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Road Trip: Cruising the California Coast

December 27, 2011 at 5:00 am

Road Trip: Cruising the California Coast

California cities have a lot to offer, but for the true California beach experience, hop in a car, roll down the windows – or better yet, roll back the top – and cruise along California’s beautiful coastline. A drive can take three days or three weeks depending on how much time you have to take in the views, try out the seafood, and go for a swim.

Santa Cruz, just South of San Francisco, claims to be “the Original Surf City,” and boasts a variety of surf shops and seafood restaurants to prove it. The main attraction is the boardwalk with a tall, wooden roller coaster, a ferris wheel, and a 1911 carousel among other rides. For a slower pace, but a lovely view, walk along the pier that stretches into the ocean. You can stroll to the end, popping in for a surf sweatshirt or fried calamari.  But a detour down the stairs toward the barking leads to sea lions lying on the pilings and flopping up on the platform. They want to be left alone, but don’t mind being watched as they laze around and lap up the waves.

Road Trip: Cruising the California CoastNext along the coast is the tourist town of Monterey. It used to be the gritty home of the characters in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, in which he described the town as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” But now the town is less grit and more shopping – a tourist hotspot where you can have a plate of oysters and watch sea otters play in the water. It is also home to Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has an astounding collection of sea life swimming on display, including penguins, a kelp forest, and an open sea exhibit that includes jelly fish, sharks, and turtles in one enormous tank. And if you aren’t familiar with sea otters, they are possibly the most adorable creature ever. A tall tank at the aquarium allows visitors to watch them swim underwater, and then go above water where they surface and play.

Farther south is the Cyprus-dotted 17-mile drive past and through the Pebble Beach golf course, which offers dramatic views of the ocean, as well as sea lions and, if you are lucky, harbor seals. A map hints at places along the way to stop to see the plants, wildlife, and ocean views. The Lone Cyprus is a tree that is celebrated for its tenacity as its roots cling to the rock it lives on. At Bird Rock, you can smell and hear the animals before you can see them. Peek through the viewing glasses out toward the huge rock to watch the sea lions and harbor seals sleeping, hopping over each other, and diving in the water. And at Point Joe, you can pause to watch the waves crash violently against the turbulent cliffs.

A short drive down the coast is Carmel-by-the-Sea, a romantic city with bed and breakfasts, art galleries, and charming architecture where house eaves curve around and little doors and gardens hint at elves or gnomes around every corner. Clint Eastwood was once mayor of the town. The beach is just a short walk off the main street.

The next stretch of Highway 1, generally known as Big Sur, has some of the most spectacular views available of the Pacific Ocean. The road winds along the edge of the coast, rarely leaving sight of the water. The wandering road requires full attention, but thankfully for the driver, there are vista points to pull off and take in the dramatic views – of the cliffs, horizon, and waves. If you are lucky, as we were, you can just catch a picture of the sun sinking from a sky of colors into the water.

Road Trip: Cruising the California CoastAt the end of the drive is San Simeon where you can tour the grand Hearst Castle or picnic along the coast. Nearby is Pasa Robles and over 180 wineries, specializing mainly in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chardonnay, Petite Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. It is easy to spend a day popping from vineyard to vineyard for a tasting, or it is a relaxing break in the drive to duck into a tasting room and try a local bottle.

The central beach towns are Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, and San Luis Obispo.  Any of them is a nice place to rent bikes or buy a kite and head to the coast, but each has its own distinct features. Morro Bay has an enormous rock, formed from plugs of extinct volcanoes, that is a preserve for peregrine falcons. Pismo Beach has sand dunes to climb on and a 1,200 foot pier. San Luis Obispo is a good place for ballooning, biking, hiking, and, of course, surfing. Whether or not you actually hit the waves, there are plenty of well-known surf shops to pick up a sweatshirt, including Pancho’s, Moondoggies, and Wavelengths.

One note on California cuisine – it’s fresh and good and worth stopping at along the way. Almost anything grows in California, and the roadside in certain areas has plenty of fruit and vegetable stands for a just-off-the-vine-or-tree flavor that is better than anything you can ever get at a supermarket. There are also the prices – such as 10 avacados for $1 – that are enough to make you drool. For barbeque, stop at any tri-tip stand in Santa Maria. Tri-tip is a delicious cut of meat not well-known outside of California, but adored in the state. You can eat it in a sandwich or just chow down on hunks of it. And if you want some fish and chips, clam strips, fried calamari, or delicious fish tacos, a stop at Neptune’s Net at the end of Malibu is a must. It’s also a favorite stop for local surfers who park all along the road to dive into the waves just across the street.

As an end to the roadtrip, it’s hard to pass up Santa Monica. It has the oldest pier in California, which includes an amusement park, arcade, aquarium, and even a trapeze school. Nearby at Venice Beach, known for its artistic flavor, you can rent some rollerblades and cruise along Muscle Beach, where outdoor equipment, including parallel bars, rings, and jungle gyms are available for use. It’s also good for people-watching to catch some of the more eclectic styles of California dress and hairstyles.

Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.

Need more of the gorgeous California coast? Consider another perspective — we love this article about California by rail. Contact California Tours today for your own customizable California coast vacation package!

An Interview with Tour Guide Rick Spear – San Francisco’s Wine Country

December 21, 2011 at 11:00 am

Rick Spear is an experienced tour guide based in San Francisco who specializes in private tours of destinations such as Monterey, Yosemite, Wine Country and of course San Francisco. He is an avid traveler himself and has visited six continents and lived on five of them. In this interview, we have asked him to share some of his extensive knowledge about the Napa and Sonoma Valley Wine Region located an hour north of San Francisco. 

How did you get started as a tour guide?

I used to work for the federal government, managing children and refugee programs, but on the side I also lead tours as a docent with the National Park Service. In 2002 I wanted to make a career change, and since I so enjoyed leading the walking tours for the Park Service and I’ve always loved travelling, I decided tour guiding would be good. I’ve been a full time tour guide since 2003, and I get to meet people from all over the world, from every US State, and every continent except Antarctica—since the penguins never join my tours!

Do you have any interesting stories from any of your tours?

A couple booked a private wine country tour with me, and then a few days later the guy called me up and asked if there was anywhere nice to propose while on the tour. I suggested a very beautiful winery called Quintessa, at the top of a hill overlooking the vineyards. I called the winery and arranged it, and after the tour and tasting he told his soon-to-be-fiancee that he wanted to take another picture at the top of the hill—she came back down with a ring.

What are your favorite wineries in Napa and Sonoma?

I usually tell people I don’t have a favorite winery. Different wineries work for different people. If you like white wine, I won’t take you to a winery specializing in cabernet. If you like palatial estates, I won’t take you to a “garage” winery.

For me, wine tasting is not so much about the wine as it is about the experience. Pretty much everybody up there has good wine, but not everyone can offer good experiences. I prefer family owned vineyards. I visit Trefethen a lot, because they have nice, friendly staff, a beautiful building, and a good variety of wine including a good selection of both white and red wines. I like Domaine Carneros, because you can just sit out on their terrace overlooking their rolling vineyards while sipping some bubbly. For a really over-the-top experience, you can’t beat Hall Rutherford Winery—they have very special, very high-end wine, and the winery is on the property where the Halls live, which is unbelievable and just spectacularly beautiful.

What’s the difference between Napa and Sonoma?

Napa has more ego and more pretense. You find palaces in Napa, whereas you don’t find that as much in Sonoma. Napa is about cabernet, and when land sells for $225,000 per acre they need to sell their wines for a lot. If you want to have a gourmet meal at lunch, Napa is the place to go.

Sonoma is more laid back, and is also much bigger. There is Sonoma Valley, but also there is Carneros, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley. So those different regions have different specialties. Russian River has good chardonnay, and there’s great Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley. These areas are actually my favorite parts of Wine Country, because they have mostly family wineries, and are not as crowded—it’s not winery after winery.

Where is the best place for gourmet dining in Wine Country?

If you have the patience to get a reservation, everybody wants to go to the French Laundry—that is, everybody who wants to spend $290 per person for dinner not including wine. But it’s extremely difficult to get a reservation. I know of two tricks for getting in—one, is to stay up there and have the concierge book it for you—they often have more luck. Another trick is to go with ten people and get the private dining room.

I really like Auberge de Soleil in Napa. The food is phenomenal, and the view is the best. Go when it’s light out—for lunch or dinner in the summer.

For casual dining in Napa, Mustard’s is great for American food—they have the best onion rings ever. There’s also Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, the Farmstead up in St. Helena, and for Italian casual you have Bistro Don Giovanni. If you can’t get into French Laundry but you want ultra-gourmet, try Cyrus in Healdsburg. It’s easier to get into, and you won’t have to mortgage your house!

In Healdsburg, I like Willi’s Seafood, Zin, and Bistro Ralph. In Sonoma, Sunflower Caffé is great for sandwiches and salads, with nice fresh good food, and you can sit out back in the garden. The Girl + the Fig has really good French influenced Californian food.

What are some good activities for families in Wine Country?

I usually tell families with kids to rethink it. Napa and Sonoma are not very kid friendly. But if you do want to bring your kids, you can do olive oil tasting. The best place is Round Pond Olive Mill in Rutherford. They have a 90 minute tour of the mill along with a tasting of oil and vinegar paired with bread.

The most kid-friendly wineries are Sterling, which has a gondola or cable car that you ride up to the winery, and Castello di Amorosa because it’s basically a big castle. Over in Sonoma there is the Charles Schulz Museum, but you have to be a really big fan of the Peanuts cartoon to enjoy that. You can also visit Muir Woods in the morning and then Napa and Sonoma in the afternoon.

Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your visit to Wine Country?

Keep it reasonable. I get people who call me saying they want to do 7 wineries in a day. This isn’t the death march of wine tasting! Have fun, avoid Saturdays when it’s most crowded, and keep it reasonably paced so that you actually enjoy it! Try to include one or two wineries that are only open by appointment, because that means the crowds are limited. But also don’t make too many appointments, because you want to be flexible and not have to constantly be checking your watch. If you have done one winery tour—ever in your life—you are set. How many identical barrels of wine do you want to see? So I recommend doing one winery tour and just doing a tasting everywhere else.


To book a private tour of Wine Country with Rick, check out California Tours’ San Francisco and Wine Country packages and then contact us with your dates of travel!

For more information on Napa and Sonoma visit legendarynapavalley.com and sonomacounty.com. If you plan to be in Napa Valley to ring in 2012, take a look at suggestions for your midnight glass from The Cork Board!

Big Island Action Great for Big, Big Fun

December 9, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Big Island, now referred to as Hawaii Island, stands proudly as the largest one in the chain of its tropical sisters. It’s 4,028 square miles, just a few miles shy of  infamous Los Angeles county. And while the Southern California region is home to 9.8 million Angelenos, Hawaii Island caters to less than 200,000 residents.

For visitors or malihini, that means there’s plenty of elbow room and leg room to explore around this vast landscape. There are a myriad of eco-climates here: tropical to arid and everything in between. In fact, those who want to trek to Mauna Kea peak should put on their Arctic parka. When you venture to the highest point in all the state, you will probably find snow at 13,800 feet above sea level.

Hence, when planning a trip, Big Island is sure to appease every type of adventurer, from hard core athletes to exotic foodies looking for that next level up in unique gastronomic finds.

The first thing you’ll notice when you drive from the Kona International Airport are vast slabs of black volcanic rock that seem to appear everywhere. Instead of dirt, cooled lava rock is the stuff that houses and commercial properties are built upon.

And there’s another noticeable difference. Since I live near San Francisco, the urban landscape is rife with spray painted graffiti on the building walls and freeway ramps.  On Hawaii Island, people are insistent on placing their names and various greetings on the volcanic landscape by lining up white coral rocks to say, “Aloha,” or “Keep it sacred.”   Some folks try their artistic flair by creating smiley faces or other drawings.

If you are staying for a week, you have to experience at least five of these landmark activities so you can be the life of the party when you return home to your friends and family.

1. Hike a volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. With more than 150 miles of trails, you will be entranced by the epic smoking crater, dense vegetation, and a blacker than black, walk-in lava tube. Start at the visitors’ center that is well staffed with knowledgeable rangers and volunteers to get your bearings.  The park offers a vast array of programs, so if you don’t feel like hiking, you can enjoy cultural music, storytelling, and easy strolls around the park. See www.nps.gov/havo for details.

2. Sail at sea to spot your own dolphin or whale. A plethora of fishing companies and charter boat tours will offer a close up look at the humpbacks and dolphins on the Pacific waters.  And, if you can muster up the courage, opt to go snorkeling for sea turtles, exotic fishes, and more. Experienced outfitters such as Hawaii Ocean Sports will take you on a romantic champagne sunset sail or any number of water activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling or whale watching. It’s newest offering is the Dolphin Crystal Cove Snorkel Adventure that features a snorkel excursion aboard a luxury catamaran complete with a marine naturalist as well as that all important, delicious breakfast buffet.

3. Hit the town of Hilo, for a close up look at a quintessential small Hawaiian town. Sure it has its share of tourist shops, but this town boasts a down home farmer’s market on Sundays where you can taste an array of homemade Hawaiian bakery treats as well as purchase a tropical floral arrangement for $5 to enjoy during your stay.

4. Ride on horseback at Parker Ranch. This historical cattle ranch is the home of the Hawaiian cowboy or the ka’ aina o ka paniolo. And if you are so inclined, you can also call to reserve your space for big game hunting. You can hunt for pig, goats, boar, cattle, and wild birds, depending on the season.

5. Indulge in Hawaiian specialty fare.  Be it at a food festival, a farm, or local restaurant your taste buds must dive in because food is the crowning diamond of Hawaiian culture. Don’t go home without trying kona coffee, saimen, spam sushi, grass fed beef and more. Events such as the Taste of the Hawaiian Range, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival,  Kona Chocolate Festival, Big Island Festival are but a few of the most intriguing public parties you’ll ever experience. Bring back treats such as chocolate covered shortbread cookies from Big Island Candies or organic coffee from Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation.

Need more info? See www.gohawaii.com/big-island to get a sense of what is happening when, plus where to shop, stay, and play. Check out California Tours’ Hawaii Packages and book your flight and hotel today! Aloha!

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning travel journalist who has trekked the world. As founder of www.bayareafamilytravel.com, she is passionate about helping people step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to try new things and visit new places. Her work can be found in National Geographic Books, Sunset Magazine, and many others. 

Los Angeles Activity Tips from a Pasadena Native

December 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Elaine Coger is a tour guide based in Los Angeles who has spent most of her life living in Pasadena. She has worked with California Tours for many years, specializing in Las Vegas and San Francisco tours, as well as local Los Angeles area tours.

I grew up in Pasadena. There were quite a few of us, because my great grandfather had 4 wives and 10 children—that meant that I had a lot of aunts and uncles, and needless to say a lot of cousins.

A year after I graduated high school, I got married. My husband and I started a business making photography equipment for professional photographers in our garage. One of our first customers was Disneyland. We worked with one of the photographers there who took photos outside of the Matterhorn ride. Disneyland gave us the promotion that sent our business skyrocketing—it grew so fast that we could hardly keep up with it. Finally after several years, we decided to sell our company. We became the subsidiary of a camera equipment company in Minneapolis, with my husband as the president. Our company became one of the largest photography equipment companies in the US.

Pasadena City Hall

After we sold the company, I decided that I would go back to school and take tour guide classes. It was at the school for tour guides that I got reacquainted with my sense of humor. In earlier years I used to give trivia skits at high school youth camps. While at the tour guide school, I would give my talks and people started laughing, and sometimes they would clap. That was when I knew I was headed in the right direction. I love interacting with people, I love making a tour come alive with our exciting history, and most of all I could be myself.

I graduated from the school in 1998 and did local work for about 8 years. Then I started branching out to Southern California, and learning about the rest of California, New York and Washington DC. A personal goal is to know everything there is to know about California and Los Angeles in particular—past and present.

Having grown up and lived my whole life in the Eastern part of Los Angeles, I have some suggestions of fun events and activities that most tourists don’t hear about.

  1. Heritage Square Museum – This is a living history museum of homes that were once built in Pasadena and Los Angeles. These Victorian homes range in time from the Civil War to the early 20th century. They have special events during the year and regular tours during the month. Coming up is the Annual Holiday Lamplight Celebration on the first weekend of December.
  2. Pasadena Float Barns – I love to watch volunteers decorate the floats for the Rose Parade. I used to take my kids and their friends to help glue the flowers on the floats.
  3. The Huntington Library – Located in the Huntington Gardens, this is a great place to see art, have some tea, and see the filming location of a lot of films. It’s free on the first Thursday of every month.
  4. Forneris Farms Corn Maze – Open between October 1 and 31 in Granada Hills. Everyone who enters the labyrinth gets a score card to see if they can find the “corny” signs hidden throughout the 4 acre maze. If you can find them all you may win a raffle prize.
  5. Pasadena Holiday Home Look In Tour – this fundraiser for the Pasadena Symphony gives you an opportunity to see the homes of wealthy people in Pasadena and San Marino. I have done this tour for over 30 years. We have gone through the home of the couple that creates the dance routines for the Princess Cruise Ships, and the home of the president of University of Southern California. It takes place in the first week of December.
  6. Fillmore Movie Trains – The majority of these train cars came from the property departments of MGM, Paramound and 20th Century Fox. These studios and others now rent these trains to make their films. You can visit during the daytime and they also have a Saturday night mystery dinner theater along with seasonal events.
  7. The Annual Colonial America Experience – The American Revolutionary era comes alive at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on the first Saturday in April. They have a town square, military camp, 18th century games, and crafts. This event is free, but there is a fee for the museum.
  8. Last Remaining Seats – Los Angeles Conservancy – Every May through July the Conservancy shows old films in the old incredibly beautiful theater palaces on Broadway Boulevard in downtown LA. This has become a highlight for me every summer, and I have been going for over 25 years.
  9. El Capitan Theater in Hollywood – This theater premiers Disney films every month, and along with these films they often have a live stage performance before the film.

Downtown Los Angeles surrounded by mountains

More resources to help you plan your trip to Los Angeles:

Los Angeles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: discoverlosangeles.com

California Tours Los Angeles vacation packages

A Little Adrift blog post about falling in love with Los Angeles

California Tours blog post about a perfect day spent in Los Angeles