“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
Tag Archives: travel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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