Ok, I’ll admit it, I am rapidly approaching my 40th year and may be having a small mid-life crisis…I have been frantically working through my bucket list like there is no tomorrow and the sports car is already sitting in the driveway.
No self-respecting middle-aged man’s bucket list should be considered complete without the inclusion of a road trip through the USA in an all-American muscle car.
British Airways have recently started a new service direct from London to San Jose in California. So on a cold Sunday night in London, after a few glasses of wine, I booked two business class flights using my British Airways companion voucher and Avios points.
With the flights booked I now had to plan a route for our seven night Californian road trip.
As we only had a week to play with I mapped out a route that would start in Napa Valley for three nights, move on to Yosemite national park for two nights and then finish up in San Francisco for the final two nights before heading home.
After an uneventful flight on the new BA Dreamliner, we picked up our red convertible Mustang and headed on the i680 to Rutherford in Napa Valley. A tip from me – don’t take on a two-hour drive at sunset on a freeway after an eleven flight and no sleep…
Our destination in Rutherford was the luxury, five-star Auberge Du Soleil, and what an excellent choice of hotel it chose to be.
Set back on a hill overlooking vineyards the Auberge Du Soleil is everything a luxury hotel should be. The Auberge has to be the best hotel in Napa Valley. Hell, its one of the best in the world!
There is an onsite Michelin star restaurant, which lives up to the billing in both quality of food and atmosphere (not to mention the views from the terrace).
Add to this a world class spa where the massages will leave you in a state of inner bliss and relaxation, and a perfectly heated pool with the same vineyard views, and it really is hard to find fault.
We stayed in a deluxe queen / queen room with valley views. Prices at the Auberge Du Soleil start at around £570 per night.
Any regular readers of the blog will know that I have a passion for food and wine. Visiting Napa Valley has been somewhat of a holy grail for me for quite some time, so as you can imagine I was very excited to have two wine tastings booked for our visit.
Our private car arrived at the Auberge Du Soleil at 09:30 am to pick us up. What a wonderful surprise it was to see, as the tinted window wound down slowly, my father-in-law Jeff, and mother-in-law Gill there to surprise us. As my wine mentor and the man who sparked my passion for the grape, it was very fitting to have Jeff alongside me for the experience. Gill is a passionate foodie and doesn’t mind a tipple herself, so we all set off excitedly for a day amongst the vines.
Our first tasting was at the Peter Michael winery just inside Sonoma County. This is a private estate only open to members but our friend Bill, who is a member, very kindly managed to get us on the exclusive list.
We had a tour of the estate which is set on the western face of Mount St Helena in Knights Valley. This makes for a truly stunning backdrop, and the visit was worth it for the views alone.
We tasted a mixture of Cab Savs, Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. All the wines were very pleasant with the Chardonnay coming out as the winner for me with its creamy texture leaving the palette wanting more.
Next up was a tasting at Caymus Vineyard in Rutherford. You can book visits here more easily, and the setting is very relaxing within a beautifully manicured garden. I was a little disappointed with the wines here, and they felt more manufactured and less refined. You weren’t given a fresh glass for each wine, with each poured into the old glass containing remnants of the previous sample which I thought was a cardinal sin!
We had a fantastic dinner that night in the Auberge Du Soleil out on the terrace under the stars. Every course was cooked to perfection, and the restaurant deserves its Michelin star billing.
Our last day in Napa was spent chilling at the Auberge. A nice lazy breakfast was followed with chilling by the pool and a 90-minute massage.
That night we headed out to Jeff and Gill’s hotel in Napa to eat at La Toque. In fairness to the restaurant by this time I was feeling the full effects of jet lag so perhaps I wasn’t in the best of form to rate the meal. This said my overall impression was a restaurant trying a little too hard to be inventive and lacked the simplicity of the Auberge Du Soleil. Both had Michelin stars, but the meal at the Auberge was far better.
After three nights and two days of fun in Napa, we said farewell to Jeff and Gill and set off for two nights in Yosemite National Park at the Majestic Hotel (locally known as the Ahwahnee).
Determined to arrive before sundown we set off at midday with an ETA of 1700.
We took the Highway 120 route to the Big Oak Flat entrance and made good time arriving just after 1700. Just 15 minutes from the hotel we received the devastating news that the entrance was closed due to a landslide and we had to take a two and a half hour diversion on treacherous cliff top roads to get to the Arch Rock entrance.
After an exhausting and at times pretty scary drive we arrived at the Majestic Hotel at 2030 that night. Nerves shot to pieces we both hit the sauce at dinner and settled down for a well-deserved nights rest.
Next day we hired two bikes to explore the valley with the aim of seeing the Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake and the Half Dome.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather during our trip, and Yosemite was no exception. California has seen unprecedented rainfall this year, and thankfully for us, the sunshine came out a couple of days before we arrived in Napa.
It was a sunny twenty-two degrees, and because of the deluge of rain leading up to our arrival the waterfalls and rivers of Yosemite were flush and free flowing.
I highly recommend hiring the bikes and cycling around the park. It may not be for everyone but we get a real sense of freedom on the bikes, and there is something about it that taps into your inner child.
I won’t try too hard to describe the sites of Yosemite; even the photos don’t really do it justice. At times it feels like Jurassic Park meets Lord of the Rings, meets Little House on the Prairie. It’s everything you want it to be or more. In fact, I’ll throw it out there…I think Yosemite may well be the most impressive, mind-blowing natural wonder we have seen. Go see it.
My feedback on the Majestic is that you are primarily paying for the location of the hotel, which is perfect. You can literally roll out of bed into the park, and that carries a hefty premium (rooms cost around £700 per night!). We stayed in a Delux room.
It is pretty expensive and not your traditional luxury five-star hotel. Rooms are comfortable, and the restaurant is decent enough, but don’t expect the George V experience for the George V price. The vibe is local, and the hotel is trying to be traditional rather than uber luxury.
Would I stay there again and recommend the hotel? Based on location, yes I would. It is the best, and only hotel in Yosemite.
We took Highway 140 out of the park, and this is a far easier route to take. If heights are not your thing (in a car) take the 140 into and out of the park.
Our destination in San Francisco was the Scarlet Huntington Hotel. This is an excellent luxury boutique hotel right in the heart of San Francisco. If you are looking for the best hotels in San Francisco, the Scarlet should be right at the top of your list.
The Scarlet Huntington reminds me very much of the Hotel Sacher in Vienna with its old world, understated charm. The staff were excellent and attentive without being over the top.
The one bedroom suite was huge and more than enough for the two of us. We had breakfast brought to the room twice, and both times it was excellent.
Other than breakfast we didn’t eat in the hotel (I’m sure it’s lovely) but we did have a drink in the bar which is very cool and reminiscent of a classic speakeasy.
Our first night in San Francisco took us to a private champagne tasting at The San Francisco Champagne Society. We were spending the two days with our American friends Larry and Shannon (a very successful food blogger also know as the Fit Slow Cooker Queen), their local knowledge was invaluable and company excellent.
The SF Champagne Society is a reservation only champagne bar hosted by Bill Marci. On arrival, you enter a secret code for access through the door into the bar which feels like a trendy dining room.
Bill takes you through a list of lesser known champagnes from smaller producers of the region and typically you will taste 3 to 6 champagnes. There is a real feeling of exclusivity in the SF Champagne Society, and it was a pleasure to be in the company of a man with so much passion for his craft.
Our tasting cost $80 per head, but prices start at $60.
Dinner for the evening was at The Water Bar. I’d say on ambience and location alone this has to be one of the best restaurants in San Francisco, located directly beside the Bay Bridge which forms a stunning backdrop when lit up at night.
The food was superb. I plumped for the shellfish bisque and swordfish. The bisque was packed full of flavour, and the swordfish was well cooked and beautifully presented.
After dinner, we headed out to Club Deluxe, a very cool jazz club recommended by another guest at the SF Champagne Society. The Club Deluxe has live bands pretty much every night and reminds me of a classic old New York jazz house. I’d recommend going here even if you aren’t the most avid jazz fan.
The following day, hangovers nursed with some Eggs Benedict and coffee in bed, we grabbed a cable car and took in Pier 39 with its chowder restaurants and comical sea lions.
We jumped on the ferry to Alcatraz and took an audio tour of the infamous prison. I highly recommend a trip out to the rock, and Le Bonners should definitely use the audio which is narrated by former inmates and prison guards.
Lunch was taken at the Pier Market Seafood restaurant on Pier 39. This is the perfect spot to indulge yourself with a famous San Francisco chowder and some Dungeoness crab.
For our final night in San Fran we headed to Alexander’s Steak House. This was another great find by Shannon and the Porterhouse I shared with Gemma was top drawer. The atmosphere was stylish enough to dress up for but cosy and not overly formal.
Our flight home was not until eight in the evening, so we spent our last day in Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. We had intended to take bikes over the bridge, but our hangovers prevented an early start, so an Uber had to make do. In hindsight, I’m glad we did as the bike ride looked pretty tough!
Definitely make the trip to Sausalito if you are in San Fran. It’s a very quaint coastal town with a pleasant middle-class vibe. I guess it’s how I’d imagine a place like Cape Cod (I haven’t been) to be. We had an excellent lunch at Scoma’s (I couldn’t resist the Chowder again) before bidding a sad farewell to Larry and Shannon.
And that’s a wrap as they say. A whirlwind seven nights in California, with highs and lows, many laughs, friendships reinforced and memories for a lifetime.
As another famous Californian resident once said, ‘I’ll be back’.