Wine country trail –Napa and Sonoma Valleys- Sept 2008

By Sri.

What do you visualize when you think of Wine country- green sun kissed hills, grape vines everywhere, rustic sceneries etc.. Well that’s what DW thought when I started planning. We were travelling to San Francisco for a conference, and she insisted that we visit Napa Valley. 

Little did she know, the ground realities- wine tasting, sip, spit and swallow, cautionary notes to drink plenty of water (one glass of water for each tasting of wine)  and to have plenty of crackers. 

The first she came to know was when she caught me practicing spitting water into the bathroom sink from three feet away. Aghast, she asks me, “ what are you trying to do?”, with emphasis on the trying.

I explained all the fine points of wine tasting, gleaned over reading on the internet, and few books. I also showed her three wine bottles that I had bought to start the wine appreciation experience., including wine-food pairing. We discovered that having a green apple before wine, makes any wine taste nasty, while having cheese before wine makes any wine tasty!!

My trip planning started off with looking at places to stay in Napa town, St Helena and thereabouts. The prices were prohibitive, and I wasn’t  sure that we wanted to spend so much. (After discovering  what wine country would probably look like on Google maps Street view, DW was a little put off). Finally I chanced upon a gem of a town- Calistoga, at the northern most part of Napa valley, at the foot of the palisade mountains; more rustic in nature, with mud baths, biking trails, and at the same time, some nice restaurants within walking distance. I also wanted to incorporate as many Non Winey things in the trip as possible to keep my DW interested in the trip! 

Muir Woods

We drove from San Francisco Airport, towards Muir Woods- a national forest, with impressive California redwoods- these trees procreate only after some disaster like a forest fire or lightning strike!!. One felt dwarfed by these towering trees.

Stinson Beach

Then onwards to Stinson Beach- a beautiful locale to slowly unwind after our conference.

Our winery visit started off with Cline Cellars, a subsidiary of the Jacuzzi family- apparently the same family that receives a royalty for each Jacuzzi sold! Interesting wines and olive oils – both flavoured and extra virgin Olive oils- the first time I could taste the difference between Spanish and Italian Olive oils. 

We next stopped off at the Sonoma Cheese Factory for lunch- tasted atleast 5 different types of cheeses each, and then ordered some sandwiches. We had by now got late for our next booking- a wine food pairing that I was really looking forward to, in Sonoma valley. We tried calling them up but couldnt get through.

Next stop was the BR Cohn winery-the three most memorable things about this winery were – the wine infused chocolate fudge, lemon wasabi paste and Doobie Red (the Doobie Brothers, an American rock band, whose manager owns this winery). 

the country side…

 Then we were supposed to got to the Petrified Forest in the northern most part of Sonoma,
close to Healdsberg, but we kind of gave it a miss (rather I missed the turn off- being too tense to reach our B&B by 6pm). A reminder- most wineries close by about 5pm, so try to plan your day accordingly. Some friends of ours went to Napa valley, after hearing about it from us, but reached about 4:45pm, and we get a phone call (at about 2am India time)- where do we go now; what to do??

DW, biking…

We relaxed the first night, and set out the next morning for my activity of the day- 7 hours of biking and wine tasting. 

I had researched this self biking tour on Tripadvisor, and the experience was every bit as good as we wanted it. We
were advised to buy biking shorts, that DW bought (glad at the end of the day) for 130$, given a bunch of water bottles, a map and a wrist band and sent on our way. 

 We visited a total of 7 wineries, and it was fun!! In one of the wineries, the
lady made us taste wine before and after cherry tomatoes, dark and white chocolate and cheese, and it was a “Eureka” movement for us!

Another place had small bushes of different wine varietals to actually taste, including Viognier, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. It was fun to taste the thick skinned wine grapes, and try to then go into the tasting room and understand why each varietal produces a corresponding wine.

This entire trip led to a close at 5:00pm, when the last guy graciously reopened his tasting room for us- an enthusiastic guy.  He kept asking DW, “So what do you taste in this wine?”… Tired after a day of heat (high 30 degree celsius), trying out about 23-24 different wines, and coming up with new adjective each time… She finally says” it tastes like wine!!”

Anyway, after this long and exhausting bike and wine tasting, we had a well deserved pizza and coke, and then headed back to the B&B. Here we indulged in a wine & cheese session with the host. DW had been hesitant about going for a mud bath, mainly due to hygiene issues. Things like – “ are we going into some mud that someone else has lain in… No, not me”. But talking to all the people there, we kind of got interested in the mud bath thingy. Our host, Nick  then promptly booked us in the Golden Haven Mud Spa for Couples.

We toddled off to the spa, and after registering and changing, we were led into a room, with a shower, the actual mud bath and an adjacent jacuzzi. We were advised to shower and then lie down on the mud, wriggle ourselves into the mud bath! That was a unique experience- I promptly wriggled myself in, while DW spent the first five minute ON the mud, thinking that she’d sink in. Probably due to the high salt content of the mud, one tends to float within the bath. The overall feeling is similar to a baby in the womb or an astronaut in space. After the mud bath, and the jacuzzi bath, we were wrapped up from neck to toe in towels and left to lie down for 25 minutes. One tends to sweat like crazy being wrapped up like that!

Finally when we walked out, we felt like we were walking on air!! We were so tired and exhilarated, that we decided to skip dinner and go to the B&B. Spent dinner time, wolfing down Cinnamon rolls & Muffins and reading some interesting nature magazines.

Next day, was our appointment in the Round Pond, Rutherford a unique farm where they produce olive oil and vinegar, and have a tasting session.

I had read about this place on the Chowhound, and was really looking forward to this visit. As usual, we got late getting ready, lost our way once, reached the winery instead of the olive mill and finally reached the mill half an hour late. Our hostess graciously accomodated us in the tasting (without charge) and then took us for a brief look around the facility. I had already shown and practiced with DW the way to taste wine vinegar- soak a sugar cube with vinegar, and put into your mouth- the sugar cube negates the tart taste of the vinegar and you can taste the underlying winey taste. Olive oil on the other hand needs to be slurped, and swilled and then a small suck of air through your rolled tongue gives you the underlying flavors!

Frog’s Leap Winery

After Round Pond, we went to the Frog’s Leap winery, a unique winery using dry and organic farming. So the tour was not just about grapes, but about veggies, how they use natural pesticides (like chillies) to keep pests away. The experience was informative, fun and very interesting, with a Basket ball hoop shooting in the middle of the tour.

Napa City

After this we went around to the Honig winery, where we had an interesting young girl showed us the difference in wine vintages. The same grape, same winery, same hill, but different vintages (2007, 2005 and 2002) tasted totally different. One got to understand the progression from “loud and fruity” to “smooth and velvetty” with years.

By this time we were running late for the planned lunch at the St Helena hospital, Deer park.. We missed a  couple of turns  and finally decided to drive over to Napa.. It was probably 12-13 miles by the Silverado  trail, but we reached there in no time.. We finally went to the  Taylors autimatic refresher, for their milk shakes and salad ( turned out  to be three  types of leaves.. Felt like cows!!

We then went to the Oxbow public market. Sort of a farmers market, with emphasis on good and wine, within a large warehouse like area.

By now tired, DW asked to be taken home.. We then had the unique experience of dinner at 7:00 in broad daylight.. An american concept.. We had dinner at Jole, a modern American restaurant, small portions, farm fresh, and interesting vegetarian dishes made just for us..

The next day was a drive back to SFO airport, enroute to Las Vegas. We saw an interesting phenomenon.. A traffic light was not working, but everyone followed a simple principle. The first car to reach a crossing got right of way, followed by the next car in the opposite lane. Smooth and without a single horn blown..

Back to San Francisco….

Cool and fun, that was our experience in Napa valley..

A family vacation to England 2010- Scotland

How this trip started.

Dear Hubby wanted to do a gastro tour of the UK n scotland. We had been planning a holiday with my in laws since forever… 
So finally, our friendly neighbourhood trip planner started off..

Initially DH wanted to do Edinburgh, Speyside and some isles as part of a whisky trail.. I let him dream on and plan on… Then two months before leaving I asked him what else would we do in Craigallachie, Speyside.. And I got..”we could play golf, maybe see some castles..”. I tried to bring him slowly to earth.. Four of the five us don’t drink whisky, and if he was driving, neither would he :)..

Back to the drawing board..Along the way, I heard from one of my friends about Arran Aromatics, and it took a few gentle nudges to shift our trip northward.. Some complaints later..”we aren’t getting accommodation for five people”, to which I quipped, why not drive through… A few days of grumbles, and looking up ferry schedules and we were set.
We eliminated Loch Ness (a big lake without any Nessie), Inverness (who wants to visit a war memorial), and sundry other tourist places.

After struggling with train schedules, and trying to get us on the Harry Potter train ( we’d end up wasting a day going there, and promptly getting back), DH decided to rent a car.. We heard awful tales about how bad the roads were and how foolish we were to cram so much into so less time, but after doing it I can only say that the roads were be-u-tiful.. A pleasure to drive without a single bump, even in the most remote villages..

I felt that driving at one’s own pace also gives one, freedom to tweak your itinerary if something interesting comes by…and a lot more adventurous…like driving the car into a giant ferry to cross a bay, and ability to explore the islands which can’t be done otherwise.

William Wallace monument 

We wanted a mix of Highland and Island experience and started our Scotland trip from Stirling, reaching here, from the Lake District on Day 1. This is a beautiful small town with the William Wallace monument as a highlight.

our tour guide.. guy posing as wallace for last 50 yrs…

River Forth.. spectacular view of Stirling, from atop the William Wallace monument

We decided upon a night stay here as we wanted to catch the next morning ferry to Isle of Arran from Ardrossan, which is a short distance from here

Relying heavily on trip advisor recommendations, we booked 2 rooms at Argyll House B & B, While only few hours away from Stirling, we, as a routine, called up Argyll house to announce our impending arrival. Our, to-be host, Joan seemed very surprised on the phone, as she didn’t have any such booking in her calender. Why I am mentioning this at all, is to highlight that, despite making bookings way in advance, one can be in for a mighty surprise! 
Thankfully, Joan was an exceptionally friendly lady who despite the mix up, went out of her way to arrange for rooms to host our family, in her friend’s B & B’s. Here, I may mention that the makeshift arrangement was in no way inferior to the standard we were expecting and we had a comfortable nights stay!

On her recommendation, we had one of the most outstanding meals of the entire, month-long, England trip in this small town of Stirling, at a local gastro-pub called “Birds n Bees” .. a must try!!

Next morning, DH was sweating bricks, because we had to reach the port of Ardrossan on time, en route to Arran…
Predictably, a wrong loop on the highway.. and we were in the middle of a bustling jam in Glasgow, (which we had planned to bypass) at peak commute time! Somehow, extricated ourselves from the mess and reached the port on time…


At Ardrossan, we positioned our car at the driver of the que, all the while hoping that someone else would be ever first person driving in.. The ferry itself was a humungous ship that offloaded 121 vehicles, including cars, trucks, trailers… When the time for boarding came, predictably we were asked to lead the way, and it actually turned out to be a breeze… Very well coordinated.. By the time we had parked, put the hand brake down and informed the sailors that someone behind us hadn’t put on the hand break.. Everyone was loaded and set to go..

After landing we promptly put Arran aromatics in our GPS.. and toddled off.. Bought a load of toiletries, tried about eight types of cheese at the creamery next door (including chilli, pepper, garlic, burnt onion, grape!) 

 We then drove around the island (it’s a miniature island with a kind of ring road encircling it..) and seeing the change in micro-climate from point to point.

We then drove around the island (it’s a miniature island with a kind of ring road encircling it..) and seeing the change in micro-climate from point to point.


 From Arran.. we crossed back to mainland via another ferry (Claonaig- Lochranza) ..which was a mini-adventure on its own.. We got so  busy soaking in the beauty of Arran..that we nearly missed our ferry from Claonaig!! When we reached the port, we saw the ferry already pulling out and our hearts nearly skipped a beat as we hadn’t booked a nightstay on Arran, which is such a small place anyway… Luckily brought attention to ourselves by a couple of car honks and one wouldn’t believe.. they brought the ferry back for us!! Can  anything be sweeter than that!! (BTW, DH insists on mentioning that he had honked so frantically, because he’d read on a blog of this ferry being helpful enough to accommodate people !)

…and so we reached Oban in the evening… This is one of the most beautiful drives as well as a very beautiful quaint bay town…. All the more so because we had very low expectations.. It’s often described as a fishing town!

Here, we stayed on for two a manor like B&B, 

 Kilchrenan House. 

Very scenic with awesome views of the bay! This is a large B&B, with permanent staff, and near hotel like service.. DH, and dad appreciated the sherry and whisky after chilly walks.. Breakfast was black porridge and haggis and oats with whisky and cream for DH, and more civilised offerings for us.. Btw, DH had also made Atholl Brose, a concoction with oats, cream, honey and whisky in India… Resembling Baileys irish cream in taste…

There are multiple day trips from here to other islands like isle of Mull where u can do birding.. Golfing and stuff! Oban also has a famous distillery with some high end single malt whisky by the same name. DH and dad went for a tour while we ladies shopped….Oban happened to be the first place in England, after London, where we found some shops open after 5 p.m!!  Bought loads of Scotland trivia here, clan patterned mufflers, golf balls n likes.. Also had a superdelicious blueberry pancake that could fill the tummies of 5, by itself!

We had a good dinner at a local restaurant we remember as “Kua Mua” actually called Cuan Mor..

Oban at dusk!
Oban in the morning

From Oban, we started on day 4 and drove towards Isle of Skye via Kyle of lochalsh.. Amongst one of the most scenic drives of Scotland! On the way we saw the fairytale castle of Eileen Donan, and passed some very picturesque..Glens and Dales.  

Serendipitously, (again DH corrects me that he had eyeballed this festival, and even sent me a mail on this) on the way, caught the Glengarry highland games,, which was a very authentic Scottish experience! Other than the Bagpipes, the games, the races, also saw a Dog show, here! Fun filled 3 hours!! 

If you are a “Harry Potter” buff, you could alternatively take the famous train to Hogwarts. This train journey, I think begins and ends at Fort Mason and requires pre-booking as well as a day at your disposal. We couldn’t, unfortunately, fit this in our schedule but it’s again highly recommended!

Reached Skye by evening, after taking as many stops on the way, as possible and spent two nights in Skye. Staying at Skye is way better, again to soak in the place and I would highly recommend the B & B called Carter’s Rest,, one of the top rated ones on tripadvisor! 

The Hosts here are friendly and welcoming and have a sense of humor!

Awesome view from the breakfast table at the B & B, Carter’s rest

Room at Carter’s Rest

This is if you are a nature lover wanting only peace, serenity and beauty to surround yourself. If you would rather see the main points and move on, you can see the city of Portree, the Talisker distillery, the Neist Point lighthouse and some famous waterfalls there.

We got dragged to the Talisker distillery by DH, but along the way had some brilliant “pub food”.. A biryani look alike called Nasi Goreng.. At the “Old Inn” at Carbost, along with some awesome coffee..

breathtaking Skye

Neist Point

Nasi Goreng

IIn Skye, we both (DH & I) set out at 10:30pm at night, in blinding daylight, with dregs of petrol in the car tank to see the Neist Point lighthouse.. Other than the lighthouse, the crazy scottish sheep and Highland Coos (long haired) cows were the attraction.. Even after so many years of marriage, we drove down there like giggly adolescents, leaving Dad to teach mom Snooker… And DH then got to taste unchilled, filtered Skye whisky (Port Dubhe) thanks to our hosts.. Another aside…our hosts were so sweet that they sent a scarf I had accidentally left behind by courier back home…
Another attraction at Skye included Skye silver, where I got a Jacobite rose earring..

After spending two nights at Isle of Skye and nicely exploring the island, we undertook, what we expected to be an arduous, long tiring journey to Edinburgh, via Pitlochry. But we were pleasantly surprised, as the journey took no time at all and what with all the beauty to behold, it became yet another trip to remember!

On the way, my over enthusiastic hubby with a very supportive “Parents-in-law”, chalked out a personalised whisky Trail (considering it to be a mandatory part of Scottish experience)..and visited small boutique distilleries like Dalwhinnie, adding on to our collection of single malts.

Pitlochry is a small, picture perfect, postcard town and also hosts the smallest Scottish distillery close to it, called Edradour.

We reached Edinburgh by evening. It’s a magnificent city with an old world charm. By the end of the trip, we were so overwhelmed by castles that had no real interest in visiting the Edinburgh castle. Yet, we ended up doing the same, as it is one of the most famous ones!! Zillion things to do in Edinburgh with an evening spent strolling on the royal mile and those underground spooky trips!!

From Edinburgh, caught a train to London (had booked this, way in advance and so got the tickets, dirt cheap for 5 people). On this picturesque train ride, we caught a glimpse of the Alnwick Castle, more famous as the Hogwart’s of “Harry Potter”.

Alnwick castle

Reached King’s Cross station at London, in the evening…did photo-op at the station “9¾”… reached our hotel in a glum mood because another memorable trip was coming to a close. Spent a sleepless night, coz we had to catch the international flight next morning…to Home!

Origin of this winter trip to the West Coast of US.

Our last trip ( Dec- Jan 2011-12) was born on an ordinary, really hot, july evening..when my “dear babes” tells me.. ” Why dont we go somewhere in the winter… we always seem to travel in the summer”.

“Good idea”, Says I. “Where shall we go?” 
“Wrap your plans around a Christmas in San Francisco, and New Year in New York”…
 After nearly 7 years of being blissfully married.. a man learns not to bother reasoning or trying to understand, how a woman’s mind works..right?  Wrong!.. ’cause i did try to understand why we should hop from one coast to the other and got a reasonable answer from babes.. “It SOUNDS perfect”!  

The sort of pics my Babe thinks of around Christmas.. This out of focus dreamy look with circles of light come from using a lens that can … defocus the scene…

Well, I m not really a city kind of guy, so promptly, I started making plans of flying to LA, (which was conveniently skipped from the itinerary of our last west coast trip..) driving along the Pacific Highway (the most scenic drive in that region) till SF, making a detour to Yosemite National Park… and then wrap up NYC in a day or two. 

Predictably, things didnt turn out that way… My plans took about 6 months to make, and in the last two months, Babes got into the travel planning and changed them all around.. and somewhere down the line Yosemite got the ax 🙂
We finally flew into LA and checked ourselves into this beautiful B & B, called the Garden Cottage, The first evening, we met our friendly hosts Bob and Ahuva, who helped us settle in, and gave us some recommendations for dinner. Incidentally, Ahuva loves to talk and so does my wife and we spent a nice time talking about India, spirituality and food! The benefits of vegetarian food and all.. 

The patio seen from the bed

The super comfy high, four poster bed

In our LA trip, we had kept one day for Universal Studios, of course, yours truly had booked the entry passes in advance, and figured out where to park etc..
Like all holidays, we set out late morning, and predictably got stuck in a traffic jam enroute to Universal Studios..  Now our destination, (henceforth called U/S)  the studio is actually 7-8 miles out of LA in Universal city, with about 70% outside the city limits to save taxes .. A 415 acres property divided into an upper lot and lower lot..  First parking.. We decided to park in the preferred parking lot, that was 20$ compared to the regular 10$, as the preferred parking is closer to the U/S..

As we were visiting around Christmas, they had the place decorated, and were promoting a movie called the Grinch, with a giant Grinchmas tree and real snow around it.. Kids really loved it.. 


After walking around for some time, we saw their Waterworld set.. Pretty nice, but probably nothing to compare to the Shamu show in Sea World.. Both places had seats in the first two rows in the Splash zone.. I liked the near authentic feel of the set, the fires, blanks shooting etc.. 

We then strolled down U/S, got the obligatory photos with Dracula, Jaws, and some kiddy cartoon character..

Our next stop was at the Special effects stage, which unfortunately didn’t have the Jurassic park or any major production.. We were amused to be shunted around, while the people with VIP passes got well.. VIP treatment.. We then went to the pizza place.. And funnily enough, what we asked for.. A pizza slice, small fries, & small coke for DW, qualified for a kiddie meal.. I had a beer to qualify for an adult meal!!!

We then went for the Shrek 4d experience.. With rocking theatre seats in rhyme with Prince Charming’s horses hooves, and water droplets coming on your face in time with Shrek’s spit!!

After that we tried out some doughnuts.. Basically U/S seemed like a kids playground.. Sweets, rides, and colours, and favourite cartoon characters.. We then went for the last ride of the day, that took you through recreated sets of the Mummy, Jurassic park, some disaster movies (!) Including a huge plane crash, flooding scenes, etc..

Overall a day full of events.!!

Come evening, we  made our way to the Little Door, a purposefully nondescript fronted restaurant – without a sign, or anything to say what it was.. Just a little door in a wall, that opened to a beautiful patio, with a good fine dining ambience. We sat at the bar and looked at the menu, figured out the choice for DW as a vegetarian was meager, and so sashayed over to the Little Next Door.. a more informal cafe style seating… With the help of our maitre, I had a Grilled Marinated Daurade Fillet, while DW had a French Onion Soup, and we shared a Grilled Vegetables with goat cheese, pinenuts and basil. I can’t somehow get rid of the pronunciation of Do’haaade, that the maitre used to describe the fish… pretty good, especially with pesto liberally rubbed into the fish.

Let me tell you at this point that I am a big foody! Whenever, DW drags me into a “Mall” or a supermarket, I quietly saunter towards the food-groceries section and dive into a delectable soiree.. where I want to buy everything off the shelf!  Babes, calls it the “Kid in a candy store” syndrome that I suffer from! Hence, food is always given priority in my trip planning…after all..Beauty, whether man-made or natural, can’t be appreciated on a less than satisfied tummy!!  
Like i mentioned in the last post, i am a food’a’holic.. so day 2 in LA was planned as such.. 

This morning, after a delectable, breakfast dished by our hosts, seen here in the above picture, we set out on a pre-booked “Hollywood Sites & Bites food tour of LA”, through Tourific escapes Our friend S, also visiting her sister in LA, joined us at the Roosevelt hotel. 

The Roosevelt hotel, is a real classic, the ball room of which was used to host the 1st academy awards in 1929.

Hollywood walk of fame!

Our first stop was a cupcake tasting at Crumbs, the cupcake shop off Grauman’s Chinese Theater!!, atleast 5-6 types of mini cupcakes, followed by a visit to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, followed by detailed descriptions of the Hollywood Walk of fame. 

Next stop was for Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles, with ed Rooster Louisiana hot sauce on the chicken, butter and syrup on the waffles… DW had only the waffles, and wasn’t too impressed. I liked the juicy chicken, and the waffles, separately, but didnt really understand the concept of chicken n waffles.  

Our next stop (whilst taking in loads of info about hollywood, including the fact that most of the really big hollywood actors, seem to hace grown up close to Hollywood!) was John Kelly Chocolates- really loved the different textures, and taste.. adding sea salt to chocolate does satisfy all the tastebuds.  

An interesting stop was at Susan Feniger’s Street. We tried the Tamarind Ginger cooler, Kaya toast (you either love it or hate it… toast, coconut jam, eggs sunny side up, with soy sauce), quinoa fritters, Laundry Day fritters, Millet puffs, etc.. one can imagine…i was one contented soul! 

Kaya Toast

We then made a stop at Greenblatt’s Deli and Wine shop,

Pastrami sandwiches at Goldblatt’s Deli with Black cherry sodas.DW desultorily had some mashed potates and rye bread. 


The last stop of the tour was at Mashti Malones Ice cream, tried the lavender ice cream

We spent rest of the afternoon shopping in the general vicinity, then headed back…

decided to drive over to santa enjoy the sunset at the boulevard… took couple of wrong turns exiting LA…n reached there..just after sunset..even the n got the hang of the place.. took some pictures..did some more shopping…n headed back…

back to the B & B! 

later in the evening, strolled down to the “The Original Farmer’s Market” (an LA landmark), which was a few blocks from  the B & B. 

“The Grove” is a mega shopping complex, adjacent to the farmers market and was bustling with tourists, shoppers and locals alike.. we let ourselves be carried away with the fun n frolic…and ended up doing tons of Christmas shopping! All in all, a very productive day…according to DW!!!