Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Napa, Castello di Amorosa and Sonoma

One of the days of our trip we left our son with his sister and nephew and ran off together...Date Day instead of Date Night. So we hit the road towards Castello di Amorosa which is located in Calistoga, California which is in Napa. So we cut across Sonoma and as we made our way we noticed that we had to turn onto Petrified Forest Road and wondered to ourselves why it was called that. I've traveled the US a LOT. In fact, I've been in all of the states except for Alaska. So we've been to the Petrified Forest....in Arizona. Neither of us had any idea that there was anything like that here in California...much less in our own "corner" of the world, less than 2 hours from home! But as we turned onto Petrified Forest Road we noticed signs for it and decided to stop. 

 You pull into a parking lot that has a charming Barn-red country home. There are some petrified stumps but the real treasure is out this back door and on the trails that lead up the hill. There is a fee of $10 per adult to visit The Petrified Forest but if you take your time and enjoy the outdoors as well as the petrified trees then you will get a lot out of it. 
The first thing you will notice is just how beautiful the petrified wood can be. Varying from a golden cream to a rusty red or grey, the wood is fascinating. The actual wood has been turned to stone cell by cell until the entire tree or stump is stone. The process is started by a volcanic eruption and followed by a whole lot of time and science. Mount St. Helena is close to here...the volcano in this equation. 
The walk is a gentle one and fairly accessible to everyone. If you or a family member is in a wheelchair it could be harder to get up the first hill and tree roots criss cross from time to time along the pathway. But if you are up to the challenge then this is a lovely place to spend some time.
The areas where full sized petrified trees are located are fairly protected. Either the trees are in pits or are surrounded by fences. But there are plenty of stumps that you and your kids can actually touch. 
You are given a guide at the beginning of the walk but all along the way you will find these signs which fill you in on the more unusual trees.
California Madrone trees are simply fascinating! They have layers of bark on them that look like they were painted onto the trees.
 You will notice a lot of the trees with little curls of bark flaking off of them looking like little red chocolate curls.
The more mature the Madrone tree is the more green you will see. The red bark peels off to reveal this smooth avocado colored bark as the tree gets older.
There is an additional hike you can take called the Meadowview Walk. It's touted as an incredible view of Mt. Saint Helena. This adorable chipmunk was the best part of that walk for us. Yes, you see the mountain, yes, you see a big rock pad that's actually compressed ash but it's basically like walking out onto any of the trails in the area. But the advantage is that not many take this extra walk so it's quiet and the birds and critters are more likely to come see you. As with all trails, never hike alone. The remoteness of this extra trail provides an advantage to those who would like, very much, to get you alone. I never felt unsafe but a little bit of awareness goes a long way. 

We really loved our walk and our time spent walking up and around the hillside loop. Definitely somewhere we will return to when we have more time!

 After our impromptu hike we had worked up quite an appetite! I had done a bit of research and someone told me that the sandwiches at the Palisades Cafe inside the Calistoga Depot were amazing and this was a great place to grab a bite.
 The fare is a bit pricey but this is a tourist area so we were prepared for the extra cost. Trust me when I say the food is totally worth it! We started out with crab cakes and they were moist and yummy and filled with crab!
They have lots of gourmet sandwiches and sides to choose from or you can make up your own sandwich to enjoy! They have inside and outside seating. We chose the outside seating in a beautiful little patio but on a hot summer day the bees were more attracted to us than we were to them. The food was worth the little minor inconvenience!

 From there we made our way to Castello di Amorosa which is this wonderful castle winery in Napa. The Castle was brought from Italy, stone by stone, and then reassembled here. All of the many authentic looking details were made using old fashioned methods here so that the castle would look like it all fit together properly. It was love at first sight!

Yes, there is even a moat, a drawbridge and a grand front entrance!
And the details are perfect everywhere here! Every lamp, every door, every corner leads you to more details and more beauty!
 Arched hallways connect one section to another and surround an open air courtyard.
There is even a Wishing Well. I'm not sure how much more romantic this place could possibly BE!
 Heavy doors grace the entrances. I can't be 100% sure but I do think they were all slightly different. 
 Every one of them had the little doors in them for peeking out. Such wonderful craftsmanship!
 In case you are wondering, the inside is as gorgeous as the outside! Keep in mind that this IS a winery. There are different levels of tours which range from $20 per person Self Guided Tour and includes tasting of 5 Premium Wines to Guided Tours at $45 per person to even packages that include food pairings. We chose the first option but will return for one of the guided tours in the future. 
 You tour the castle and then you go down into the dungeons for the tastings. I'm slightly claustrophobic and so this was the hardest part of the tour for me. The dungeons have been converted into two tasting bars and a shop area. We chose the bar at the back of the dungeon because it was in it's own, airy room and felt less closed in than the bar that was in the shop area. The wines are VERY good. Mind you, I'm not exactly an expert. More like a novice who likes what she likes, but we did bring two bottles home with us. You can not buy them anywhere else. Once you finish your tasting you head outside and find the livestock portion of the tour! Our grandson loves sheep so I couldn't resist a photo of one for him.
 Then I found Mr. Einstein Chicken. Or that's what we named him anyway. What a crazy hair-do! There were also goats and turkeys as well as the chickens and sheep and the kids totally loved them. Speaking of the kids...if you bring them with you they cost $10 for their own tasting...of juice!
 But here, in this romantic setting, it is still all about the grape. The vines are, literally, everywhere. Up the winding driveway, in the parking lot dividing the rows, on the grounds as you tour. In summer they are round and fat and juicy and gorgeous! 
 We headed back, picked up the family and headed into Sonoma to meet up with a friend that lives there. Our first stop was Cornerstone Sonoma. This is a big Art center that has lots of different types of modern art and sculptures on the grounds....like this huge blue chair that easily holds my husband and son!
Unfortunately there was a wedding being held there the day we visited and the grounds closed an hour early for the event but what we could see from the front made us want to return!
There were lots of different types of art just in the front section of the gardens. There is even a cafe to grab a bite to eat if you would like.  
 The best part is that it is FREE! You can go, explore, hang out and enjoy for free! There are many events, especially during the holiday season so just head over to the website and learn about what is going on right now!
 Keep in mind that it is Modern Art. Installations when we were there included the twinkling metal panels that sway in the wind and the Wire Tree. I think these are very cool but if you are not a Modern Art fan then this may not be the place for you.
 As I said, we couldn't see much but what we did see makes us want to return again! We will just have to arrive earlier so we'll have time to really explore.
 After the gardens we headed for downtown Sonoma. The Mission Sonoma is located right on the square. It doesn't look like much from the outside but, as usual, it's the charming inside that makes this visit worthwhile.
 All of the California Missions are hand painted in some way inside. What I didn't realize, until this visit, is that you can still get married in one! We had friends, 40 years ago, whose daughter got married in one in Southern California but I was sure, by now, that these historic places would be off limits to that sort of gathering. But I was, happily, wrong! The friend we met up with told us her son was married in this very room!
It is really hard not to be totally charmed by the bright colors and lovely patterns of the California Missions.
 We spent some time in the inner courtyard just enjoying the summer breeze and catching up with our friend. Very peaceful.
 Your admission to the Mission includes admission to the barracks next door as well. We spent so much time in the Mission that the barracks were closing by the time we got there so we only got a quick look before we headed back out onto the square
This beautiful town square was hit by an earthquake just two weeks after our visit and some of the historic buildings like this one were damaged. Repairs are ongoing but it makes me sad to know that some of the beauty was damaged.
 The square is a very large park surrounded by shops on the East and West, the Mission and Barracks on the South and businesses to the North. We started at the Southwest corner and cut across the park to the playground for our three year old grandson. We played for a bit and then continued our journey to the Northeast corner of the park.

 Along the way we found the ducks nestling in for the night and making the reeds their beds. Our little one was pretty fascinated that the ducks lived there full time and even went to sleep there!
 By this time we were pretty hungry so we continued on to The Red Grape. It bills itself as "The best pizza in Sonoma". While I haven't tried all the pizza in Sonoma to back up this claim I can tell you that we were all bowled over by this place. The inside of the main restaurant is a bit cavernous and it echos so we chose the patio for our seating so the little man could be a bit loud and not be annoying to the other patrons. It was certainly the right choice. The garden patio is simply gorgeous and our appetizer of onion rings with fried sage knocked us off of our feet!
To use some California slang here....DUDE! The pizza is AH-mazing! The combinations are outrageous too! We chose two pizzas for our party of six. One was The Works, pictured here, which is housemade sweet fennel sausage, Zoe’s pepperoni, applewood smoked bacon, roasted peppers, sweet red onion and garlic and aged parmesan. It cost about $15. The second one was the Shrimp Scampi pizza and it is Prawns with garlic, butter, green onions, red pepper flakes, black pepper and aged parmesan for about $16. We fed 6 people on about $9 per person and we were so full we were rolling out of the doors! Check out the website and see what tickles your tastebuds and then if you are in the area...stop on in!

This upcoming week is Christmas! I'll be taking a few weeks off for Christmas and for Kwanzaa then coming back with more tours to share with you all and lots of new photos for you to see! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bodega Bay and the Armstrong Redwoods

When we travel we usually pick a "base" location and branch out in all directions from there. When we visited the Napa/Sonoma area a few months ago we picked Windsor as our base camp. From there it was about a 40 minute drive to anything we wanted to see. On our first full day there we decided to head to the beach. Now, if you have been reading this blog at all, you know I'm a huge beach fan so I was totally delighted to be heading to Bodega Bay. From Windsor we took the 12 through Sebastopol to the Bodega Highway which meets up with Highway 1.

If you say the name 'Bodega Bay' to a movie buff the first thing they will say is 'The Birds!". Alfred Hitchcock filmed his famous horror film here with Tippi Hedren and the place plays it up. Driving into town I immediately recognized this building from the movie. In real life it's the old Potter Schoolhouse.
 We wound our way through the touristy part of town, where references to the movie are plentiful, and made our way to the water where coastal details are plentiful!
 That's not to say that there are not souvenir places on the actual bay. We did find a couple like Patrick's Salt Water Taffy! I couldn't resist going inside this dime sized store and buying up some of the candy for my sister who adores it. If you also adore it then make sure you don't miss this place. The prices are reasonable and the selection is amazing!
While the others played inside the other store at this location I enjoyed the view of the bay. You can see that there are no waves here in the harbor section, just the gentle lap of the water to keep you company.
That's not to say that I didn't fall in love with some of the merchandise I could see from the parking lot while they fell in love with the merchandise in the store. I adored this little bee while my grandson loved the "pick your own rocks" section. He walked out with a bakers dozen of colorful polished rocks in a little drawstring bag for just a few dollars. 
After this little shopping trip we headed out to have lunch. Off of the 1 you take the East Shore Road to the Bay Flat Road to get down to the Marina. We'd heard that Spud Point Crab Company was amazing and we had to give them a try. Unfortunately there really isn't a lot of room here for diners and the line at the SPCC was HUGE. However, we noticed this sign right next door and decided to give it a try instead.
The parking was plentiful and we found a bench picnic table right out front for our entire family. And Fisherman's Cove didn't let us down...not even a tiny bit! This bait and tackle shop is actually a wonderful dock side deli chock full of fresh seafood everything!
 All of the food was very reasonably priced and saying it's very good is an understatement. They had the usual clam chowder...hard to go anywhere along this coastline and not find a version of this creamy soup...but this was rich and thick and filled with clams. SO good!
 Ambiance isn't missing here either. Inside, and there are seats indoors as well, it really does have the ambiance of a tackle and bait shop but outside you have the views of the bay and little pieces of coastal art here like this ancient mariner.
When my crab salad sandwich arrived I was fairly amazed. As expensive as crab can be you usually end up with more "salad" than crab in your sandwich but this was stuffed with big chunks! The dressing wasn't a plain mayo either but tasted like maybe dill and lemon were added??? And served on focaccia bread that's been lightly toasted it is just such an amazing treat! 
 While enjoying our delicious food we were able to enjoy the bay, the view (like these buoys) , the birds and the sea air and just relax into our afternoon.
 This is right on the Marina so you get to enjoy the boats that are moored there as well. We watched as the weekend sailors made their way in and out of the harbor. All in all a really great way to spend an hour for lunch. 
 We headed back up the 1 and found that the Sonoma coastline is simply stunning. There are plenty of places to park and enjoy the beach. Some of these accesses require some agility to get down into, and back up out of, but some of them have easy parking spots and entry right onto the sand.
 The waves were fairly small that day and the afternoon was growing cold so we decided to enjoy the sand and not the water. 
 One of the unexpected parts of our journey was finding that the 1 doesn't just hug the coastline all the way up but actually detours past gorgeous wetlands. You can just see the fog moving in for the night and get some idea of how chilly it was getting.
 Due to our long, hot summer the blackberries were already dried on the vines but there is plenty of places where you can park, take a little hike, and enjoy the wetlands before heading back to the coast if you want.
Coastal cypress trees and eucalyptus dot the highway. Even on a Saturday it wasn't terribly crowded and traffic wasn't heavy heading North.
 But the views. Stunning cliff faces down to grey sand beaches were made even more dramatic by the high winds and waves.
 Sea palms fight against the crashing waves and stubbornly hold onto the lava based rock right off shore.
 Because these ancient beaches are formed from a lava based rock the sands are dark grey. Not quite the black sand beaches of Hawaii but not the tan or whiter sands that you can find along this same coastline if you were heading South instead of North.
But we were headed North to the 116 East towards Guerneville to see the Armstrong Grove. This beautiful grove of Redwood trees will take your breath away. You can spend as much or as little time as you like here. Have a picnic or take a hike. We were there at the end of the day so, while we didn't have much time, we did enjoy touring the small area we had time to visit. As with all State Parks, there is an entrance fee. Right now that's at about $10 but you can also get the kids a Jr. Ranger pack (comes with a pin) so they can work a scavenger hunt while in the grove! Our two had lots of fun with that.
 If you have never visited a redwood grove before be prepared for very tall trees, very old trees and very, very BIG trees. You should also be prepared for the serenity you will find there. Along the paths there are benches where you can just sit and enjoy the quiet of the grove while your little ones have room to run and play.
We had the kids with us so part of the trip was educating them about the grove, about the trees and even the plants, like this curly moss, that grows on everything there. Our 3 year old grandson was fascinated by the pattern left behind even when the moss is gone from the log.
Deeper into the grove is the amphitheater where you can have your picnic or just, as this woman did, take a nap in the great outdoors. There was even a very large family there having lunch they had picked up in nearby Guerneville before heading to the grove. 
 For us, it is always the amazing height of the trees that keep us coming back for more. At points we would just sit down and look UP. It takes your breath away.

The wonderful thing about this little day trip is that since it was only 40 minutes from Windsor to Bodega Bay and then about another 45 minutes to head north to the 116 to the grove and then back to Windsor we were able to spend a lot of time enjoying our shopping and our lunch as well as our afternoon at the grove without having to get up really early or coming back to the room really late. 

Next week I'll take you along with me for a winery tour! We hit a couple on our tour of the area. I'll also give you a few surprises that we found along our way!