After four days of non-stop escapades in San Francisco, Carmel-by-the-Sea was the perfect travel oasis!
Carmel, which it is commonly referred as, was ideal for rejuvenating while basking aside the Pacific…
resting through peaceful strolls (and daily naps)…
and reconnecting to ourselves and the Universe through the surrounding beauty and serenity.
After a murky, foggy, twisty drive down Hwy 101, we arrived in Carmel exhausted and a bit stressed. Upon stepping out of the Escape Mobile, we immediately felt the city’s calming energy relax over us and welcome us with this view…
Once settled into our hotel, we walked to the nearest restaurant, Casanova for an amazing Italian dinner complete with romantic ambiance…
another welcoming gift from the Universe…
Morning arrived with temperate ocean breezes and a gorgeous cloudless sky.
So of course, we walked straight to the beach where watched a pod of dolphin fishing along the shore…
and a scattering of humans out for their morning walks.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is small and picturesque, a perfect town to explore by foot and bicycle so the Escape Mobile remained parked for the duration of our stay.
We bicycled to the southern edge of town to the Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, the second of California’s 21 missions.
The Carmel Mission was dedicated as a basilica in 1797, and is the fourth and last basilica we visited on our six-month U.S. tour. It was also the most humble – the one we sensed as the most authentic and sacred.
The grounds and structures are modest and peaceful and while we arrived too late for a tour, Trey and I enjoyed the special gift of watching the setting sun’s light play off the basilica’s chapel and gardens.
Near Carmel Mission, there’s access to parks, beaches, and several hiking trails including some that climb up and along the rocky shoreline. Since we were on bicycles, we opted to enjoy the views and laugh at grazing sheep instead.
Everything about this area is charming!
We loved exploring Carmel’s art galleries, streets, and its unique mix of architecture and styles, from streamlined cliff-side mansions to adorable tiny cottages.
Even our hotel was cute…
Our second morning relaxing at the beach was cut short after cutting my foot on a piece of driftwood buried in the sand.
It wasn’t a terrible cut, but bad enough to avoid exposing it to sand and ocean bacteria. Following a generous slab of antibiotic ointment, a wrap, and elevating it for an hour, my foot was well enough for the next venture… the wine circuit.
Nearby Carmel Valley is home to thriving vineyards. Conveniently, many wineries also have tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea. We spent the afternoon sampling wines and bought five bottles: a red blend and Barbera from Silverstri; a Pinot Gris and Pino Nior from Manzoni; and a rosé from Dawn’s Dream.
Carmel Valley wines are excellent! We are not aficionados, but it’s our opinion that they can hold their own against California’s top rated regions.
In addition to Casanova’s mentioned above, we enjoyed several other great food experiences. For dinner, Flaherty’s Seafood Grill was recommended by some fellow travelers from Australia and did not disappoint. Jack London’s Pub has since closed, but its onion rings were some of the best we’ve eaten.
And Em Le’s for breakfast was as quaint as is was good, but sadly it has also since closed.
Out of necessity, out last morning in Carmel was spent doing laundry and packing & shipping wine home to Austin.
A fire along CA Hwy 140 required us to change our route and add a 70-mile detour through Fresno in order to access or next destination…
Like in Chicago and Portland, staying in or near San Francisco’s city center was cost prohibitive, so we again used points and stayed at an airport hotel. The commute into San Francisco was about 25 minutes but ran aside the beautiful San Francisco Bay. Finding parking was never a problem as there are plenty of public, but pricey, garages.
Alcatraz – Messages of Freedom and Justice
Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A ferry operated by a private company from Pier 33 is the only means to access the island. They run about every 30 minutes and you have to purchase fares for a specific departure time, but you can return whenever you’re ready.
That was a good thing as Trey and I became captivated by the island… its history and stories, and all the once hardened but now deteriorating skeletal structures juxtaposed amid beauty. (One only needs to look.)
We spent most of the day touring the former military outpost-then military prison-then federal penitentiary-now national treasure.
During our visit, Alcatraz was also serving as an art exhibit space. We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.
The installation exhibit filled two work rooms, and began with the wonderful, welcoming face of a giant, intricate paper dragon, its body comprising the full length of the room.
The contrast of vibrant colors against decaying prison walls was surreal. As were the Lego portraits and brave words of individuals imprisoned for voicing or acting upon their truths…
including Mr. Weiwei himself who at the time was being detained by the Chinese government.
The entire island is open for exploring and we spent as much time outside as we did inside the various cell blocks, industry/labor buildings, and administrative offices.
The NPS has done a great job (as always!) in telling and preserving Alcatraz’s stories, from its notorious prisoners and attempted breakouts to those of the families and children of guards that were also Alcatraz residents.
Recreation of cell used in notorious breakout and subject of the movie Escape From Alcatraz
We learned about the Native American 19-month (Nov 1969 – Jun 1971) occupation of the island. The cross-tribe participants (including the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller) claimed the island as their own citing an 1860’s treaty.
In reality, the takeover was an act of rebellion for past and ongoing injustices carried out by the U.S. Government against its native people. The civil disobedience effort was successful at calling attention to those injustices and their continued effects. We were happy to find that signs of the occupation are well preserved and protected as part of Alcatraz’s rich history.
San Francisco by Boat, Car, Bike, & Foot
BOAT Just before leaving Austin for this trek around the U.S., Trey and I struck up a conversation with a businessman at the downtown PF Chang’s bar. He was from San Francisco, so we quizzed him on what his #1 must-do-in-San Francisco recommendation was. “That’s simple!” he said. “You have to see San Francisco from the vantage point of its bay – sail out into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.”
That’s exactly what we did on the “Privateer” through the San Francisco Sailing Company. The day was gorgeous, perfect for sailing! Plus, the unique views and perspectives we experienced were well worth the $60 ticket price.
We struck up a conversation with a couple sitting adjacent to us on the cozy sailboat and soon after regretted doing so. They were weirdly interested in us and toward the end of the trip, a bit too touchy and invading our personal spaces. We politely declined their invitation to join them at their home thinking that the boat’s sails were not the only thing they wanted to experience swinging that day. California!
The bay was beautiful though, and like our no-strings-attached friend at PF Chang’s, we highly recommend sailing around it to fully enjoy the San Francisco skyline and surrounding bridges and hills.
CAR Beginning in the late 1800’s and through World War II, the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean was deemed militarily vulnerable.
As such, a series of defense “batteries” were constructed along both the northern and southern shores. The remnants of these fortifications remain for intrigued tourists to explore. We selected the northern shore route because it allowed us to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, a new experience for Trey.
Once across the bridge, we followed Conzelman Road that curved around the hills’ edges and offered amazing views of the bay, bridge, and city.
Stopping at Kirby Battery gave us a feel for what guarding America’s western gateway was like during World War II.
It’s easy to imagine diligent soldiers scouring the ocean’s horizon for enemy vessels and the skies for foreign aircraft while bunkered behind sixteen-inch barrel guns. The never used guns are long-gone, but the bunkers and other structures are open to climb about, picnic on, or find a peaceful moment while taking in the serene beauty.
Continuing on Conzelman Road until it dead ended, we turned left onto Field Road which leads to the steep ledge of Bonita Point. The tiny Bonita Point Lighthouse sits atop a rugged crag and is accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – a good challenge for those wanting to confront a fear of heights.
The ocean and bay views are spectacular, but we enjoyed the scenes below the most… sunbathing seals and ocean spray rising from waves crashing upon black rocky ledges.
Heading inland on Field Road, we made our final stop back in time at Nike Missile Site SF-88…
where we walked above ground among retired missiles and below ground where missiles were stored and readied for launch.
The site closed in the 1970’s and is well maintained by the NPS. Just as the old battery sites had done, this retired missile site provided a good sense of life at a cold war defense site.
BIKE From The Embarcadero’s Pier 39, it is about a 5.5 mile ride (one-way) across the Golden Gate. The route takes you along the beach, by gorgeous waterfront homes, and through Presidio to the Battery East Trail.
The climb up to the bridge is steep, but there are plenty of overlooks to stop, rest, and take in the changing scenery… another great way to enjoy the cityscape.
As we climbed we noticed a thick fog rolling in at a fury’s pace. It quickly engulfed the bridge and we wondered whether we’d be able to ride across the bridge, and if so… would we be able to see anything? By the time we huffed our way to bridge level and emerged from the trees there was no trace of fog, not a single remnant.
I understand that is how fog is in the bay area… it is an entity in itself, choosing to come and go, disrupt and displease at will.
The ride across the Golden Gate was thrilling. The rails are high enough and the path wide enough that we felt perfectly safe and comfortable crossing over and back on the 1.7 mile bridge.
Along with sailing around the bay, I consider bicycling across the Golden Gate as a San Francisco must-do!
FOOT We fell in love with San Francisco. It’s a very walkable city if you don’t mind hills. If you’d prefer to avoid hills then stick to the shoreline areas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero.
With loads of fabulous restaurants, shopping, boats, nightlife and wildlife, they contain essential elements of the quintessential San Francisco experience.
We also loved walking through Pacific Heights, China Town, and Telegraph Hill.
Golden Gate Park was on our itinerary, but the streets surrounding it were impassable due to an annual bluegrass festival. Next time!
San Francisco Food
Breakfast – To offset the expense of eating out, we started most days with a cheap but hearty breakfast from Ed’s Diner in South San Francisco.
They served an excellent version of Trey’s favorite, the traditional American breakfast. We would fill ourselves enough to skip lunch and then carry a snack bar and piece of fruit to make it to dinner.
Our one breakfast exception was Mama’s On Washington Square, a recommendation by my sister-in-law who grew up in San Francisco.
We were warned that it is small and there is always a crowd, so we arrived twenty minutes before its 8:00 a.m. opening time. That wasn’t early enough to keep us from waiting in line, but the owner-operated café knows their business and has perfected a system of getting people in the door, through an ordering line, seated, served, and back out the door with a full stomach and happy heart.
The freshness and quality of the food is tops! The menu is extensive so I felt a bit overwhelmed with being pressured to order quickly and not hold up the line. We also completely forgot to record or photograph what we ordered.
Dinner – This is it! My absolute favorite dish from our trip around the United States…
Crab Enchiladas from the Crab House at Pier 39. They were what I imagine eating in Heaven will be like. A melt in your mouth unique flavor, yet still enchilada tasting enough to be called an enchilada. The above photo is not an exaggeration, together the two enchiladas were the size of a Texas big-as-your-face burrito and I finished off each one then wiped the skillet clean.
Even Trey, who is not a shell food person, enjoyed the small bite I shared. He opted for the Fish & Chips, a very generous portion of perfectly fried and fluffy cod, served just as it should be.
R & G Lounge in Chinatown – Authentic, traditional Chinese. We Texans felt a little out of place and lost at first, but the servers were kind and helpful, and the food was excellent.
McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks, Ghirardelli Square – we failed to take a photo of our meals and neither of us recall the meal. We do, however, vividly remember the gorgeous bay views.
We watched swimmers doing their evening laps while the sun set behind the hills and turned sailboats into silhouettes.
Dessert was a Caramel Sea Salt Hot Fudge Sundae that we split from Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.
Two years prior to this trip, Trey hated wine. So he said.
Whenever our daughters and I coaxed him to try a sip he’d wrinkle up his nose and grimace well before the sampling touched his lips. Already deciding it would be awful, his auto-responses would include squirming coughs, a flailing tongue, gagging, and sometimes spitting.
Trey’s culinary world was rocked at a family birthday dinner in 2012 when a sommelier offered him a complimentary glass of wine. Trey actually listened as the sommelier elegantly described how the bold complexity of Newton’s 2008 Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon would be the perfect complement to his steak. Before our eyes, Trey’s scowl turned into intrigue. “Sure, sounds good. I’ll give it a try.”
Trey had opened his mind, and with a single glass of red he understood that wine isn’t a drink, it’s an experience.
With our arrival in Wine Country, we were seeking the full intimate experience.
I had never seen grapes on the vine until we were passing our first vineyard with white grapes glistening in the afternoon sun. I was so captivated by their beauty, freshness and resilience, I made Trey stop the car.
I loved grape sampling and walking among rows of ripening bunches as much as I enjoyed tasting the final product.
Home base was a cute garage apartment Airbnb in Santa Rosa, a great central location with easy access to surrounding wineries via Highway 101 and Highway 12.
We loaded up with information pamphlets and maps at the Santa Rosa Visitor Center and set out to explore. We had no idea of the vast geographic range and number of wineries — there are over 400 in Sonoma County alone! That, coupled with our wee knowledge in wine, was overwhelming.
St. Francis Winery
Saint Francis of Assisi
We chose to visit St. Francis first because Francis was Trey’s mother’s name. Also, who doesn’t love the patron saint of animals?
St. Francis was a good learning experience, a safe space to make mistakes.
We at least knew to order a cheese and charcuterie board to supplement our six tastings, that our enthusiastic steward stretched into ten until finally hooking us with an old vines Zinfandel. First lesson learned: Pace yourself.
We limited ourselves to six tastings at the next stop, Kunde – a recommendation by our Airbnb hosts. The day was gorgeous and we sat on their patio watching barrels being hauled into their hillside cellar while waiting for the wine’s effect to settle.
We departed with a bottle of their rich, unique Red Dirt Red blend. Lesson two: You will buy wine, plan accordingly.
On our trek back up Highway 12 to Santa Rosa, we stopped at Ledson because the vineyard was lush and stately.
Yes, we judged the bottle by its label and had our best wine experience of the day. Our wine steward was eager to share his knowledge and Ledson’s wines, even those off the regular tasting menu. We left with a wonderful Chardonnay, a bold Barbera, and another valuable lesson disclosed to us by the steward… Lesson three: Share tastings, it’s cheaper and you won’t get drunk as fast.
We celebrated my birthday that evening with dinner at the Coppola Winery’s Rustic restaurant.
A perfect setting for celebrations with plenty of Coppola movie artifacts to entertain fans, and of course we had the cannoli. (Not really, for some reason they didn’t serve cannoli.)
Still recovering from day one, and having learned to better pace ourselves, we visited only two wineries on our second full day.
Kendall-Jackson’s lawn is full of vines of all varieties for visitors to sample grapes straight off the vine.
The building and grounds are gorgeous, but our tasting experience was lacking. We realized that was more a result of familiarity than the actual product. Lesson four: Avoid the mass-marketed labels you are already acquainted with and instead seek smaller, boutique wineries for fresh, unique experiences.
With the next winery, Truett-Hurst, we were back to distinctive new flavors and experiences.
Two bottles of the 2013 Chardonnay please, thank you!
The remaining day was spent driving through the Russian River Valley and in the quaint town of Healdsburg.
Flavor Bistro Dessert
Flavor Bistro, Healdsburg, CA
After packing up the Escape Mobile the next morning to head to San Francisco, we had one more stop before leaving the wine country. A must-stop in Calistoga…
Following Trey’s wine revelation back in 2012, we watched several wine-themed movies. A favorite, Bottle Shock, tells the story of the 1974 Paris blind taste competition where California vintners first gained international recognition.
Chateau Montelena and its winning Chardonnay are the subjects of the movie, so of course we had to tour the winery.
The vineyards, gardens and surrounding hills are stunning, well worth the price of the tour which included a generous tasting session.
In addition to a 2012 Chardonnay, we purchased a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve and have yet to uncork either.
Final lesson: Sonoma and Napa Counties offer much more than wine. Next visit we will allow extra time for coastal hikes, and visiting the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve and the Charles Schultz Museum.
Wine factoids we learned:
1 acre produces approximately 2 tons of grapes
1 ton of grapes make 60 cases, so
1 acre produces 120 cases of wine, or 1,440 bottles of wine
Beginning in Red Lodge MT, and continuing for the preceding 45 days, we’d followed the first appearances of fall colors across the west and down the Washington and Oregon coastlines. Random wisps of cool air and pronounced temperature differentials had been nipping at our backsides, nudging us forward just ahead of autumn’s arrival.
With the unanticipated deluge that forced us out of the Redwood Forest, fall had officially won the race and taken over. Its conquest coincided with a planned eastward turn into the mountains toward Nevada…
the first of several detours that had us zig-zagging across, in and out, and down the state of California for the next month and a half. (See our California path on our “About” page.)
From Arcata, we followed the Trinity River via State Highway 299.
The river, changing leaves, grazing elk, along with a mix of rain and mist enhanced the gorgeous drive across northern California to Redding.
Trinity River, off Hwy 299 Northern CA 2
Still soaked and with an extra day, we stopped in Redding and checked into a hotel. After showering, we hauled our camping gear into the room, sorted and dried everything including our tent, which we pitched atop the spare bed.
Yelp and a hankering for comfort food led us to Nello’s Place for a cozy Italian dinner – one of our most memorable dining experiences in quality, service, and for being exactly what we needed when we needed it.
Funny how what first appears to be a mishap ends up being a beautiful gift. These magic-of-the-Universe moments occurred often on our trip, just as they do in life.
In frustration, we tread through life’s darkness and around its rough edges as best possible only to end up somewhere completely unexpected, almost like an award for making it that far. It is only then that you recognize the past’s challenges as beautiful puzzle pieces laid out behind you, perfectly placed together.
One only needs to take the time to notice.
Over the last shared bites of Nello’s cherries jubilee, our favorite dessert experience on the trip, we expressed our deep gratitude for simply being in that moment, and for the obstacles that had led us there.
North Lake Tahoe, California
To avoid driving around Lassen Peak’s mountainous roads in a thunderstorm, we headed south from Redding along the Sacramento River and into the Central Valley. The sun and blue skies soon appeared highlighting the valley’s olive and pistachio orchards…
Barely an hour into our drive, the geography had completely changed. We found this to be true in most areas of California — if you don’t like the scenery, just drive an hour in any direction.
The clouds and rain returned after steering eastbound again into the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
But, the weather was forgotten upon setting eyes on Lake Tahoe’s vibrant blue hues. We were captivated and regretted having less than 24-hours to enjoy them.
That is until frigid air blew in with a storm foiling our plans to bike, and keeping us inside our small rented cabin for the evening.
All was good as our rustic cottage was comfy and adorable, and looked out onto Lake Tahoe.
Escape Mobile parked at Rustic Cottage Resort & Motel
We watched from the warmth of our cabin as wind gusts and waves knocked around boats docked along the shoreline.
Driving across the Mount Rose Highway the next morning, we were stunned to find a light snow had dusted the mountain and roadsides. Snow in September, another first!
Family Reunion – Reno, Nevada
Because Reno is the home of my brother and most of his family, a visit to the biggest little city in the world had been on our must-do list since our trip’s onset We loved catching up with our family! And touring Reno…
Truckee River cutting through central Reno
Galena Creek Bridge near Reno, NV
a progressive, beautiful city surrounded by mountain vistas, and not at all similar to what Hollywood tends to project.
We spent an afternoon with my brother exploring the terrain and historical sites along State Highway 341, also referred to as the Virginia City Scenic Drive. We climbed along mountain edges, passing wild horses, and into the infamous silver-mining town of Virginia City.
Take away the paved highway cutting through town, along with all the cars and motorcycles, and Virginia City appears closely to what I imagine it did in the 1800’s. With its redbrick buildings, colorful storefronts and covered wooden walkways, Virginia City offers visitors a taste of living on the outer edge of law & order in the old west.
Our visit happen to overlap the Street Vibrations motorcycle rally. Like in the Black Hills during the Sturgis rally, new and classic Harley’s lined Virginia City’s main street, augmenting the fun outlaw vibe.
Reno is a lovely city, and our visit with family was too short.
California Quail in my brother’s backyard
It was difficult to say good-bye; this was the last of many reunions on our trek and we still had two months of travel ahead.
The “Redwood Forest” is a patchwork of federal and state parks along California’s northern coastline.
Together, they’re a UNESCO World Heritage site with joint missions to manage and preserve the remaining old growth forests. Before effective efforts to protect the giant redwoods were established, logging had wiped out 70% of them. Yes, 70%!
Arriving at the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, located in the northern end, we’d officially traveled from the gulf stream to the redwoods.
Being surrounded by new growth trees and thick underbrush provided our campsite some privacy. And for me, senses of comfort and safety came with sleeping among the giants.
We spent our afternoon exploring the campground and forest. Trey and I had previously encountered a few giants – a young transplanted sequoia in Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, and firs around Mount Rainier and Mount Olympus – but those trees did not prepare us for the magnitude, majesty, and grace of the old growth redwoods.
It was love at first sight!
The park’s campground sits alongside the Smith River.
Being September, it was unlikely we’d catch a trout or salmon, so we didn’t purchase licenses. Instead, each evening we walked along the riverbank, admiring river rocks and wildlife, and keeping an eye out for bears.
While Stout Memorial Grove is near the campground—it sits just across the river—the old growth grove is not easily accessible by car. The grove is off a narrow dirt road about two miles from the main highway, US 199.
Because of its isolation, we had the grove mostly to ourselves. Taking a loop trail and then a break-off trail down to the river, we walked among the giants…
and basked in our quiet communion.
We were thrilled to come across another banana slug because 1) they’re awesome!, and 2) we missed photographing the first one we spotted in our campground.
Leaving the grove, we continued down the dirt road, Howland Hill Road, into the community of Crescent City.
We highly recommend this drive! In all, it’s only about six miles, but allow plenty of time for winding through the giants, braking and backing for passing cars, and stopping for photos.
Once in Crescent City, we shared a beer and filled up with good Tex-Mex at Perlita’s before heading back to camp for the evening. The sky was overcast, but the chance for rain was only ten percent.
Claps of thunder woke us at midnight followed by a downpour that continued through the night. Though dry inside, by 6:00 a.m. our tent’s floor felt more like a waterbed.
Stepping out to go to the bathroom before breaking camp, we discovered our shoes had floated away with the small stream running thru our campsite and under our tent. We found them in the brush behind the tent, then packed up our soaking selves and threw our gear into the Escape Mobile to leave.
Still raining, we took refuge in The Chart Room, a seafood restaurant that happened to be open for breakfast. The rustic restaurant sits on a narrow peninsula dividing Crescent Harbor and the Pacific Ocean, and its windows provide great views of both.
As we ate, we watched a sea otter catching his breakfast and frolicking in the calm harbor, while across the restaurant, we saw 10-foot waves crashing over the levy onto the road.
Driving south down the coastline on U.S. 101, the waves continued roaring just off the highway. Before reaching the cutoff to our detour to Redding, we stopped at Lady Bird Johnson Nature Grove.
The first First Lady from Texas played an active role in the conservation and beautification of many of our nation’s natural treasures, including a section of the Colorado River that runs through Austin. Of course we had to stop!
The rain let up as we arrived, but we’d trekked only a quarter mile and had taken a couple of photos before it started pouring again. Still, a great departing experience and perfect location to say goodbye to the lovely giants.
This is a record of Trey & Martha's 2014 U.S. travel adventures