Steve and I have long wanted to visit Northern California together. As a matter of fact, in 2014, I had made plans for a massive trip that would start in Sonoma County, take us down through San Francisco, and then further down Highway 1, all the way to Santa Barbara. It was an ambitious two weeks of indulging everything we wanted to see and do, and I will admit, it included so much I was almost a little intimidated by my own plans.
Coincidentally, 2014 was also the year that Steve and I agreed it was the right time for me to walk away from my corporate financial career. We went from a marriage-long two-income reality to Lori staying home and becoming, what I jokingly call, a “kept woman”. It was a dramatic and somewhat traumatic (I will admit) shift for me. From one day to the next, my daily existence changed so drastically that it took me a while to adjust. Several months, in fact. I couldn’t seem to keep my mind focused on any one thing for quite a while, and we ended up scrapping our planned trip.
After my adjustment period, I invested a bit of time in some things that I had always wanted to do. I took a private tutoring session in photography. And next, I enrolled in a couple of college courses, one in web design and another in Photoshop. And then I started Mutt & Chops. Those things consumed quite a bit of my time.
But our desire to see the sights of Northern California was still there. Sure, I’d been to the San Francisco area for business, and Steve’s work frequently takes him to California, both north and south. But it’s not the same as spending leisure time seeing the sights. So, we finally decided to make our trip, although a radically altered one. Much less ambitious, covering substantially less territory. Yet somehow, this trip ended up feeling just right for where we are right now and what we hoped to get out of it.
Northern California Getaway – Santa Cruz and Monterrey Bay
Given that Steve had seen more of Northern California than I, I let him decide where we would go…as long as it included Sonoma Country. We love wine. And food. And food with wine. I mean, we REALLY love drinking wine, especially when accompanied by really tasty food. Sonoma had to be a part of this trip.
In his travels, Steve had kinda fallen in love with Santa Cruz. He wanted to make a stop there and so he made that the first little part of our trip. We left Phoenix early Tuesday morning and arrived in San Jose by mid morning. We grabbed our rental car and headed south and west to Santa Cruz.
Since it was too early to check into our hotel, we stopped for lunch at The Crow’s Nest, which is a popular local seaside restaurant. We had a lovely, leisurely lunch and then convinced our hotel to let us check in early so we could go see some sights. We stayed at the Hotel Paradox, which is an Autograph Collection Marriott property. It was a great place to stay, and the food was very nice.
Once we checked in, we grabbed our jackets (our entire stay in Northern California was mostly overcast and very cool), and the camera, and went to check out the area.
We stopped at Natural Bridges State Beach, named for this feature spanning a section of the beach.
Then we parked on West Cliff Drive and walked the sidewalk along the shoreline, enjoying the scenery.
We stopped to watch the surfers for a bit. They were impressive, especially since that water was COLD! I know they have wet suits. But still!
And then there was a bit of surprise on the high view of this secluded little beach. See, the name of this beach is Pyramid Nude Beach. Unbeknownst to us.
Yeah…after I captured this beautiful shot from the outside lip of the seaside overhang, we followed the sidewalk to our left, taking us further into the very narrow and deep sandy cove of the beach. Where we looked down to see two young men, quite happily naked, sunbathing.
I wasn’t shocked, but I will admit to being very disconcerted because one of the young men was asleep, face-down on his towel. And he wasn’t moving. He worried me, actually. But his companion was reading a magazine face-up and seemed unconcerned, so I decided the sleeping sunbather was probably just fine.
And then two young women positioned themselves on the walkway directly over the nude sunbathers, taking photographs, when they realized what was displayed below them. One of the young women was so surprised by the unexpected view (mostly from the face-up sunbather), that she immediately got the giggles and could not stop. I had to admit. It was infectious. As we walked past them, she would occasionally look over the edge again, then make eye contact with me and giggle uncontrollably. I couldn’t help but join her in a chuckle or two.
All the houses we saw on West Cliff Drive were on the other side of the road from the shoreline. This was the only house on the sea side. It was so quaint, I had to capture it.
The next day, we had a lovely breakfast and then took off to catch our whale watching boat. It was cold with a low cloud cover, but so totally worth it. We saw several humpback whales.
Including this mother and her calf, who came quite close to left side of the boat.
But even closer, on the right side of the boat, one humpback decided to surface with a very large spout, which the wind promptly carried straight to our faces where we stood on the deck. Not only did we experience a little sea spray from the spout, but we learned that whales have exceedingly bad breath, thank you very much!
We were also thrilled to have the privilege of seeing a blue whale, which our marine life expert explained was the first sighting in the bay for the season.
With some time left on our boat tour, the captain took us along Seacliff Beach, where he explained there had been some great white shark sightings.
When we got to the location (very close to the shore, I might add) we spotted a boat containing two members of a local research group. They were using a camera to view underwater. Shortly thereafter, our captain called us to the left side of the boat where we saw this.
A 7 or 8-foot great white, lazily drifting the area. It was a thrilling moment, I can assure you.
Especially since he was content to oblige us by swimming right up next to the boat. Close enough even to make out his gills!
Shortly after that, as we headed back to the docks, we saw several surfers in the water. And I must tell you, everyone on the boat kinda thought they were a little crazy.
We had dinner that night at a seafood restaurant at the end of the Municipal Wharf. On the walk to the restaurant, we heard quite the barking racket, and saw these noisy sea lions, chilling on the boards.
We had a lovely meal and then called it quits for the day.
Santa Cruz was beautiful. Observing whales in the wild was awe-inspiring and humbling. One of the most memorable parts of our trip. And seeing a great white shark so close was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I concluded that no visit to Northern California would be complete without seeing Monterrey Bay.
Northern California Getaway – San Francisco Drive-By
Thursday, after a lazy breakfast, we made the 130-mile drive north to Santa Rosa. That took us through the San Francisco area and over the Golden Gate Bridge.
We opted to do a more thorough visit of San Francisco at a later date, so we did not stop. That is, other than to take some pictures of Alcatraz and the city view across the San Francisco Bay.
Northern California Getaway – Santa Rosa and Sonoma County
After arriving at our hotel, Steve and I unpacked and decided to cross the street to Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square Historic District to find some lunch. We ended up picking Jack and Tony’s Restaurant and Whiskey Bar where we had a delicious lunch. The food was quite lovely.
We drove to a store to pick up some small supplies and then rested up for our dinner. Steve had made plans to meet up with a colleague from work and his wife, who are long-time residents of the area. When they learned we were coming, they offered to be our tour guides and area ambassadors for our entire Sonoma County experience.
Out of respect for their privacy, I will refrain from naming our gracious hosts, or featuring them in photographs. But I will tell you this. Our Sonoma County experience was made unforgettable by this amazing couple! They packed one unforgettable experience after another into a window that spanned Thursday evening to Saturday. Without their knowledge of the area, the unbelievably generous investment of time, patience and sharing of food and wine, this trip would have been a pale shadow of what it turned out to be. I feel like I now have new best friends in Sonoma County.
Our Sonoma County experience started with a wine flights meal at Willy’s Wine Bar. I could attempt to describe to you what an amazing experience that dinner was, but I don’t think any of us can spare that much time. Suffice it to say we LOVED it!
The rest of our Sonoma County experience went like this:
Wine and food pairings for lunch at beautiful St. Francis Winery and Vineyards. To say the experience was sublime may be doing it a bit of injustice.
Followed by a tasting at Loxton Cellars.
Where I captured the new crop coming in on the beautiful vines.
And then on to Wellington Cellars for some more wine. Bless our amazing hostess for being the designated driver.
Obviously, we needed to walk off some food and wine. So, our hosts took us to Jack London State Park. There, we toured a museum dedicated to Jack London. Then we walked through the woods to see the ruins of Wolf House. The ruins were poignantly beautiful.
After Jack London State Park, it was another wine stop at Benziger Family Winery, where I was enchanted with the entrance to Bruno’s Nymph Garden on the property.
And the day doesn’t end there!
We passed these wine directional signs in Glen Ellen on our way to Sonoma.
In Sonoma, we walked the quaint town square, which contained Sonoma City Hall.
We passed by the Sonoma Barracks.
And we stopped at a small shop to pick up some beautiful cheeses before heading to our hosts’ amazing home in the hills.
Where we had wine, cheese and charcuterie while we toasted the sunset with this amazing view.
After which, our host prepared for us a four-course meal with red and white wine pairings.
You can’t book this kind of experience. There is no travel guide that would have compared. It was singular.
The next day saw us having another amazing wine and food pairing lunch at Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates. I could go on and on. Let’s just leave it at Crispy Maitake Mushroom, Red Wine Tempura, Sweet Soy, Dashi, Estate Relish. Forget drop the microphone. Just put down the fork and knife and walk away astounded.
Korbel Champagne Cellars came next, with an incredibly informative tour of their old facilities and an eye-opening understanding of what a massive operation it really is.
And then it was time to walk some of the food and wine off while being awed and inspired by nature at the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve.
I had never seen redwoods before. As with the whales, I was awestruck and humbled.
This shows their amazing root structure.
It takes your breath away.
For the last of our stay, our hosts took us back to the ocean, to Bodega Bay.
Amazing, jaw-dropping vistas.
And because this is the kind of magic they wove, our hosts arranged for a parting gift.
As we looked west across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, our hostess started pointing out whale spouts. And sure enough, we witnessed a beautiful sight.
A farewell to our experience by way of waves from whale flukes.
We had a yummy seafood dinner at Lucas Wharf near the shore. And then our hosts drove us back into Santa Rosa, where they dropped us off at our hotel. That marked the end of our time with them, as we drove to Oakland the next morning to catch our flight home.
If you’ve stuck with my story this far, I hope it is because I was able to convey what a truly amazing, uncommon, incomparable experience this getaway was for us.
Northern California is a treasure. But no more so than the amazing couple who set the standard for generosity and graciousness in how they hosted us. They selflessly shared their home turf as well as themselves in a way we will never forget, and for which we will forever be grateful.