Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Redwoods and Wine

During our San Francisco trip, we knew we wanted to see the giant redwood trees of Muir Woods and spend some time in Wine Country too. Walking and using public transportation got us around the city of San Fran just fine, but we scheduled ahead of time to rent a car on Thursday to venture beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.  

And when the rental car company asked "will a Fiat 500 be okay for you guys today?" I saw Thomas' eyes light up with boyish excitement. Zipping through the winding roads of northern California in a tiny bright red car? You got it! The day was already off to a fun start!

We made it to Muir Woods around 9:45 or 10 a.m. and were some of the first people in the park. Admission is $7 a person for ages 15+, but if you play your cards right you could plan your trip for one of their "fee free" days. The park was absolutely beautiful. Seeing those redwood trees in photos does not do them justice. They're MASSIVE, some standing more than 250 feet tall, and many of the trees are more than 1,000 years old! 

If you go to San Francisco, you HAVE TO make the trip to Muir Woods. Only 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, it's one of those places everyone should see once in their lives. We really could have spent the whole day there if we wanted. They have several hikes that go up from the main path, many that boast views of the Bay, and a cute cafe for lunch in the park, but we just didn't have the time this trip.

We left the park after 11:00 to continue our trip to Wine Country. We'd decided beforehand to do lunch in Sonoma and then tour a few wineries in Napa, so our first stop was to the girl & the fig. They serve "country food with a French passion," and it was honestly one of our favorite meals of our California trip. And the ambiance was perfect too!

We started with a cheese sampler and I'm so glad we splurged for one -- worth the $15 for what seems like not a lotta' food. Our cheeses:

  • Laura Chenel Chèvre – Sonoma, California {American goat cheese, served with lavender infused honey -- OUR FAVORITE!}
  • Beehive Cheese Barely Buzzed Weber – Canyon, Utah {cow's milk cheese hand-rubbed with expresso and lavender with subtle notes of butterscotch and caramel}
  • St. Jorge – Santa Rosa, California {cow’s milk cheese, tastes like a cross between cheddar and asiago}
  • ​Roquefort Gabriel Coulet – Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France {buttery, silky smooth soft cheese that is somewhat sweet with a gentle saltiness}
  • Redwood Hill Smoked Cheddar – Sonoma County, California {classic goat cheddar, with a milky flavor and rich, smoky taste}
  • Fleur de Maquis – Corsica, France {natural rind is covered with rosemary, thyme, coriander seeds, along with a few grains of black pepper}

For lunch, I had a croques monsieur with applewood-smoked ham and a side salad, and Thomas enjoyed a burger with brie, bacon and a fried egg.

We hit the road again close to 1:30 p.m. to make our way to Napa for the one thing we really came for... wine! One thing I did NOT know before our trip was that most wineries close by 4 or 4:30. I even bought an everything-you-need-to know-before-your-trip-to-Wine-Country book, but didn't pay attention to the times - oops! For this reason, we were only able to see three wineries during our time, but hey, that's what next time is for. If you're planning your trip to Sonoma/Napa, check out the times for the wineries you want to visit. We also found that some wineries my parents recommended were appointment only, so plan ahead!

The first winery we stopped at happened to become our favorite memory of the whole trip. The Robert Mondavi winery is a must-see! $25/each gets you a guided tour of everything, followed by a tasting of three wines and an appetizer paired with the Cabernet.

Robert Mondavi established the winery in 1966, and it was the first major winery built in Napa Valley in the post-Prohibition era. "Prior to Mondavi launching his own winery and brand in 1966, American wines were considered cheap imitations of those produced in Bordeaux, Burgundy and other long-established winegrowing regions of the world." {via}

In addition to winemaking, the grounds are home to summer music festivals that raise funds for local charities. Mondavi was also passionate about educating people about wine and its health benefits {I'll drink to that!} during a time when many in America were anti-alcohol.

We learned so much during our time at Mondavi's winery! Like, did you know that most grapevines go through numerous seasons before their grapes are ever harvested for fermenting? Those baby grapes in the early years are only used for vineyard fertilizer. So don't think you can just buy a winery and get rich quick - years and years of work go into it before you'd ever see your first harvest season to make wines. And did you know that the price of a wine oftentimes indicates how the grapes were harvested? Our trusty less-than-$10 wines are often made by machine-picked grapes, while handpicked grapes go into making higher quality, better tasting wines. Don't get me wrong, we still buy those cheapies when we need wine most of the time, but it's fun to educate yourself on the winemaking process and indulge in a fine wine for special occasions.

We were promised three wines, but got a fourth {moscato d'oro} as a dessert surprise. The first was a 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay {fermented in stainless steel tanks}, a 2011 Pinot Noir, and then a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. The cab was served with wild mushroom arancini, a fried ball of mushroom and parmesan risotto, and we were given the recipe to take home. 

See that photo of Robert Mondavi to the right? He lived to be 94 years old, and our tour guide told us this year they're planning a huge event for what would have been his 100th birthday. The photograph was taken when he was in his late 80s. "Want to look that good when you're 80? Drink wine every day," said our tour guide!

I wish this blog were scratch-n-sniff so you could smell the oak and wine in the room photographed above! Another fun fact – Mrs. Mondavi was keen on presentation and attention to every detail, so it was her idea to stain the red stripes on the barrels. This way, as the barrels were being filled/corked, wine that splashed out wouldn't make the barrel look messy. Smart, lady! Maybe a little OCD? I think Mrs. Mondavi and I would get along famously. 

After leaving the Robert Mondavi winery, we made a quick stop at one just up the road called Alpha Omega. The grounds were beautiful and the main structure had a fun, modern vibe, but their tasting cost just the same as Mondavi and there was no tour {all wines tasted while standing at a bar}. Our last stop of the day was Beringer, where we took another tour + tasting.

The Beringer brothers were also integral in the history of Napa Valley – they were one of the first Napa wineries, and were allowed to stay open during prohibition under a federal license that allowed wine to be made for religious purposes. They'd previously worked in a family-owned vineyard in Germany, and they were drawn to Napa Valley because the rocky, fertile soil was so similar. Their wine was also fermented in man-made caves in the hillside where temperatures were consistent year-round. It was a pretty neat tour!

Can't remember all the wines we tried here, but I'll never forget my aha! moment when we learned about the different flavors you read about on a wine bottle's label. Ever wonder why some wines claim to have "subtle notes of citrus and pear," or "accents of espresso and black pepper"? I always thought, "how the heck do they get those flavors in there?" or "hmmm, can't say I taste pear in this wine." Well, our tour guide explained how these are simply metaphors that winemakers use to describe the taste to a consumer! They're just saying, "when I sip this wine, I'm reminded of..." BAM. Do you feel smarter? I know I sure did!

To explain this further, they had apothecary jars on our tour, filled with things like coffee beans, dried blueberries, nutmeg and vanilla bean. We were instructed to first smell one of the jars, and then take a small sip of wine. It was crazy how those very specific flavors came to life on your tongue! No two wines are the same, so this is the way winemakers choose to communicate the flavors the wine embodies.

Beautiful house on the grounds of Beringer's winery. Wish I could grow hydrangea like that in my yard someday!

We left Wine Country around 5:30 and made our way back to San Francisco for dinner at Pier 23, a restaurant Thomas has been dying to try since seeing it on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I had fish tacos and he ordered their famous oven roasted Dungeness Crab. 

Thursday was a busy one, but we loved every second of it. One thing's for sure - we can't wait to spend more time in Wine Country someday.

Monday, July 22, 2013

San Fran Sightseeing

I think there are two distinct types of vacations... the kind where you disappear to relax, sleep in, catch up on your reading list, and maybe work on your tan, and then there's the kind where you're early to bed and early to rise in order to play tourist.

Our trip to San Francisco was certainly the latter. With only three full days in the Bay Area, we had a lot to see and we had to make the most of our time. Added to the list of the maaaaany reasons why I love my husband is the fact that he's the same kind of traveler as me. I don't have to coax him to get out of bed in the morning on vacations like these! We're not ones for night life or staying out late, so our evenings consisted of dinner, dessert, perhaps a stroll around the Wharf, and then it was back to our apartment to wind down and go to bed. 

Wednesday morning, we were out the door by 8:30 to find Union Square and catch a tour bus. If you want to see as much as you can in the least amount of time, we recommend it. The hop-on-hop-off double decker buses were the way to go for this trip! The bus driver pointed things out and told stories that we wouldn't have heard otherwise, and it was nice to see everything without my nose buried in a guide book or a map. Plus the public transportation in SF is a little tricky to figure out. Here are a few snapshots of all we saw that day...

Financial District, close to our apartment

The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi - the oldest church in San Francisco

Our first view of Alcatraz from Fisherman's Wharf, where we hopped off the tour bus to enjoy some traditional chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

Took the bus across the Golden Gate Bridge. Talk about a cold ride on the top deck! We had PERFECT weather the whole trip, and there was only a tiny bit of fog at the bridge when we went this day. Apparently some people come to visit SF and never see the bridge because of all the fog. 

Looking back at San Francisco from the lookout point where our bus parked.

Palace of the Fine Arts

Back at the Wharf and Hyde Street Pier

An absolutely necessary purchase.

You can't visit San Francisco without stopping at Ghiradellli Square for chocolate and ice cream.

Lunched at my mom & dad's favorite SF lunch spot, Scomas.

Tried a new kind of fish we'd never even heard of - petrale sole, wrapped around a mushroom risotto mixture with seasonal vegetables and mashed potatoes.

We could have watched the sea lions for hours, they were so entertaining!

If you're at the Wharf, you have to check out Musée Mécanique. They have every antique arcade game you can imagine, and you can pay to play them too. Tried my hand at "whack a mole" for the first time since my Chuck E. Cheese days. "Whack a mole," an antique?! Crazy. Also visited the Lefty's Store at Pier 39 for my handsome lefty, and hung out some more with those adorable sea lions.

We ate dinner at Alioto's and were not disappointed! If there are restaurants you want to be sure and dine in during a vacation, download the OpenTable app to your smart phone. We were able to make reservations at some of the most popular spots in town, freeing up time in our day for things more enjoyable than waiting for a table.

The view from our table was just stunning {watched the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge}, and the crab bruschetta we got as an appetizer was the best bruschetta I think I've ever had. 

Ended our day with a world-famous Irish Coffee from The Buena Vista Cafe. I was not a fan - should have thrown my "but everyone comes here to get one of these!" mentality out the window and gone with the Bailey's hot chocolate instead. At least now I can say I've tried it!

Day One was one for the books. Traveling with your husband/best friend is just the most fun thing ever! After our Irish Coffee, we rode the cable car back to our apartment and hurried to bed in anticipation of WINE COUNTRY the next morning. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

We love HomeAway!

Not only were we dying to see San Francisco as a couple, but we'd decided that some day soon we wanted to go with a HomeAway rental instead of a traditional name brand hotel. We found several places we loved in SF, but finally decided on this modern and cozy seventh-floor studio apartment in the heart of the Financial District, close to Union Square.

The HomeAway rental process is pretty simple, and a lot of times you'll end up spending less than you would for a hotel room, especially in an expensive city like SF. We have a friend who works for HomeAway {headquartered here in Austin} and she recommended that we read plenty of reviews and go with a property that has continually received travelers' praises. She reminded us that it's also important to find the property on a map to see where it is in relation to public transportation and the sights we wanted to see while we were there. We found one apartment that I fell in love with, not to mention it had been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, but it was in a more suburban neighborhood near the Presidio, far from the metro line and most of the SF "hot spots."

Since we were trying to plan the most budget-friendly trip possible, we'd already researched that the cheapest way to get from the San Francisco airport into the city would be by their BART metro ($8 a ticket as opposed to a $30+ cab/shuttle ride). Luckily, we came across this gem and were sold. Only two blocks from the Montgomery BART station, next door to The Palace Hotel, and inside of a renovated 1914 building that is a registered historical city landmark! Amenities included a full-size kitchen, living room, spacious bathroom, a queen bed, 15-foot ceilings, a flat screen television with 200+ channels, ironing board/iron, hair dryer, grey stone-washed oak hardwood floors in the living area, and Italian ceramic tile floors in the kitchen/bathroom. It had great views of the surrounding buildings, and we also had access to an 8th-floor terrace. The best part? The apartment looked even better in person than it did in HomeAway's photos!

We arrived at the San Francisco airport around 7:00 Wednesday night and then took a 30-minute metro ride to the Montgomery station. After a short walk to the apartment building, we were buzzed in by a security guard to the lobby where we received the keys to the unit. We had to use our keys to access the elevator and of course to get into the unit, so we felt very safe.

Not 15 minutes after we arrived in the apartment, the phone rang. It was the owners {who live outside of town} calling to make sure we arrived safely and that everything was to our liking. They even left us a bottle of Beringer wine {we visited the Beringer winery a few days later!} with some Ghiradelli chocolate squares. Needless to say, we were giddy at how amazing this whole HomeAway thing was working out. 

We ventured out to grab dinner at Super Duper Burgers that night {highly recommend!}, went to buy cereal, milk and fruit to eat each day for breakfast, and then returned to the studio to unpack and rest up for three full days of tourist fun.

The thing I loved most about going the vacation rental route was that we sort of felt like locals! Here are a few more photos of our little home away from home. 

Next time you plan a trip, do a little research and see if you can find the perfect rental property to make your vacation more special and unique. We didn't spend a whole lot of time at the apartment because we were there to see the sights, but it was such a FUN experience to have our own little place and be able to spread out and relax when we were there. We'll definitely be booking through HomeAway again!

The Reed's Advice for Renting:
  • Decide what your vacation priorities are. Are you looking for a hideaway, somewhere to escape to and relax? Or are you wanting a place smack-dab in the middle of everything the city has to offer? This will help you decide WHERE your rental should be. I found some rentals with amazing views of the Golden Gate bridge, or places that looked like they'd been picked out of a magazine, but after further research, the location wasn't ideal. If crossing things off your "must see" list is important to you, or your stay in a city is relatively short, don't choose a place that's hard to get to and from. 
  • Every apartment/condo/house differs in the length of time you can stay. Most will have a nightly rate that varies for weekends/weekdays or in high/low travel seasons, but you may find that a property requires you to stay for a minimum of three or four nights. This just makes your stay worth their time and investment, so if you're looking for a place to stay for only 1 night, a hotel may be your best bet after all. Many rentals will show a price per week or a price per month if you're looking for a more long-term property, and the longer you stay, you'll likely get a better deal.
  • When you go through a vacation rental, you might end up paying a higher tax rate than you would at a hotel. This is because you're essentially signing a short-term lease, taking away business that a hotel could be getting. But every state/country is different!
  • You'll likely have to put down a refundable damage deposit before reserving your dates, so just prepare to be out a couple hundred dollars until after you return from your trip. 
  • Most rentals are owned by someone who doesn't live there all the time, so they'll hire a cleaning service to come in between each guest. You'll probably pay $50-100 for a cleaning fee too {not refundable, of course}. 
  • Happy to answer any other questions you may have!