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