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Our April Armchair Trip: Napa Valley, San Francisco & The Pacific Highway




By Carolee Duckworth, NABBW’s Independent Travel Associate

We’re ready to take off again on our April Armchair Trip, traveling in our minds. So, sit back, set loose your imaginings, and let’s be off on our April trip. First, we’ll drive our rented convertible (fire red or royal blue) across the Golden Gate Bridge and up through California redwood country to Napa Valley, for three days of vineyard visits and wine-tastings, hearty pioneer eating and soul-soothing hot springs.

Next, we’ll make the breath-taking drive down the Pacific Highway, with the surf pounding the rocks below us, for two nights at a lovely inn perched on a hill directly across from the wharf and boardwalk in the delightful, laid-back, ocean-front town of Santa Cruz.

From here we’ll retrace our steps back north for an unforgettable three-night immersion in iconic San Francisco, staying near the famous Fisherman’s Wharf, across a stretch of the bay from Alcatraz. In San Francisco, we’ll divide our time between ocean and bay, Japanese Gardens and cable car rides, Science museums and Alcatraz and Sausalito.


Golden Gate Bridge

We will board a plane to San Francisco on a Monday in April. When we land, we’ll pick up our rental car, definitely a convertible. Driving through the redwoods and down the coast will “require” a convertible with the top down. Be sure to bring a hat, and a scarf to tie it in place!

We’ll cross the Golden Gate and take the Redwood Highway (Rt. 101) north for 2 hours through redwood and wine country to Calistoga, at the northern tip of Napa Valley, a former silver and mercury-mining town now famous for hot springs and wineries. Not to worry. We’ll be back to visit San Francisco later in our trip.

Redwoods of Muir Woods

Muir Woods

We’ll make a stop at Muir Woods, 12 miles north of San Francisco, and enter the peace and deep calm of this old-growth redwood forest, where ancient trees tower above us like cathedral domes and the silence and sense of awe go straight to our hearts.

People do not just visit Muir Woods, they come from around the globe to pay homage to nature here, where trees up to 800 years old have grown to a mighty 252 feet tall and 14 feet across.

After we’ve taken our time in the woods, soaking in the peace, we’ll check out the arty gift shop that specializes in redwood gifts and Native American jewelry.

Lunch at RH Rooftop Restaurant Marin

We’ll be starving by now, so we’ll stop for lunch at RH Rooftop Restaurant Marin along the Redwood Highway. Here we’ll sit beneath a glass atrium amidst trickling fountains, olive trees and chandeliers, dining on lobster rolls and truffled fries and sipping artisanal wines and craft beers, or prosecco with freshly squeezed orange juice.

And on to Calistoga

Calistoga Spa Hot Springs

Then we’ll be on the road again to Calistoga, where we have booked a room in advance at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, nestled 2 miles from Calistoga Old Faithful Geyser, with multiple mineral pools in its private courtyard.

Our room will feature mountain views and a fridge where we can chill any wines or supplies we purchase at the various wineries or shops nearby and any leftovers we bring home from restaurants. We’ll have picnic tables outside our door for our al fresco dining pleasure.

A Calistoga Walk-About

We’ll start out with a walk-about along Lincoln Avenue, the main downtown street of Calistoga, to get oriented to our “neighborhood” and spot Café Sarafornia where we’ll be feasting for breakfast tomorrow morning. We’ll do a little wine tasting at the storefront August Briggs Winery at 1307 Lincoln Avenue, down near the river, and perhaps pick out a few bottles of wine to take back to our room.

Then we’ll follow our phone GPS to Cal Mart before it closes at 8pm to grocery shop for cheese and crackers and something tasty from the hot deli for tonight’s dinner in our idyllic courtyard. If we haven’t already bought wine for the evening, we’ll have plenty of choices here.

We’ll spend a relaxing evening in our courtyard paradise, enjoying wine and cheese in our lounge chairs, dinner at our picnic table, and visits to all three temperatures of hot tubs— HOT, then medium, then cool, and then back to hot. And so forth…

We’ll be surrounded by magnificent mountain views. And as evening descends, the twinkle lights will come on. When we are thoroughly and completely waterlogged, we’ll settle into seats around the fire pit to enjoy some ambling conversation and share stories with our fellow guests.


On Tuesday we’ll start off with a hearty breakfast at Sarafornia, then visit one of only THREE “Old Faithful” Geysers in the world. From among the over 400 wine producers in Napa Valley, we’ll visit two notable vineyards—Duckhorn and Chateau Montelena. Since our wine tastings today and tomorrow will be fairly pricey, we’ll plan to substitute a few courtyard picnics for restaurant dinners to balance out our daily budget.

California Old Faithful Geyser

To qualify as an “old faithful,” a geyser must erupt on a regular and predictable schedule. There are only three geysers worldwide that qualify—Yellowstone, New Zealand, and Calistoga! This California Old Faithful is a “must see” while we’re here since it’s our best shot short of traveling to Yellowstone or New Zealand. We’ll be waiting for around 15-35 minutes for this dramatic “show of nature,” peering down at a small, rocky fracture in the earth. Then a 35-to-50-foot tower of steam and scalding water will erupt. While we wait, we’ll visit the 4-horned sheep, Tennessee Fainting Goats, and Earthquake, Volcano and Tsunami Museum.

Wine Tasting at Duckhorn Vineyards

Our first tasting will be at Duckhorn (open 10am to 4pm), where we will have pre-arranged a 45-minute “Portfolio Tasting” ($50 each), outside on the terrace, with quiet music in the background. With each of these tastings, we will remember to take in our surroundings. Visiting vineyards is only partly about the wine. It is equally about basking in the beauty of the surroundings. The Duckhorn grounds are lovely, with vibrant gardens and sweeping views of the vineyards, especially when the sun is shining.

This tasting will highlight five current-release wines of the estate from among the many varieties produced there – Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Hopefully the tasting “host” will make the event informative, entertaining, and engaging.

Even if you’re not a “wine snob” yourself, tastings can be great fun as sensory awareness experiences. Try to come up with colorful words that describe each of the wines and distinguish among them. Write your comments on a notepad or in your trip journal, and don’t hesitate to use any descriptive words that come to mind, however flowery, without censoring yourself. The pourings will probably be small, so focus on making comparisons and choices as though you were a wine critic, or a zillionaire with an unlimited wine budget. Think of this as a learning opportunity and discern as much as you can about your own tastes and preferences.

We’ll need to put some space between tastings. So, we’ll head back to little downtown Calistoga for lunch at Brannan’s Grill, where we’ll claim a spot by the big, open windows.

Winetasting at Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena

After lunch, and a little free time to wander the shops on Lincoln Street in Calistoga, we’ll head to Chateau Montelena. We already will be familiar with this setting because we’ve seen it before in the 2008 Hollywood movie “Bottle Shock,” about a Napa Valley Chardonnay produced here at this vineyard that won the renowned Paris Tasting in 1976, beating out the prized French wines that were expected to come out ahead.

Our tasting of current-release wines will last approximately 45 minutes ($45 each) at a standup bar at the chateau. Or we may decide to book a more exclusive semi-private seated tasting ($70 each), that includes samples of exclusive wines not commonly available in the market.


Rivers End

Today we’ll walk over to Sarafornia for another whopping breakfast. Or we may have picked up some breakfast items while we were in town yesterday to eat at our picnic table outside our room. Then we’ll head west to the River’s End Restaurant (11048 Highway 1), following the Russian River until it meets up with the Pacific.

This unassuming restaurant and inn, originally built for the loggers and fisherman on the Sonoma Coast, is perched on a bluff overlooking the actual spot where the river enters the ocean. The vistas along this rugged strip of coastline are breathtaking.

We will have made advance reservations for a window table, so when we arrive at the coast, we can take some time wandering at will up and back along the coastal road while we wait for our reservation time. I don’t know about you, but I’m probably going for the Pesto Prawns Pasta: house-made fettucine pasta, pesto, asparagus and white gulf prawns.

Castello de Amorosa Tasting

Castello de Amorosa

Castello de Amorosa for our third winetasting, this time in a replica of a 13th century Tuscan castle. We’ll schedule our tasting at the castle for 3:30 PM since the winery closes at 5 PM.

Castello di Amorosa is the realization of an all-consuming passion of Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation winemaker who built this authentically-styled 13th century Tuscan castle winery to honor his Italian heritage and his deep love for medieval architecture.

The great grandson of pioneering vintner Vittorio Sattui, an Italian immigrant who founded St. Helena Wine Cellars in 1885, Dario’s interest in medieval architecture grew into an obsession as he traveled Europe after college. Later his ideas crystallized into a vision to “specialize in small lots of primarily Italian-style wines and showcase them in an authentic, medieval castle setting where they would be sold directly to the public, not to stores or restaurants.”

It took 15 years, 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled local stone and nearly one million antique bricks imported from Europe to complete the castle. More than 200 containers of old materials and furnishings were shipped from Europe to decorate the interior. The chateau opened to the public in 2007. Today it is considered an architectural masterpiece, with all the elements of an authentic medieval castle: moat, drawbridge, towers, ramparts, courtyards, chapel, stables, armory, and even a torture chamber. 107 rooms in total, no two rooms alike.

At Castello di Amorosa, we will be doing a “Reserve Tasting” of 5 wines selected from an extensive wine menu, either at a seated tasting ($60 each) or a standing one ($50 each). Or we may have picked the more modestly priced “Classic Tasting,” again with 5 wines, but not including the reserves ($40 each, with a “Chocolate Upgrade” for $7 more). After our tasting, we’ll roam the two main levels of the chateau, including the Courtyard, Tower, Chapel, Great Hall, Knights Hall, and gift shop.


Calistoga to Santa Cruz

This will be a day of breathtaking wonder and awe… and also lobster rolls. We’ll be sure to bring along our hats since we will most definitely be driving with the top down! We’ll head back towards San Francisco on the Redwood Highway, and across the Golden Gate Bridge, then meander along the renowned Pacific Highway, US 1, hovering high above the sea.

We’ll stop along the way at Half Moon Bay for lunch overlooking the water at Sam’s Chowder House, (4210 North Cabrillo Highway; 650-712-0245), where we will have called in reservations as soon as we knew our ETA.

There will be lots of options for lunch here, but my pick is always the Lobster Roll, delicious Maine lobster with butter, served on a toasted bun, with chips and coleslaw. Another choice might be the Blue Crab Sandwich.

In Santa Cruz, we’ll be staying at the West Cliff Inn (174 West Cliff Drive; 800-979-0910), a fully renovated Victorian mansion situated on a bluff across from the wharf and the historic Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This is a lovely place to stay, and also entitles us to a precious parking space so we can walk to the wharf and boardwalk where parking is difficult to impossible.

West Cliff Inn

Our pre-booked reservations will be for either Room #3, with a bay window view of the ocean and next to the large second floor balcony, or Room #5, with an outdoor jetted spa tub on our own private patio. Our accommodations include a delicious breakfast buffet, afternoon wine, cheese and savory hors d’oeuvres (5–6 pm), and fresh- baked cookies, something different every day.

After we’ve checked in, and claimed our cookies, we’ll walk over to the Wharf, the long pier across the street, heading towards the Dolphin Restaurant at the end. Along the Wharf, we’ll wander in and out of the eclectic shops, including the intriguing “Made in Santa Cruz.” And we’ll stand at the rails to say hello to the resident Sea Lions.

At the Dolphin, we’ll snag an outdoor table to relax, take in the views and have a drink. We’ll likely return here later this evening for dinner and sunset on the outdoor patio after Happy Hour at the West Cliff. Maybe Fish & Chips or Chowder in a bread bowl. Or, since the Dolphin has its own in-house smoker, we may shift out of seafood mode for some of “the best BBQ you’ll find anywhere.”


Today we’ll awaken with the Pacific Ocean outside our windows, and a delectable breakfast to enjoy before we set off. We’ll take a drive up and down the coast, following West Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges, then heading back the other way to East Cliff Drive and Pleasure Point.

We’ll stop along the way at pretty spots and to watch the surfers in their wetsuits trying to catch one more perfect wave. We’ll park near Lighthouse Point and Seal Rock to get a better look, then continue to Natural Bridge State Park, with its gorgeous rock archway bravely standing guard offshore. Parking will be hit or miss, so we’ll snag spots if and when we find them and hop out of the car to take pictures.

Cliff Drive Santa Cruz

After Natural Bridge, we’ll drive back the other way until West Cliff Drive becomes East Cliff Drive and we reach Pleasure Point, with its narrow beach and plentiful wildlife. Here, we’ll take the stairs down to the beach to spot sea otters at play and study sea urchins in the tidal pools. The water is very cold here because of the deep underwater canyons of Monterey Bay. And the plentiful groves of kelp keep the sharks away, so the other sea life can thrive.

Santa Cruz Beach, Neptune’s Kingdom and Boardwalk

We’ll park our car back at the Inn or drive over to the boardwalk area and find a spot if we can, behind the large domed structure that looks like an airplane hanger. Then we’ll head in the direction of the beach, wandering along the arcade until we hear the otherworldly cackle of the 1930s Laffing Sal, the 6 foot 10 inch papier-mâché figure next to the garish colonnaded entrance of what is now called Neptune’s Kingdom. As we step through the door, it will seem like we’ve left the 21st century and arrived back in the 1900s, and we’ll immediately wonder “What IS this place?”

The Plunge

This building was once The Plunge, built in 1904, a huge swimming emporium, with multiple pools surrounded by balconies where spectators could watch the action below, as well as 500 dressing rooms, a café, a grill, a ballroom and two roof gardens.

At around that same time, the 400-foot-long Pleasure Pier opened out on the beach and the Santa Cruz Beach Train began chugging its way back and forth across the mountains, carrying loggers from Roaring Camp to Santa Cruz for a day of swimming, shows and fun at the beach and boardwalk.

Back in the day, from 1927 to 1945, Water Carnivals were held at the Plunge, attracting “standing room only” crowds, come to watch the aerial artists and swimmers thrill audiences with their choreographed performances. Dangling over the pool from trapeze bars and rings. Diving from platforms above the building’s balcony level. And for the show’s finale…a fire dive from high in the rafters into the deep end.

The pool held at 83 degrees (considerably warmer than the ocean!) was chlorinated salt water and was divided into two areas. The smaller pool was used by families with small kids— 5 feet deep and measuring 60 feet by 30 feet. The larger L-shaped pool– 12 feet deep and measuring 65 feet by 135 feet—was where the high and low diving boards were located.

The Plunge’s 56-year history came to an end in 1962 when the pools were filled up with San Lorenzo River sand. The next year the two-story miniature golf course you see here today was constructed in the area where the pool used to be.

Now For Some Choices: Mini Golf? Photo Art? Train Rides? Boardwalk Thrill Rides?

We now have some time for fun at the beach ourselves. And we have options… We may want to start in Neptune’s Kingdom with a round of Buccaneer Bay Mini Golf. And we’ll definitely want to hunt down the Photo Booth where we can have our picture taken then sketched by our choice of master artist—VanGogh, Renoir, Picasso and so forth.

Sky Glider

Then we may take the 100-year-old steam train ride over the mountains, from the beach to Roaring Camp, traveling through redwoods and up to the summit of Bear Mountain, with the conductor narrating the intriguing history of this railroad. We will be riding in an open car, so weather may be a factor. If we plan to leave the beach on the noon train, we’ll first put together a picnic of tasty sandwiches, cookies, and fresh-squeezed orange juice or lemonade from the popular Picnic Basket restaurant.

And we may opt to “eat desert first” by picking up some famous Penny Ice Creamery ice cream or sorbet to enjoy while we wait for our train time. When we arrive at 1 PM at Roaring Camp, we’ll have a picnic lunch to enjoy during our 1-hour layover before our return ride back to the beach.

And, of course, we’ll also have lots of options for fun on the boardwalk, voted the “World’s Best Seaside Park.” We can pick from among the thrill rides—Cliff Hanger, for the sensation of hang gliding, or Crazy Surf, where we can catch a wave without getting wet, or the Giant Dipper, one of the most exciting wooden coasters in the USA. We can take the glow-in-the-dark Cave Train that travels under the Boardwalk, with its original 1961 cast of characters, or enjoy a panoramic view of the ocean from high up above the park on Logger’s Revenge, ending with an exhilarating final plunge to the bottom where we’ll likely get splashed. And there’s the Sky Glider to transport us up above it all, for an incredible overview of the sights, sounds, and smells of this classic seaside amusement park.


Today we’ll head to San Francisco, traveling US 1 for our final exhilarating coastal views and stopping again for lobster rolls at Sam’s Chowder House. In San Francisco, we’ll drive straight to our hotel, the Argonaut, a restored warehouse down by Fisherman’s Wharf, where we will have pre-booked a room with a view of either the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. This location will put us right where we want to be, so we can walk out our door and “be there.” And we’ll have a complimentary Wine Reception, access to the Maritime National Historical Park’s Visitor Center, and cruiser bikes (first come, first served).

We’ll drop off our luggage and immediately return the rental car. We definitely will NOT want to have a car in San Francisco! Parking at our hotel costs $75 a day, and parking anywhere in the city is next to impossible! Also, there are ways to get around the city that are much more fun!


Once we’re rid of the car, we’ll get oriented to “our neighborhood.” We’ll walk across from our hotel to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park to wander around the boat displays, including the Pampanito Submarine. We’ll stop in at the Bay Company shop to check for interesting items… maybe a deck of cards dedicated to the various famous and dangerous prisoners who were once locked up at Alcatraz. Walking out the Hyde Park Fishing Pier, we’ll locate the dock where we can catch the San Francisco Water Taxi Monday for a fun ride down to Pier 39 (stopping at Pier 39 is by request only; flag down the taxi to catch a ride back to Hyde Park Pier).

San Francisco Water Taxi

Then we’ll ride the cable cars up and up the steep hills, and marvel at how little sense there is to the city’s street layout, created on a flat sheet of paper, without taking the topography into account. Our hotel is located near the end-of-line cable car turn-around, and we can purchase tickets ($5) there.

These cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. Underground cables pull them up the steep hills, then they careen back down, slowed by the noisy and ancient braking systems. We’ll hear the familiar bells ringing from blocks away. While we ride, we’ll have spectacular and precipitous views of the city’s celebrated hills, and an exhilarating, if somewhat unnerving, transportation experience (www.sfcablecar.com).

We may aim to get back to our hotel in time for the complementary wine reception. Then we’ll eat at an outdoor table at the hotel restaurant, the Blue Mermaid, the only wharf-side patio in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, feasting on their award-winning homemade chowder.


Japanese Gardens

Sunday we’ll head off for a visit to the lovely Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate Park. Here we’ll soak in the serenity, wandering slowly along walkways with carefully crafted views of waterfalls, ponds and bonsai trees. We may decide to stop at the Teahouse for tea and little sandwiches.

We’ll leave the park for an early lunch at Cliff House, overlooking the Pacific. But we’ll be returning to the park after lunch to spend the afternoon at the fascinating Academy of Science.

Early Lunch at the Cliff House, Overlooking the Sea.

Cliff House

At the Cliff House, we’ll have the same experience of being suspended above the ocean as wealthy San Franciscans had when they flocked to the 1800s hotel that was originally built on this site.

Five U.S. presidents, Hayes, Harrison, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, as well as many famous citizens of the world, sat above the sea where we are sitting now, although the earlier structure was severely damaged in 1887 when the schooner Parallel, abandoned and loaded with dynamite, ran aground on the rocks below and exploded.

We will have made 11:30 AM reservations for a table beside the floor-to-ceiling windows (415-386-3330) so we can get back to the Science Museum and have some time there before it closes at 5 PM. From this prime location, we will have stunning panoramic views of Ocean Beach and Seal Rocks and may even see whales frolicking in the water below our table as they migrate north from Baja for the summer. We’ll dine on the finest organic local produce and fresh seafood, followed by a delectable seasonal dessert. Maybe Fresh Local Rock Cod or Anchor Steam Beer Braised Mussels, followed by an Apricot Frangipane Tart!

Back to Golden Gate Park to the Academy of Science Museum

For easy access to the Academy of Sciences, we will have already purchased a “skip-the-line” ticket… so we’ll be able to walk right in. There will be much to see here! Our admission includes all shows and exhibits, so we’ll start by scheduling our shows.

We will want to watch Living Worlds at the Planetarium and maybe catch a feeding of the charismatic colony of endangered African penguins in African Hall. Then we’ll spend more time in African Hall, carefully taking in the fascinating sequence of skulls that trace the evolution of man.

We’ll probably want to catch a second show at the planetarium: Tour of the Universe. And then there’s the earthquake experience in case we’ve always wondered what it would have been like to live through one of the San Francisco earthquakes.

We’ll explore the 4-story rain forest and visit the aquarium, with its Philippine coral reef, reef Lagoon, swamp, twilight zone (displaying creatures from the dark deeps of the ocean) and its all new Venom: Fangs, Stingers, and Spines exhibit, with over a dozen species that bite, stun, and sting.


Today we’ll hop the Water Taxi from Hyde Fishing Pier to take us down to Pier 39, where we’ll say “good morning” to the giant Sea Lions who have taken up residence on the floats and stand at the railing to watch their antics. From here it will be a short walk to the Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the famous crab vendors who sell walk-away fresh crab and shrimp cocktails.

We’ll take some time to pick and choose from among the many options on and across from the pier, shopping the kiosks and stores, or walking through Ripley’s or the Wax Museum for the fun of it, and picking up quick eats along the way.

We will have made reservations WAY in advance of our trip (tickets are limited and sell out early) for a visit to Alcatraz. We’ll book ourselves on the 11 am ferry, so we’ll need to watch our time and not be late. When we arrive, we’ll pick up our audio headset and walk up to the cell block for the vivid audio tour, viewing the actual cells of notorious prisoners and hearing their stories. We’ll even see the boxed boardgames the prisoners played to while away the time.

When we have had enough, and are ready to “escape” Alcatraz, we’ll head back to Pier 33 for our return ride back to shore. By now we’ll need to “clear the air” and leave this oppressive place behind.

Take the Ferry to Sausalito

Sausalito Ferry

Once back on shore, we’ll catch the Blue & Gold’s Sausalito Ferry for a very different kind of ride, past the Golden Gate Bridge, then on to the delightful community of Sausalito just across the Bay. This 25-minute trip has been awarded the status of #2 most exciting ferry ride in the world.

Sausalito, once a fishing village, is now a bayside community with the charm of a Mediterranean seaside village along the French Riviera. Before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, this little town served as a terminus for rail, car, and ferry traffic. Now it has a reputation as a wealthy and artistic enclave, a picturesque residential community (including a large numbers of houseboats), and a tourist destination.

As we approach the shore, we’ll have a chance to spot the quaint Victorian bungalows built into the steep hillside, and the variety of waterfront restaurants, boutiques and small art galleries that line the downtown shopping district. Here we will meander the narrow streets, browse through art galleries and shops, and savor fine cuisine.

We’ll catch a late lunch at Spinnaker’s, sitting at an outdoor table with a view back to the San Francisco skyline (415-332-1500). We may go for the legendary crab cakes or crab potstickers or Paella. Then we’ll explore the area near the ferry dock, around Bridgeway and Princess Streets.

We’ll be sure to check out the Sausalito Ferry Company Gift Store (688 Bridgeway) and Studio 333 Caledonia, the largest Co-Op art gallery in the San Francisco Bay area. A short walk away, we’ll also be able to check out the downtown branch of Studio 333 (803 Bridgeway).

And we’ll want to visit Bacchus & Venus for wine tasting and to pick up a bottle or two to enjoy back in our hotel room with a view on this our final evening in San Francisco.

Tomorrow, we will head for home… But we’ll make ourselves the promise that someday we’ll take this trip for real.


Carolee Duckworth Independent Travel Associate

Carolee Duckworth is an avid traveler, an expert trip designer, and co-author (with Brian Lane) of the books Your Great Trip to France, Your Great 5-Day Trip to Paris, and Your Great 5-Day Trip to Loire Châteaux, available on amazon.com. Coming soon: Your Great 5-Day Trip to Normandy and Your Great 5-Day Trip to the Côte d’Azur.

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