Our time in wine country had been amazing – Len has professional associates in the area so we’d been treated very well. The coast was calling though, and for me this was the most anticipated part of our trip. Our next stop would be Monterey, which hubby had determined (mistakenly) we could reach via a single Interstate. Somewhere between Fremont and San Jose he asked his navigator (me) to check his directions (which he proactively wrote out every night before bed) to make sure the highway didn’t turn anywhere. Comparing his written directions to our TripTik, I realized something wasn’t right. I advised The Captain that according to our map, I-680 did not continue through to Monterey, that in fact it appeared to end abruptly just east of San Jose. It’s not so much that he didn’t believe me, as that he couldn’t disbelieve Mr. Google… until we found ourselves on the 101 heading towards San Francisco and there were no more signs for I-680. So we turned west somewhere, then eventually south until we ended up in Santa Cruz (which fortunately was less than an hour from Monterey and a very nice drive along the coastal highway). After this, it was I who consulted Google maps every night and wrote down directions for our next day’s destinations. I won’t say we didn’t get lost again after that, but at least I could read and understand my own directions. I suppose our continued use of such tools as maps must seem archaic, considering every cell phone now comes equipped with GPS.
When we arrived in Monterey and finally found our hotel (my husband did eventually break down and use his GPS), we checked in and asked the young ladies at front desk where we could find the best seafood. Our intention had been to have dinner in the famed Cannery Row district, but hotel staff asserted that the best seafood was to be had at fisherman’s wharf. The hotel was several blocks from the waterfront so we could walk along the beach to get to the wharf. It was windy and cool walking along the Monterey coast – a refreshing change from the hot still air of the valleys. I was fascinated with the unique coastal vegetation – rugged wind-sculpted Monterey cypress punctuated masses of succulent Delosperma carpeting the sandy hills beside the shore. Every so often I’d stop and turn to snap another shot.
I inhaled deeply the ocean’s salty aroma and revelled in the wind blowing through my hair. I heard the distant bark of sea lions which grew louder as we neared the wharf.
When we reached the dock it was too early for dinner so we wandered a bit. We found a little coffee shack and as usual, ordered a dark-roast – almost everywhere we visited we’d been unable to get a cup of dark-roast coffee. I started to think maybe it was a Canadian thing, this love of really rich dark brew, but here in Monterey we were finally able to sate our coffee cravings. Sipping the first dark brew I’d had since leaving Canada, we strolled around the wharf area and soaked up the coastal essence.
We followed the sound of sea lions to their basking place on a raft beside the docks. I don’t know why I became so enamoured of these particular marine mammals – perhaps it was their goofy social antics, belying the incredible grace with which they swim and dive. Or the way they lay in the sun, their soft brown fur glistening, lifting their heads periodically to peer around before laying back down again, so seemingly content. They reminded me of our sweet brown dog Pepper, whom we’d lost only a couple of months before. It was mid January when we were given the news that she was terminally ill. My one wish had been that she’d have a chance to soak up the sun in her backyard, splayed out on her side the way she loved to do – just one more time. On a warm March day after weeks of vicious cold, she was able to do this – for maybe five minutes she lay there on a patch of dry grass, breathing softly, then got up and looked me straight in the eye as if trying to tell me something. I knew then that she was ready, indeed she wanted, to be set free to chase rabbits – in that big dog-park-in-the-sky. She’d lived a good life, a long life, and while I was at peace with the decision that had to be made, I knew I’d miss her terribly. And so it was that every time I saw or heard sea lions, I’d think of her and feel awash in warmth… and just a little melancholy.
The wharf offered many choices for dining, each venue featuring plated displays of mouth-watering menu items and someone posted at the door beckoning passersby to come dine there. It was difficult to choose, so we chose the one with the first available window seat. Equally difficult was trying to decide what to select from the menu – in the end I opted for a ‘Captains Plate’ which had a bit of everything. And they boasted the best clam chowder in town so I had to try some of that too… yup I rolled outta there when we were finished. But a divine meal it was, eating succulent seafood and watching the sea lions settle on the rocks as the sun set.
While in Monterey we did visit Cannery Row (had another great cuppa dark java), as well as the artist’s community of Carmel about 20 miles south of Monterey. Both are tourist destinations, and since it was a weekend, they were very busy places. We agreed that we’d like to come back one day, when we had more time – and there were fewer people.
When we left Monterey we drove south along the Big Sur coastline – a magnificent drive along winding, cliff-hugging roads with panoramic views of the ocean. The heights and the road’s proximity to the edge might have made me queasy had the vistas not been so awe-inspiring.
We continued our drive along the beautiful coastal highway until we reached the town of Cambria where we turned inland towards Paso Robles – there were a couple of wineries in the area we wanted to visit, so we spent the night. We’d been on the road now for two weeks and I needed to wash some clothes – fortunately our hotel had laundry facilities. When I approached the front desk to get some coin for the washer and dryer, the clerk politely obliged. Well, more than politely – in his Southern-drawl he added, “Ma’am you smell real good. Like real expensive perfume.” The young fellow was probably just being friendly, but I found his candor a bit unnerving, especially since I wasn’t wearing any perfume.
It was pretty here, though hot and very dry – the effects of California’s drought were more obvious the further south we went. I was thankful we were back inland for only a day or two before we’d be heading back to the coast. San Francisco was our next destination.
I’d never been to San Francisco and I really didn’t think I was going to be all that thrilled with the sprawling metropolis. But I agreed to go for one night just so I could say I’d been to San Fran. Thanks to my directions we had no trouble finding our hotel, and to my delight, our room was on the 20th floor, providing a spectacular view of the city and a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was beginning to like it here. It was mid afternoon so we had time to grab a Starbucks and take a leisurely stroll before heading to the wharf for dinner.
We made our way up the hills and down, marvelling at the distinctive design of the buildings. San Francisco’s architecture can only be described as… well, San Francisco. It is entirely unique. Of course there are many examples of contemporary design, but it is the peculiar mix of architectural styles in the older row homes that I found so intriguing.
It is often referred to as Victorian, and there are certainly those elements – bay windows, steeply pitched roofs and highly decorative flourishes.
But there are also Spanish Mediterranean influences (mosaic tile, scrolled wrought iron, courtyard gardens) and some even exhibit a hint of New England Colonial – clapboard-like siding painted soft blue, ivory or beige, with white trim and paned windows.
We reached fishermen’s wharf about half an hour before our dinner reservation so we had time to do a little souvenir shopping. San Francisco’s wharf isn’t near as quaint as Monterey’s – it’s big and busy and… utterly enchanting. The sound of jazz floated through the air. I assumed it was music being piped from one of the many shops or restaurants, but I discovered later it was a lone busker – with a really big amp. And of course there was the now familiar sound of sea lions – here there were dozens of rafts for the cute critters to pile onto.
As expected, dinner was delectable, and the taxi-ride back to the hotel quite entertaining. The driver, a big fellow with a silky smooth voice, drove for a limo-tour company and did a fine job promoting San Francisco; not that it needed promoting – I was already smitten with The City by the Bay.
We spent the following morning in Golden Gate Park – the park has a world-renowned Japanese garden which I’d always wanted to see; another reason I’d agreed to visit San Francisco. After the difficulty I had photographing Portland’s Japanese gardens I hoped to have more success here. This garden was very different – brighter and more open than the dappled shade of Portland’s moist, almost-tropical garden. I mistakenly assumed this would make it easier to shoot. It didn’t. The hazy white sky created unpleasant glare and gave everything a yellowish tone. Of course if I was a real photographer I’d have known how to compensate for this. As I looked about the gardens I noted another significant difference – whereas Portland had more coarse textured plants like Hosta and abundant large-leaved rhododendrons to break up the finer texture of pines, ferns and grasses, much of the plant material here seemed finer textured. This resulted in a somewhat busy feel to plant compositions and also contributed to my photographic woes – the fine texture created so many areas of light and dark, hence the same difficulty with harsh contrast as the dappled shade of Portland. Sigh.
Still, it was beautiful and given the Japanese philosophy of celebrating ‘place’, it’s entirely valid that a Japanese garden in coastal California would differ from that of an Oregon rainforest. Regardless, it was well worth the visit.
We had both thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco and knew we’d visit again – for much longer next time. But now it was time to head to our next and final destination where we would spend our anniversary, and the last few days of our trip before embarking on the long journey home. Originally Len had suggested we stay in a big fancy resort hotel in Sonoma to celebrate our marriage milestone. However, I thought something quieter would be more relaxing and romantic. My research led me to a beautiful spa resort at Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast – very elegant but not the least ostentatious.
We arrived mid afternoon and checked into our ocean view suite, complete with luxurious lounge furniture, a wood burning fireplace, a hot tub and a private patio. A bottle of chilled champagne awaited us – a gift from resort staff in honour of our special day. Pouring ourselves a glass of the cool effervescent nectar we relaxed on the patio and gazed out at the ocean. Tidal channels and saltwater marsh, creating a bird sanctuary, lay between us and the ocean. We could hear birdsong all day, frogs chirping all night… and sea lions barking all day and all night. Tastefully landscaped grounds, gorgeous pool, 4-star restaurant – truly this was a little piece of paradise. I didn’t think I’d ever want to leave.
Yes indeed it was hard to leave – the Oceanside walks, strolls though the bird sanctuary, wonderful fresh food, champagne by the fireplace, sea lions swimming and diving around the pier. But alas the time soon came for us to bid the coast goodbye. Our trip had come to an end – all that was left was the four-day drive back to Calgary, and this time we weren’t taking the scenic route.
Interestingly, the only negative experiences we had on the entire trip occurred on the drive home – a resort hotel in Reno with a casino that was so smoky we could smell it in our room. The room itself was posh on the surface, but somehow seemed really seedy – dozens of faux satin and velveteen pillows on the bed, and a black, not-terribly-clean hot tub at the foot of the bed. I wondered if the adage ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ might apply to Reno as well.
While we were out for dinner that night we received a panicked text from one of our sons who’d been looking after our house while we were away. He’d been heading out the door to leave when he saw, at the foot of the steps, a big ol’ skunk. He wasn’t sure what to do. I knew what he was thinking – a number of years ago, his friend from across the road came home late one night, startled a skunk that was hiding in the shrubbery and got himself sprayed. I’d never really had any ‘up-close and personal’ dealings with the striped villains, though I’d smelled their stench periodically in the neighbourhood. And growing up on an acreage in Southern Ontario, the family dog would run afoul of one at least once every summer. Supposedly the only way to get rid of the smell was to bathe them in tomato juice, but I don’t honestly remember doing so with any of our dogs. I was pretty sure my twenty-something son wasn’t going to be too keen on a late night tomato juice dip – and there was no way of avoiding Pepé Le Pew in his current position. I texted him back, “Pour yourself a Scotch and sit down for a bit til he’s gone,” was the best I could come up with.
Then there was the horrible meal we had in Twin Falls the following night – the vegetables were literally rotten. And our last night on the road, in Great Falls – we got bumped from our hotel room (which we’d reserved weeks before) and dumped into what was likely the worst room in the hotel; way at the back with train tracks only a few feet from our window, and a really small bed. It made us all the more eager to get home.
Late afternoon the next day we arrived home. I was greeted with the colorful blooms of moss phlox, creeping thyme, dwarf iris… and lilacs. I hadn’t missed them after all! Walking up to the front door, suitcase in hand, I stopped and closed my eyes. For a moment, the breeze carried me back to the California coast – I breathed deeply and my nostrils filled with Syringa‘s sweet perfume. I was home. Though I still felt the call of the road, it was time to dig in and get to work. This was my busy season and I knew I’d have to hit the ground running….‘Til next time, Sue
What a great adventure indeed! The gardens are so lovely especially the garden with “dwarf fountain grass”. I want it in my garden too.
Wow! Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing your experience! I want to take my mother somewhere for her birthday and you just gave me amazing ideas! Regards!