we just had coffee and tea. The brunch was done buffet style, with omelet and carving stations. But we're mostly about the cold stuff—the oysters, the smoke salmon and trout, the marinated asparagus spears, the sushi rolls. The cheese blintzes with fruit compote were also nice.
And the desserts were spectacular: an amazing fruit soup, a divine tiny creme brulee, a cool melon shooter, beautiful lemon meringue tarts, chocolate-covered strawberries. We ended up pretty full.
From there, we decided to walk to Curry Village, kind of the “camping” part of Yosemite. It took us a little while to get oriented right, but it's really not a bad place or day to be walking around. But Curry Village itself isn't all that terribly charming, relatively speaking. We spent a bit of time in a store there, as I didn't have a sun hat, but I couldn't find one my size.
So we decided to go on another hike. We were going to do another, longer falls hike, but while waiting for the shuttle, a man we started talking to pointed out that it gets dark earlier here because of the mountains (it was about 3:30 pm), and that it was a fairly long hike. So we decided on another that had been recommended—a little shorter, a little easier: the Mirror Lake trail.
I'm not sure how we did this, but while on this trail, we somehow ended up on the part used by horses. At first we thought, and got a bit worried about, there being a heck of a lot of bear poop around, but then it seemed odd that the bear ate so much hay... And realized it was from horses. Anyway. It was still a pretty nice trail, but it got better once we landed on the “people” part and could stop dodging horse poo and slapping away flies. And it was actually arduous enough, too, despite being easier than the fall trails, so was probably a better choice. The “meadow” part we walked back through was particularly beautiful.
Now we were thirsty, so it was back to Yosemite Village to buy some water and other drinks. Many things were starting to close for the day. We had been planning to dine at the Mountain Restaurant at Yosemite Lodge, but finally concluded we were just too full, still. So we headed back toward Jamestown, stopping at some points for more photos of the famous half Dome and such.
We arrived back at Jamestown shortly after 8:00. We had been hoping to eat at the cool-looking California restaurant across the street, but its kitchen was closing. (Sunday!) So we went to a Steakhouse they suggested. And that was actually fine. Jean had a small steak, I had chicken piccata. And we each had a glass of California wine, our first of the trip.
The original plan had been for us to go back to Yosemite for a second day. We were interested in driving up to Glacier Point, then doing the Sentinel trail, which would have given us great views. However, when we calculated in two hours there, then two hours back, and four hours to Napa—that was just too much driving for one day. And we were already booked in a hotel that night in the Napa area, so we decided to just head there.
That meant we could be more relaxed about our getaway time, and able to take a longer but more scenic route (especially since we had GPS help). This morning we had better luck with restaurants being open, and ate a little coffee shop. It was not a fancy place, and Jean was impressed with my bravery in trying the Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. But they were actually quite good. Jean stuck to the safer choice of bacon and eggs, and those were fine, too.
Our scenic route did present some nice countryside—a lot of burnt grass (so dried out it looked nearly dead) hills, with all these green puffy trees growing among it. A different look. And we discovered there was another California wine region besides Napa and Sonoma, though we didn't actually stop at any of those wineries as we drove by them.
The drive did take about 3 to 4 hours. As we got closer, we were hungry, so we decided to head toward a restaurant destination (per our Frommer's book) rather than our hotel. We found the place listed, called Don Giovanni's, and had lunch there. We had a good, friendly waiter who suggested some interesting things. For example, when we ordered some olives to start (they grow here), he asked if we meant the marinated or the fried. Of course, we meant marinated—that was the only option on the menu—and he explained they used to do them fried as well. And we could still get them that way if we wanted. So we did, and that was pretty good. Everything is better deep fried!
Jean also had a couple cheeses to start—a goat and sheep's milk. As a main course, I had the "trenne" pasta with lamb and (more) olives, while Jean went with the linguine and clams. I had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon—very big and fruity—while Jean had a couple glasses of a sparkling "blanc de noir": sparkling wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Then we were too full for dessert.
There was no big rush to get to our hotel, so we decided to visit the Mumm Estates winery, as it wasn't too far and sounded interesting. It specialized in sparkling wines and had an art gallery on-site. We visited that first. It was featuring an exhibit of photographs on an environmental theme. Some really interesting and beautiful photographs. We then went for a tasting, which they do on a sunny patio, with table service. You can choose among several flights of three sparkling wines. Jean thought he should abstain, so I tried three varieties of their champagne-type, all aged a different amount of time. It did make a difference.
We didn't end up buying any wine here, but Jean did get a cheese reference book that he ended up reading the rest of the trip. (Really.)
It was getting a bit late in the day (a lot of wineries close at 5:00), but we did get to one more called A Dozen Vintner's. Here they gather the wines from several smaller wineries that just aren't big or accessible enough to run their own tasting rooms. Our host was good at sussing out our taste (not necessarily big red fans) and presenting wines we'd find interesting. We tried several types from various wineries—Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meritage, Cabarnet Franc, Cabarnet Sauvignon. We ended up buying three bottles here: A Viognier, a Pinot Noir, and a red blend.
We then headed to our hotel, in the town of American Canyon. Our GPS kept making us do odd turns and we never seemed to come across the hotel—between that and all the wine tasting, I just got the giggles. Jean held it together and called the hotel for help. We weren't far; it's just that the street was new and our GPS wasn't aware of it. With the directions, we found it. It was a Holiday Inn, very nice, with a spa and pool.
After settling in a bit, we asked the hotel person about dining options. Within walking distance was only fast food places, so that was out. The town of American Canyon had a few somewhat more interesting options, but the best were in the neighbouring town of Napa. Since we were going to drive anyway, we decided to drive into Napa. (Yay! Said the hotel person, clearly living vicariously.)
Again, lunch had been big, so we weren't super hungry. We walked around and perused our restaurant options, but some places were closed, some were quite pricey, and so somehow, we ended up at this vegetarian restaurant below the yoga studio. Jean was skeptical, and as I perused the menu, I couldn't help giggling, again. Even though the wine had definitely worn off. Shall we have the celtuce leaves or the whipped avocado?
At any rate, we did manage to find some dishes to order. We started with the appetizer sampler of lavendar almonds, olives, peppers in lime and salt, and chick peas in tomato sauce. As mains, we did go with the avocado and carrot, along withthe gnochi with cheese and tomatoes. Everything was actually really delicious. We each had a glass of wine as well. And we were too full for dessert again, but Jean did have a dessert wine while I went with a decaf Americano.
Tuesday, September 29 — Sipping through Sonoma
Breakfast the Holiday Inn proved rather an improvement over the plastic-wrapped danish: a breakfast bar with decent options like bagels, granola, yogurt, and hard-boiled eggs.
So that was a better start to the day of wine tasting I had prepped for by selecting the most interesting-sounding options from the Pauline Frommer's guidebook. The general plan was to head into Sonoma first, then come back via Napa.
Our first stop was Robledo Family Winery, a small winery developed by Mexican immigrants. But despite the promising signs on the way proclaiming that the winery was open from 10–5, and although we arrived around 10:05, there seemed to be no one there. I suggested we could call, but Jean thought it would be better to move on to the next stop.
That was Bartholomew Park Winery, which the guidebook informed us, didn't open for tastings until 11:00. Unfortunately, they were right about that. Fortunately, the offered us something to do while waiting: Hike on their grounds. We'd been basically without exercise the day before, and of course the weather was beautiful again, so the walk was quite appealing. Once we figured out their maps, we found the trails well-marked. They were a bit more arduoous than we'd expected (we weren't in hiking boots), but we managed, and did get some nice views of Sonoma.
Plus, when done, the winery was open for tasting. We tried everything they had on offer and, my goodness, everything was delicious. All organic, and nothing available anywhere but right at this winery. So of course, we couldn't resist buying more: a zesty Sauvignon and an amazing Cabernet Sauvignon that we'll try to age a bit.
So that was it for Sonoma—which seemed like a really cute town, as we drove through it. Next we headed to the small village of Glen Ellen, with a target of Benzinger Family Winery, who gave these interesting-sounding tram tours. But we had just missed the start of one (by five minutes), and we were a little hungry, so we decided to drive just down the hill to go for lunch, then come back.
We selected an oyster bar as our destination, and proceeded to have quite a fine meal. We did indeed start with the oyster sampler, which was very good (plus, no food poisoning!). Then we both had the soup of the day, which was squash soup. It was amazing—very rich and sweet, with candied walnuts. I then had one of the daily specials, which was crab cake with salad, while Jean had mussels in cream sauce with prociutto. Both were very nicely done, the seafood seeming very fresh. To drink, I went with a Viognier/Chenin Blanc blend, while Jean had a Sauvignon Blanc. (In general on this trip, we really appreciated how all the restaurants seemed to have a generous selection of wines by the glass.)
So after that, we headed back to Benzinger, this time timing it better for a tour start. Which was very good. They explained how they converted from traditional, heavy-on-pesticides winery to a mostly organic one. They gave the history of the family, and how the winery currently ran. They let us taste Cabernet Franc grapes, which are delicious and sweet. And apart from the vineyards and press equipment, we got to see the caves that they dug out for wine storage, partly in response the California power outages that made air conditioning unreliable. And, we did do some tasting. And although we had warm feelings about the winery and its philosophy, the wines themselves didn't really blow us away, so we didn't buy any. (The tour had been $15 each.)
It was actually getting late in the day again, so we made our way to the big-name Rodney Strong Vineyards, in Healdsburg, which was a bit of hike. And then it was kind of confusing actually finding their tasting room. But when we managed, we went right for the estate tastings, and they were fantastic. (We were also impressed at how they opened a new bottle of estate Pinot Noir for us, though it was late in the day, then threw it out after one taste, and opened another.) So though we we already above the quota of wine we're allowed to bring back, we bought two of the estate Pinot Noirs, and a Zinfandel. (I would then spend part of the trip fretting about that quantity.)
There was no more time, really, to visit more wineries, so we took a bit of winding route down toward Yountville, which we'd decided was our supper destination. Again, we weren't truly that hungry, but somehow felt obliged to eat. We definitely took our time walking around before settling on a restaurant, which ended up being the French Jeanty. We had to eat on the patio, as there was no room inside, but that wasn't much of a hardship. To start, we shared a tomato tarte tatin, which was quite nice. I drank a Pinot Noir, Jean a cabernet sauvignon.
For the mains, I went with the special: risotto with rabbit, morels, and peas. Honestly, morels are like this miracle food, they're just so delicious. Terribly hungry or not, I ate very bite. (I will say the place did not specialize in enormous servings. That was generally true of where we went, and much appreciated.) Jean had the cassoulet, which is a bean stew with lamb. That was also very tasty. For dessert, Jean ordered an epoisses (a French cheese), which was served with pears and candied walnuts.
Back at the hotel, we tried out the hot tub. It was a cool evening but warm water, and we slept well afterward.
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