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The Greatest Dane


“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” -Josh Billings

It was a chilly winter afternoon almost four years ago when we brought him home. He already had a name. Bo. Short for Bocephus, Hank Williams Jr.’s nickname. I promptly changed it to Beau, which means “handsome” in French. Fitting, because he was the most handsome dog I’d ever seen.

We already had one Great Dane, Buddy. We’ve had Buddy since he was four months old and he’s been with us through everything, including grad school, law school, marriage, a three-year sojourn in New Hampshire, and four months in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. He’s been to no fewer than a dozen states plus the District of Columbia, and we even have a picture of him on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

But when we settled back down in Texas—and moved into a Texas-sized house—we decided we were ready for another dog. At 130 pounds, Buddy is on the small side for a Great Dane (I jokingly refer to him as a “miniature” of the breed), and my husband, Michael, desperately wanted a Dane with “classic” features.

We started working with the local Great Dane rescue, and while the dogs they had available for adoption were incredibly sweet, none of them seemed to be a good fit. Michael had a picture in his mind of the dog that he wanted and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less. Then, one Sunday, we found an ad in the newspaper for a one-year-old black Great Dane. His owner was a middle-aged woman whose elderly mother and her Chihuahua had recently moved in with her, and the dogs weren’t getting along. We decided to go and see him.

We knocked on the door and were met with the sound of crazed barking. A man opened the door and one of the largest dogs I’d ever seen came bounding into the front yard, a clumsy jumble of long, spindly legs and the paws of a lion. He had the excitement and energy of a tiny puppy and was completely unaware of his size. He sniffed and licked and jumped on us, and I swear, it was as if he knew that we were meant to be his owners and he’d just been waiting for us to come for him.

We went inside and spoke with his owner for a while as this massive beast dashed around us frenetically. His crate was the size of an ATM vestibule and I shuddered to think how much kibble he must put away on a daily basis. He was crazy and rambunctious and I just couldn’t see him fitting in at our quiet, orderly household where Buddy’s idea of excitement was half-heartedly barking at the mailman.

When we got back in the car, I turned to Michael and said, “We can NOT get that dog!”

…just as he was saying, “I love that dog!”

I could tell by the look on his face that he had fallen head-over-heels in love. Beau was exactly the dog he’d been dreaming of. We went home, talked it over, and then went back to get him and brought him home that evening. And our lives were never the same.


My love for Beau didn’t come as easily as it did for Michael. I work from home, and we set up his crate in my office. I had grown so accustomed to my routine with Buddy, who would sleep until 10 or 11 every morning and was generally quiet as a mouse. Beau, on the other hand, was wild and seemed to have limitless reserves of energy, not to mention a bark that could be heard the next town over. That, combined with the fact that he and Buddy weren’t exactly fast friends and got into many a squabble, meant I had to keep him with me in my office a lot of the time in those first few weeks. I would sit at my desk and look over at him, and he would look back at me with the sweetest eyes and a look that said he just wanted to love and be loved. And over time, he worked his way into my heart forever.



Beau was reckless in his enthusiasm for life, which is perhaps just a nice way of saying he was dumb. True, Great Danes are not known for their intellect. But what they lack in common sense they make up for tenfold in the love they give. When we learned this past summer that Beau had an enlarged heart (a congenital condition called dilated cardiomyopathy), the diagnosis struck me as terribly bittersweet. His chest X-ray looked like that scene when the Grinch’s heart grows two sizes. Beau was so full of love and the need to be loved, and his illness—an overgrown heart—was a heartbreakingly appropriate metaphor.

Medication gave us extra months with Beau that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. But there was no cure for his condition, and we knew that we would be facing a difficult decision sometime soon. I had just hoped we would have more time than we did. The dog I had once thought I didn’t want had become one of the best friends I’ve ever had. The thought of losing him was crushing. But as his illness progressed, watching him suffer became more difficult than the decision to say goodbye. He still had a spark in his eye. His “Beau-ness” was still in tact. But his body wouldn’t do what he wanted it to do. He would try to jump only to collapse onto his back legs. We couldn’t let him run in the yard with his brother Buddy because he got winded too easily. And toward the end, simply getting up to go outside became too taxing for him.

I think Michael knew it was time before I did, but he waited until I arrived at the conclusion myself. In all honesty, I probably knew for a while too but didn’t want to say the words out loud. But one day last month, as I watched how labored his breathing was and how uncomfortable he looked, I decided it was time. His quality of life was next to negligible, and keeping him any longer would have been selfish.

Fortunately, we were able to have the vet come to our house. It was Sunday, and she would be there at 4pm the following day. That night was one of the longest and most difficult of my life. Buddy slept next to Beau on his dog bed, something he hardly ever did. It was as if he knew that his brother wasn’t feeling well, or maybe he was even aware on some level that he would be gone soon. In the morning, Michael went to work and Beau managed to climb into bed with me. I stayed there with him until noon and gave him a big bowl of ice cream for both breakfast and dinner. His appetite had all but disappeared, so it made me happy to see him lapping up a treat he’d never been allowed to have before. Michael came home early from work and we and the dogs went out in the backyard to spend some time together. It was a beautiful fall day, cool and cloudy, a rarity in September in Texas. It was Beau’s favorite kind of day, and he sniffed at the breeze as if he was ready for it to carry him away. We took pictures together, and cried countless tears, and Beau sat in the grass right next to us, never leaving our side as always, all of us silent as the clock ticked toward the inevitable.

When the time finally came, we showered Beau with hugs and kisses, our arms wrapped around him right until the very end. Watching him go felt like the most unnatural thing in the world. My very soul seemed to rip in half. But, at the same time, I felt such peace in knowing that the pain he’d been fighting so bravely was finally gone. It was at once one of the most painful and beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.


When it comes to religion, my opinion is that I have no opinion. The only thing I’m certain of is that we mere mortals can’t be certain of things that are inherently unknowable. But I do know that, if there is some kind of heaven, our dogs will be there with us—because they deserve it more than we do. A lazy afternoon spent in the company of a dog is a kind of heaven on earth, and I can’t imagine any version of eternity that doesn’t include them.


Before we said goodbye to Beau, I silently asked him to find a way to show me that he was still with me and that he was okay, if there was something on the other side. Now, understand that I am a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts or horoscopes or prayer, though sometimes I wish I did. So I fully realize that it was likely just a coincidence. But something happened that day that put a question mark on all my skepticism, at least for a moment.

My sister and I have been going through a rough patch over the past few months. Really, over the past few years. That afternoon, as Michael was preparing to bury our sweet Beau, I went to his grave and gave him his favorite bone and a letter I had written him. I stood there crying into Michael’s chest and the grief felt unbearable. I couldn’t believe he was really gone. It was getting colder outside and Michael told me to go in the house, and as I slowly walked back, my legs like led, I got a message on my phone. Three words from my sister, who had no idea what had happened that day: “I love you.” We hadn’t spoken much in the past few months, and when we did, the exchanges were heated and unfriendly. I hadn’t told anyone in my family what was happening with Beau, so there’s no way she could have known that, at the very moment she was sending that message, I was walking away from my best friend’s grave.

Maybe it was some subconscious sisterly connection that compelled her to send that message at that moment. Maybe it was purely happenstance. I’m not sure. But what I’d like to believe, and the thought that occurred to me as I looked down at my phone through my tears, is that Beau had found a way to let me know he was okay. I don’t know if that’s possible—if it had happened to someone else, it’s the kind of story I would probably roll my eyes at—but I’d like to think it is.


I have no idea what the origins of this story are, but I recently read about a Native American legend that explains the singular bond between dogs and man. They say that, long ago, the Great Spirit decided to divide animals and humans into separate realms. He gathered them up and drew a line in the sand between them. The line began to break apart and a crevasse grew between the two groups. And at the last moment, just before the chasm had grown too large, the dogs leaped across it to join the humans on the other side.


Maybe I’m socially stunted or simply a misanthropic introvert, but, given the choice, I would generally choose the company of dogs over the company of people. After all, l’enfer, c’est les autres.  Beau truly was one of my best friends. My idea of a fun Friday night was curling up with him on the living room floor and watching movies. He was always by my side and followed me from room to room throughout the day. To say he was a constant companion would be an understatement. He was such a part of me that I feel I’m missing one of my limbs now that he’s gone, the phantom pain manifesting as a Great Dane-sized ache in my heart.


The house is quiet and empty now. I never realized how much space Beau took up, not just because of his size, but with his very presence. His energy and his sweet personality have left a gaping hole that nothing will ever be large enough to fill. Any amount of time we’re allowed to have with our dogs is too short, but, even after going through all the pain of his illness and losing him, I wouldn’t exchange the time we had with Beau for anything in the world. He taught me so much without being able to actually say anything. He set an example of love, loyalty, simplicity, happiness, and unrestrained excitement for no other reason than the fact that we are alive and there is air to breathe, treats to eat, sunlight to bask in, rain to romp in, and a warm bed to curl up in at night next to the people and creatures who mean most to us.

That is all there is to life, and Beau lived his to the fullest, right up through that cool and cloudy day—so like the one when we brought him home—when he left us for whatever comes next. I hope that he is waiting for me, somewhere, but until then, I take comfort in knowing that the love I felt and continue to feel for him is indeed immortal.



A Wise Man Once Said…

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” -HST

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen

Incurable Case of Wanderlust

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” —Anthony Bourdain

On the train from Oslo to Bergen.

On the train from Oslo to Bergen.

Lake Tahoe, and a Fond Farewell to California

I failed to mention in my previous posts that by the time we left Napa, I was starting to feel the inklings of a cold or allergies or some other vacation-curtailing ailment, and when I woke up on our last morning in Big Sur, my nose was completely stuffed and my head was pounding—just the sort of thing that would make the five-hour drive to Lake Tahoe exceedingly unpleasant. But I was bound and determined to conquer this brazen virus, so I pumped myself full of Starbucks and Dayquil and we hit the road, speeding down the highway toward one of my favorite places in the world.

Once we drifted inland away from the PCH, the drive to Lake Tahoe was fairly nondescript, just an expanse of suburban sprawl marked by fast food chains and strip malls, not unlike our stomping grounds in Texas, until we reached the base of the Sierra Nevadas. And then the landscape metamorphosed and stunning mountains and soaring redwoods greeted us at every turn. As the elevation rose, we left behind the 70-degree temperatures we’d enjoyed on the first leg of our trip and entered snowy woods illuminated by a postcard-perfect blue sky.

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and were immensely pleased with the accommodations. The Cottage Inn is a collection of cozy cottages situated just a stone’s throw from the lake. Each cottage has a theme, and I had reserved the “Romantic Hideaway.” Prosaic? Perhaps, but that did not detract from its loveliness. (Funny side note: Shortly after we checked in there was a knock on our door. It was a teenaged pizza delivery boy who asked us if we’d ordered a pizza. We said no and he asked in his adorable California surfer/skier accent, “Uh, do you know which one is ‘Cowboy Romance’?” I couldn’t stop laughing.


Once we’d checked in to our comfy little room, I curled up on the couch with a blankey and let Michael venture out on his own to get a few sunset shots of the lake. Despite the fact that I’d been popping Dayquil like Skittles, I’d failed to reach an armistice with my cold and we ended up spending a pleasant but uneventful evening in our room while my private war raged on.


One bright spot in and amongst my now protracted illness was the Inn’s “cocktail hour.” At 6pm we walked over to the lobby and enjoyed some gratis spirits and homemade soup. Michael had a glass of chardonnay and my foggy head and I welcomed a steaming mug of mulled wine. This being the night before President’s Day, the small dining room was teeming with guests, and I enjoyed eavesdropping on a pair of older gentlemen who were fondly reminiscing about the bygone 1960s ski trips of their youth.

We passed the rest of the evening watching movies in our room. I took advantage of the Japanese soaking tub and snuggled up in the rustic but plush bed, crossing my fingers that I would feel better the next morning…


…and I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to let a stupid old cold stop me from enjoying Lake Tahoe, a place which, in my estimation, is heaven on Earth. I did my best to shake myself out of a cold-induced stupor, got dressed, and headed over to the breakfast room, where the Inn’s proprietress had prepared cappuccino muffins and stuffed French toast.


Thus fortified, we went back to our room and made some tentative plans for the day. Michael skis like a champ, but me…not so much. So if he skied, he’d either be skiing on the bunny slope (you know, the one with the conveyor belt instead of a lift) or skiing alone. So that, combined with the fact that a mere half-day lift ticket costs upwards of $90, led to his decision to skip the slopes.

We instead started our day with a drive along the lake, heading a little farther south than we’d been on our previous trip. We stopped at a few turnoffs to take in the breathtaking views, which are so much different in the winter than in the summer. But as we closed in on the Reno side of the lake we promptly turned around. If crowds and casinos and chain restaurants aren’t your cup of tea, I would recommend sticking to North Lake Tahoe.



G Love and Special Sauce. Indeed…


Stay classy, Reno.

To be honest, if you go to Lake Tahoe in the winter and for some reason don’t ski (for example, if your wife skis about as well as Caitlin Upton can argue in favor of improved social studies curricula), there isn’t a whole lot to do. But the views alone make it a worthy destination. We passed the rest of our afternoon sipping loud mouth soup at the Auld Dubliner in the Squaw Valley ski area and then took a long walk near the Inn, trying in vain to squelch a devastating case of real estate envy.


In the evening, we partook in more soup and wine in the lobby, the crowd having thinned out by now, and then made a trip to the grocery store for wine and cheese. I figured if I couldn’t kill my cold, I might as well get it drunk. Michael selected this delectable sandwich, and the leftovers came in handy the next day:


After a long, sleepless night (I guess the Dayquil backfired?), I somehow managed to put myself together the next morning and we walked over to the breakfast room. The weather had changed overnight. The previous day’s 40-degree sunshine had been replaced by a windy, mid-20s chill with heavy clouds that had already surrendered a few inches of snow. The cottages and trees were covered in a blanket of white, and on any other day I would have relished the scene, but on this particular day we need to make the three-ish hour drive to San Francisco and get on a Dallas-bound plane.

We ate our breakfast quickly (made-to-order omelets), packed up, and as luck would have it, as soon as we got in our car, the snow began in earnest. We started on our way but hadn’t gotten very far along the highway when we came to a checkpoint where men clad in bright orange vests were inspecting each car to ensure every driver had either a.) four-wheel-drive or b.) snow chains. Being in a rental car, we had neither and were forced to turn back toward Tahoe City to rectify our predicament.

It didn’t take us long to learn how such situations generally play out. Ill-equipped motorists such as ourselves have but two options. You can either enlist the help of one of the many roadside chain vendors (I think they may be contracted by the state?) for the handsome sum of about $90 ($60 to buy the chains, $30 to have them put on), or you can find a gas station that sells chains (still $60) and figure out how to put the damn things on yourself. My jack-of-all-trades husband of course settled on the latter option, and the detour only cost us about 30 minutes.


Instructional materials…


…aaaaaaaaand done.

The snow, however, combined with the ineptitude of the average driver, cost us an extra three hours. The traffic kept coming to a standstill and the snow kept piling up. At one point, we’d been stopped for so long that a gentleman in a car ahead of us got out and let his dog run around in the snow on the highway. Michael had come prepared and eluded starvation with the remnants of the aforementioned sandwich.


nom nom nom


Once the traffic let up and we had escaped the winter weather, the race was on to get to the airport on time, and through our combined efforts of hunger-staving, GPS-maneuvering, and speed-limit-breaking, we made it.

Only to discover that our flight was delayed by an hour. But we made it.

To reprise a comment I made previously, saying goodbye to California is like saying goodbye to a loved one. It pains the heart, almost unbearably so, even if you know you’ll see each other again. Once a girl who was obsessed with New England, I now give California, the place where I was born 30 years ago, top billing on my wish list of places to live, though it’s impossible to decide on one specific locale. Maybe Napa, with its gently rolling hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see, each producing that sweet elixir that loosens the tongue, inspires the mind, stirs the soul, and maybe, if we’re lucky, causes us to fall in love more deeply, with people and with life. Or the coastline with those tiny pockets of wooded silence, like Big Sur, where a writer’s imagination is roused by the great minds who once took up residence in its halcyon shade. Or perhaps that pristine mountain lake where troubles drift away like snowflakes in the wind, and peace, that esoteric ghost we’re all forever chasing, at last materializes, elevated off of the landscape with bas-relief clarity, if only for a moment.

I drank the wine. I listened to the wind in the trees. I watched the sun set on those clarion waters. And I made a silent promise to myself to spend the next 30 years working toward the goal of one day never having to leave. Hopefully it won’t take that long. À bientot, dear Golden State. I’ll see you soon.



“Make no little plans…

…they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Something I read in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

Estes Park

Estes Park, CO. December 2012.

More Napa, Carmel/Monterey, and Big Sur

Leaving Napa is like saying goodbye to a loved one at the airport. You know you have to go, but it’s so painful to walk away. But, similarly, you can also take comfort in the fact that you’ll see each other again, hopefully sooner than later.

We got to our hotel’s breakfast room right when they started serving at 8am in hopes of avoiding the Valentine’s Day crowd. We chatted with the couple we’d met the previous day and they regaled us with the tale of their swanky private cooking class the night before. By the time we’d finished our eggs and coffee the room had filled with other couples who’d had the same romantic dreams of Napa that we’d had, so we headed back to our room and took our time getting ready.

Our next stop was Big Sur, about a three-hour drive from Napa, but we still had tasting passes and I didn’t want them all to go to waste, so we headed south on Route 29 and stopped at Alpha Omega. Like the other wineries we visited, this one was largely empty, so we had the barkeep all to ourselves. And what an interesting gentleman he proved to be.


It was shortly after 11am and the size of his pours normally would have been incompatible with the early hour, but we were on vacation and eager to welcome all the free wine we could. He started us with a buttery Chardonnay and a citrusy Savignon Blanc, then moved us on to an exceptional Merlot, at which point I asked him to advise Michael on the fine art of pairings, a concept my husband has failed to appreciate thus far. Our host then asked if we might be able to proffer $10 in exchange for a quick lesson. I happily said yes, yes we could.

I enjoy wine with most foods, particularly cheese and crackers and anything Italian, including and especially pizza. The taste of the food is improved by the taste of the wine, and vice versa. Michael, however, hasn’t made this connection, and I was hoping an expert wine enthusiast might be able to shed some light on the matter.

He headed to the back of the tasting room and returned with a pairing menu and a plate of chocolates. He then started our wine tasting all over, pouring us the first three wines we’d tried once again (that’s six pours each, for those of you keeping track). A lemony white chocolate with the Chardonnay, a cherry milk chocolate with the Sav Blanc, a dark chocolate with toffee with the Merlot, and then something very rich and decadent with a full-bodied Cabernet. In and amongst all those sips of wine, nibbles of chocolate, and comparisons of the two were substantial in-between pours of things he wanted us to revisit.

By the end of our tasting, Michael said that yes, he at last understood the concept of pairing, and we estimated we’d each probably had about two full glasses of wine. We thanked our host profusely and stepped out onto the sunny terrace to soak up a few final moments of wine country. It was a lovely way to say goodbye to Napa, however reluctantly.


Back in the car, we marched onward toward Big Sur and stopped for lunch in another of our many favorite destinations, Half Moon Bay. On our last trip in 2011, we spent the night in this dreamy seaside town and sipped a glass of wine at the Ritz Carlton, watching the sunset as a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” and “Danny Boy.” I wasn’t expecting to recreate a memory as perfect as that one, but a pit stop in Half Moon Bay should be mandatory on any California itinerary.

We had lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. The weather couldn’t have been better so we sat on the patio, which was quite literally crawling with four-legged friends. Michael and I both ordered a burger, mine of the sort without parents, his with, and though, as I previously mentioned, veggie burgers and I have something of a love/hate relationship, this was the second best I’ve had in my entire life (the blue ribbon goes to the one at the Whip Bar and Grill at Green Mountain Inn in Stowe, VT). I devoured it with no regard for couth or elegance.


After lunch we continued on to Big Sur, and after a bout of California traffic and an absolutely necessary stop to watch the cliffside sunset in Carmel, arrived at the Glen Oaks Motel just after dark. We checked in at the front desk and were directed to drive across the street to find our little cabin. I felt a pang of buyer’s remorse upon examining our quarters, which were rather spartan given the room rate, but I was only momentarily deflated.

We had our own patio and a fire pit, so Michael got the fire going and I put on some comfy clothes and prepared two mugs of hot chocolate. The rooms and cabins at Glen Oaks don’t have TVs (if I lived in a place with scenery like Big Sur’s, I probably wouldn’t need such a pedestrian form of entertainment anymore), and the respite did wonders for me. We spent the rest of the evening talking, sipping cheap wine from Trader Joe’s, and listening to music on my laptop and wind in the trees. A crescent moon illuminated the black velvet darkness and the sound of the nearby river rushing by lulled us into a perfectly contented sleep in our cozy little bed.





The next morning we took our time getting ready and then headed back up the PCH toward Carmel in search of sustenance. The girl at the front desk at our hotel recommended a place called From Scratch and we decided to give it a try. I’m glad we did. Our breakfast was kingly in size and, as the name implied, everything was made from scratch. Michael had a Southwestern omelet and I had an egg white omelet with spinach and a side of veggie sausage. Neither of us were able to finish.


After breakfast we decided to do Monterey’s famous 17-Mile Drive, which goes through Pebble Beach. People live all along the road and on the golf course, but we beggarly non-residents were asked to fork over about $10 for the privilege of driving through their hallowed grounds. Which was fine, it was worth it for the views.

The winding road takes you by imposing woods, breathtaking views of the Pacific, and some of the country’s most lavish real estate. Pebble Beach is, as expected, strewn with smooth, ocean-worn pebbles of every shape and size, and the golf course is fittingly immaculate. We drove by one house located on the course, across from the beach, where a coterie of deer were milling about. Waves were crashing on the pristine shores as surfers tested their chilly crests. Hoards of tourists gathered at the various lookout spots, clamoring for the perfect spot from which to employ their gargantuan cameras. And Michael and I coasted along in our car, windows down and Sinatra on the radio, taking it all in and dreaming of what it might be like to live in such a relentlessly beautiful place.


Our 17 miles completed, we drove over to Monterey’s pier area but didn’t stay long. It’s like the poor man’s version of Pier 39, with even more plebeians and crazies and indigents, if that’s possible. Not that I don’t have a soft spot for the less fortunate, but if I ever see another jackass statue-mime I’m going to have an aneurysm.


So instead of lingering in Monterey we went to a grocery store in Carmel to stock up on snacks for the night and then started driving back toward our hotel. Along the way, Michael spotted a back road on the mountainous side of the PCH and, adventurer that he is, decided we should explore it. I was a little nervous as we began climbing, our car precariously close to a heart-stopping drop on the passenger’s side. But we pushed on and soon found ourselves deeply ensconced in a lush and towering forest. An army of redwoods flanked our car and tiny waterfalls and gently rolling streams awaited us at every turn. Signage along the way conveyed that we were just this side of trespassing: The land on both sides of the road was private property belonging to the owners of the prodigious El Sur Ranch.



We made our way along roughly 12 miles of bumpy, unpaved road that eventually spat us back out on the PCH, just a few miles down the road from our hotel. We spent the evening much as we’d spent the previous one, snuggled up around the fire pit, sipping tea at first and then dipping into our Trader Joe’s wine supply before turning in, our sleep anxious with the anticipation of the next day’s journey, our long-awaited return to Lake Tahoe.


Next: Lake Tahoe

Turning 30 in Napa

I was first introduced to this mysterious, bittersweet, wonderful life on February 14, 1983, which, if my math is correct, means I recently turned 30. In anticipation of this momentous and inherently anxious occasion, I planned a trip to the place that makes me happiest: Northern California.

How do I love thee, California? Let me count the ways…

The terrain is vast and varied. Drive for an hour or two in any direction and you’ll usually end up in completely new environs; an ambitious traveler could skip about from vineyards to cliff-side beaches to snowy forested mountains in the space of a single day.

The people are relaxed, welcoming, and friendly. I can’t recall a single rude encounter with a Northern Californian. Of course, when you live in such a beautiful place, it seems almost impossible to be mean or angry.

And the weather never disappoints. I love the perpetual fog and chill and drizzle of San Francisco, but if you aren’t so inclined, just take a quick drive north to Napa and bask in the golden sunlight that warms the world’s best Cabernets. Or slip down the PCH toward Monterey and Carmel and soak up the cool-aired beauty in a place where the mountains and sea unite, their offspring a dreamy, surreal landscape of crashing waves and vanilla-pink sunsets.

All of that alone is enough to justify a trip West, but the real reason I wanted to go to California is because it was the site of the best vacation I ever had, about two years ago in June 2011. It was one of those trips where everything went right, even the things that went wrong. Michael and I enjoyed an easy, breezy jaunt from Half Moon Bay to Yosemite to Lake Tahoe to Napa. The weather was cooperative, the food was memorable, even at roadside diners, and natural beauty was forever opening up before us.  It’s hard to put into words what made the trip so perfect. Something about it just glows in my memory and I revisit certain moments of it when I’m feeling down, turning them over in my mind as slowly as I can like a velvety chocolate truffle on the tongue.

I also had an inkling that an event as potentially troubling as my 30th birthday might best be spent in a place where drinking wine before noon is not only acceptable but encouraged. Thus, giving Napa top billing on our itinerary was a foregone conclusion.

I knew it would be impossible to recapture the perfection of that trip two years ago. It will always stand out as a singular, accidental kind of happiness, and you can’t grow that kind of bliss in a test tube. But, at the very least, I hoped to experience a new though different version of that trip, and I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed.

We arrived at SFO around 10am on February 13, picked up our rental car, and immediately headed north toward St. Helena, in my opinion the prettiest stretch of Napa’s central Route 29. One of the best meals we’ve ever had was on our last visit, at Silverado Brewing Company, where Michael partook in his life’s most decisively important burger eating experience. And so, like Harold and Kumar before us, we headed straight there from the airport, our stomachs grumbling and visions of double-fried French fries and ice-cold lagers dancing in our heads. So you can imagine our crestfallen expressions when we arrived only to discover that they’d inexplicably closed their doors. Our dreams of the perfect food were not to be realized.

As we attempted to overcome our disappointment, we drove back down Route 29 toward St. Helena’s Main Street area, which is lined with shops, tasting rooms, and a handful of restaurants. Driven by hunger, we committed that most inexcusable of tourist offenses, deciding on the first restaurant we came to. We ended up at Market, whose portions and prices are remarkably incongruous. Michael ordered the fried chicken, thinking the gourmet version touted on the menu would have to be something extraordinary, but the two drumsticks and golf-ball sized scoop of mashed potatoes he received in exchange for the handsome sum of twenty-some-odd dollars was more than a small letdown after a long morning of flying and driving. I had the veggie burger because I’m a vegetarian and just about every restaurant from here to Timbuktu seems to offer a token veggie burger as the one consolation prize for us herbivores. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good veggie burger, and this one was pretty good. But a little meatless creativity is always appreciated.

Sated, though not entirely so, we strolled back down the pleasant main street in the unexpectedly welcome 70-degree February sunlight and decided to see if we could check in to our hotel, the Harvest Inn, which, upon our arrival, quickly became one of my favorite hotels to date.


The Harvest Inn is a collection of cottage-like buildings nestled among pristine gardens and soaring pines, and to top it all off, there’s one helluva’ vineyard view that can be enjoyed either from the cozy confines of the breakfast room or by way of a sunset stroll around the property with a glass of California red in hand. In a word, the Harvest Inn is enchanting.


Since we’d arrived a little early, our room wasn’t ready but the charming lady at the front desk happily gave us four passes for free tastings at nearby vineyards to pass the time while our room was readied. I’ve learned that you can enjoy some of Napa’s best wines, scenery, and company without spending a dime, or, at the most, for about $20 a day, tops. The visitors center in downtown Napa as well as your hotel are more than happy to hand out cards for either free or buy-one-get-one-free tastings. With very little effort, one can set out at 10am when the wineries open and be stumbling drunk by 6pm when they close, all for the cost of the gas to get around (though if this is your M.O., you should probably hire a driver). Of course, gulping wine by the gallon is no way to actually enjoy it, and we left Napa two days later with a surplus of unused tasting passes.

But I digress.

We left the hotel with our passes in tow and headed back up Route 29 to Markham Vineyards, where we imbibed our first tasting of the trip. This being February, there weren’t large crowds at any of the vineyards we visited, but, even though the vines were bare, the land was green, the flowers were blooming, and the sun shone brightly. Winter may be Napa’s “low season,” but I really don’t think there’s a bad time of year to visit.

At Markham, we were the only visitors in the tasting room, so we were able to strike up a conversation with the girl working the counter, an essential component to wine tasting in Napa if you’re at all interested in getting a few generous pours or a sip of something jaw-droppingly expensive. And indeed, it worked, especially after I impressed her with my observation of a theretofore undetected hint of gardenia in their Chardonnay. In addition to the two whites and two reds included with our tasting pass, she poured us each a generous serving of a reserve Merlot. I don’t really care much for Merlot, but this one was rich and bold and reminiscent of the earthy Spanish wines I tasted at Marqués de Riscal a few years back. Also, can you really ever complain about free wine?

I should also note that Markham was hosting an exhibit of the work of Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman. The walls of the tasting room were lined with pairs of images, one of Wolman’s original photograph and one of its corresponding Rolling Stone cover. It was a nice touch to add to the tasting experience.


We passed a contented hour or so at Markham and then, exhausted from having risen in the pre-dawn hours to catch our early westbound flight, ventured back to the hotel to inquire as to whether our room was ready. It was, and the rest of the evening was mundane, though its participants found it exceedingly pleasant: a nap, a trip to the grocery store for rations, Anthony Bourdain and assorted Wes Anderson flicks on the idiot box, more wine, and the deep, exhausted, blissful sleep of the travel-weary.

I woke up early the next morning because a.) I’m of the female persuasion and it takes me a little time to put this all together and b.) Michael likes to arrive at hotel breakfasts as soon as they open so he can beat the crowd and gain access to the hottest, freshest food and coffee. Also, c.) it was Valentine’s Day and my birthday and there were unsettling stirrings in my mind, disrupting my sleep.

We got to the breakfast room around 8:30 and were greeted by the aforementioned bucolic view of the property’s vineyard. Also in the breakfast room were a smattering of retirement-aged couples there to celebrate the romantic holiday. We struck up a conversation with an adorable couple from Iowa who had somehow finagled a cooking class at the private mountaintop home of a certain husband and wife who, based on the description of their estate, counted themselves among Napa’s wealthiest citizenry. We in turn recounted with youthful pride our knack for acquiring excessive tasting passes with the implied but unspoken goal of getting nice and tight without spending much if any money.

Breakfast at the Harvest Inn was impressive, as far as hotel breakfasts go. I was expecting the usual rundown of fruit, cereal, and perhaps a toast and English muffin station, all of which were included, but there was also quiche, warm pastries, gourmet coffee, and a selection of interesting teas. Combined with the opulent vineyard view, it was the perfect start to my Valentine’s birthday.



After breakfast, we decided to drive around a bit and explore. We could see large, majestic homes up in the hills above the valley and hoped to get an up-close glimpse. A few dead-end roads later, we at last stumbled upon Spring Mountain Road, a steep drive marked by dozens of hairpin turns that take you by an impressive succession of hilltop villas and sprawling, tree-lined vineyards. As we climbed through the hills, a sweeping view of Napa Valley stretched out below us, the early morning fog still visible but dissolving, a wine country Brigadoon slowly revealing itself before our eyes.


It was a sight to behold, but by the time we’d reached the road’s summit, we were both suffering from carsickness, and a bout of nausea just wouldn’t do right before a wine tasting. As we made our way back down, I closed my eyes and held my head out the window, gulping in the cool air in hopes it would settle my roiling head and stomach.

It did, and when we arrived at our next destination, the Mumm Napa winery, I was ready to celebrate 30 with some bubbly. Here’s another tip for Napa on a budget: A tour and tasting at Mumm is normally $25 per person, but the 10am tour is free. It doesn’t include a tasting, but you can visit their website and get a two-for-one tasting coupon, meaning that you can end up with a tour and tasting for two for about $20, depending on your menu selection and proclivity for pre-noon drinking. Frugal travelers that we are (and lush that I am), this is the route we chose.


Having been on several winery tours in the past, I don’t find them terribly interesting. Grapes, harvest, press, juice, ferment, drink. To decant or not decant. A discussion of the merits of oak barrels versus steel. Etc, etc. Okay, I get it. Now let’s drink. But I actually enjoyed the Mumm tour immensely because I’ve never seen how sparkling wine is made. Plus, I recently read a biography of the Widow Clicquot and was interested to see how champagne techniques have evolved over time, and what’s stayed the same. Our tour guide at Mumm was friendly and knowledgeable, and even mentioned Veuve Clicquot while demonstrating a riddling rack. I was impressed.

After the tour, we made our way over to the tasting room, armed with our two-for-one coupon. Michael chose the classic tasting and I chose the rosé tasting (being Valentine’s Day and all, pink champagne seemed appropriate), which came with a chocolate covered strawberry. The weather was perfect as we sipped our champagne on a terrace overlooking Sterling’s vineyards, and I couldn’t think of a better way to mark the beginning of my not-so-dreaded 30s.


After Mumm we decided to drive over to Sonoma, since we hadn’t been there before. I’m partial to Napa Cabernets but figured Sonoma wines couldn’t be too terrible. It’s still California, anyway.

The drive to Sonoma only took about half an hour and we, of course, stopped by the visitors center to see what kind of passes we could get our hands on. An older woman, perfect for the job given her immediately evident and boisterous enthusiasm for all things Sonoma, gave us a few recommendations and passes, though not as many as we scored in Napa. Not to worry, though. As I said before, you can’t complain about free wine.

Our passes were for tasting rooms within walking distance of the visitors center in Sonoma’s charming “downtown” area. The first one we hit up was rather low budget. A middle aged surfer-hippie was working the counter and was none too subtle about pressuring us to buy a bottle or join their wine club, which wouldn’t have been nearly as offensive if the wine hadn’t been so bad. I don’t blame Sonoma—their Pinot grapes were from Santa Barbara! We managed to escape without spending anything and walked over to the next place, where a kindly old gentleman served up some generous pours of some spectacular wine while an album of Beatles covers played in the background. I was happy, to the extent that I ended up buying a bottle that he said would age well so I can save it to open on my 40th birthday.

Our Sonoma itch sufficiently scratched, we drove back to Napa and relaxed in our hotel room before heading out for my birthday dinner at Brix. Brix is a Napa institution, rustic and modern at once, sophisticated but not stuffy, with an impeccable staff and a wine list to match. We arrived a few minutes before our reservation time and sat at the bar while we waited for our table. After a long day of free tastings, Michael and I were both a little “wined out,” something I didn’t think was possible, so we both ordered a glass of local beer and took in the scenery.

It wasn’t long before the hostess came to fetch us and show us to our table. We started with an order of fried green beans to go with our beer and then sat and people watched while we waited for our entrees. Michael’s arrived and his eyes gleamed with ravenous anticipation for the meal he was about to consume: lamb and risotto in a rich, wine-based sauce. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so enamored with the sight of my own dish. I’d ordered the one meatless item on the menu, something called “winter vegetable napoleon.” How bad could it be? Pretty bad, actually. I should’ve Google-imaged it on my phone before ordering. “Vegetable napoleon” is just fancy-speak for “tiny weird stack of sad looking vegetables.” Half of the vegetables in this particular vegetable napoleon were carrots; the other half were of an oddly pinkish-hue and unknown provenance. It was a little disappointing, given that it was my birthday dinner, but I choked it down while momentarily regretting my decision to give up meat.

But I wasn’t going to let a few strange and undercooked vegetables ruin my Napa birthday. All in all it was a fabulous day in a beautiful place, and I got to enjoy the whole thing with my most favorite person. What more could a girl ask for?



Next: More Napa, Carmel/Monterey, and Big Sur