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Category Archives: Bons Voyages

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.



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

Swiss Miss and Mister – Days 2 and 3: More Luzern, the Golden Pass, Wilderswil, and Grindelwald

Having fallen asleep around 9pm, Michael and I were both wide awake by 3am, and we could see from the window of our hotel room that a few stray revelers were just heading home for the night. While we waited for the sun to arrive, I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, landing  on a German-dubbed episode of Frasier. Around 5am, we started getting dressed for the day and then went for a walk through the dark, pre-dawn city around 6am.

The one benefit of going for a stroll before anything is open is that you have everything to yourself. The streets were empty, save for a few garbage men and early rising chocolatiers, the latter of whom fill their storefronts with impeccably crafted and arranged confections such as these:

Luzern Chocolaterie

I wanted to see Luzern’s famous Lion Monument, and after a long, uphill hike and an unnecessary detour, we found it. But it was 7am and the uncooperative sky was still black as midnight, so the sculpture, though drenched in a sort of ethereal, misty quietude, was barely discernible, and our trek was all for naught. We made the long journey back to the city center and stopped in a small cafe where we dropped 13 francs on two small cups of coffee and three dry but quickly-devoured croissants.

Before heading back to our hotel, we visited the Jesuit Church, one of Luzern’s most distinguishing landmarks. We went inside and were the only ones there, the silence adding to the hair-raising creepiness that always overwhelms me in any church, especially old ones (except for Notre Dame in Paris, which I love). The sanctuary was filled with the echoes, gold leafing, and various adumbrations of eternal piety typical of most European churches.

Jesuit Church, Luzern

Jesuit Church, Luzern

Our Luzern itch sufficiently scratched, we returned to our hotel room, packed up, and walked to the train station, where we set out on our first ride on the Golden Pass, one of the Swiss rail system’s scenic/panoramic routes. It did not fail to please, and I can’t imagine a ride on the Polar Express would be more magnificent, awe-inspiring, or surreal. The journey from Luzern to Wilderswil (via Interlaken) climbed up, up, up through mountains that heaven itself would have difficulty replicating. Cozy chalets and fairytale villages dotted the snowy landscape, topped by chimneys exhaling inviting plumes of smoke into the cold, clean Alpine air. Children could be seen sledding down hills in their own backyards, and foggy-breathed livestock huddled for warmth aside rustic barns. It was a feast for the eyes, and I couldn’t help but feel consumed by gratitude for somehow being lucky enough to experience such a beautiful place.

View from the Golden Pass

View from the Golden Pass

Once we arrived in Wilderswil, we walked all the way up the tiny village’s main road, at the terminus of which our hotel, Hotel Baren, was located (I would like to make an aside here to note that the Swiss seem to be preternaturally obsessed with bears; this was one of three hotels we stayed at which were named after said beast). It was a quaint bed and breakfast with ascetic but clean accommodations. It was getting to be late in the afternoon by the time we’d checked in and cleaned ourselves up, so we explored the village for a while after dark, picked up some rations at the grocery store, and holed up in our room for the night, drinking wine and eating bread and cheese and watching movies on our laptop. Perhaps not the most adventurous way to spend an evening in a foreign land, but it suited me quite well.

Hotel Baren, Wilderswil

Rations for the Poor Americans

The next morning, we got up early and decided to take the train to Grindelwald to see what kind of wintry trouble we could get into. We’d heard that Grindelwald would be crowded, and indeed it was, but not to the extent that we didn’t enjoy ourselves. It’s an adorable village with plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy even if you don’t feel like hitting the extensive slopes in the surrounding area. Michael was hoping to get some skiing in, but since I have all the grace of a cracked-out, epileptic Rhesus monkey on even the most delicately pitched of bunny slopes, he took pity on me and we rented two sleds instead. And oh what fun it was!

A bus filled with the fracas of a half-dozen foreign tongues and the wailing of children took us up a series of precarious hairpin turns to the top of a mountain. The view on our ascent gave me that almost fearful feeling I get whenever nature manifests itself in such a large and consuming way. The stunning peaks seemed to stare down at my small, insignificant self with ancient authority. When we reached our drop-off point, almost above the tree line, we fetched our sleds from below the bus and took off down the trail. Any nerves I had about careening down the mountain were quickly calmed when I realized how immensely fun the sport was and how incredible my surroundings were. As much as I loved gaining speed, I had to pause periodically to take in the landscape.

Sledding in Grindelwald

Mountains Around Grindelwald

Eventually, we made it back down to Grindelwald, returned our sleds, and explored the shops before getting on the train back to Wilderswil. We spent the evening in our cozy room and ended with a nightcap of Switzerland’s finest one-franc brew:


I wouldn’t say it was “Lager Hell,” but I don’t think we’ll be importing it any time soon.

Next post: Day 4 – Murren and Bern

Swiss Miss and Mister – Day 1: Luzern

My husband and I recently had the good fortune to spend New Year’s in a lovely little country known as Switzerland. It is by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve spent the days since my return longing to be nestled in its Alpine embrace once more.

But before launching into a blow-by-blow account of my most recent European adventure, let’s go over Switzerland 101:

  • There ain’t no recession in Switzerland. On the contrary, the Swiss franc is doing so well that they’ve been trying to keep its value down so its citizens doing business outside the country don’t lose money when exchanging back to their native currency. According to Wikipedia, Switzerland also has once of the world’s lowest inflation rates, and the Swiss have the world’s highest average wealth per adult at $372,692. These folks are rich, which means that…
  • Switzerland is EXPENSIVE. One never expects a European vacation to be cheap, but when faced with the equivalent of a $75 price tag for breakfast for two, it’s a bit overwhelming. My advice: stick to the grocery stores, gorge yourself on cheese and baguettes, and revel in the fact that Switzerland is going to force you to lose those pesky five pounds you’ve been complaining about since Thanksgiving.
  • The Swiss are hands-down the nicest, warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. I had not one even remotely rude encounter throughout the duration of my stay in their magnificent country. And they are made all the nicer by the fact that…
  • …they all speak English. I only encountered one or two people (rail or restaurant workers) who spoke not a lick of my mother tongue. Of course, you can’t (and shouldn’t) expect anyone in a foreign country to speak English. But it certainly does make travel easier.
  • Switzerland has four official languages, which I suppose may explain why everyone speaks English — they had to find common a common denominator. In the north they speak Swiss German (a variation that is infinitely more pleasing to the ear than Germany’s), in the southwest, in and around Geneva, they speak French (of which I took several years in high school and college; I was excited to flex my francais muscles, and I think I got along quite well, except that people kept figuring out that I was American and then they’d just start speaking English…domage…), and in a small area in the south, they speak Italian, or an Italian dialect called Romansh (we didn’t go to that region so I didn’t get to use my four words of Italian; piacere!).
  • The Swiss are train addicts. They are also obsessed with punctuality and efficiency. This results in a fortuitous confluence of Swiss preferences if you’re a tourist. We never had to wait for a train. Every train literally arrived exactly on time, to the minute if not the second. Before crossing the pond, I printed out timetables from this website, which gives you door-to-door directions, including which platform you need to be at. It’s like HopStop for Switzerland. (On a side note, there are plenty of things in Switzerland that will convince you, unwaveringly, of its superiority to America, and their rail system in particular makes you realize what a bunch of gas-guzzling a-holes we really are.)

OK, there’s your crash course. Onward…

Day 1 – Luzern

The further west your distance from the East Coast of the U.S., the more of a b***h it is to get to Europe. Especially when you have an almost crippling fear of flying, as I do.

We generally fly Delta, which means we have to stop in Atlanta nine out of 10 times we go anywhere. On this particular occasion, the pilot on our flight from Dallas announced that the turbulence we began to experience early on in the flight would last all the way to Georgia, and the preparatory drinks I’d thrown back in the Sky Lounge were no match for this airborne roller-coaster. For some reason, my husband and I didn’t have seats together on this flight, which meant that I was trapped in the center seat between two elderly gentlemen from whom I tried my best to hide my white-knuckled trepidation. Alas, turbulence on the part of the plane lead to hyperventilation on the part of Stephanie, and I closed my eyes, planted my forehead on the back of the seat in front of me, and started counting to 100 over and over again, my one meager coping mechanism in such circumstances. (Running up and down the aisle screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” as my instinct compels me to do would not likely go over well with the TSA, and I travel too often to risk being added to the No Fly List.)

Once we had landed safely at ATL, we booked it over to the Sky Lounge for more liquid courage and then boarded the much less bumpy flight to Zurich. The movies were decent, the food less so, and a cocktail of sedatives, red wine, and nascent jet lag lulled me to sleep for at least some of the nine-hour transatlantic journey.

We landed in Zurich around 7:30am, and I have to say, it’s the best of the European airports I’ve been to so far. It’s clean and modern and incredibly easy to navigate. We collected our bags, had our Swiss Passes validated (we got the eight-day multi-traveler pass, the best deal if you plan on traveling extensively while in Switzerland; it gives you unlimited travel on trains and other public transportation, as well as discounts on mountain cable cars and free access to more than 400 museums…wow, I sound like a Swiss tourism ambassador, a job which, in all honesty, I would happily take…), and got on the train to Luzern, our first stop. Less than an hour later, we were here:

Luzern - Chapel Bridge

Luzern is a breathtaking, historic, ambient town of bricks and cobblestones and exactly the kind of chalet-style architecture you’ve imagined in your Heidi-inspired fantasies.

We made the mistake of taking a taxi from the train station to our hotel, thereby losing 14 of our precious francs, but it’s difficult to get around on your own when you’ve just landed in a new country. But in case you’re wondering, the Hotel des Balances, where we stayed, is only a 10-minute walk from the train station. If you can avoid it, do not take a cab.

Checking in at the hotel gave us the first of our many experiences with Swiss hospitality. The girl at the front desk let us check in early and upgraded us to one of the slightly more expensive river-view rooms (we had a balcony and a direct view of the Jesuit Church). She also gave us two vouchers for drinks at the hotel’s tres chic bar. We went up to our room, cleaned up a bit, and then napped off some of the jet lag (which we never fully overcame throughout the week).

Once we were feeling a little less dead to the world, we bundled up (as you can imagine, Switzerland is rather frigid in late December/early January) and went exploring. Luzern’s most iconic landmark is the Chapel Bridge (which you can see in the above picture), so we started there. It was originally built in the 14th century, but a lot of it had to be replaced in the 1990s after a fire destroyed it, ignited when one of Europe’s two bazillion smokers failed to properly extinguish a spent cigarette. My favorite part of the bridge are the paintings you can see as you walk through it, if you look up:

Chapel Bridge Painting

After the bridge, we walked to the newer part of the city and checked out the Rosengart Collection, a smallish museum where art dealer Angela Rosengart’s sizable private collection of Picassos are on display. We also hungrily peeked into Starbucks and McDonald’s and confirmed our suspicion that even our American go-to fast food joints were going to be too pricey for us franc-less vagabonds…

But we did have two free drink coupons to cash in at the hotel. My oh my, Hotel des Balances is home to a deliciously posh restaurant and bar. After the nine-hour flight and a day of trekking around in the cold, my hair and makeup left something to be desired, and sitting next to all those impossibly polished Swiss ladies wasn’t doing my confidence any favors. But the bartender was happy to whip up two proper and quite delicious cocktails in exchange for our vouchers, and we sat there for a long while, lounging and sipping and people watching.

I have to say, Europeans are phenomenal drinkers. I think the whole of the continent maintains a constant blood-alcohol level. And yet, with the exception of the United Kingdom, you’d be hard pressed to find a belligerent drunk anywhere, at least not one of the volatile caliber you can’t throw a rock without hitting in the U.S. It’s really inspiring. As we sat at the bar, we watched the middle-aged couple next to us nurse a steady succession of drinks (at 17 francs for a glass of Veuve Clicquot, I can only imagine what their tab looked like at the end of the night) and split an entree. I just love how they lingered there, taking their time, drinking and eating and talking. They weren’t in a rush and the bar staff didn’t rush them. I would very much like more of that in my life.

After milking our free drinks for an hour or so, we ventured back out into the cold to seek more solid sustenance. Alas, there was none to be found, unless you were willing to pay a handsome sum. Exhausted and famished, we popped into a cozy Italian restaurant and shelled out 21 francs for a pizza and a bottle of water (16 for the pizza, 5 for the water — there’s no such thing as free water in Europe…or ice). Our hunger assuaged, though only moderately, we returned to our hotel and slept that fitful sleep that fills the interim between the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one.

Goodnight, Luzern.

Luzern at Night

Next post: Days 2 and 3 – More Luzern, the Golden Pass, Wilderswil, and Grindelwald