Sun-kissed in CALIFORNIA
The west coast of the United States is a first choice destination for many with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas high on the list of itineraries. But don’t forget the national parks, the mountains, the beaches and the wine regions, writes ROGER A
Sonoma Wine County
The names Sonoma and Napa are synonymous with wine in California and the two regions just north of San Francisco have a huge number of wineries offering tastings, picturesque small towns to visit, numerous restaurants and excellent accommodation. I visited Sonoma County, which as well as the 400 wineries, encapsulates lots of attractive scenery. On its western edge the county runs along a stretch of dramatic Pacific Coast. The main towns lie on a major highway (US 101) and include Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg. At weekends these centres attract hordes of visitors, many escaping the city to taste the wine and dine at the many vineyard restaurants. There are a number of different micro climates and these climate variations have led to a wide range of grapes being grown. Chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and zinfandel are the major ones, but smaller wineries have experimented with lesser-known varieties. You can do your own tasting trip or join an organised tour. Among the better known wineries are Kendall Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola (of film fame), Russian River Vineyards, Petroncelli, and Wilson (my top selection). At Selby Wines in Healdsburg there are framed letters of thanks from the White House after featuring their wines at a number of official dinners. Apparently an official from the White House visited anonymously a few years ago and was taken with the wines, especially a chardonnay, and they still have Selby Wines on their list. The road from Windsor to the Pacific Coast follows the Russian River Valley. Near Guerneville a short detour leads to Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, one of the remaining stands of giant redwood trees in the region. Pathways lead through the forest, the oldest tree estimated to be around 1,400 years old and the tallest is 94 metres. The mouth of the river near Jenner is sandy and when I visited a large pod of seals was relaxing on the warm sand. Elsewhere the coast is very rocky and steep and the surf looked dangerous for swimming. In season the coast is renowned for Dungeness crabs. At Bodega Bay a rocky headland juts out into the ocean and a number of female whales and their calves were heading north to their Alaskan summer destination.
At the end of the 19th century a large number of Danish people migrated to the US hoping to make a better life in their new country. In 1911 a small community was established near the old Spanish mission Santa Ines, inland from the west coast town of Santa Barbara where Solvang [meaning sunny field in Danish], thrived and the settlers carried on Denmark’s traditions of language, folk dancing, music and cuisine. The buildings reflected Danish farm-style architecture, timber framing of brick or stucco and with wood shingles. In the mid 20th century Solvang was
discovered as a wonderful place to visit and this appeal has not diminished since. Solvang is a pedestrian-friendly town with a large range of shops specialising in an array of items such as clogs, hand-made lace, porcelain collectibles, art galleries and antique shops. A feature of Solvang is the number of windmills. On the day I visited a new shop, The Copenhagen House, opened its doors for the first time specialising in the stylish jeweller, home wares and toys (including Lego) for which Denmark is famous. There are five authentic and more than 30 restaurants and cafes featuring not only Danish cuisine, but wines from the many wineries located nearby – wine and craft beer tastings are tempting. The Mission Saint Ines is still operating and can be visited, a quiet retreat from the adjacent town centre. The city of Santa Barbara is a 60km drive away and should also be included in any itinerary. Visit the old mission, the imposing County Courthouse, wander the main boulevards and the old pier jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.
Big Bear Lake
Driving east from Los Angeles the highway passes through many commuter suburbs and the countryside is often dry and sandy. The San Bernadino Mountains rise to over 2,500 meters north of the community of the same name with the highway 38 winding up through pleasant forest country to the town of Big Bear, nestling alongside a man-made lake of the same name. The town is mainly known as a ski resort with most activity at Bear Mountain, but in recent years the changing climate has brought a number of poor seasons, which is worrying the locals. To compensate the centre is now a year-round resort with activities including fishing, hiking and trail bike riding. I visited in spring and the wild flowers were a riot of colour. I joined a locally organised walk in Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve where many of the wildflowers were identified and discussed, a pleasant way to explore and appreciate the diversity of the flora. Another walk was an easy marked trail loop among towering cedars and pinion trees. I afterwards heard that black bears are often seen in the woods.
South of Los An geles to San Diego
The main highway south of Los Angeles leads to the Mexican border at Tijuana. There are a number of beach communities along the way including Oceanside, Carlsbad, Del Mar and La Jolla, before reaching the major city and port of San Diego. Oceanside is an attractive stopping point as it has a long sandy beach and a picturesque port. Stretching out into the Pacific Ocean is a long wooden pier, at 594-metres, the longest remaining wooden pier on the west coast. The surf rolls in and numerous surfers sit patiently waiting to catch the waves. The small port and marina is busy with tourists and there is plenty of choice for dining with fresh fish and chips very enticing. Further down the coast Carlsbad and Del Mar have become very upscale residential communities with trendy boutiques and numerous restaurants. La Jolla is the location of the San Diego campus of the University of California and a thriving technology industry business centre. San Diego is a thriving city, major port and home to huge naval and other military bases. However, it still manages to maintain a strong Spanish influence especially in architecture, reflecting the early settlement of Spanish missionaries dating back to the 16th century. A great way to experience the city is take the hop-on, hop-off trolley tour with its 11 different stops. The tour starts at Old Town where a number of recreated buildings capture aspects of life in San Diego from over a century ago. Along the waterfront (Embarcadero) the Maritime Museum attracts visitors, as does the nearby USS Midway Museum with the old aircraft carrier fully decked out with vintage craft. Although you can alight at every stop and explore, I found restricting myself to a few was a less tiring option. The historic Gaslamp Quarter still contains many wonderful old buildings. The gas lamps have been restored, but now the quarter is full of trendy boutiques, galleries and eateries. Don’t miss the superb Palace Bar in Horton’s Grand Hotel. The trolley bus crosses over to the island of Coronado where the beach is often packed with sun-worshippers. The famous Hotel del Coronado from 1868 is a local landmark and location of the filming of the famous 1950s movie Some Like It Hot that starred Marilyn Monroe. There are a number of museums around the Balboa Park stop and the famous San Diego Zoo is nearby. By now you are probably looking for sustenance and there is a dazzling choice of eateries around the Little Italy stop.
Giant redwoods in Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, Sonoma County.
Russian River Vineyard, Sonoma County and Danish style windmill.