Lubos and Sandra go to Napa

September 20th to 23rd, 2013

It's hard to believe that a year has already passed since our wedding! For our anniversary, Sandra and I decided to do a quick getaway from D.C. to the San Francisco area. This was one of those trips that lasted only 4 days, but felt more like 4 weeks. We took an early morning Friday flight to SFO with United and were in San Francisco before 10am. We grabbed our rental car, a Chrysler 200, and started off on our 600 mile journey.

Map of our trip. We started in "F".

The first part of our trip was Monterey and Carmel. On the way down, we stopped by one of the side-of-road farmer's market stands, and the fruits were absolutely delicious. The strawberries had this brilliant red color and the smell! Of course, they tasted great too. Mangoes, nice yellow and ripe, were 3 for a dollar! Here on the east coast, we have to pay around dollar fifty for each mango, that is still green and without taste. In Monterey, we visited the famous aquarium. This was Sandra's first time, and she was quite impressed! We also grabbed lunch in Monterey and did a bit of shopping. Later we checked into the Hyatt Regency. The place was full, turns out that we came the weekend of a well-known Monterey Jazz fest, and the hotel was full of musicians. This hotel property is very nice, it has multiple tennis and racquet ball courts as well as a spa. The rooms are built in cabin-style, and our room was absolutely humangous - too big really. Later that night we drove down to Carmel. Most shops were closed already but at least we got to see this cute town in the dark. Carmel is by the way the terminus for the Big Sur Marathon, which I have now done twice, and is still my favorite race.

Kelp forest and a coral reef exhibit in the Monterey Aquarium
The outdoor deck next to an exhibit on the splash zone
Jellyfish are everyone's favorite, they are quite mesmerizing
The aquarium also has numerous animals, including this turtle which seemed to struggle with swimming and puffins, which are really neat to watch.
Walking around and later in our huuuge room
Night stroll through Carmel

17 Mile Drive

Next morning we did and early checkout and drove down to Carmel, where we had another delicious breakfast in Carmel Bakery and Coffee Co. - a spinach quiche and a Napoleon pastry. We next visited few shops, including The Carmel Hat Company, where I picked up two "poor boy" hats. We next headed to Pebble Beach on the 17 mile drive.
The Restless Sea in Pebble Beach
Spectacular scenery
Another shot of the Pebbble Beach coastline
The Lone Cyprus, the drive's most famous landmark

The North Coast

Then around 10 am we started heading back north. We drove through San Jose (where we stopped at Rubio's for fish tacos, a must every time we are in the Rubio's country), and through San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way we also passed NASA Ames and the Silicone Valley. We stopped on the northern side of the bridge for photos. This was my first time driving across the bridge. We next took the exit for Highway 1. The section of Highway 1 connecting US-101 to the ocean is insanely twisty. Don't do this on a full stomach especially if you get car sick! We then continued up along Highway 1 until Gualala ("D" on the map), where we had reserved a hotel. One reason for going there was that I wanted to see the northern coast. The second reason was that when searching for hotels for Saturday night, we could not find anything closer to Napa than Gualala's Surf Inn. Turns out we passed few small towns along the way with hotels advertising vacancy, but I don't regret it at all. Gualala was a cute small town with a nice barbecue restaurant, Bones Roadhouse, where we had beers and meats just as the sun had set.
San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge
In front of the Golden Gate Bridge
Somewhere along Highway 1
We saw a beautiful sunset. Luckily it was just outside Gualala, as driving on Highway 1 after dark is not recommended
Outside our hotel, Surf Inn


The next morning we waiting for the breakfast to start at 8:30. I am glad we waited as the breakfast was home-cooked. We then headed down Highway 1 for about 10 miles and then turned off onto Skaggs Springs road across the mountains. This was a really pretty drive through redwoods, with no car traffic. However, we encountered a group of about 10 bicyclists minimum 15 miles from the nearest town, and well into this deep country of cliffs and switchbacks.

Morning drive down Highway 1 and the road through the mountains
Tall redwoods
Later we saw a sign for a Lake Sonoma viewpoint, I am glad we stopped.

Castello di Amorosa

We next made our way to Calistoga on CA-128. Just south of the town is a winery called Castello di Amorosa, which I wanted to checkout. This winery is basically a Tuscany-style castle which was built using materials and tools imported from Europe and also using the historically sound techniques. Not only is the castle absolutely spectacular, the wines were also really good - this was actually my favorite all-around winery of the handful that we visited. From here we stopped in Alpha & Omega, which was recommended to me by my friend Rich, but neither Sandra or I particularly like this winery. It reminded us much of the Virginia wine. From there we drove down to Napa, and checked into the Andaz, where we were staying for free thanks to the Hyatt credit card. We had a nice dinner in Morimoto.
The castle
Winetasting takes place in the cellar
In Andaz Napa

Napa Hot Air Balloon Ride

Neither of us had ever been hot air ballooning before, and on the way to Napa we started thinking that we should try it. So we had the concierge book us a spot with Napa Valley Balloons. Although they were bit more expensive than some of the other companies, our concierge sold us on them by mentioning that they start from a winery specializing in bubbly wines. It was an amazing experience. Our pilot, Bob S., was amazing, and turns out his son is currently living in Lancaster, and is experiencing the same bromance and lack of ladies experiences I can relate to from my three years with AFRL. Our balloon ride lasted about an hour and we ended up all the way in Napa (the start is in Yountville). We supposedly went much farther than typical as the weather and winds were excellent. The whole ride and even landing were really smooth. Afterwards, the vans drove us back to Domaine Chandon, where we were treated to mimosas and breakfast.
The lift off is shortly after sunrise when the winds are the calmest
Amazing views of Napa valley from the balloon
Total of 6 balloon companies operate in Napa and they all take off around the same time, making for spectacular sight
Some other balloonists
About to land!

And more Wine Tasting

We checked out shortly after getting dropped off back in Andaz, and next headed towards Sonoma. We first stopped in Artesa, which had pretty good reds. What I like about this area, is that wine tasting here is much more classy (and also expensive). Instead of having to stand at the bar like in Virginia, you can take your pour onto the porch, and enjoy the wine at your own pace (the amount of wine that was poured was also much greater - almost half a glass in some cases). When you are ready for more, you just come back. From Artesa we headed to Domaine Carneros. This is another beautiful winery specializing in bubbly wines. Here you sit down and a waiter brings you all of the tasting wines at the same time. And that was it for our wine tasting. We stopped in Sonoma for a nice lunch in The Girl and The Fig and then made our way back across the Golden Gate to the airport. We dropped the car off and then met with Sandra's friend Dion who recently moved to the Bay Area and treated us for drinks before our red-eye back. And that's the end of the trip - and time to start planning the next one.

Enjoying a red on Artesa's porch
Bubblies at Domaine Carneros

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