I’ve visited some of the major destinations in California including Hollywood and Los Angeles, but the places that inspired me enough to want to go back are what I chose to overview below. I hope my choices inspire you too!
Click the name of the destination to jump directly to that section.
I’ve been here 2 times but both were long before I started photo-documenting.
Years ago on a trip with my family I remember three things – the San Diego Zoo, a day trip to Tijuana and the Mexican restaurant we ate at the last night.
I’m not much for zoo’s these days as I don’t like to see the animals locked up. Instead I try to travel to where I can see them in their natural habitat (see my page on Sonoma – Tule Elk Reserve).
I can also tell you one time in Tijuana was enough for me.
The memory of that Mexican restaurant lingers. It started my love affair with restaurant ambience. I remember it felt very exotic to a young girl from Boston. Lots of plants, breezes moving through open windows in the adobe walls, endless beautiful tile work on the floors and some walls, string lights. It was festive yet romantic and I wish I knew if it still existed. I’m not sure I’d ever had Mexican at that point, but the impression it left set the bar high for all the low-quality tex-mex that I’ve consumed since trying to find its match. I went on a Google search for it years later. I had nothing to go on except “Mexican restaurant with open air dining room and romantic atmosphere”. No luck.
On my second trip I stayed only 2 nights for a conference. The Loews Coronado Bay Resort sold me on that brand forever. I was able to enjoy a luxurious seafood meal in their Crown Landing restaurant. After dinner I took a gondola ride. This is hidden in their activity list, but if you are looking for a romantic way to end an evening, this is it. There is a canal system called Coronado Cays and Loews can hook you up with The Gondola Company who offer group or private tours. It could have just been my luck or the universe giving me a gift that night, but I remember it being silent and the water as smooth as glass. You can see the lights of Tijuana in the distance. It was magical. I remember what looked like a great restaurant scene in the Old Town San Diego neighborhood.
I didn’t get to see too much of the Old Town. I remember being on a very limited budget and wishing I could take advantage of more of the shopping, art and food.
My best memory from that visit was a day trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano. It’s just over an hour from San Diego, very doable. I’m not very religious, but if you travel anywhere you will find an interesting variety and diversity of churches and missions that always add some flavor to the trip photo album.
I was able to attend a service, and formed a scent-memory from the incense they burned. I remember touring the facility and thinking “it’s so beautiful and peaceful, maybe I should go to church more”. I also remember the gift shop having lots of cool stuff.
So I hope to return to San Diego again one day when I can appreciate the Coronado Bay neighborhood, make another visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano and hopefully find that special restaurant of my childhood dreams.
Update: Decided to try Google searching one more time and finally found the right combination of words from my memory. This is it. Once I saw the pictures it brought the other key pieces of my memory back – winding pathways on the patio, decorative plants and tiled potters everywhere, festive flags overhead…it looks like they are now a collection of shops and a hotel as well…check out Fiesta de Reyes online to see that.
Casa de Reyes…I’ve finally found you!
Spent a short weekend here as a jumping off point to wine country. I have several happy memories of San Francisco – mostly food related – but the memories are scented with eucalyptus which I discovered for the first time on this trip.
There is a lot to do to help you work up an appetite for all the amazing food available in this city. I remember walking and walking and walking. I visited the San Francisco Cable Car Museum which was short and sweet, then braved the insanely steep roads on a real one.
Check out the Presidio, credited as being the place where San Francisco began. It is now a National Park, and it boasts Inspiration Point Overlook with its views of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island. (I didn’t do the Alcatraz tour but would have with more time.) What’s that smell in the air? It’s the eucalyptus forest, and the moist, foggy air of San Francisco carries it well. So unique.
I was a budding foodie when I planned this trip, so I spent days researching all the possible food options knowing I would only be able to fit a few in – I wish I had journaled on this trip because I do remember having some really exceptional meals. Here are the highlights that time didn’t erase from my mind:
Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, Fisherman’s Wharf – One of many, many incredible farmer’s markets in the San Fran area. The sheer amount of totally unique produce that I’d never heard of or seen before was staggering. I discovered fresh fava beans. I remember there being too many food vendors and feeling stress about which ones to try. I know for sure I got handmade tamales.
Come back to Fisherman’s Wharf on a day when the market is not happening and take advantage of all the other options. There is everything from take-out stands and coffee shops to diners to grills to fancy upscale dining rooms.
Had lunch at the Chart House, your typical classic seafood establishment. But it overlooks the sea lions on the docks below, and since you are behind glass windows you can enjoy them without smelling them.
Also in the marketplace area is the famous Slanted Door, Charles Phan’s well known Vietnamese spot. Another hard table to reserve, so plan in advance.
The Commissary at the Presidio – This was a highlight dinner for sure. Chef Traci des Jardins offers an incredible California-inspired Spanish menu, and I remember wanting to order everything. It was an intimate space and hard to get a Saturday night reservation for. The restaurant takes advantage of a former military mess hall. I love when restaurants reclaim spaces like this!
In between your meals, don’t forget to make room for some freshly baked sourdough from Boudin’s Bakery which is also on the Wharf (for those of you from Louisiana, this has no relation to the boudin you know – it’s just bread).
For dessert, you can pop a few chocolate’s from a box of See’s Candies that are sold pretty much everywhere.
No trip to San Francisco would be complete wtihout a trip to China Town. Many cities have them, but in San Francisco it is safe and pretty darn fun to spend an afternoon here. Go ahead – let yourself buy some touristy treasures. But the best part of China Town in my opinion were two things – the pastries and the tea houses.
My best food memory from this trip was Eastern Bakery…try one of everything. I had some kind of cream-filled croissant-like pastry here that I’ll never forget. Possibly a vanilla egg tart? There is no point in trying to ask “what is that?”. Just point at what looks good and try.
Take a break at a Vital Leaf tea house – they suck you in with free tastings, which I enjoyed and I’m really not a tea person. Of course, I left with 3 different kinds.
Last but not least, be sure to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and get a freshly made cookie and hopefully some good fortune.
There is no doubt that Sonoma is one of my favorite places in the U.S. It was the first place I ever experienced a winery and came to understand the allure, and I was not really even a wine drinker the first time I went.
When you hear about Wine Country in California, most people are talking about Napa, the much bigger, much ritzier version of a wine town and about 40 minutes further away.
I fell in love with Sonoma from the first step into my bed & breakfast (also a first for me – see my recommendation below). The town square offers just enough shops, galleries and restaurants to more than meet your needs for a few days. You’ll also find wine tasting rooms if visiting the actual vineyards isn’t for you. And the cheese shops! Sonoma is a picnic-lovers paradise.
Be sure to check out the section below on Olive Oil which may change your life forever, and my wine country day-trip itinerary.
Fly into San Francisco, rent a car. Drive over the Golden Gate bridge (slow down if it’s sunny and get your pics now) and continue just over an hour to Sonoma county. Ideally you would fly in for 2 nights in San Francisco and then head north. But if you fly in and go directly, try to plan the drive for daylight as it is a great way to slow down and start easing in. Note: In my opinion you will want to have a car. That said, wine country offers many different tours that allow you to experience all that the grapes have to offer without having to worry about driving after.
Where to Stay
There are lots of places to choose from in and around Sonoma Square from fairly large Fairmont Sonoma to single-room bed & breakfasts. If you are planning to go with a group of adults (this is not a kid destination) then you might want to check out the options to rent a house on Air B&B.
My personal choice is Cottage Inn & Spa, which I picked because the rooms were so intriguing and because it was definitely walking distance to the square.
I’ve stayed here twice, about 5 years apart and it was as excellent the second time as the first. It is an intimate property with just a few rooms, but each one is unique and special. Some have views, some have private patios, some both. I chose the South Suite on my first visit and it was great, but I chose Alta on the next stay and that is over the top. After taking a look at the website while writing this in 2020, the place has been updated with fresh decor and is even lovelier now.
The best part is the small central courtyard with the four thrones facing a glass fire pit. Words can’t describe how lovely this is by day, and how magical it is when you return to your room at night. There was a selection of gourmet herbal teas available and hot water so you could unwind before heading to bed. In the morning, a basket of fresh baked goodies will be waiting at your door.
I remember the woman who checked me in both times, and while I don’t recall her name she somehow became a piece of the fond memories I have of Cottage Inn & Spa. Can’t wait to return here again.
Things To Do
Well, there are the wineries. So many to choose from. The key is not to overdo it. Pace yourself and realize 2-3 stops is enough for one afternoon. After that your palate is shot anyway and you can’t tell a good bottle from bad. I am listing my favorite wineries below with links.
For me, a good winery is more than just the tasting room. It should have either interesting architecture, gorgeous picnic grounds or a hidden wine cave. Gift shops with local crafts are a bonus, as is the option to get appetizers or even a gourmet meal.
Wonder why you would visit a winery when you can just buy a bottle at the store? It’s an opportunity to actually sample before you buy. Many of the wineries in this area are common brands that you can then get at your local liquor store. But they will also have special varietals, reserve wines and unique bottles that cannot be purchased elsewhere. Everyone is set up to ship so don’t worry about packing bottles in your suitcase. Oh, and unlike expensive Napa, tasting rooms in Sonoma are often free.
Gundlach Bundschu – Not only did they have a great tasting room and hidden cave, I loved their wines. To this day their Gerwurztraminer is my Thanksgiving selection.
Viansa – This was my first winery and what an introduction. I pulled up on a gorgeous sunny day and after sampling the wine, I wandered onto the patio and grounds and enjoyed a little picnic and some live local musicians. The views from this winery are an excellent way to set the tone for a day in Sonoma.
Mayo Family Winery – This was one of my favorites, a small spot without the fancy grounds or caves, but they offered a tasting that had a food pairing which I just adored. I also remember buying several bottles here because they were so unique and enjoyable.
Kaz Winery – Decided after a few mainstream places to stop into this place. At the time I think I argued with my travel companion because it looked like someone’s run down barn and not a place that was catering to visitors. Turned out to be a hidden gem. The owner is a retired photographer and the vibe is downright eccentric. I think he’s known for his port (a rich dessert wine) but I left with several bottles, as much for the ecclectic labels as anything, but I remember enjoying them all.
Don’t care for the taste of wine?
“Stripaggio. The Technique of Tasting Olive Oil.”
Not much for wine? There is still a reason to go to wine country. It’s called olive oil.
I was introduced to the book “Extra Virginity” by Tom Mueller and it got me curious about why people in other countries consume so much olive oil annually (75 liters per capita in Italy) yet we hardly consume any in the U.S. (1 liter per capita). Up until I read that book I hadn’t thought much about that bottle of Bertoli in my pantry. In fact, I typically avoided foods that were dressed in olive oil based dressings. It seemed like they always tasted like the store-bought Italian that was forced on my salad plate as a kid in the 1980’s.
“Extra Virginity” gets into the concept of olive oil as a health food. There is a reason that the Greeks have virtually no cardiovascular disease – they live the Mediterranean Diet, which includes gallons of olive oil each year. Then they explain that the reason we don’t consume more in the U.S. is because what you are getting in the grocery store isn’t actually olive oil. And it tastes like crap.
Ever really tasted olive oil? The book challenges you to go in your kitchen and splurp (stripaggio) a tablespoon of whatever is on your counter. Gross!
Then it goes on to overview what real olive oil is all about, what actually IS in that bottle on your counter (the olive oil industry is as corrupt as the crude oil industry) and tells you how and where to get the real thing.
California is really the only place in the U.S. that is starting to get on the olive oil train. Some of the wineries have figured out this is an alternate crop with a different growing season than grapes, and a potentially lucrative one.
On my second trip to Sonoma, I went primarily to taste REAL olive oil. When I did I was hooked forever. I now purchase ONLY real olive oil from certified growers in California. I’m partial to a couple brands, outlined below. I’ve become a total olive oil snob.
Highlight: I went to Sonoma in November because that is olive harvesting season. Olives are picked, pressed and bottled with as little exposure time as possible. Check the events calendars of the producers as well as Sonoma County’s page for special olive oil happenings.
I attended The Feast of the Olives at Ramekins Culinary School in January of 2103 and it was fantastic. It seemed to be more of a local industry event for olive oil producers. I was one of the only tourists there. I met some very interesting people and learned a lot about the future of olive oil in our country. If you get the opportunity, that was an amazing event.
A Wine Country Day Trip
If you have a couple of days to spend, consider getting away from the grapes for a day and try this itinerary. It was a spectacular experience and one I hope to do again someday.
Point Reyes National Seashore
In a way it is hard to believe a place like this still exists in the United States.
About an hour’s drive from Sonoma, weaving through forests and farmland, you will find Point Reyes National Seashore. The wild Pacific crashing against the shore, huge plateaus of grass fields and surprises around every corner.
On your drive out, stop in Marin at the Rouge et Noir cheese factory. Pick up a picnic of french bread, crackers, charcuterie, wine and a selection of their cheese.
Next, watch for signs for the Leo T. Cronin fish viewing areas and see if you can spot some Coho salmon that have come in to spawn.
As you get closer to Point Reyes, keep your eyes out for Vladimir’s and Saltwater Oyster Depot. You’ll be stopping here on your way back.
As you enter the park, which is free, stop to get a map. The park is a paved road cutting over rolling hills connecting one dairy farm to the next. Yes, you’ll likely need to stop for cows in the road more than once.
I headed north first. A few miles in, I saw a sign for a lookout. Parked the car and followed a grassy path (McClure Beach Trail) between two rock outcroppings..and couldn’t believe what I found. I landed on a strip of beach that obviously only shows itself when the tide is out. I watched the power of the mighty Pacific crash for a while and then hiked back to the car.
Next stop: Tule Elk Preserve
Mind blowing. Park your car when you see the sign. Get out, bring your picnic. You’ll find the path easily and can start your hike. Take it all in. You are about a half-mile up on a plateau between the Pacific and Tomales Bay – the views are stunning. The wind is fierce. It takes about 2 miles of walking before you find them…but it’s worth every step. Find a good spot and enjoy your well-deserved picnic.
It is amazing that there are no fences, no park rangers. And it was free. Not many people make the hike. I only saw 2 other people.
Get your photos if you can hold the camera steady in the continuous wind. Then make the hike back to your car.
Time to head south to the lighthouse.
My last stop in the park was at Drake’s Bay Oyster where I had some huge briny raw monsters. Sadly, this location has been permanently closed as oyster farming is no longer permitted here.
Got your mouth watering for some bi-valves? No worries if you are starting to get an appetite. It’s back to either Vladimir’s, a Czechoslovakian restaurant that happens to be on your way home, or it’s neighbor Saltwater Oyster Depot.
If the wind permits, you can take the 300 steps down and get about as close to the magestic ocean as one would dare.
Next take time to check out the Elephant Seal Overlook. These amazing creatures are lounging around and making baby seals 🙂
I was sad at first because I was excited to try Vladimir’s but they are closed on Mondays. Went into Saltwater and it was empty. They took pity on me and said, “we are not quite ready to serve dinner, but if you’re hungry we do have a homemade french onion soup with Gruyere crostini and braised lamb tongue on a bed of baby arugula with fennel and celery. And of course, oysters.”
Time to sit down and rest the legs, have a cold beer and a light meal before making the trip home. Take a minute to think about all the wonder of what you’ve experienced today.
Last Stop – Muir Woods
Your weekend in wine country has come to a close and it’s time to head back to San Francisco to catch your flight. But there’s one last stop to save time for.
Just before you hit the Golden Gate, you’ll see signs for the entrance to Muir Woods. Follow the winding road around to the parking lot. You don’t need a ton of time. I think I only had an hour or so to spare. But it was enough to take in this incredible natural wonder.
This is it for California destinations for now. Here are some links to other ideas on the west coast – Seattle or the San Juan Islands in Washington or Victoria, British Columbia. Click on the name to jump.