No budget Napa!

Napa is not a budget trip. There are ways to cut corners, however, you can’t cut the pie in half. It would be my recommendation to postpone the trip, and save more money rather than thinking you could go and just pinch pennies.

If budget is not a worry, stay at the Napa River Inn. What an incredible location! You will have amazing dining, and even the Wine Train just steps from your hotel.

If you want to cut back, try the Best Western at the Vines. It’s still $200USD+ (weeknights)/ $300USD+ (weekends)  it’s 10 minutes from the town and will require a rental car.

On the Napa River boardwalk, in town, you will find restaurants like Napa General Store and Celadon.  $200 per couple would get you a lovely meal in a gorgeous setting.

Open air restaurant, Celadon, on the river walk in the town of Napa.

If you want to cut back I would suggest going at happy hour between 4 and 6 PM. There are a few restaurants and pubs along that strip with $6 glasses of wine and $10 appetizers. We popped into Celadon and watched the mixologist at work. That’s right, not bartender, mixologist!

Napa Valley itself, is warm. In San Francisco and the bay area I wore long pants and a jacket and still shivered. Mere hours later in Napa,on the same day, I wore a sleeveless blouse and skirt and was very warm. The difference was “quite normal” said the locals and you can expect the Napa/Sonoma area up about 15°C warmer.

When it comes to paying for things in Napa/Sonoma area I would recommend cash or a credit card. Debit cards with chip or tap were effectively useless. Any of the counter machines I tried to use did not recognize a Royal Bank card. “Tap” is not a thing in this area. Ultimately I found an ATM and withdrew more cash.

In the USA when you say “debit” they think Visa-debit. Which is a completely different thing than our Interac system. Canadian cards are certainly not as useable as I thought they were.

Realistically, I think a couple could spend $400-$500 a day in the area, without even buying souvenirs.

Downtown Napa riverwalk.

If you would like more experiences, there are also two National Parks in the Napa area where you could go hiking and find waterfalls or even camp! Expect to pay entry fee to the park and of course, a fee for your camping site. If you want to see the Petrified Forest,  (only about 20 minutes away) it is on private land and entry is $26 a person. There is also a gift shop.

 The one thing I will say about Napa is the experience is as close to Italy as you can get without being in Italy.   I think it would make the most amazing anniversary trip if you were celebrating 25 or 30 or 40 years together.

Cheers!

 

Napa, California

Napa.

Yes! Wonderful Napa, where the roads are winding and the wine stops are plentiful.

Bus tour is a must! Enjoy the ride and leave the driving to someone else. This way you can fully experience the offerings.  There are literally wineries on both sides of the road and every 5 minutes or so. Plan to spend at least a full day touring this way. 3 nights/days in the region would be better.

You could stay in the town of Napa itself. (Yes!! Do it, if it’s in budget.)  Then, in my order of opinion, American Canyon (because it’s super easy and just minutes from Napa on the right highway), Calistoga because it’s quaint & in the centre of many wineries, Fulton, Santa Rosa, or Novato. Planning to go in/out of San Francisco or the Bay Area will cost you 2 hours in each direction, plus bridge tolls.

There are wine tastings in castles, in (former) gas stations, in cellars, a former National Bank,  in mini-mall settings, and everywhere in between.

We did a self-guided tour of Castello di Amorosa. An Italian style renaissance castle just about 5 minutes east of Calistoga.

Calistoga itself is a beautiful, quaint town. A former bank on Main Street has been turned into a fabulous wine tasting venue.

In terms of wine tasting cost, if you are just popping in (not part of a prepaid tour) expect to pay at least $20+ per person per flight of wines. More for premium selections. More for a tour plus tasting. For example Castello di Amorosa in the self-guided version was $30 & tax. ($32.73). Entry for children ages 5-20 were $20 & tax.  The guided tour was $65 & up.

There is a wine train that leaves the town of Napa itself. I think it was about $200 a person. Definitely look it up. If it fits your schedule it would be an enviable way to travel & fully enjoy the region.

By the riverwalk in the town of Napa. Gorgeous cobblestone streets public gardens and quaint shops among first class restaurants & eateries.

The wine itself, expect to pay a minimum of $30 per bottle for anything in this region, and $300 or so for special bottles, and of course, there will be even more expensive specialty bottles for collectors.

Most wineries seem to have a “Wine Club” with exclusive invitations to specialty tastings, dinners and events. Standard buy in to the club, seemed to be at least the purchase of a case of wine, or $500.

Monthly winery subscriptions were also advertised often. Shipping included, in USA of course. Like a Netflix subscription they’d just keep charging your credit card & sending the wine until you stop payment.

When you’re in Napa, there’s one more thing to do… announce you’re in Napa by taking a photo at the roadside sign! There’s a pull off big enough for 6 tour buses and I expect most bus tours DO stop at the sign for a selfie and fresh air break.

What’s a wine tasting like?

What’s a wine tasting like?

If you’re going to the San Francisco/Napa/Sonoma/Bay area you will find countless opportunities for a wine tasting experience.  Literally, they’re on every corner, country road and patio.

Your hotel or tour brochure will tell you whether a specific winery accepts walk-ins, or is by appointment only. If you’re on an organized tour, you’re good to go! Everything will be pre-arranged & effortless.

If you’re doing it as a do-it-yourself experience, watch for highway clues and big parking lots. “Visitors welcome” plus business hours, or “by appointment only” notes are common on property signs or gates.

In Sonoma, there is a “staging area” (aka Visitor/Tourist Centre) off the highway just before you get to town, (and the highway junction to Napa) that will give you maps, instructions & even discount passes. (Like 2 for 1 stickers/coupons). This staging area also has 4 wineries for tasting, a gin/spirits distillery/tasting room, a restaurant, gorgeous garden areas, expensive shops and a clean, modern washroom.

Sonoma Corner Stone, or “staging area” as I call it. Many bus tours start here.

The tasting experience itself is generally a stand-up counter. A sommelier will offer you a list to choose from. Then you will select a “flight” of 3-5 wines. The menu will have a brief description of each, but your host will provide more details (and even suggested food pairings) with each. Ask questions if you have any. The host is the expert and eager to tell you what makes their wine special.

Our knowledgeable wine hostess, at the tasting room at Castello di Amarosa.

Each tasting glass of wine is about 2 oz. If you are switching from white to red, or vice versa, expect to receive a new glass. Otherwise you’ll be drinking all your samples from the same glass.

What happens if you don’t like, or can’t finish your sample? There will be a pour bucket at your counter/table/ station where you can discreetly empty your glass.

While I LOVED the wines of Italy, (when I was in Italy, not this recent Napa trip) the pours were more generous on our tour, and the wines were strong. By the time we visited the 3rd winery and 8th or 9th sample, I could barely take 2 sips before having to pour it out into the slosh bucket.  I had reached my comfortable limit.

Here’s a pro-tip: crackers. Have crackers and a bottle water in your purse for in between snacking, as you travel winery to winery.

Above all else, stay sober if you’re driving.  Accompany your friends and drive if there’s no bus tour available, so they stay safe too. Then buy yourself a bottle for home/hotel use later with dinner.

San Francisco Airport

Dear San Francisco Airport;

You’re getting a D+ from me. The only reason it’s not a failing grade is that the exit security line was fast & easier than anticipated. The fog lifted and then the sun came out. That was uplifting, not just for me, but for your overall mark.

The Good:

  • Leaving on a WestJet flight was easy. The security line that had me completely freaked out & scared when we arrived was no big deal upon my departure. (The 10pm International Security wait line looked 3+ city blocks long and  people were wiggling all about with stress.) I started dreading the exit process about 5 minutes after we actually arrived. Not a joyful feeling. But actually unwarranted anxiety in my case. The security line was no more than 20 minutes, well handled and kept moving.
  • A small cup of plain coffee and a bagel only cost $9 and both were edible. Thank goodness I’m not a “breakfast sandwich & latte person” that would have set me back $18 USD.
  •  The airport Wi-Fi was usable, easy enough to get onto and functional.
  •  You can buy a loaf of sourdough bread and a can of clam chowder here. I don’t know if that’s good or not, but it’s not bad. This fact makes the good list look longer, and me appear less of a b*#~h.
  • On time departure. I liked that.

The Bad & Ugly:

  • Sky train to car rentals. Ugh. Is it working or not? It’s detouring? Ok. No, it’s a bus now. Which bus? Why is it so far from the airport?
  • Coming & going from the airport in a rental car… hell. GPS & Google maps are no help at all when roads and ramps are closed/and or detoured, or both. And you’re on and off freeways & the signage bites. Literally it felt like PAC MAN. Left, right, u-turn, recalculating, recalculating. This is no exaggeration. We had a CAPABLE big city driver, and a sober, articulate navigator AND modern technology. The struggle was real. I’ve never been so happy to arrive, turn over the keys & walk away.
  • If you get more than an hour away from the airport, expect toll bridges everywhere.  $7.95 to cross the Golden Gate Bridge each if you pre-pay. Make that $9.95 plus $5.95 service charge if you just let the rental car service put it on your bill.
  • The airport washrooms are horrible.  How is it that the International arrivals  has small, hard to find washrooms? And when you do find it…. barely operational. 3 stalls, plus 1 Disability-friendly stall. At 8am…. 1 stall clogged & out of service. The other 2, were unclean. The auto-start taps, at the sinks, 1 of 3 worked. I get it, save water, but, a lineup at the sink for a splash of water is not appropriate or sanitary. Zero chance of soap, lather & rinse. Once again, hand sanitizer to the rescue. SFO can do better.
  • Duty free “opens” at 8:30AM. 6 flights have already left and I can’t shop because my 9AM flight is already boarding. (I have a photo from 8:33AM. Still not open.) So, nothing for me to declare going back to Canada!! Except, if given the chance I will declare my mediocre review of SFO! Lol. Just kidding. I don’t want the extra CBA interview for my bad attitude.
  • No phone jacks, or plug-ins by the seats. Very hard to find a place to recharge a phone.
  • Seats are old, dirty & the stainless steel chair arms look like a Petri dish.
  • I couldn’t see a bottle filling station or water fountain.
  • No local or specialty souvenirs shops. Generic newsstand-type place with over-priced Chinese made San Franciso souvenirs. I spent zero dollars.
  • $21.99USD for a bag of Ghirardelli chocolates. Yeah… right. No thanks.
Tables, but no power outlets. Also, the food hall is not open before 9AM.
Wide view of the gate area where WestJet departs from.
Glad to see they’re working on it! The irony of “enhancing your journey every step of the way” next to the broken auto-sidewalk is not lost on me.
Washroom

I have been to several California airports so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with big cities or California in general.

I love Palm Springs A+ because it’s so well organized, small, easy-breezy (it’s open air). Only thing is, there’s no Duty Free shop that I know of. Perfect “starter” airport for any new or solo travellers with apprehensions.

San Diego, A+ for its proximity to everything touristy, great signage, great food, great washrooms, easy taxi/shuttle. I love SAN & would go anytime.

LAX, B+ and only because it’s so big & changing terminals by bus was a little surprising. But everything was efficient. A well run mega airport.  I didn’t rent a car any of the visits there. Only taxi/shuttle arrival/exit. It’s big, but very do-able. Lots of phone charging stations.

SNA, is the airport code for John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach/Anaheim area. A++. Beautiful. Fantastic. Easy. And 40 mins from Disneyland and lots of airport/Disney shuttles around. 15 minutes from the beach & rest and relaxation. Arrive here, and be in your bathing suit by a beach or pool in less than an hour from the plane landing.

Let’s start with Palm Springs

If you are a new traveller, a reluctant traveller, or have waited until retirement to travel, Palm Springs California is a great place to start.  I’ll give you three good reasons to put Palm Springs on your list and why I think   it’s a zero-stress vacation.

  1. Flights from Brandon’s little airport (YBR) are very convenient. This travel day is hardly a bother at all. Your flight leaves about lunch time and after a stop in Calgary (YYC) connects through to Palm Springs (PSP) and you’re at your resort by 8:00PM. In Calgary, you’ll deplane, look for your connecting gate and head through US Customs.  Easy peasy.
  2. Driving in Palm Springs is as easy as driving in Brandon. Their downtown area is much like ours, two main roads each one-way and going in opposite directions. Just like Rosser and Princess.  The best part is there’s no ice and snow.  Just outside the city of Palm Springs you’ll find suburb areas like Palm Desert and Palm Canyon.
  3. Golf courses and outdoor activities are easy to find and budget friendly.  Deals for Canadians are even easier to find. Just stop by the tourist booth (on Palm Canyon Drive) and ask. We found a deal we couldn’t pass up. It was breakfast, lunch, a round of golf, clubs and cart rental for $50 a person.  If golf isn’t your thing, there’s walking paths, swimming and tennis at most every resort or hotel. You can catch a baseball game in the area too. There’s a professional league that plays winter ball a few afternoons a week. Tickets are about $5. (Or they were 2 years ago when I last attended.)

I checked Westjet Vacations current offerings. You can stay a week in Palm Springs for under $1100 per person. Car rental and meals will be on top of that.  Do take a look at the flight times! No need for a pre-dawn wake up call.

 

 

Favourite photos of 2016

This photo represents a beautiful afternoon in Italy. It was very emotional and will be one of those moments I never forget.
Using my Canon long zoom camera, I managed to capture the soft eye and sweetness of this seal pup. It was a photo I took in San Diego, California. One of my all-time favourite photos.
I love this photo because it represents a mother-son trip to watch baseball. We went to Arizona and saw the Diamondbacks play both the Giants and the Yankees in a weekend. My son caught a ball, also had it autographed and ran the bases post-game. Such a good time!
A bridge in Revelstoke, BC from August 2016. I simply love the symmetry, and the moody colours. I’d frame this one and put it on my wall, I love it that much.
The blue waters of the Turks and Caicos will forever hold a special place in my heart. I feel so centred there. One of the happiest places on earth, to me.
I love this photo because it represents the surprisingly great time we had in Cleveland. My younger son took the photo on a Monday morning in September.