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Trip Report Trip Report: San Francisco, Monterey, Wine Country

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Guten Tag, here is a German couple writing a trip report about a ten-day trip to California which was, thanks to Stu Dudley, DAX and many other Fodorites, a great pleasure. We started with three nights in San Francisco, drove down to Monterey, where we spent four nights (in order to participate in a convention which left us, however, enough time for some sightseeing) and ended with two nights in Sonoma Valley.

Day One: A Most Unpleasant Flight But a Good Welcome to San Francisco

O boy - what a torture! And we flew Business Class. We had to fly on Saturday, the 28th of March and since we collect Star Alliance Miles, we had the choice of three Star Alliance flights from Düsseldorf to San Francisco, all three with a change in Frankfurt. The first one was operated by Lufthansa, the second one by United and the third one again by Lufthansa. We chose United. Why? Firstly, because the Fodorites on the Airlines Forum told us that United has slightly better seats than Lufthansa (which was true, but finally did not help). Secondly, because United's schedule was most convenient for us - with a leisurely start at 10:25 AM in Düsseldorf and a convenient arrival at 5:24 PM in San Francisco. Theoretically.

When we spent an hour waiting time in that fabulous Lufthansa Lounge in Frankfurt (complimentary meal, complimentary booze, complimentary shower...) we were aghast when we noticed that flight UA901 was announced to San Francisco/Boston. Hah? Hadn't we booked a non-stop flight to San Francisco?

On board, we learned that United Airlines had a shortage of pilots and they had to land in Boston for a crew change. Okay, we lay down in our wonderful lie-flat business class seats, enjoyed a mediocre meal (fillet mignon, well done) and mediocre wines (a bland sparkling wine from California which they dared to call "Champagne" while Lufthansa serves real Jacquart Champagne in business class and a cabernet sauvignon from Chile while Lufthansa served us a Grand Cru Classé from Médoc) and slept a couple of hours, wisefully skipping videos and inflight entertainment.

In Boston, the aircraft was taxied to a remote tarmac position. The crew change/refueling took 2 1/2 hours! Finally, when we landed after 10PM in San Francisco, we had spent 16 hours on the aircraft, with the last 10 hours without any food. Will we book United again?

Well, at least we managed to be among the first to deplane and to be the very first in the foreigners' line at the immigration counter. We had the first immigration officer after 2001 who was fairly friendly and halfway efficient, grabbed our bags (which were miraculously on the belt which had never before happened on a United flight) and rented our car. The advantage of driving on a Saturday night at 11PM was that there were no traffic jams in sight. United managers, thank you!

We had booked a standard double room at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill. After reading mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, we were very pleased with the hotel. A beautiful room, freshly renovated, with a wonderful marble bathroom. It is a socalled "Small Luxury Hotel" which means highly personalized service, cozy ambiance and no nametag-bearing business guests. The locals later told us that there is a better hotel in San Francisco (the adjacent Fairmont) but that the Huntington has the very best spa in town. So true - we loved it. And this all for $135 per night (no typo).

Of course, we were thirsty after such an exhausting flight and headed down into the bar. We learned that the bar hours were 5PM to 12PM, and it was 12:30. However, the bar was still lively. The barman told us "Sorry, no drinks anymore we are closing" but when we told him our story he said "This is an emergency!". He gave us a tray, poured two large longdrink tumblers full of booze, gave us two bottles of mixers, a huge pile of almonds and wrote a check about $8. And he poured me a complimentary shot of Woodford Reserve and told me this should be my beverage of the next day. Needless to say, we slept well and awaked next morning without any jet lag.

San Francisco could not have welcomed us better!

To be continued.

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    I'm ready for the next installment ;-) I must say that while reading about your flight and the 2.5 hours in Boston, all I could think was ' those poor folk in economy/coach/cattle class!

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    So true, Aussiedreamer!

    We thanked God that we had decided to splurge on business class. We booked socalled "restricted business" and it was quite reasonable. On other flights, we use our miles for an upgrade. It is most recommendable.

    Next installment will come in a few hours.

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    The Huntington is one of the great old hotels in SF. I didn't know you could get a room there that cheap. This is where Alistair Cooke always stayed when visiting SF.

    It used to be owned by Newton Cope who was once engaged to Princess Lee Radziwill who called it off at the last minute because she didn't like the prenup. Cope also, at one time, owned restaurants in St Helena and Sacramento as well as the Big Four in the hotel and was a Napa Valley grape grower too.

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    Day Two: Radically Inclusive
    We woke up on a bright sunny day in San Francisco. After some exercising and swimming in the Huntington’s fabulous spa and after a meal of eggs Benedict, we were ready for an authentic San Franciscan experience, perhaps the very experience which is most typical for San Francisco: Sunday service at Glide Church.
    I must say I am not a church member. I am agnostic, skeptic and even cynic. But service at Glide Church is most impressive. Firstly, if you arrive at the church one hour before service begins, there is already a line in front of the entrance. Imagine: people line up in order to go to church! And it’s worth it – even if you are not religious.
    Glide Church is located in the Tenderloin neighbourhood which is, according to wikipedia, renowned for “squalid conditions, homelessness, crime, drug sales, prostitution, liquor stores (more than 60 in 2008), and strip clubs“. Glide Church has several principles: “we offer real help”, “we celebrate” and “we are radically inclusive”. “Real help” means they do a lot of social work with the poor and the homeless.
    “Celebration” means: service largely consists of live music, singing, dancing and hand-clapping. And how they sing! The atmosphere is fantastic. At a certain point everybody embraces one another. All in all there is a feeling like on a rock music concert.
    “Radically inclusive” means they accept everybody, regardless of culture, color or sexual orientation. This had been the main message of the sermons which were delivered by several pastors. Service included a baptism. When the pastor read the five given names of the baby and ended with the last name “Obama”, the crowd thundered with applause. Several sermons dealt with the financial crisis – one of the leitmotifs was “there are no pinks slips in the kingdom of God”.
    After some two hours, we left the church in high spirits. That had been a really authentic San Franciscan experience. Hardly to imagine to find something similar in another city.
    We devoted the afternoon to the new museums in Golden Gate Park. Since the parking garage was full (it was a Sunday with beautiful weather), we made a circle and found ample streetside parking on the northern fringe of the Park. We walked a few steps through the beautiful Park and looked at two masterpieces of contemporary European architecture – Renzo Piano’s Museum of Natural History which is built in the energy-saving greenhouse style which is now so popular in Germany and Herzog and de Meuron’s de Young Museum.
    The de Young had a good temporary exhibition of Andy Warhol’s works, with (as you would expect in San Francisco) a strong accent on his gaiety (e.g. the paintings he made of Mick Jagger). Another temporary exhibition of YSL dresses was sloppily made and faceless. The permanent exhibition is the usual collection of North and Latin American art which can be found at a dozen or so art museums in North America’s capital cities. Anyway, the main thing here is not the art, it is the architecture!
    Back at the hotel, we relaxed at the pool for an hour and got dressed for dinner. I had selected a small restaurant, called “Rue Lepic” which I found when I looked up Google Earth to locate restaurants in walking distance to the Huntington Hotel. And Rue Lepic evokes faded memories of Paris, because some 30 years ago, the least expensive restaurant of Paris was located there (they offered a three-course menu for 10 francs). The San Franciscan Rue Lepic is just 200 meters from the hotel, and the reviews on Yelp.com were good. The Thursday before we left I called for a reservation. When the owner asked me for my telephone number I answered “well, I am calling from Germany – are you sure you want this number?” and she cracked up.
    Well, we arrived at the restaurant. It is tiny, a typical neighbourhood restaurant, but nicely decorated with white tablecloths and flowers on the tables. The chef is a Japanese-American lady who once had been married to a Frenchman and had learnt French cuisine from her mother-in-law. Typically French, they offer a fixed five-course menu with several main dishes (the Americans say “entrees” although the French word “entrée” means “starter”). The cuisine is a fusion of French, Mediterranean, American and Asian. The menu starts with Mediterranean-style seafood pasta, followed by an American-style salad and an American-style soup. The main dish is French-style (we had lobster tail on pommes au gratin with vegetables), but with an Asian twist, because she flavours it with cilantro. The dessert – a to-die-for ganache – was 100% French and the lady was very pleased when we told her that even in France we had never eaten a better ganache. This was a San Franciscan fusion-of-cultures experience, and we liked it. (The check was, including a bottle of Californian wine, waters and a complimentary glass of Muscat, about $70per person).
    Happy with life, we walked back to our hotel. Since the food at Rue Lepic was very filling, we needed to visit the bar. Ty, the barman who had rescued us from our emergency the day before, was happy to serve us Californian brandy. What he poured into one glass, looked for like a quadruple brandy. And furthermore, he kept on providing us with complimentary samples of XO Brandy, XO Cognac, Woodford Reserve and Californian sweet wines. And he was a master of conservation. Originally we had seated ourselves at a table, but after five minutes, Ty had managed to get us on bar stools and include us into conservation with the rest of the patrons. Most of the regulars were locals and the mood was so good that we never felt the need to walk the 50 meters to the bar of the Mark Hopkins Hotel next door.
    Our second day in San Francisco could not have been more beautiful.

    To be continued.

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    Day Three: Stu Dudley’s San Francisco

    What is so special about San Francisco? – Certainly the way the people live in this city. Preparing our trip and browsing Fodors.com I was (as others) stunned by Stu Dudley’s fabulous thread (http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/san-francisco---stu-dudleys-recommendations.cfm). I learned about San Francisco’s neighbourhoods which are sometimes called “pockets”. Thus, we devoted our second day to exploring these urban areas.

    Our first destination was the most typical of them, the Castro. It is very easy to find. You just drive down Market Street until you see a huge rainbow flag and you are unmistakably at Harvey Milk Plaza. I parked the car, but DW was somewhat uneasy to get out: “There are only men in the street – is this the right place for me?” I consoled her by saying “You will see women. Even gays have their cleaning women.” Somehow she was not completely satisfied with my reply.

    Anyway, one of our sons wanted us to bring a souvenir from San Francisco and I thought the Castro would be the best neighbourhood to find something for him. We started with a loop walk around the neighbourhood and could lively imagine to meet Anna Madrigal next corner. Beautiful wooden houses, loving manicured front yards – looks like a nice place to live.

    Back on the main street, we found an interesting array of shops, practically every one run by a man and most of them by two men. We bought some supplies for our picnic in a delicatessen store which was, however, wholefood and vegetarian. But DW found some rare cheeses from California and was quickly involved in an expert talk with the two shopowners.

    The next shop we visited was an antique and kitsch dealer who proudly told us that his shop starred in the Harvey Milk film. Finally, in an art gallery we found some small gimmicks which we thought were adequate for our son, including an Obama box of mints manufactured by the “Unemployed philosophers’ guild”.

    There were many more shops in the neighbourhood, but since this is a family-friendly forum, I will not give detailed descriptions.

    We drove further to one of Stu Dudley’s recommendations, Noe Valley. It is just a short drive away and the architecture looks similar, but the neighbourhood could not be more different. While the Castro is thoroughly rainbow-flagged, Noe Valley is the epitome of a neat middle-class neighbourhood with lovely shops and restaurants.

    After a stroll through Noe Valley, we continued to the place where it all began: the Mission San Francisco de Asís. Amazingly, the old adobe church has survived several earthquakes while the adjacent modern basilica had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt. On former trips, we had seen other missions in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, and later on this trip we should see more missions, but the Mission of San Francisco was still a rewarding experience. Especially on this sunny day, we enjoyed the tranquil graveyard where trees and flowers were so lavishly blooming.

    We continued our exploration of San Francisco’s culturally diverse “pockets” with a quick drive along Valencia through the Mission district where we observed a current gentrification process. What we Europeans have noticed during our last trips to the USA is that the Hispanics appear to become increasingly integrated into US society without losing their cultural identity – a process which might be a model for our relations to the immigrants from Turkey.

    Our next destination was, obviously poorly timed, Fishermens Wharf. We had been there in 1984 and had found it tacky. Now, it appeared utterly disgusting to us and although I might have been interested in seeing one of the ships there, we decided not even to stop (and pay extraordinary parking fees) but to consume our gay picnic lunch in a cute little park nearby.

    After lunch, we found the time ready for the second best view over town. The day before, we had already driven over Golden Gate Bridge and taken pictures of San Francisco from Conzelman Drive, and now we headed to Twin Peaks. The view is really worth the short drive and Stu was, as ever, certainly right about driving up there not before afternoon.

    After a swim in the hotel pool, we walked through Chinatown to Union Square and back to our dinner spot: Bar Crudo. Again, I had found Bar Crudo with the help of Google Earth and Yelp.com. And certainly it was a cute little restaurant! The patrons were quite different from yesterday’s experience at Rue Lepic. While Rue Lepic was frequented by families, Bar Crudo was a place for the childless.

    Also Bar Crudo has a tiny upstairs dining room, dimly lit by spectacular jellyfish lamps. We got a table right at the window and overheard the conversation at the next table where a white guy in a business suit dated a rather annoyed black lady. “Dating” appears to means today, to do a little flirting while constantly typing your Blackberry. Toying with the Blackberry seemed to be the favourite pastime at all tables in this restaurant.

    We concentrated on the menu which features raw fish in many varieties. We decided to have oysters as the first course, the “Bar Crudo Sampler” as the second and a half portion of seafood chowder as the third course, accompanied by a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Washington State (excuse us, Californians!).

    Especially the sampler was again a wonderful example of Californian fusion cuisine. Although I love raw fish, in Japan, I got after some time bored because sashimi is always accompanied by soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. At bar crudo, the sampler consisted of a scallop, a piece of butterfish, salmon and tuna and each piece was creatively marinated in a different way – a perfect fusion of Asian and Mediterranean tastes!

    After so many raw items, we had the chowder for some warmth. This was the very best seafood chowder we ever tasted (including some samples in very expensive restaurants). In the open kitchen, we could see the chowder’s secret: the do not cook the seafood in the soup, but they place the raw seafood in the serving bowl and pour the hot soup over it – delicious.

    The check was also a pleasant surprise: $44 per person including wine and water for a gourmet-level menu!

    On the way home, we deliberately passed again the Top of Mark and enjoyed the talk with the locals at the Huntington’s bar.

    To be continued. Happy Easter!

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    Enjoying your report a lot, we will be in San Francisco mid -late October. Still haven't decided for how many nights yet, but this report is very helpful. Obviously Stududleys list has been saved and printed also, good to hear other peoples feed back.

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    Day Four: Highway 1, Part One

    We bade San Francisco farewell and headed towards Monterey, taking the breathtakingly scenic coastal route. Most guidebooks focus on the Big Sur section of Highway 1, which is, admittedly, more dramatic, but the section between Pacifica and Santa Cruz is equally scenic, with more beach access. Landscape is very diverse, with steep cliffs and gentles slopes, covered with zillions of wildflowers. Surprisingly, although just minutes from San Francisco, we saw hardly another vehicle on the road.

    Originally, we had thought about spending a few nights in Half Moon Bay, mainly because we found a nice-looking hotel there. Fortunately, fellow Fodorites had warned us – Half Moon Bay is the only section of the coastline which is not beautiful. Why Ritz-Carlton picked exactly this spot to build a hotel remains a secret (perhaps it was the only place to get a building permit).

    We continued southwards until we reached Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a beach resort for families with a roller-coaster right on the beach. This says it all.

    Just after Santa Cruz, we we ate our picnic lunch on New Brighton State Beach. A beautiful spot with a brook emptying into the ocean. Of course, I waited until we had finished our lunch before I showed DW the half-rotten carcass of a seal in a bunch of driftwood. That’s part of being close to nature.

    The last scenic highlight before we reached Monterey were the dunes around Moss Landing (on wikipedia, I have read the stopped developing Highway 1 into a freeway in order to protect the wilderness here). However, the convention was waiting for me and we headed towards our hotel, the Monterey Marriott.

    Usually, I am fond of Marriott Hotels, but this one we did not like at all. Firstly, it is an eyesore. From old pictures, I see that Monterey used to be a charming historical town – until this hulk of concrete had been built right in the center of town. Secondly, it is nothing but a soulless business hotel designed to host large conventions (like ours, admittedly). They don’t even have areas where you can sit and relax.

    The only bar they have is a socalled “sports bar” which means that there are large TV screens where games are running which are played in the USA only. For Europeans, this is as interesting as for Americans watching the annual meeting of the German tax advisors association. Most strikingly, the Marriott features the ugliest pool I have ever seen – it is in a barren courtyard, which is cold, shady, windy and dirty. The pool is not properly heated, and you need the spa tub in order to warm up. And to top it all, the spa tub was closed during our stay because they had put some caustic chemical inside.

    Would I come back for a private trip, I would choose the adjacent Portola Hotel which has a slightly better location, is much nicer and even less expensive. Or choose a hotel in Pacific Grove, but this is a story yet to come.

    Anyway, I was here for business and at 5 p.m. the “directors’ meeting” started which meant that considerable quantities of truffled lobster risotto, poached salmon and Californian wine were consumed while enjoying the view of nightly Monterey Bay from the 10th-floor-restaurant of the Marriott (at least one positive point).

    To be continued: tomorrow I will write about our trip to Big Sur.

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    >>Why Ritz-Carlton picked exactly this spot to build a hotel remains a secret (perhaps it was the only place to get a building permit).<<

    The Ritz Carlton is located at the extreme south end of HMB, where the picturesque section of coastline starts.

    In case you didn't know it, in the 70s Californians passed a "coastline initiative" which prohibited development along the coast, except in areas where development had already started. That's why that section of cost south of HMB is so pristine. If you return to SF, cross the GG bridge and explore the Marin Headlands. Luckily, this area was entirely military up until the 70s, and then it became protected by the Coastline Initiative. There was a plan in the works to develop a "trashy" communitity in this area, but it was stopped. You can see the plans if you visit the tourist center at the Marin headlands.

    Stu Dudley

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    Thank you for your insights, Stu.

    I will tell our friends from Europe how effectively the Californians manage to protect their beautiful coastlines.

    Thanks again for not recommending a stay at HMB. We stayed in Sonoma County instead - and that was gorgeous!

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    Day Five: Highway 1, Part 2: Carmel, Point Lobos, Big Sur and Pfeiffer Beach

    Fortunately, during our first full day in Monterey I had no business, so we boarded our car and drove southwards. Originally, we had intended to visit Carmel in the afternoon, but when we saw the roadsign “Carmel Mission 1 mile” I could not resist to leave the highway. A good decision, because in the morning, it was not crowded yet. Carmel Mission is one of the prettier Missions, especially because of the fantastic front garden which makes wonderful pictures.

    Besides, there are a few cute little museums on the grounds. I especially loved the graveyard, because many graves were decorated with shiny seashells (abalone?). I learnt that the graves of Native Americans were decorated that way.

    In the souvenir shop, I felt tempted to buy a plastic bottle with Holy Water. It will be certainly doing good if you mix it with whisky. (Sorry for the joke, but as a baptized Catholic, I am entitled to make jokes about religious aberration.)

    From Carmel, it is just a two-minute drive to Point Lobos. It was another bright day, but cold and windy, almost stormy, with impressive breakers. It gave us a finis terrae feeling at the point. You are supposed to spot sea-otters there, but it was probably too stormy for them. However, in a leewards bay, we notice quite a few seals lounging and barking on the cliffs.

    Proceeding southwards, the cliffs rise and the coast gets more dramatic. Guided by a “vista ½ mile” roadsign, we stopped at a pullout. Another tourist, shoulder-shrugging, came across, pointed down and said “That is the vista.” It was indeed an unspectacular bay but – what did we see? – A couple of sea-otters! Finally we found them.

    We headed further southwards, often stopping for picture-taking. At Big Sur (which is rather an area than a town), Pfeiffer State Park was still closed due to flooding damage. We drove some kilometres further down and decided to return in order not to spend too much time. I was eager to drive down to Pfeiffer Beach, which seems to be a well-kept secret because you find no sign on the road. However, at the State Park Ranger Station, we were given directions: “take the only paved road which is without a gate” and, yes, we found it.

    Pfeiffer Beach is not just a beach. It is a piece of art, created by nature. Although someone had forgotten to switch off an enormous sandblasting machine, it was overwhelmingly beautiful. We should keep it a secret.

    When we returned, our cheeks were reddened like after a sandpaper treatment. We took our picnic lunch in Andrew Molera State Park where we found a picnic table in a beautiful grove, nice and warm and protected from the wind.

    On the way back, we stopped at Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is touristy, but in the best sense of the word: with a most beautiful beach, neat gingerbread houses, nice boutiques. Children were frolicking in the sand, lovers leisurely strolling between the cedars at the beach. Heart-warming.

    Back in Monterey, we participated in the convention’s Welcome Reception which meant that considerable amounts of guacamole, prime rib and mousse au chocolate were washed down with Californian wine.

    To be continued: Tomorrow we will see more of Monterey.

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    Day 6/7: Monterey and Pacific Grove

    Due to my business at the convention, we needed two days to see that what you can do in one day. And we did not have time for 17-mile-drive, but we had done it in 1984 and preferred to drive down to Big Sur this time.

    Monterey started to impress us slowly. On our first evening in Monterey, we walked to Fishermens Wharf to find ourselves in scene which was like in horror movies when aliens had killed all humans but the power plants were still running. It was nine p.m. and not quite dark, the souvenir shops and restaurants were well-lit, but we were the only people on the pier. In downtown, which is barely more than one block, the situation was not better. Imagine, a beautiful spring evening and no one on the street!

    What we take home is that the Californian life-style must be like this: Rising at 4 a.m. in order to jog, sticking in the traffic jam at 6 a.m., having dinner at 5:30 p.m. and going to bed at 7 p.m.

    Next morning, while I was in the meetings, DW explored the wonderful historical museums around the plaza. She learnt a lot about the history of the State of California and told me that she had had a most beautiful talk with a most charming gentleman in one of the museums. The told me he was about 90 years old but from the look in her eyes I guessed he must have been a 25-year-old surfer who had been volunteering before the surf season started.

    Together, we drove to Cannery Row one afternoon. Of course, I have read John Steinbeck some decades ago and I have read that the author himself had complained about Cannery Row changing into a tourist trap. Yes, it was a tourist trap but a good one. Tourism helped to conserve the industrial architecture which has not lost its charm.

    Cannery Row’s main attraction is, of course, the Aquarium. Firstly, because it is in one of the canneries and you can see the ovens where the sardines were cooked, some packing devices etc. Secondly, the architecture is a state-of-the-art blend of historical structures and modern glass-and-steel elements. Thirdly, the wildlife inside the aquarium.

    We had seen sea-otters from the distance, and here you see them close-up, just behind a glass wall. It had been dinner time and they were fed with seafood which was packed into colored ice. A guide explained to us that originally, they had fed the sea-otters with real crabs and shellfish, but since they used to knock the goodies against the glass walls, the glass walls got scratched and had to be replaced. They still enjoyed knocking the ice blocks against the glass, but without damage. Sea-otters are cute critters which are in constant motion. Really an experience.

    Another main attraction is the jellyfish tanks. Like works of modern art, the jellies form surrealist structures, gently moving and expertly illuminated.

    There are many more tanks with sharks, lobsters, corals and other creatures of the sea. There is an open tank where you are supposed to pet rays, but the critters are clever enough to hide in the very corner where the human fingers cannot reach them.

    The other day, we drove over to Pacific Grove. Pacific Grove is the epitome of a California coastal town with gorgeous flower-bed lining the shoreline which consists of sandy bays and rocky cliffs. At Lovers’ Point, the coast is especially nice and also the gingerbread houses of Pacific Grove. We drove further past the lighthouse to Asilomar Beach, where we walked a bit up and down. Downtown is also attractive, with some historical structures, nice boutiques and pretty hotels. We resolved to stay here when we would come back to the area again.

    For lunch, we went to Bubby Gump in Cannery Row. It is a family-style restaurant, with pretty decoration and mostly seafood on the menu. If you are wondering why so many Americans are obese, you should go there. We had just starters (DW had clams and mussels and I had Cajun-style shrimp) and the portions were as big as main courses in Europe. The family next table (all of them heavily overweight) HAD main courses, mostly deep-fried items dripping with grease, and, again, we felt like in a scene of a horror movie when we watched four people consuming enough calories to feed a whole village.

    We came close to their experience when, for dessert, we ordered one mudpie to share. The thing was large enough to feed a family of six and eat the leftovers next day. And it was intended for ONE person! Unbelievable. We were tempted to ask the waitress if they had doggie bags for desserts but doubted if it was a good idea to take leftover ice cream home. A starter and a fraction of a shared dessert were more than enough to fill us up completely.

    On the way back, we stopped at a roadside surfers shop. There we found the souvenirs for our 19-year-old boys! While (good) food and (good) wine is expensive in the USA, clothing is dirt cheap. We bought some Billabong and Quiksilver shirts at $10 each which are sold in Europe at €50 ($70)!

    To be continued: Tomorrow we will head for wine country.

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    Day Eight: Sonoma

    It is Saturday morning. After my last business meeting, we have a hearty breakfast – Eggs Benedict with crabcakes instead of bacon. Then we start from Monterey on the road to Sonoma Valley. We follow our Garmin’s recommendations which is 101 to San Jose and which is surprisingly scenic. The route from San Jose via Berkeley to San Rafael is surprisingly ugly and (it is Saturday noon) surprisingly congested. Finally we arrive in Carneros country which is basically flat. We praise ourselves that we had not chosen a hotel in this region.

    Scenery is changing when we enter Sonoma Valley. We drive into Sonoma and explore the town for two hours or so. Sonoma is a most charming town with a beautiful plaza and a lot of historic houses around it. Sonoma reminds us of Santa Fe, one of our favourite cities in the U.S. We visit the Mission (which is the last one on the trail) and a historic hotel where we meet a most knowledgeable gentleman who is volunteering there.

    In the Cheese Factory, we buy a few (edible) souvenirs for my parents (brittle and flavoured flatbread) and supplies for our picnic. Then we proceed to our hotel in Kenwood.

    Sonoma Valley is very scenic and we are glad that we are staying here. It is MUCH more beautiful than Napa Valley and I would strongly recommend going to Sonoma Valley. It is a quite narrow valley – the valley floor is just one or two miles wide - and you are surrounded by mountain chains on both sides. You see vineyards, orchards, meadows, oak and redwood forests. Very picturesque and tranquil.

    Our destination is Kenwood Inn and Spa. I must say, it never required so much research to find a hotel than in California Wine Country. Originally, we looked for a hotel either in Napa or Sonoma Valley. We looked for a 4-star-hotel, ideally nestled in the vineyards (not in town) with a pool and nice, relaxing atmosphere.

    We found several dozen hotels which met our criteria – however none had rooms under $500 per night. The rate went up to $1,000 per night. Unbelievable. In Napa, we found one hotel which seemed affordable – but after more detailed research we found out that it was located in an office park.

    Finally, we ended up searching with Google Earth and thus we found Kenwood Inn. $350 per night including breakfast was a bargain compared to that what the other hotels charged. Would it be good enough? As ever, reviews on Tripadvisor were mixed.

    Well, we arrived at Kenwood Inn. Everything was perfect. The lady at the reception welcomed us, offered complimentary port or sherry, the bellboy took our baggage, and we found us walking leisurely through lush gardens to our room.

    We entered the room, peeped into the bathroom and DW exclaimed “I will not leave this place. Forget about any sightseeing!”.

    We are used to stay at 5-star-hotels. Out of the “Leading Hotels of the World” catalogue, we have stayed in a considerable number of houses. But Kenwood Inn and Spa beat everything we had seen before.

    The room was large, tastefully decorated with (fake) antiques. There was a gas fireplace. And the bathroom! Everything in marble, a shower and a jetted bathtub. Everything was nice and cozy. A wonderful place to spend our last nights in California. A piece of garden Eden.

    Our room was at ground level (in fact, it was a like a cottage, with separate entrance), and outside there was a terraced garden made of rosemary hedges. We ordered a bucket of ice to cool our wine (which we had brought from Sonoma) and had a most romantic picnic in the garden. Afterwards we enjoyed the pool and spa and ourselves until we felt ready for dinner.

    Dinner was good, but certainly not on 5-star-level. They make a big fuzz about their Italy-born chef named “Renzo Veronese” and their menu is mainly in Italian, but when you order in Italian, the waitstuff does not understand you. The food was 100% American. As a starter, we shared crabcakes with salad. DW had an American-style seared tuna with pineapple salsa and I had Sonoma rack of lamb in wine sauce. Both dishes were solid, good value for money and hearty. Also the wines were reasonably priced.

    Since it is not usual in America to stay in a restaurant after you have finished you dessert, we changed to the bar where we tried another wine and had a nice chat with the barkeeper.

    Under a starry sky, we walked back to our room through the garden, lit our gas fireplace and went to bed. Period.

    To be continued: Tomorrow we will explore Napa and Sonoma Valley.

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    >>Did they also require a 2 night minimum stay ???<<

    Yes, they did since it was a weekend. Most people stay from Friday night to Sunday morning. Saturday night was $350, Sunday night $275, both including breakfast (which was good). These are low-season rates. In summer, they charge more.

    We were upgraded to a socalled "King Room", which is $550/475 regularly.

    Our second choice would have been Gaige House which appears to be on the same price level.

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    Day Nine: Wine Country

    Still somewhat adjusted to European time, I got up before 5:30 a.m. and used the opportunity to jump into the pool – which was nicely lit and well-heated.

    Kenwood Inn and Spa offers a complimentary breakfast which turned out as the best breakfast we ever had in North America. They have a buffet and offer a warm dish which is daily changing. Today it was a kind of egg Benedict, with a light tomato hollandaise, nice potatoes, bacon, sausage and fresh fruit.

    Around 10:30 we left the hotel to tour wine country. We did not come far, because I turned the next driveway up to Chateau St. Jean. It is a magnificent chateau-like mansion, with beautiful gardens. They have an excellent shop where we bought the last souvenirs for our parents (olive wood plates, tablecloths etc.).

    According to last night’s barman’s recommendation, we opted for the reserve wine tasting. It was in another building, in a more refined atmosphere. We shared one tasting @ $15 and a very distinguished gentleman poured us six different wines. It was a stand-up tasting which is much nicer than the sit-down tastings because you easily start chatting with other people. In our case it was an elderly couple from Montreal who quickly started to talk in German to us, because they had immigrated decades ago. The refined gentleman joined and revealed that his language skills came from many years in the U.S. diplomatic service. Around wine #5 he surprised us with saying that the last eight years had been very bad for the USA, but that Obama is an amazing guy. Appears to be a dominant opinion in Northern California.

    The wines were European-style, i.e. wooded in French oak barrels (with a slight vanilla flavour) and using cuvées of grapes which are widely grown in France. The wines were well-made but were missing the “terroir”, that is, the smokey mineral (flintstone) taste which is so typical for mature Bordeaux and Bourgogne wines. And $90 for a bottle IS a pretty steep price. You get easily two bottles of a Grand Cru Classé for this. We bought a bottle of Fumé Blanc in order to enjoy it later at our hotel.

    Just slightly tipsy, we boarded our car and crossed the mountain chain which separates Sonoma and Napa Valleys. It is a very scenic drive. We decided not to stop at Petrified Forest (we had seen that in Arizona, Utah and Nevada) and proceeded to Calistoga to see Old Faithful Geyser. We had been to Yellowstone, but this single geyser is quite impressive. It erupted every five minutes, hence we got quite a show. It was rather strange to find a geyser just in the middle of a valley!

    From Calistoga we drove further down Napa Valley. We stopped briefly to visit a historical gristmill (Bale Gristmill State Historic Park) which was nice because we got an impression of the oak forests which cover the mountains.

    In St. Helena we found a supermarket with an excellent selection of food. DW bought local cheese, I bought truffle butter and desserts and souvenirs for myself, especially canned green chiles and a selection of chile sauces which are hard to get in Europe (Scotch Bonnet, Habanero and Chipotle).

    On the way, we had noticed the estates of some brands which are well-known in Europe, like Beringer or Mondavi. The large wineries were flooded with busloads of tourists and we wondered how the tasting experience would be in those large buildings. Besides, we found Napa Valley quite industrial, with the railroad leading through the valley and quite a few industrial structures scattered over the valley floor. Also, traffic got nasty and in Oakville, we decided to take another most scenic mountain road back into our beloved Sonoma Valley.

    Since we needed a red wine, we visited Kunde Winery in Kenwood for another tasting. The reserve tasting there is in a separate sit-down area which means you don’t socialize that much. The tasting was slightly more expensive ($20 – we shared again) but included a plate of nice cheese. Wines were similar to those at St. Jean, with the exception that they offered a Zinfandel which had been grown on 127-year-old grapevines.

    Again, the prices for the reserves started from $50, so we left the reserve tasting area and bought a bottle of “cheap” Sangiovese at $29 in the ordinary tasting area.

    It was Sunday, and we knew that Kenwood Inn’s chef was absent, so we sat down on a table on the wonderful terrace in front of our room, ordered a bucket of ice in order to cool our Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc and enjoyed a refined picnic featuring truffle butter, salmon paté and other goodies.

    The remainder of the afternoon we spent with soaking in a Roman-style hot tub in a bathhouse (DW was so nice to bring two glasses of complimentary port to the tub which gave it a slightly decadent twist), swimming and enjoying comfort and tranquillity of Kenwood Inn, until we had a second picnic for dinner, this time accompanied by a bottle of Kunde Sangiovese.

    Day Ten: Back Home

    Travelling back home was uneventful. I just want to mention that the Fodorites’ advice to take the route via Golden Gate Bridge and 19th Avenue to San Francisco Airport was an excellent recommendation. We had started at 8:30 a.m. in Kenwood and encountered no congestion at all on our way – thank you, Fodorites!

    The End.

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    What a great report. Thank you so much for sharing, as much as I love the sound of the Kenwood Inn (& the website is very tempting) it does seem a little pricey. But I think you have convinced me to stay in Sonoma instead of Napa. Now to find accommodation!!!

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    I think traveller1959 is glad for the dollar's demise. If the room was 350 Euros (which was what the Euro was set at a few years back), it probably wouldn't have been such a bargain for her.

    Stu Dudley

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    Accomodation in the Wine Country:

    What we paid in Kenwood Inn was $350 + $275, makes $312.50 average. Discout $40 for complimentary breakfast. Leaves $272.50. No extra charges, no parking fees etc.

    If you pay €272.50 for hotel of this class in Europe, you would consider it a good price. You can easily spend the double amount for a similar hotel in Tuscany or at the Cote d'Azur.

    $272.50 is not cheap. But you cannot imagine how glad we were that we finally found a nice hotel under $500! Especially Napa Valley is incredibly expensive. Still. The Meritage Resort and Spa which is located in an office park (!) in Napa wanted $500 for the cheapest room that weekend.

    The Renaissance in Sonoma had the same price as Kenwood Inn and I doubt if it comes close to that what Kenwood Inn offered.

    We understand that Wine Country is an expensive place. Was it worth it? A clear yes.

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    StuDudley, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts then on 'where' would be a good/economical place to base for a few days? We will have a car, time is our own and we don't mind driving a bit to get to wineries etc.

    I am madly printing and saving your suggestions for Oct'. We are really keen to do some of your suggestion for walking and driving around SanFran'. Its going to make our stay there much more enjoyable. We have from the 15th Oct until our booking in Yosemite on the 28th Oct to get from LAX to Yosemite, so still trying to work out routes and times in each place etc.

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    aussiedreamer,

    there are quite a few inexpensive motels in Lombard Street, San Francisco. They offer parking (which is expensive in other neighborhoods) and the location is quite good. You are close to Fishermens Wharf/North Beach, and with the Cable Car you can reach Nob Hill and Union Square area (hard to find parking there).

    By car, everything in the city is in close reach. And you are close to Golden Gate Bridge. Coming from Europe, we found traffic in San Francisco very relaxing and fluid - at least past 9 a.m.

    For an economical base in Wine Country, look either for a motel or B&B (or a guest ranch) in Healdsburg, Windsor, Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Glen Ellen or Sonoma. IMO, this area makes the best base, because from there you have good access to

    - Sonoma Valley,
    - Napa Valley,
    - Russian River Valley.

    For accomodation search, I usually start with Google Earth, because it gives me an impression of location, and then continue with Tripadvisor and hotel search engines.

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    I don't know much about hotels in the Bay area since we rarely have to use one. We have friends close to where traveller1959 stayed in Glen Elllen, fiends in Healdsburg, and friends who have a home in the Napa Valley next to Sterling Vineyards. We mooch off of them quite often.

    As for an area in the City - I would stay where Traveller1959 recommended on Lombard - mainly because I prefer staying in "neiborhoods" instead of Downtown (and I hate Fisherman's Wharf).

    I the Wine county, I like Healdsburg the most. Madrona Manor if you want to stay in the country a little & in a huge Queen Anne Victorian. Or at a B&B in downtown Healdsburg near the plaza. Windsor is filled with dense housing development - I would not stay near there because I don't want to see the housing stuff when I'm out & about. Same with Santa Rosa - and it's also a little to far away from the most scenic sections of the Healdsburg/Dry Creek Valley/Alexander valley.

    Stu Dudley

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    Traveler 159,
    I am happy that you enjoyed our glorious land. California has a wealth of places to visit and enjoy. Happy also that you were able to sampl;e some of the animosity of the past. Thankfully, you can travel (albeit with some security inconvenience and cost,) but at least you didn't crash into any tall buildings. I am thankful to be an American everyday, and by the way I assuredly enjoy trale to Europe most recently to Italy in 2007, and all throughout Western Europe since 1970. I hav had the privilege of working for several Swiss companies all with German subsidiaries.
    Kratochvilsbj

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