A Travellerspoint blog

Napa and the Wine Country

Theme song - "Red, Red Wine", by UB40

An hour north of San Francisco is California's wine country. From the neighbouring towns of Napa and Sonoma, two parallel valleys stretch away to the north. The Napa valley is now synonymous with wine and the valley is jammed packed with vineyards and wineries. Napa itself if a small city with a pleasant and well restored core of 1890s buildings. We stayed only long enough to visit the tourist office, pick up a map and get some recommendations. As we didn't arrive in Napa until mid afternoon we decided to head to the top end of the valley to visit The Castle.
Dario Sattuti's grandfather migrated from Italy in 1885 and was one of the pioneers of the Californian wine industry. Dario established his own vineyard in Calistoga, at the northern end of the Napa valley, and topped it off with a faithful replica of a Tuscan castle. We took the two hour castle tour and wine tasting. Wine tasting in the US is very different to wine tasting in Australia (and elsewhere). It's almost done on a one to one basis, with the host taking you through each of the wines personally. Great for personal service but it can make for a long wait to get a taste in.
We drove back down the valley towards Napa, checking out the scenery. We struggled to find any budget accommodation (surprise!) so turned north again and drove back to Calistoga. Calistoga is the site of a natural hot spring and was originally a Wappo Indian settlement. The discovery of silver in the nearby hills led to the Indians being driven off. When the silver ran out, the mining town of Silverado was dismantled and re-erected in Calistoga, which became a railway hub and spa town. Calistoga still trades on its hotsprings; there are dozens of spa hotels and just a little out of town is Old Faithful Geyser. It does sound a bit lame but we did go and see it. It's one of those touristy things you've just gotta do. So we joined the crowd sitting around this little pond and waited, and waited, and made jokes about watching kettles boil and then WHOOF - up it went. And it certainly does put out a bit of water - probably some 30 feet into the air for maybe 10 minutes. Apparently it blows about 40 minutes or so, but recently it's been blowing every 15-20 minutes. I don't know what that means. This is a very volatile region.
That night we had an excellent Italian meal at a fancy bar.
The next day we drove back down the Napa Valley, stopping at Beringer Estate (beautiful mansion), Peju Winery (lovely wine) and the Old Bale Mill, which we stumbled on by accident. The mill was built in the 1840s when California was still part of Mexico. The mill was officially closed but as they were grinding corn for a local grower they invited us in for a personal tour. It was really interesting to see how effective mid 18th century automation was.
We drove on to the Sonoma Valley and stopped for lunch at Domaine Carneros. This French style chateau didn't have a restaurant per-se but did tasting plates matched to their wines. They had a different approach to tasting than other wineries. You bought a trio of tasting glasses - champagnes, reds and whites. Shelly had the champagne taster; I had the red, and we bought a cheese plate to share. The wine was excellent and the cheese plate was no measly serving either.
Sated and relaxed we drove on to Sonoma Town. Sonoma is an old frontier town founded in 1823. In 1836 a group of American settlers, who had been flooding in from the north, raised the flag of revolt and imprisoned the governor. The Bear Flag Revolt led to the declaration of independence of the Republic of California, with Sonoma its capital. A few days later however the US invaded California and absorbed it into the Union.
We wandered around the pleasant old town. In the central square a jazz festival was setting up. We had a couple of drinks on the lawn, a pulled pork roll and a corn dog (strange!).
We decided not to stay the night in Sonoma but to get a little bit closer to San Francisco. We eventually arrived at the city of San Rafael, north of San Francisco bay, although we didn't know it at the time. We struggled to find any accommodation and for a time it looked as though we'd have to drive north to find something, but then we stumbled upon a long term hotel attached to a hospital. Although it was expensive we took it and crashed out. Tomorrow we'd be in San Francisco!

Posted by paulymx 07:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Lake Tahoe

Theme song - "Hungry like the wolf", Duran Duran

It was a long, slow drive up into the mountains north of Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. In winter Lake Tahoe is popular ski resort, in summer it is popular with hikers and holidaymakers. We were in Tahoe to meet our friends from San Francisco, Jackie & Mark, and Naomi from Sydney. Shelly, Jackie and Naomi all worked together several years ago. Jackie had organised a cabin in the hills overlooking Tahoe township. We spent three nights, drinking, eating, and catching up, interspersed with trips around the surrounding area.
An hour or so to the north of Tahoe is Donner Lake, named after the infamous Donner party who were stranded here during a terrible winter in late 1846, early 1847. While many immigrants to California came by ship through San Francisco, there was also an overland route from the east. It was a long, hard route across the badlands of Utah and Nevada, followed by a grueling trek over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The wagon trains were also prey to bandits and Indians, who continued fighting their hopeless rearguard action against European encroachment of their lands.
In 1846 a wagon train of some 80 odd people with 500 wagons set out on the Oregon Trail. The party comprised several different family groups but became known by its nominal leaders, George Donner and his family and James Reed and his family. When the trail reached the Great Salt Lake of Utah, most travellers swung north and then joined the California Trail that struck south west through the mountains. The party however had recieved word from other travellers that there was an alternative route that went south around the lake and that could cut weeks of the trek. The discoverer of the new route, Lansing Hastings, who was already guiding another group along his path, had left behind vague instructions and a promise to return to guide the party. The Donner party decided to follow after Hastings, but soon ran into trouble. The route was much harder than they expected and their progress was extremely slow. As food began to run low and animals began to die, tempers flared and soon the party broke up into virtually separate groups. By the time they reached the mountains winter was truly upon them - and what a winter, the worst in 100 years. With snow drifts 12 feet high, the party got as far as Donner Lake before they were snowed in. A couple of hardy souls struggled though the snow but the rest attempted to stick it out. When their food ran out, they ate their animals, when their animals ran out, they ate each other. Only about half the settlers survived the ordeal.

Nowadays Donner Lake is a pleasant rural retreat with a small township, scattered holiday homes and an interesting museum.
A little further north is the town of Truckee, which has some well preserved gold rush era buildings. We stopped in at a couple of dive bars for refreshments.
It was a great couple of days spent with great friends. Our thanks again to Jackie and Mark for organising everything.

Posted by paulymx 05:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Monterey & Sacramento

Theme song - "Down in Monterey", by Eric Burdon & the Animals

We left The Toilet early and drove due west. We passed through California's green belt around San Jose, passing Castroville - "The Asparagus Capital of The World" and Gilroy - "The Garlic Capital of The World." The rich, fertile country of this region produces most of California's produce and helps make the state the richest and most productive in the country. As we left the sun blessed, rolling fields of Castroville and entered the coastal plain the weather changed dramatically. A semi-permanent sea fog cast a grey pall over the countryside. The fog is a natural effect caused by the collision of cold air from the sea and warm air from inland. The fog then gets trapped in the low valleys of the coast. The same effects can be seen in San Francisco, which is perpetually covered in fog and Los Angeles, which is perpetually covered in smog.
We arrived first in Carmel-by-the-sea, the exclusive seaside town that Clint Eastwood was once mayor of. Carmel is a very rich and exclusive enclave, filled with high priced shops, boutiques and art galleries. The rich set and their pampered poodles wander the streets in dark shades. We didn't stick around long but drove out the nearby Spanish Mission. The Mission San Carlos is one of the oldest buildings in California, built as a mission station in the 1770s when California was part of Mexico (or more technically speaking - part of the Spanish Empire). It fell into ruin in the 1800s but was restored in the late 19th and early 20th century.
We drove along the 17 Mile scenic drive between Carmel and Monterey. The 17 Mile drive is a toll road - quite expensive at $10 a car - and allows you to drive a long, twisting route among the mansions and golf courses of the super rich elite. It takes in some truly stunning scenery but does require the driver to stay alert as the road is very winding. We were shocked at one point to see a huge stag (male deer) standing on a golf course. We pulled over to take a photo but after watching him for about 5 minutes we though he can't be real, he's standing too still - in the middle of a driving range no less. But no, he was real. There were lots of deer wandering around in fact.
Down by the beach was seal island - covered in seals no less. It was amazing how much noise they made even though they were a mile off shore. The beach was covered in seaweed, including the stems of the giant kelp which grows in these waters. Some of the broken stems were as thick as my arm and over seven or eight feet in length.
We arrived in Monterey about 2pm. By good fortune there was a hot rod show that weekend and the parking lot by Fishermen's Wharf was fast filling up with machines. We wandered around and had a chat to a few people before moving off to Fisherman's Wharf.
Monetery was once the hub of the sardine fishing industry but exhaustion of the fishing stocks led to the collapse of the industry in the 1980s. The old wharves and cannery are now a tourist hub with shops, bars and restaurants.
Monterey is now also host to a world famous jazz and music festival. We wandered around shops, had a mediocre dinner and I bought a new hat to replace my battered up trilby.
Then we hit the road again, turning north. We drove through the night and stopped at a motel in Gilroy.

Tahoe_P_390.jpgCalifornia has several metropoli - Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco come immediately to mind. But it's the little city of Sacramento that is California's state capital. Gold was discovered in northern California in 1848 and there was a stampede of immigrants to the goldfields. Most people arrived by ship in San Francisco and then made their way east up the Sacramento River towards the goldfields. The city of Sacramento was founded where the river split into three. The city rapidly expanded and became extremely wealthly.
Sacramento's old riverside port preserves many gold rush era buildings; once again this area had fallen on hard times and become a slum, preserving it from the developers.
It now houses some impressive museums, including the very impressive California Railway Museum. A dozen old steam trains are on display. Retired railway staff and enthusiasts are on hand in some of the carriages to explain things, such as how the rail post office worked. It was all very interesting - even for Shelly.
After a couple of hours wandering the dusty streets of Old Sacramento we hit the road again. We had a rendevous with friends in Lake Tahoe.

Posted by paulymx 07:33 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The National Parks of the South West

Theme song - "Horse with no name", by America

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is about three hours north-east of Las Vegas. For us it was a little less than an hour north of Seligman, where we stayed the night. Park entry costs $20 per car for six days, which is quite generous. The Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years as the Colorado River wound it's meandering way across the landscape. The rock here is light sedimentary, laid down hundreds of millions of years ago when this land was the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons the river and rain cut through the soft rock to create this massive canyon - the largest hole in the earth. It is truly spectacular. As you gaze down into its depths you see canyons within canyons, each stretching further down. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of the Colorado River at the very bottom. It's a long, long way down.
I wonder what the first people who stumbled across the canyon said when got here. I bet it wasn't "Wow, that's magnificent." Probably more like, "F*ck! How are we going to get around this?"
We stayed on the Southern Rim until almost sunset and then set off east towards Monument Valley. We stopped in the little crossroads town of Tuba City (a bit of a stretch that!) at the Dine Motor Inn. The name confused us as the Motel did not have a restaurant, but we found it was the Indian name for Navajo.

Monument Valley
The iconic landscape of Monument Valley has been immortalised in hundreds of western movies. The first movie filmed in Monument Valley was John Ford's film "Stagecoach", starring John Wayne. John Ford loved the landscape so much he returned here again and again. "The Searchers", certainly his best filmm was also set here. The valley is in Navajo land on the Arizona and Utah border. During the 19th century the Navajo were progressively pushed into smaller and smaller reservations in this desperately harsh environment. Effectively the reservation policy was a form of genocide as the land is almost waterless and can barely sustain agriculture. But the Navajo did survive and they continued their guerilla war against the US under leaders such as Geronimo. In the 20th century the Navajo successfully sued the government to get their land back and the reservation is now significantly larger than it was. The Navajo people though remain poor with 50% living in poverty, but they are independent and are building industry and tourism.
Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is the result of millions of years of erosion. The rocky spires, buttes and mesas are harder elements in the rock that have been left behind after scouring by wind and rain. The soil is very fine, like dust and the 'rocks' can easily be crumbled in your hand. It's a very fragile environment. One day even these mightly spires will be entirely crumbled to dust.

Death Valley
After Monument Valley we turned north west. We had to drive back along the same highway almost all the way to Las Vegas. We drove until about 9pm before we pulled over in the town of Mesquite and found out a motel. This was the cheapest accommodation we had in the US - $35 a night at the Desert Inn Motel. It was a pretty old motel but met the minimum requirements - bed, TV and WIFI. Mesquite wasn't much to write home about - on each side of the highway were massive casino resorts and not much else. The next morning we were up and out and heading north towards Death Valley. Death Valley, the lowest and hottest point in the continental US, was nothing like what we expected.
We'd both thought of the Valley as being flat and desertlike, but instead it was mountainous - still very hot though. The landscape here is nothing like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley. The ground is all scorched and blackened laval rock. The shattered rock testifies that this was once the site of a massive volcanic eruption. At its lowest point there are salt lakes shimmering with false hope. There is no shade and the sun is fierce but that didn't stop a crazy long distance runner we encountered. Man, that's extreme.
In the 19th century Death Valley - around Zabriskie Point - was mined for Borax, which I think is an abrasive that was once used in household cleaning products. When the market died, so did the mine - it must have been terrible to work there - and the area was made a national park.
We headed west over a steep series of passes towards the eastern Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada range runs north to south across the United States. It marks the point where the North American and Pacific plates meet and grind against each other. These enormous pressures throw up mountains, create volcanos (Yellowstone National Park in the north is actually the collapsed caldera of a mega-gigantic volcano. It's one of the most volcanically active regions of the earth and if it were to blow..... goodbye Canada and the USA!), hotsprings, geysers, and causes earthquakes. The earth here is very busy indeed. Shelly found the journey just a little bit scary. Although there were not many cars on the roads, there were sheer drops to certain death all the way along the route. I think we hit about 7000 feet above sea level before we wound our way down to a more agreeable level.
We drove along a pleasant valley between the national parks, Death Valley and Mt Zion on the right and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on the left. We stopped at Mammoth Lake, which is a ski and hiking resort. We stayed at a Motel 6. We kept an eye open for bears, which are known to break into cars to get food. We didn't need to break in anywhere as we had a huge meal of Irish stew and bangers and mash at the local Irish bar.

Yosemite National Park
The next morning we drove up and over the spectacular Tioga Pass, which reaches about 4900 feet. Tioga Pass is only passable about four months of the year. We had to stop every few feet to take photos.
Yosemite was a total contrast to the other parks - it was covered in forests and lakes! Coming over from the east the scenery was simply stunning. We stopped at Teneya Lake for some photos. It was mirror beautiful. Then we drove on to Bridal Veil Falls and Yosemite town.
Late afternoon we headed off towards Monterey, south of San Francisco. It was another long drive ahead and we just drove until we couldn't drive anymore. About 9.30 we saw motel just near the town of Los Banos (The Toilet!) so we just had to stay!!

Posted by paulymx 23:59 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Route 66

Theme song - "(Get your kicks on) Route 66", by Bobby Troup

To the north and east of Las Vegas is a swathe of amazing national parks so we picked a new hire car - a Nissan Versa - and set off.
The Grand Canyon was our first destination but we took a quick detour to the Neon Boneyard on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Here is where all the old neon casino signs go to die. It only opens by appointment - which we didn't have - so we took some photos over the fence. The Graveyard was in a very, very dodgy part of town. Homeless people were camped out under freeway overpasses and in vacant fields so we didn't dally. We then had some problems with the GPS which caused us a great deal of frustration. By the time we got away it was clear we'd never get to the Grand Canyon before nightfall. The I-40 interstate cuts across the old Route 66 near the little town of Kingman so we took another detour.
Route 66, America's most famous highway, wasn't constructed until 1926. Before that time interstate travel was all done by train. But the growing importance of the motor car and the need to get many millions of people back to work during the Depression led the Federal Government to initiate a massive highway building scheme. Route 66 stretched from Chicago, Illinois in the north to Santa Montica, California in the south west. The engineers basically linked together existing stretches of roadway between the towns and hamlets along the route, This resulted in a long, meandering two lane highway that took in some truly tiny towns, such as Peach Springs, Arizona. For a generation Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway further north were the only roads on which you could drive across the country. Route 66 was immortalised by writers such as Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and in songs such as "Get your kicks (on Route 66)."
In the 1970s the old highway system was replaced by interstates' designed to link destinations as efficiently as possible. Hundreds of little towns whose livelyhood depended on Route 66 traffic were simply bypassed and eventually died. In 1985 Route 66 was officially retired and all reference to it was removed from the maps. Passionate locals and nostalgia buffs however would not let the 'mother road' die. In the surviving towns old diners and motels were renovated, kitchy souveniers sold and 'drive it yourself' route maps were produced.
We drove through a couple of towns, including some ghost towns and stopped in Seligman for the night. There was some sort of biker convention on in town. I must say Harley Davidson has a monopoly on the motorbike market in America. Their huge, heavy machines dominate the roads. We stayed at the Canyon Motel - in the Harley Davidson theme room no less! The next day we did a quick tour of the kitchy tourist stores before setting off for the Canyon.

Posted by paulymx 23:08 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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