By Terri White
After landing in the San Francisco airport, Glenda and I rented a car and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into the Sonoma Valley wine country. Thoroughly pampered, we enjoyed our stay in a luxurious lodge. Our favorite? The hot tub. Historic Sonoma, laid back and quaint, features a colonial-era plaza renowned for its art galleries. In the center, an inviting park surrounds the city hall. Every Wednesday vendors hawk their organic produce and homemade goods while local musicians serenade the shoppers.
Although it may sound like a mundane purchase, I picked out several photos of brightly colored flowers. When I returned home, I created a photo collage and placed them in a decorative frame that still graces one of my walls. A nice reminder of our trip. No regrets.
We purposed to only dine at local restaurants and weren't disappointed by the perfectly prepared meals. One evening, I chose a fig pudding for dessert. Each spoonful carried me back to my childhood, reminding me of my grandma who used to make this. A surprising taste of home!
Vineyards carpet Sonoma Valley. Often a house sits smack dab in the middle of a vineyard! Even many homes in town sport mini vineyards in their yards. The wine train, which offers local samples on board, toured the vineyards and several wineries. Enter Tom Smothers’ winery. Hoping to chat with him, we had to settle for a cardboard photo opp. It was worth a chuckle when friends thought he showed up in person.
Each winery tour provided an overview of the wine-making history of the local venue. While most wineries buy the grapes from the vineyards, a few brave the whole process. Since some Sonoma Valley wine is not sold outside the area, we bought some, of course.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I remember reading Life and Look Magazine articles about migrant workers. I can still picture their gaunt faces and ramshackle surroundings. However, on our tour, I never saw migrant worker housing. So I asked our guide about it. Her answer? They live here permanently now and collect welfare on the off-season. Hmmm.
Next, we motored the scenic route to San Francisco. Breathtaking mountains dotted with eucalyptus trees captivated us. Windows open, we inhaled the minty, pungent scent – a heady experience. Our route curved along the towering cliffs of the coastal ocean shore.
Before entering the city, we meandered the Muir Woods which feature 2,000-year-old Redwoods. Standing inside the hollow of a 300-foot tall sequoia is a humbling experience. What a treasure!
The famed Golden Gate Bridge, named for the narrow, turbulent 300-foot-deep stretch of water below the bridge, links the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay. Coming from the North, the bridge ends at Golden Gate Park with its 1,017 acres of bucolic lakes, verdant meadows, kaleidoscope gardens, and numerous recreational options. It rivals New York City’s 834-acre Central Park and worth a leisurely visit.
San Francisco, famous for Lombard Street, the most crooked street in the world decked with multi-colored hydrangeas, features Victorian houses with minuscule yards landscaped to perfection. Transforming these homes from drab, battleship gray to tri-colored “painted ladies” in 1963 at first caught much criticism. Nonetheless, soon others – including the hippies of Haight-Ashbury – copied the style. Now those “painted ladies” adorn San Fran postcards and tourist brochures.
As we strolled along the wharf, we stopped for a steaming bread bowl of clam chowder. While savoring it, we gazed out at the “sea” of seals sunbathing on the piers. Quite a sight. Beyond that lies the infamous Alcatraz. Later we opted for the boat tour that regaled us with Alcatraz history. Did you know that if you worked in the prison, you and your family also lived on the island? On weekdays, they ferried the children across the bay to school. That must have been an unusual life for the employees’ families.
Of course, we hopped aboard the cable cars a few times. One time it was packed, so we hung off the outside as it squeezed through traffic up and down the hills. Occasionally, to avoid hitting the parked cars, we slammed ourselves against the surface. What a thrill!
We sampled numerous international delights at locally-owned restaurants – divine cuisine. To offset the expense, we shared the main course. Then we each enjoyed a dessert. Everywhere we stopped, we met folks from all over the world: Tunisia, Australia, Germany, England, Ireland, Middle East, and Philippines. That proved a surprising perk of our visit.
During our Sonoma stay, we met a travel agent who sidelined as a weekly belly dancer in a San Francisco Turkish restaurant, and she invited us to visit. We did! Structured like a tent with a Turkish atmosphere, it featured dim lights and low seating at ornate tables equally low to the floor. A challenge for my long legs! Around the room, those celebrating birthdays or other special occasions donned Turkish turbans.
Keeping to our budget, we shared our main course – an exotic chicken dish. While eating, the band played - good music, too. Then Tina, our friendly belly dancer, sauntered by and greeted us. I was pleased with Tina's presentation. Not seductive, but artistic. Tina grinned ear-to-ear whenever she glanced our way.
After her act, the band leader called all those wearing turbans to come forward. Soon our waiter approached us with turbans, announcing that Tina wanted us up front, too. Much to our surprise, Tina gave us a mini belly dance lesson. Then the band leader invited us all to belly dance - one at a time - for an entire minute. He encouraged the audience to clap if they thought the person performed well. We turban-clad onlookers clapped for everyone - extending mercy.
When each finished his or her dance, Tina removed the turban and presented that person with a certificate: a real 'sultan' graduate from belly dance school. What fun, and yes, I chose to dance. It was the longest minute of my life! Later, a Lebanese woman approached me, exclaiming, "You danced so well. I am Lebanese and couldn't even do it!" Ha! So there. Naturally, my certificate remains a treasured souvenir.
For our final day, we snaked down the famous Hwy One to Carmel, the quaint village in which Clint Eastwood once served as the mayor. The houses, like from a fairy tale, transported us to a bygone era: cottages with curved roofs resembling old-world thatching. Downtown, one-of-a-kind items filled local shops, equally old-world.
The beach, a must-do in California, proved windy and chilly, just like in San Francisco. To survive the 58-degree water temps, swimmers wear bodysuits. We donned our sweaters and windbreakers and hoods, but removed our shoes and rolled up our pants to brave the chilly surf. Brrrr, but totally worth it. Not a warm Southern California experience!
The drive to and from Carmel, an eye-catching experience, featured the seaside on one side and the fields of vegetables and fruit on the other - strawberries, artichokes, garlic, peas, and more. Even cherry trees grew in abundance. Despite California’s troubles, it remains picture-perfect, at least where we traveled.
All too soon, it was time to return home. Our week, filled with stimulating experiences and breathtaking scenery, will not be forgotten. Now on to other adventures!