Naked Napa and other Gems of Northern California

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December 18th 2011
Published: December 20th 2011
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View from our room
Since our return from magical Morocco a few weeks ago, we have spent many weekends busy exploring the sights within a couple of hours of San Francisco. Read these vinettes as we take a look at Napa Valley, Santa Cruz, Monterey and the lively city of San Francisco, plus, details of the Travel Blog San Francisco holiday gathering.

Naked Napa

Glad we caught your attention. It’s amazing that the turn of a phrase can grab the eye.

There is an eerie hush of quiet in the Napa Valley as winter sets in. The days are growing shorter as the winter solstice approaches. The tourists are gone and the locals can take a deep breath and enjoy the relative tranquility of the off season. The green from the vines are gone, they are dormant--- and the vines are naked. I often hear people talk about not liking winter because everything looks so dead, but our drive into Napa showed life in many forms. The sun warmed our faces and allowed the yellow fields of flowers to glisten in the light. The ivies of deep red, green and gold clung to the building facades to grace them in their beauty. As we drove through the towns of Napa, St. Helena to Calistoga we were grateful to be heading to the Roman Spa to have a massage and soak in their multiple mineral pools. After our massage we sat in the warm sun sipping local red wine, reading our kindles, moving from heated pool to heated pool. Life in California is grand. 16 years ago we were working at Barton Memorial hospital in South Lake Tahoe, California and stayed at the Roman Spa the weekend before flying to Ohio for the holidays. Calistoga is calm and quiet this time of year, so we decided it would be fun to go back the same weekend as 16 years ago. Calistoga has not changed much in this period of time. It remains a charming town and they offer off season specials to entire you to visit.

On our way to the spa we stopped for a breakfast at the Gillwood Café in St. Helena. Although the ambiance was reasonable, the quality of the food left something to be desired. Perhaps we caught them on a bad morning....who knows? Next time we'll try another spot. That evening we had dinner at the Hydro Grill
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Napa valley
and the food was fantastic. That was the best burger MJ has had in a long, long time and Dave remarked that the ribs were amazingly soft and falling off the bone. This is highly recommended if you are in town. While having dinner we were fortunate enough to experience the 1st annual Calistoga Christmas sweater pub crawl. This is the one time of year when you can put on an outlandish sweater and wear it with pride as the holidays approach. Love the holidays and watching people have fun. The locals were using this event to support some local businesses during a slower time right before the holidays. Thats the spirit!

After a fine day, evening and morning enjoying the therapeutic waters of the Roman Spa, it was time for a slow drive back home. On our way out of the Napa Valley we were met with sunshine and a few areas shrouded in fog. This part of the country has mystical qualities as the fog rolls in and blankets the countryside. The flowers and buildings certainly would have been more lovely in sunshine but there was something interesting and magical about the foggy vineyards. We suspect that there are many different times of the year to enjoy the wine country and this was certainly one of them.

Travel blog Holiday Season Gathering

The more active members of TravelBlog had talked of holiday gatherings in various spots around the globe. Merry Jo volunteered to be the organizer of the one in San Francisco. We had hoped to attract a few additional travel bloggers to join us at the last minute but it didn’t work out. Perhaps more time is needed to plan such an event. A small intimate gathering ensued and we had a blast. An evening with like minded travelers sharing stories of past adventures and future explorations cannot go wrong. We enjoyed the ambiance at Le Trappe Café in the North Beach district of SF.

The Binkley's and Bredan Vermillion were in attendance. We are currently planning an outing in April for the 10th anniversary of Travel Blog’s conception. If you are in the Bay area you are welcome to join us. This presents a great opportunity to sit and talk with people who share the same passions for travel and exploration. The first get together between the Binkley’s and Brendan occurred a
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Whipping wind blowing the hair
month or so before when Brendan invited us into his home for dinner. There is a reason he makes his living cooking so if you are invited into his home you want to say yes!

Walking the Golden Gate

Not growing up in this area of the country, we are still in awe of the great and magnificent Golden Gate bridge and can’t stop taking pictures of it. We pinch ourselves daily at our good fortune to be living near one of the most amazing cities in the World. A few years ago we would not have imagined ourselves living here, but here we are and happy for the adventure.

We’ve been longing to walk across one of the more famous bridges in the world and so the sunny Saturday after Thanksgiving we decided it was time. The wind was whipping all who ventured to experience the Golden Gate on this day. The views are magnificent. Each time we drive the bridge was are impressed and wonder why in 1937 they had the foresight to make the dang thing so wide. It is 1.7 miles in length (2737 m) 90 feet wide (27 m) 220 feet above
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high above the waters
high water (67 m). The Golden Gate Bridge has two main towers that support the two main cables. The height above water is 746 feet (227m) and the height above the roadway is 550 feet ( 152 m). we weren't alone in our interest as many hundreds of other folks took advantage of a pleasant day in late November to make the mile plus walk each way.

Being nurses you can imagine that our conversation turned to questions concerning how many people have jumped off this bridge. According to Wikipedia this lovely bridge can sometimes be referred to as the suicide bridge because there have been over 1200 jumpers. According to some 2009 statistics about 83% of the jumpers are local Bay area residents. As you walk this bridge you could not imagine that anyone would survive the jump but 26 people have. You’ll have to do your own research for more details on all of that. This is a bit depressing just to talk about.....we'll move on.

Its name comes from the 'gateway to the gold' harbor entrance named during the Gold Rush. The official paint color is "international orange" and it takes a team of 25 people eleven and a half months to paint and it is painted every year, using 1000 gallons of paint a week.

The winds on the bridge are often times significant and were on the day we made the walk. History tells us that the bridge has only closed 3 times for wind. December 1, 1951 wind gusts up to 69mph, on December 23, 1982 wind gusts of 70mph and on December 3, 1983 wind gusts of 75mph. The day we walked is was fairly calm to these numbers. These winds aren't that bad compared to other bridges, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state. It was a bit breezy on this day, though.

Santa Cruz

A few comments from MJ:

36 years ago after a break –up with a man, I grabbed an atlas and looked at the California coast. Intrigued by the name of a town named Santa Cruz I loaded my car and headed west. I had all that I valued crammed into a gold 1970 Hornet packed to the brim and headed west. I had my life savings in my pocket and a plan to stay in the YMCA until employment was
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has weathered earthquakes
found. In life each of us make choices that impact our lives and often times when we are making those choices we do not understand the impact they will have on our lives. I never made it to Santa Cruz, California. I stopped in Denver to see the fellow that I had broken up with and we got married. I’ve often wondered about the road not taken and where I would have ended up if I had made it to Santa Cruz. All these years later I longed to see what it looked like.

With that marriage a distant memory I headed off to explore Santa Cruz with the love of my life and take a look at the beach side town that I could have called home. We booked a room at a B&B in Capitola called the Monarch Inn. Sadly, they made an error in booking and had to offer us an upgraded two bedroom on the upper floor with a panoramic view of the ocean. This room was more than comfortable expected and we hated to leave it but we had a full weekend planned. Capitola is a small village, cute and deserves some time to
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near Santa Cruz
explore but we had a plan. I was fixated on doing two things this weekend—butterflies and taking a look at Santa Cruz.

Ok—36 years later I found myself walking the Santa Cruz board walk enjoying a sunny day, smelling the salt air, the fish and listening to the bark of the sea lions perched beneath the pier and wondering what it look like all those years ago. This is no ordinary pier. It is wider and more developed with fine dining and shops than one would imagine. Along the coast you can see the amusement park with its grand roller coaster. Sitting in a pub called 99 Beers (not kidding) we were chatting it up with the bar tender who says the town has grown leaps and bounds over the past 15 years. We’re not sure he was born 36 years ago when I had my sights set on moving to Santa Cruz. It is a cute beach town, very inviting and the home of the University of California so there are a number of young people milling about. We were able to watch the surfer boys at the beach and wonder why so many people enjoy surfing in those freaking cold waters. But, there is no shortage of people who seem to enjoy this activity.

Monarch butterflies travel 2000 miles to seek sanctuary in a Eucalyptus grove in Natural Bridge State Park. This area offers a temperate climate, shelter from the wind, and sources of food and water. We decided to explore this park and see what was so appealing. There were thousands of them-- Monarch butterflies clustered thirty feet up in the tops of the Eucalyptus trees to stay warm as winter settles in. It is interesting how they form a cone shape, all huddled together to stay warm. A pair of binoculars is a good idea to get the best view.

Natural Bridge State park is appropriately named and offers a geology lesson. It is beautiful to look at. Mother nature carved three arches out of a mudstone cliff and became the inspiration for the park name. Today only the middle arch still stands and it is being slowly eroded by the waves. The power of the ocean creates lovely and dramatic photos along a wide beach.


For $59 you can get a very nice room at the Americas Best Value

Highly recommended
Inn. Monterey is a lovely seaside town surrounded by water. In 1945, Steinbeck wrote of a fictional street lined with sardine fisheries called Cannery Row. Today the Cannery Row district of Monterey is filled with upscale dining and shops. Tourists meander the waterfront spending money on overpriced candy and trinkets.

Monterey is famous for its world-class aquarium. Neither of us had ever made a visit to the aquarium in our prior visits to town because we are scuba divers and we didn’t see the point. On the drive to town our conversation was—do we go? Don’t we go? On this day we decided what the heck. We can say we imagine it is one of the very best in the country. We were surprised that they wanted $30 per person to get in. That really seemed excessive to us, even after touring it. I know we are in California and prices are inflated but it makes it rough for the average family to enjoy—very much like American sports events. We can tell you that we were admitted to the aquarium for free because we are both students. If you are in school take your school ID with you….as it
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Monterey Aquarium
pays off.

Monterey is another town that holds memories from our past. A restaurant that we really enjoyed 16 years ago was Cibo’s Italian restaurant. We had dinner there, which we enjoyed but it is never as good as the memory and enjoyed it looks very different from 16 years ago—which is to be expected. Nonetheless, a nice experience and we're glad we went back.

Our greatest find on this adventure was LuLu’s Restaurant on the “old pier”. The day was warm and sunny and we were able to sit outside while we enjoyed our breakfast. Charming does not describe this slice of Americana. If you are any where near Monterey take the time for breakfast at LuLu’s and then walk the pier to people watch surfers & dogs playing on the beach and sea lions swimming in the bay. Between the barking of the seals, being on a working pier and taking in what amounted to a stunningly pleasant morning, we really had it going. It was a picture postcard moment. The food was wonderful and the staff were great. If we could, we would give this place three thumbs up for the food, service and ambiance.

Exploring San Francisco with Seattle friends and tripping down memory lane

Our friends Bill and Sheila came from Seattle for a visit. Sheila lived in SF forty years ago, so we had a great time driving around to see the two different places she lived. We enjoyed hearing stories of those years long ago. We dined in China town, took a look at the beach in Pacifica and enjoyed each others company.

For those wishing a great view of the city, there are two places that we recommend. One is “Twin Peaks,” which presents a panoramic view of the city --- which we had heard people talk of for years and we finally made it. It is well worth the effort and the other is off of Highway 101. If you are southbound, it is the last exit before the bridge. Exit and take the road up the hill for about a mile. It’s worth the effort. There are several places to stop for photos.

A peaceful drive along Highway 37 as the day begins and ends

MJ drives to Vallejo, California each day for work. She loves the drive to and from work. Generally she
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Old Monterey Pier
is making the morning drive between 6am and 715am each morning. Each day as the sunrises she wishes she had her camera and could pull over and take pictures rather than going to work. The views will have to remain etched in the memory banks. This stretch of road changes frequently and in amazing ways. There are marshlands, rivers, a few trees and hillsides. Some days are foggy and others are crisp and clear. The sunlight dances off the water brilliantly . Ducks and egrets are seen each morning and there is a family of about ten deer wandering the fields toward sunset. This is a fantastic way to begin and end a day of work. This daily drive is nothing less than majestic.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Northern California. Our side trips barely scratch the surface of all the amazing things to see and do here. It’s no small wonder there are over 7 million people living in the San Francisco –Oakland- San Jose areas. This is a beautiful and unique place which can satisfy even the most hard to please tourists given the natural beauty and unique diversions.

Additional photos below
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Brutus touring

Santa Cruz
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Santa Cruz Pier

20th December 2011

Happy Holidays!
Hey Merry Jo! Merry Christmas to you and Dave. Thanks for sharing the pics and stories above. Your blogs are so enjoyable! Enjoy the holidays with friends and family! Love, Susan
20th December 2011

Hey Susan,
So good to hear from you. Glad you are enjoying the blogs. We head to Ohio on Thursday night. Miss you. Keep in touch.
21st December 2011

Another great posting
I lived in Berkeley (UC) in the late 50's and early '60's and loved the area but as a student I didn't see half the places you have seen in the time you've been there. We've been back many times but still have missed some of the places you mention. It truly is a unique and lovely city and area. We are just starting to plan a trip to Sicily and Morocco next September so we will use your Morocco blog as our planning guide. I'll keep you posted. Sonja
21st December 2011

2012 is coming
Glad to hear you are beginning your travel plans for the year. If you need suggestions or information on Morocco please let us know. We loved it.
21st December 2011

Ah, California
Hi D and MJ, what great stories and pictures. I also wanted to say how flattered I was to be in your blog. That was such a great evening, and it shows in the picture. Looking forward to seeing you in the New Year.
21st December 2011
Travel Blog holiday gathering

In Great Company!
Yay! Great photo. Wish I could have been there! Merry Christmas all.
21st December 2011
Travel Blog holiday gathering

It was fun
...and we wish you could have joined us. You could fly down for the April gathering for the Travel blog birthday.
21st December 2011

green with envy
Your narative and photos sure brought back some great memories of my time in that area. I loved being there and would live there if I could afford to. Glad you are enjoying and appreciating all the area has to offer. Merry Christmas to you both.
22nd December 2011

Happy Holidays
Yes we are enjoying the is lovely. cost is an issue.
22nd December 2011

Merry Christmas!
Enjoyed "seeing" that part of California again. We drove that route about 20 years ago! Brings back lovely memories. Safe travels to you---enjoy the holidays. Love, Marsha
22nd December 2011

Happy Holidays to you
Memory road is a nice place to travel.
23rd December 2011

Lovely Post
What and enjoyable post and really loved the photos. Pity that there weren't more at the dinner but it sounds like you had a great time anyway. Perhaps more will be able to make it next time.
17th February 2012

thanks for the memories: yours not mine :)
Thanks for sharing , especially the sights & memories of California. My husband & I are planning a trip in May 2013, covering from Portland to Dallas ( friends in both places) SF, LA & Las Vegas & Route 66. So your travels are such a help.
17th February 2012

You will have a great time.
Your trip sounds wonderful. There is so much to see and to do. We have written several blogs on California. Hope they are helpful.

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