9 April 2018 by Claire Benktander
In the coastal crags of Northern California, roads are winding, seafood is fresh and wine is world-class, with hospitality to match. Paired with a wonderfully balmy climate for much of the year, it makes for the perfect road trip. It’s all cemented by the wild contrasts of San Francisco, where Victorian townhouses lie alongside emblematic bridges, remarkable murals and historic cable cars. Neighboured by the world-famous wine region of Napa and its lesser-known sister Sonoma, I explored it all with a one-week road trip along twisting coastal highways, remote farm-lined roads, thousand-year-old redwood forests and cliffside beaches. Here, I give an in-depth review of my trip along with recommendations to help you get the most out of yours.
Arriving into Oakland airport after an 11 hour flight from London, it was an unexpectedly easy jaunt on the BART metro to San Francisco. A stroll through the buzzy streets afforded me my first taste of the city as my hotel, the Abri, was so excellently placed – right by Union Square, with a cosy bar where guests can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine. I headed out for dinner at 'French Soul Food' eatery Brenda’s, one of the city's most well-known – evident from the queue outside. My crayfish beignets coated in creole spices were certainly unusual but if you're looking for something different it's definitely worth a try, though perhaps you'd want to avoid the route that goes through the gritty Tenderloin district at night. Whilst the Abri's location was great, there are more fun, eclectic hotels dotted around the city in just-as excellent locations – I’d recommend Hotel Zetta or Zeppelin, both of which have a ‘rock n roll’ theme, fantastic bars and restaurants, gorgeous murals and free bike rentals. They’re in the heart of the city by Union Square, whether you want to explore glitzy shops or delve into the smaller neighbourhoods, from the delights of Chinatown's dim sum hole-in-the-walls and swish cocktail bars to North Beach's Italian heritage coffee shops and nearby iconic Coit Tower.
I headed to Fisherman’s Wharf the next day, the city's busy seafront harbour, where a pretty green park was dotted with locals and tourists sunning themselves alongside docked boats, endless fresh seafood eateries and of course, the spectacular Alcatraz prison island in the distance. It was busy, but if you stay towards the park's left side there's a far less extreme gaggle of tourists.
Unfortunately I didn’t buy tickets in time for an Alcatraz tour – so be sure to book several months in advance as it gets full extremely quickly. The Argonaut hotel is a wonderful choice if you want to stay slightly away from the city, lying charmingly on the seafront with a delightful nautical theme and a sprawling maritime restaurant to match, The Blue Mermaid – their clam chowder was particularly delicious.
I'm not normally a fan of a 'hop on hop off' tour bus, but it was a brilliant way to see the city, particularly if you only have a couple of hours like I did. Our tour guide did a wonderful job of explaining the fascinating history of the buildings and city neighbourhoods as we passed Painted Ladies houses, the hippie eclectics and murals of The Haight, financial district and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is a fantastically interesting, gritty city, where high-end hotels and restaurants lie just moments away from Italian heritage trattorias, gorgeous Victorian rowhouses, a buzzing gay scene and street art – not graffiti – brightening every urban corner. It's also home to its own micro-climate due to its bay position, so by the end of the week I had switched from a thick coat and scarf to a t-shirt – layering is key!
That evening I loved visiting the Tonga restaurant, the worst-kept secret of the Fairmont San Francisco. Not only is this a wonderful place to stay – the suites have views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge with their own telescope – but it’s worth coming just for Tonga. In stark contrast to the rest of the hotel’s more refined spaces, Tonga is home to a buzzing tiki bar and live band in the centre of an azure swimming pool that spurted rainforest showers every half an hour. The food matched perfectly; I enjoyed a delicious signature Mai Tai cocktail, ahi tuna tartare, coconut prawns and delicious vegetable 'potstickers' (dumplings).
I picked up the car the next day after heading to brunch at the Zeppelin – the chorizo scramble was excellent – and made my way through downtown San Francisco. Arriving at 11am I assumed I'd pick up the car fairly quickly, but after waiting for an hour it was clear every other tourist had had the same idea. Thereafter I'll admit it wasn't the most relaxing journey as I meandered my way across extremely busy streets, along with getting used to an automatic and driving on the right (wrong) side of the road! But my trepidation turned to excitement as my route led me across the Golden Gate Bridge (rather a 'pinch me' moment) and on toward the wine country.
Leaving San Francisco for Sonoma, I entered part of the famed 1000km Pacific Coast Highway, an impossibly winding road that hugs sandy bays, bright green farmlands and rolling hills dotted with grazing cows and the occasional vineyard. Reaching blustery Bodega Bay I was greeted with endless sand dunes by a picturesque little community overlooking miles of ocean, stopping at Gourmet Au Bay for a coffee overlooking the sands. There are several other delightful bistros and wine tasting bars – the Spud Point Crab Company is particularly notable for ultra-fresh seafood. Driving a further five minutes along the bay was definitely worth it as I reached the Bodega Head peninsula, part of the eponymous Trail, where I was greeted with a spectacular view of the bay, craggy rocks and coastal shores. It almost reminded me of an English Devonshire coastline – bar the temperature, of course. If you’ve got more time, it’s worth a gentle hike along the scenic cliffs. Carrying on, the roads twisted even more, shadowed by steep rocky slopes and grassy plains, interspersed with redwood-shadowed lanes and then onto coastal passages – it was impossible not to stop every few minutes for stunning pictures of empty stretches of sandy beach and stormy ocean speckled with jutting sea stacks.
After passing Jenner and the mouth of the Russian River – a pretty scene but not comparable to the previous stretch of coastline – I arrived at Timber Cove and was delightfully greeted with a glass of local ginger beer. Rooms lie perched on stilted dark wood balconies, with views overlooking the forest or ocean, and feel almost Scandi-like with wooden walls and black marble bathrooms. Mine also had lovely touches such as a cosy free-standing fireplace and vintage record player – reception have a range of vinyls to borrow. I enjoyed a few moments to relax, sitting on my private balcony – a feature of almost all rooms – overlooking the ocean and rocky peninsula.
Food and wine are definitely top on the list of priorities in this region, and that night I enjoyed another delicious dinner overlooking the sunset, with the glass-walled dining room affording constant views of outside’s beauty. A lovely outside seating deck also features comfortable armchairs alongside fire pits for a lovely way to take in the views. I enjoyed some ultra-fresh scallops with a local sparkling Rosé wine; the wine list is endless and my waitress was happy to recommend the best accompaniments. I finished with a very moreish flourless chocolate cake with an espresso Chantilly cream before a deep good sleep in the ultra-comfortable king-sized bed.
Heading back down along the coastal trail the following day – a slightly more unnerving journey as I hugged the cliff edge – I arrived at the thousand-year-old Armstrong Redwood forest. Seeing redwoods had been on my bucket list for years, and this place didn't disappoint, with acres of the enormous towering trees shadowing narrow paths making for an extremely peaceful place I could've easily spent hours in. But, it was time to head into true wine country.
A quick drive among endless neighbouring vineyards and tiny, remote villages and I arrived at Kendall Jackson, one of the region’s largest wineries. A food and wine sensory pairing awaited, and I enjoyed the likes of rosé paired with oysters, pumpkin gnocchi with Chardonnay, and a delicious local mushroom soup and rare beef with two reds, finishing with a sweet white dessert wine and a surprisingly tasty crème fraiche sponge. The chef was also incredibly friendly and treated me to a tour of the local gardens, from which almost all of the ingredients are picked.
A 10 minute drive later – California itself is huge, but the beauty of this particular wine region is that everywhere is all relatively close by – I reached the Fairmont Sonoma, where sprawling ivy-covered stone buildings house elegant rooms and suites – mine overlooked the immaculately-maintained courtyard. Every guest is greeted with a complimentary glass of fizz, but the spa is their crowning glory, featuring a steam room, spa, cold bucket shower, two jacuzzi pools and endless treatments. It's free to use if you book a treatment or guests can pay a small fee for all-day use which is definitely worth it – it was a lovely chance to relax. There’s even a Watsu pool with underwater music, where they offer daily aqua yoga. I also enjoyed some time by the main outdoor heated pool, where from April, there’s a poolside bar and bistro. if you’re looking for a wonderfully romantic hotel to accompany your visit to the wine country, I'd also recommend the Farmhouse Inn with an exquisite spa, private spacious lodges, and a Michelin-star restaurant.
After a large stack of classic American pancakes at Fairmont’s Sante restaurant, whose dinner menu is Michelin-starred, I headed to Napa, a short 30 minute drive from Sonoma and defined by the wide, vineyard-lined roads I'd come to enjoy. I enjoyed an exquisite lunch at Auberge de Soleil of ceviche and a crisp white wine, overlooking the Napa vineyards – they also have a Michelin-starred restaurant so it makes for a wonderful dinner destination. For something truly special, a stay at the Calistoga Ranch is unparalleled, comprised of small private lodges, an absolutely exquisite spa overlooking oak trees and vineyards, two swimming pools, a lakeside restaurant and wine tasting galore.
Driving through Napa is truly emblematic, among wide, remote roads, rolling hills and family wineries, at times paralleled with the vintage Napa wine train. Coming across Napa ‘commuter traffic’, as my guide put it, was charmingly humorous, comprised of 10 cars queuing for a traffic light – it's a world away from the usual rush of day-to-day life back at home. We drove on to arrive at Yountville, which was, simply put, one of the most picturesque, endearing towns I’ve ever seen, comprised of high-end independent bakeries, luxury boutique hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants including the 3-star French Laundry. And it's all walkable, meaning you needn't worry if one too many wines have been enjoyed at a tasting tour.
I was lucky enough to enjoy wonderful weather for most of the trip – it reached 28°C in Napa – visit anytime between April and October and you’re likely to have the same. Later that day I enjoyed the once-weekly complimentary wine tasting at my hotel, the River Terrace Inn, among outside’s trendy grey furnishings and firepits overlooking the Napa river and surrounding greenery. Dinner was a sample of the famous Oxbow Market, a must-do when you visit Napa, comprised of several market stalls featuring wood-fired pizza, ultra-fresh sushi, Mexican; the list is endless. We went for sit-down eatery Kitchen Door, enjoying sparkling wine, spicy chicken wings, Burrata flatbread and Korean ribs.
The next day I enjoyed an outdoor fireside breakfast of an enormous yoghurt parfait with granola, compote, a muffin and mascarpone on the side – the US don't do things by halves – leaving me sufficiently full to bursting. Continuing my journey in Napa on my penultimate day, I headed to the Meritage for wine tasting at their magnificent underground cave tasting salon, where I sampled a wonderful 2012 blend from their Trinitas cellars. The actual hotel is full of delights, too, with a cosy Tuscan-style restaurant, sprawling cabana-lined pool and endless acres of vineyards alongside the emblematic symbol of the wine country, the Grape Crusher statue.
I enjoyed a casual lunch from the authentic local produce of Oakville Market – Oakville itself another charmingly tiny Napa town – before visiting the Robert Mondavi winery, renowned for producing some of the world’s finest wines. I sampled a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and two Oakville blends, sadly having no room for the tempting array of accompanying bar snacks. Then it was time to drive back to the city through remote roads, cow-speckled greenery and finally back over the Golden Gate Bridge with Alcatraz to my left, arriving in an extremely busy San Francisco. Arriving at my last hotel, the Taj Compton, I was greeted with wonderful views of the bustling Union Square city below before enjoying my last dinner at buzzing pan-Asian E&O just around the corner, a sprawling dimly-lit eatery where I enjoyed mushroom potstickers and ahi tuna tartare.
Some of those I met on my trip suggested Napa was a more compressed, high-end version of Sonoma, but they both have such different strengths that you can’t miss one or the other if you want a true taste of California wine country. Napa certainly possesses wonderful luxury ranches and food spots, while Sonoma is larger and perhaps the more laid back and varied of the two.