This past week we kept it a bit more local, as in within the United States, when we took a week to experience quite a diverse range of destinations in the State of California. Incomparable wine, good food, and natural beauty were on the menu, but most importantly, we spent much of the week with the best friends imaginable. Also—and this may surprise some who know how we typically travel—we mixed it up a bit, starting and ending the trip in exceptional luxury resorts, with two nights at a cozy bed and breakfast sandwiched in between. Increasingly we are seeing that financially secure travelers are more focused on the quality of their experience, and not solely on lavish spending.
We jetted from Chicago to San Francisco to start our trip. It is absolutely no surprise to see that commercial flights are once again at or near full capacity, but flyers and crews seem to have gotten into the routine of dealing with masks, cleaning routines, and the continuous reminders of health concerns. We expect that we’ll be seeing this for a while, but it truly is good to see that there is an overwhelming impulse to return to our normal lives.
We picked up a rental car at the airport and headed north, skirting San Francisco, to the Montage Healdsburg. Most of the journey was on expressways, but once we got off and drove through the town of Healdsburg, both of us immediately vowed that we would have to spend more time in this charming town, which features wineries, a wide array of exceptional restaurants, and stores that offer truly beautiful handcrafted objects.
About five minutes out of town, we turned toward Montage Healdsburg. Wow! Those familiar with this part of California know that it’s a rolling, arid landscape, yet the comfortable vibe of this modern masterpiece is apparent the moment you step up to the front door. The main lobby is chic, comfortable, and inviting, and the bar located there serves masterful cocktails alongside the area’s crazy-good wines. We immediately connected with friends who had rolled in before us, enjoying the cool comfort of the hotel’s public space before actually checking in to our room. Another Wow! The “rooms” are spread over an expansive landscape, with each room or suite being nearly entirely independent of the others. All feature balconies that are comfortably furnished with a gas fire pit, and offer views of the natural surroundings. In our case, we looked out on a range of mountains that offered a glowing wakeup call each morning.
Food? Well, you can only imagine. The restaurant features an open concept kitchen with a wide range of seating options indoors and outdoors. Every member of the restaurant staff knows their wine, and it was no surprise that we were offered a range of California’s best from the surrounding vineyards. And, speaking of vineyards, while they’re still in their infancy, much of the resort’s landscape is devoted to newly-planted vines; within the next couple of years, grapes grown on the property will be harvested and used to create signature wines.
As is often the case with travel days, we were a bit zonked by the time we finished dinner (we had, after all, gotten up at 2 a.m. California time to make our flight). The next morning we had a great breakfast—yes, the avocado toast is to die for—and we were whisked by luxury SUV to a “secret surprise” that the Montage had planned for us. We guessed endlessly…and, ultimately, didn’t even come close. The surprise was revealed as we pulled into the nearby airport to the sight of a gleaming Bell 407 helicopter. After a quick safety briefing, we lifted off and went for an hour-plus tour of the Russian River, the Alexander Valley, and the stunning Pacific coastline. As if that weren’t enough, our turbine-powered magic carpet took us to the grounds of the Robert Young winery. And, no, that’s not all folks…we were treated to a winery tour by one of the members of the Young family, followed by an expansive tasting and picnic that was packed in by the Montage. Golly!
That would have been a pretty full experience in itself, but after this, our luxury SUV was again waiting for us, and took us to Silver Oak Vineyards for another round of wine tasting. The Silver Oak winery is beyond impressive, LEED Platinum certified and entirely energy self-sufficient. Oh, yeah…they also produce very amazing wines.
That evening, we visited a rather fabulous restaurant, Vallette. Great, great food served up by two brothers who operate the restaurant jointly. It’s almost guaranteed that at some point, Bob Vallette, the dad of the proprietors, will stop by your table, swirling a glass of one of the region’s better wines, and engaging in casual confirmation. Bob, by the way, seems a laid-back gent, but you might be surprised that, at an age when most of us have settled into our favorite recliner, he is still flying wildfire suppression missions. One more example of our continuing experience that the best part of travel turns out to be the human connections you make.
The next morning we said our farewells to our great friends and to a truly stunning resort, and hopped in our car to make our way to Carmel-on-the-Sea. Carmel is exquisite and worth an extended visit (and indeed we’ve done that previously, but we had miles to cover).
A quick stop for a sandwich, and another “Wow!” awaited us. Rolling out of Carmel, you quickly join up with California Highway 1, certainly one of the most iconic drives in the world. The scenic beauty is beyond one’s capability to describe in words, with the asphalt ribbon of highway hugging a coastline where mountains meet the sea. Crashing waves. Redwoods. Spectacular vistas. It’s a drive everyone should take at least once in their lifetime. It is indescribably beautiful. Utterly awe-inspiring.
There are many delights along this route, but as the coastline flattened out a bit and we approach Cambria, we came across one that’s pretty extraordinary…a beach that is the habitat of hundreds of elephant seals. The largest of these mammoth sea mammals top out at around 5,000 lbs! A few minutes enjoying their lazy antics, and we were on to our next stop, Cambria.
From the time we left Carmel, it must have been three hours or so until we rolled into Cambria. Ah, Cambria. You are a joy. This town is not about being touristy. Located near Hearst Castle, Cambria is perfectly happy to be your friend, but also quite willing to let you do your thing. Probably the best way to convey this is to look at a few of the objective facts: if you want a coffee in town, you’re probably going to have to wait for the locals to open their doors at 8 a.m., or possibly 10 a.m. Want to shop for pottery? You’ll have to time it just right, because the “We’ll be back at XXX” sign keeps moving back in half hour increments every time you check it.
In a place such as this, there’s no better place to settle in than in an authentic B&B, and we chose the Olallieberry Inn. This lovely little Victorian home is, by golly, about as comfy as you can imagine. You will not find cutting edge designer furniture or trendy cocktails here. Uh-uh-uh. But, what you will find are comfortable sitting chairs, a porch you’ll want to sit on forever (overlooking a wildly exuberant garden), and a bed that will summon you into a slumber unlike any you’ve experienced since childhood. When we rolled in, it was toward the end of their complimentary wine hour, served every day with a choice of a nice local wine and a beautiful charcuterie/cheese board. This is generally the time when you can sit on the porch and make new friends of the guests, a fairly eclectic group with one common trait, the love of Cambria.
After awakening and wiping the sleep from your eyes, you may choose to shuffle toward the kitchen, where you will find Chef Dirk, a bundle of positivity, preparing what will soon become one of your all-time favorite breakfasts. If you speak kindly to Dirk, he will offer you a mug of freshly brewed coffee and a brief chat, before returning to his culinary duties. Here’s the thing about Dirk: he has two jobs. One is making an incredible breakfast for the Inn’s guests every morning, and the other is cutting and chopping wood. He’s been doing it for over 20 years, and is a master. If his chopped wood is only half as good as his food….
We ate at a couple of good restaurants in town during our stay. No Michelin stars here…just solid, well-prepared food, and lots of dishes featuring the olallieberry, a locally developed hybrid. In one of our first meals, at Linn’s Restaurant, we had four, count ‘em, four dishes that somehow incorporated the olallieberry as an ingredient.
Our only full day in Cambria was spent venturing to Daou Winery, a truly gorgeous winery atop Daou Mountain, near Paso Robles, where we had reserved a picnic that was truly sublime. There are many beautiful wineries in this region, but it would be hard to top Daou, not only for the winery itself, but for the views it offers, perched on top of a mountain. We were already fans of Daou wines, but we were introduced to some of their wines that we had not previously had, and ended up being rather fond of Eye of the Falcon, a Cabernet/Petit Verdot blend. And, of course, no visit to a winery can be deemed a success unless you join their club. We’re looking forward to our first delivery.
The next day saw us again hitting the road, en route to Carlsbad and the Park Hyatt Aviara. This beautiful resort, formerly a Four Seasons property, recently underwent a $100+ million renovation, and evokes a comfortable, luxurious SoCal vibe. Our suite was fantastic. Like most rooms at the Park Hyatt, the suite was exceptionally large and perfectly appointed. Even the smallest rooms at the Park Hyatt are impressive in size, and the designers have managed to capture a casual elegance that reflects Southern California perfectly
One of the more impressive meals of our trip was at Porto Lago, in the hotel. The imaginative food is prepared in a beautiful open kitchen, and features a Latino bent, as well as the ample use of an open wood fire. Our waiter was among the most knowledgeable we have ever encountered, and expertly guided us through our menu and wine choices…a gent who had trained for three years with master chefs, but decided to bring his considerable expertise in food and wine to the front of the house. Really impressive!
The Resort also features a world-class golf course, one of the stops on the LPGA tour. The clubhouse offers yet another beautiful restaurant, Ember and Rye.
Our second day in Southern California was largely spent at friends’ home in La Jolla, and that evening we visited the sister resort of the Park Hyatt, the Alila Marea Beach, and had dinner at Vaga, which is one of the hottest restaurants in this part of Southern California. Executive Chef Claudette Zepeda has created a truly outstanding menu that reflects the region’s cultural traditions, using locally sourced ingredients. After dinner there are few places more stunning than the adjacent bar, featuring firepits that will warm you while you watch the sun set over the Pacific.
Sadly, this Kalifornia Kaleidoscope of a journey was only a week long, but it allowed us to experience a wide range of accommodations, dining, and sightseeing that served as a reminder of the State’s amazing wealth of natural beauty and of its rich array of quality resorts, exceptional dining, and incredible wines. It was really the ideal way to experience Coastal California, with the casual comfiness of our Cambria B&B sandwiched between two resorts that rank among the best in America, yet offer distinctly differing experiences.
As we work with our clients to realize their travel dreams, we generally see that an amalgam of experiences such as ours is often the perfect realization of their vision. It’s the way we hope to help others in their quest to travel beyond….