We were told it would be memorable to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Having factored it into our schedule, when the designated day arrived it was unfortunately the worse weather day of our stay. By far. Temps in the 50s, and wind gusts pushing near 30 mph. Get closer to the waterfront and that wind picked up considerably. Blustery doesn’t begin to describe it. Throw in some serious wind chills too. So instead of taking what would have been a impressive experience, we settled for driving our rented car across the bridge on the day we left the city. It would have to suffice.
The Golden Gate is a one-mile-wide strait between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. When consideration for building a bridge to span the Gate back around 1915 many experts said that a bridge could not be built across the 6,700-foot strait, which had strong, swirling tides and currents, with water 372 feet deep at the center of the channel, and frequent strong winds. Experts said that ferocious winds and blinding fogs would prevent construction and operation.
But several engineers combined their expertise and came up with a structural design. Bonds were sold to help finance it, and construction began in early January of 1933. The final cost was more than $35 million ($493 million in 2016 dollars), finished ahead of schedule and $1.3 million dollars under budget. It was opened May 27, 1937 with festive celebrations that lasted for one week. The first day was closed to vehicle traffic while 200,000 people crossed either on foot or on roller skates.
At the time of its opening, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 4,200 feet and a total height of 746 feet. The Frommer’s travel guide described the Golden Gate Bridge as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world.”
Unfortunately, the Bridge has been known for something not so pleasant. Since its opening nearly 1,700 people have jumped off it. The deck is about 245’ above the water and after a fall of 4 seconds jumpers hit the water at around 75 mph. Most of them die from impact trauma. Those that survive the impact either drown or die of hypothermia in the cold water. Actually, it is estimated that 26 people have survived after jumping, at least two of whom tried it a second time and perished. After years of debate, suicide barriers began to be installed in April 2017. Construction will take about 4 years at a cost of over $200 million.
Once crossing over to the northern side, take the first road to the left and soon find yourself at one of the best possible bridge viewpoints. Follow the short path to a breezy (blustery) overlook and you’ll be at the Golden Gate Vista Point.
It was a fitting spot to have our last look at the spectacular bridge and the city skyline behind it.
Two days left in our week’s tour and Chris had them carefully choreographed—even down to reserving a parking spot at the nearby national monument (yes! reservations are a MUST!)
In the rugged hills just 12 miles north of San Francisco, 554 acres are protected by our national park service. Safely tucked away in an isolated canyon stands an ancient coastal redwood forest known the world over as Muir Woods.
Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are among the oldest living things on Earth. Before commercial logging and clearing began by the 1850s, these massive trees grew naturally in about 2 million acres stretching from central California to the southwestern corner of Oregon on a narrow strip of land near to the Pacific Coast, from 5-47 miles inland.
By the early 20th century nearly all of these trees had been cut down. Just north of the San Francisco Bay there was one valley, Redwood Canyon, that remained uncut due to its relative inaccessibility. This came to the attention of William Kent, a rising California politician who would soon be elected to the U.S. Congress. He and his wife Elizabeth purchased 611 acres of land from the Tamalpais Land and Water Company for $45,000 with the intention of protecting the trees and the mountain above them. In 1907, a water company in the nearby town of Sausalito planned to dam the creek running through their land, thereby flooding the canyon, submerging the redwoods. When the Kents objected to the plan, the water company was prepared to use eminent domain and took him to court to attempt to force the project to move ahead. Kent outmaneuvered the water company’s plan by donating the land to the federal government, thus bypassing the local courts.
Shortly thereafter, on January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a national monument, the seventh to be created and the first to come from land donated by a private individual. The original suggested name of the new monument was to be the Kent Monument, but Kent insisted the monument be named after the naturalist John Muir, whose environmental campaigns helped to establish our national park system. Responding to Kent’s suggestion, President Roosevelt agreed, replying in a written letter:
MY DEAR MR. KENT: By George! You are right!
Last year’s total visitation to Muir Woods exceeded one million people, and one day alone had 6,000 visitors flocking in. More than 80% arrive by car, necessitating a parking lot reservation system.
The height of Coast Redwoods is closely tied to fog availability; taller trees become less frequent as fog becomes less frequent. Even in areas receiving high rainfall amounts, the leaves in the upper canopy can be perpetually stressed for water. As the tree grows taller, transporting water to the leaves becomes increasingly difficult due to gravity.
The tallest and oldest redwoods are found in deep valleys, gullies and canyons, where year-round streams can flow, and fog drip is regular. Above the fog layer, trees are shorter and smaller. Few redwoods grow near to the ocean, due to intense salt spray.
Having already visited Redwood National and State Parks in far northern California, we wondered if our visit to Muir Woods would be anticlimactic. Much smaller in size, and definitely more people, but once on the trails and away from the masses, we soon were overtaken by the serenity and majesty of the forest environment.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.” –John Muir
There are only 6 miles of trails in Muir Woods and the most popular one follows Redwood Creek as it winds through the dense forest. Easy to follow, by contrast the trails up on the canyon walls are dirt, narrow, steep in places and rutted with tree roots. But from above you gain a different perspective of the trees as well as leaving the majority of strolling tourists below.
Redwoods must endure various environmental disturbances to attain such great ages. In response to forest fires, the trees have developed various adaptations. The thick, fibrous bark of coast redwoods is extremely fire-resistant; it grows to at least a foot thick and protects mature trees from fire damage. What’s more, the redwoods contain little flammable pitch or resin. If damaged by fire, a redwood readily sprouts new branches or even an entirely new crown, and if the parent tree is killed, new buds sprout from its base. Moreover, fires appear to actually benefit a redwood by causing the competing species around it to die, while only having minor effects on the redwood. Added to all that, burned areas are favorable to the successful germination of redwood seeds. Pretty darn cool.
Before you drift away, losing interest in all things redwood, there was more aspect to this forest setting than just these giant trees. If you’ve come to learn anything about me from past blogs, maybe you’ve caught on that I’m a sucker for flowers. All kinds . . . wild . . . homegrown . . . on bushes or trees . . . even potted. I just can’t seem to pass them by . . . without pulling out my camera. And so, as we move on from Muir Woods, I’ll leave you with some images of the various blooms we passed along the trails. Small and dainty as they might seem, they added that special punch to this majestic forest setting.
I didn’t think I’d care much for the Napa Valley. Having an image of being a hang-out for the very rich and famous, it would be an entirely too chichi experience for me, I thought. A land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, and pricey lodgings—get the picture? But Chris saw its other potential. His image was more on the bucolic side. A postcard image of vineyards and fruit tree fields, with quaint, small towns to explore. Perhaps a reminder of the beautiful Tuscan scenery in Italy (where I knew a piece of his heart remained). And so, with me trying to keep an open mind, we left Muir Woods to drive the short distance east to the town of Napa.
Just as I had preconceived ideas about the whole Napa region, my image of the town of Napa was following along those same lines. From first sight as we drove past the city limits, I began having the first of many second thoughts.
It was the flower gardens I noticed first. Lining the streets, hanging from lampposts, accenting their parks and filling just about every home’s yard. It was as attractive as it was colorful, and it really set off the town, IMO.
From modest homes to the more upscale, everyone seemed to have their own flower gardens. Just amazing!
Napa has every look of being a quaint, small town, albeit quite well kept up. Neat in appearance, it also displays a variety of architectural character. The downtown area is very walkable, bordering the banks of the clear-flowing Napa River. Main Street is a mixture of cafes and restaurants, galleries and small boutiques—admittedly all with an upscale look to them. With several well-manicured public areas and a riverwalk close by, it all comes together in a very pleasant ambiance. It might not be a place I’d go to shop for my own couture, but I’ll readily admit Chris found two great eating spots I’d highly recommend.
Located in an old historic landmark bank, Ristorante Allegria with its Northern Italian cuisine is a great place for lunch or dinner. The food–both delicious Italian and California fresh—really sells the place, as well as its beautifully renovated atmosphere. And its prices didn’t shock this Midwesterner to her core either. A real find, we’d both say.
If you’re looking for a good breakfast out, the Alexis Baking Company & Cafe (locals call it The ABC) can’t be passed by. It is simply one of the best breakfast spots we’ve had the good fortune of finding on our travels—it’s no wonder it gets such high ratings and reviews.
A small little place, it fills up every morning, but I’ll tell you it’s definitely worth the wait. BTW, their cinnamon toast is much more than you’d imagine—it’s truly out-of-this-world and absolutely scrumptious!!
Our only full day in Napa dawned fresh and clear. It was a great day to hit the road and sightsee our way up that famous valley. If you do some research before heading here, then you might discover there’s a two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks, bordered by the world-class vineyards with mountains rising up all around, that winds through that valley.
The Silverado Trail runs parallel to Route 29, the main (and often clogged) traffic artery through the Napa Valley for nearly 30 miles, connecting the towns of Napa and Calistoga with other small villages in between. This quieter back road offers glimpses of the nation’s foremost wine region as it was perhaps 30 years ago. Because the roadway dips and curves along the foothills, it offers gorgeous views of vineyards and mountains. An added benefit are the wide shoulders adjacent to the road, marked as dedicated bike lanes. Scenery such as this is made for a slower mode of travel. Even on a weekday we passed a multitude of cyclists.
The Silverado Trail was established in 1852, when floods swamped the valley’s main road. By the late 1800s it was the wagon route from the cinnabar mines on Mount St. Helena (not to be confused with Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington), which marks the valley’s north end, to the docks of San Pablo Bay to the south. Along the drive it’s easy to grasp a picture of the Napa Valley’s setting, cradled between high ridges. The mountains rise 1,500 to 2,000 feet on both sides of the valley, part of the Coast Range. The mountains were created when sedimentary rocks buckled upward under great pressure, then were covered with volcanic lava and ash. Alluvial deposits that washed down the slopes made the rich soil that’s perfect for wine grapes.
Settlement in Napa Valley began with Spanish missions and Mexican land grants. When George Yount obtained a Mexican grant in 1836, he settled in the valley, built a log house for himself, followed by a sawmill and grain mill. He was the first reported person to plant a vineyard. A few other settlers soon came to the area, all possessing land grants from Mexico. Following the Mexican—American War, settlers were granted deeds from the original ranchos and grantees; California joined the Union in 1850.
By mid-century, the population began to grow with pioneers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs moving in and setting up residences. Settlers raised cattle and primarily grew grain; prospectors headed into the eastern hills searching for gold and silver deposits, and entrepreneurs earned a healthy living providing supplies and services to them all. The first commercial winery in Napa County was opened in 1859. By the 1880s, the valley was transforming from wilderness to wine country.
Everything pointed to the valley becoming one of the world’s great wine producing regions, but Nature and Man both threw in major glitches. The following story I found quite absorbing, but if you’re not too interested in the nitty-gritty of the role these factors played in devastating the vines, feel free to just skip over.
Living in the soil in places east of the Rockies was a louse called phylloxera that destroys the root system of grapevines. Over the centuries, many grapevine species native to North America had become resistant to phylloxera, but the Old World Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless.
Phylloxera had begun to infest the mission vines brought in by the Spanish priests as well as the other European varietals planted by the early California viticulturists. Of even greater consequence (pay attention here!), native American species of grapevines sent to Europe took with them their deadly cargo of phylloxera lice. The phylloxera epidemic was discovered in French vineyards in the late 1860s, it hit Napa in 1872.
Phylloxera infestation now threatened to destroy Vitis vinifera viticulture throughout the world. Every type of remedy was tried, including the flooding of the vineyards and the use of poisonous gases, but nothing worked.
So what was the vines’ salvation? American ingenuity discovered that a Vitis vinifera grapevine grafted to the root stalk of a North American species retained its own desirable fruit characteristics while the stock and root system of the American varietal below the graft protected it from the phylloxera lice in the soil. A solution was found, but fewer than half of the grapevines planted in the 1800s survived into the 1900s. What’s more, many Napa vintners had either already given up and left, or ripped out their vineyards and planted other crops.
Then came WWI which challenged the entire economy of our nation, doing little to help a wine industry trying to regain its footing. But the biggest challenge of all came in the form of the 18th Amendment when Prohibition began in 1920. More wineries closed down and only about 60 Napa wineries or vineyards survived past the repeal in 1933. Since then, the Napa wine-making industry has had nowhere to go but up to where it is today—one of the most coveted wine growing areas in the world, boasting more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley alone.
To cap off this entire story, I must mention the 1976 Judgment of Paris, for that was where and when a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon from the Napa region trounced France’s best vintners in a blind tasting by some of the most respected names in French gastronomy in Paris. At the time, France was considered the world’s forerunning wine region, far superior to all others, but this American triumph forever changed the international perception of Northern California’s wines, Napa Valley in particular. Napa Valley literally exploded into the global spotlight following this huge achievement. A bottle of both of the winners now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Touring wineries is the primary activity that attract most visitors to Napa. Obviously you can take them in by driving to any of the hundreds you’ll have to choose from, which most tourists do. You’ll also have other options that might make your experience less overwhelming, definitely more interesting, and maybe considerably safer if you plan on imbibing.
There’s the wine trolley, the limousine tours, the biking tours, and even a wine train tour. For the ‘really out-there’ experience, what about a hot-air balloon tour? With the varied topography of the valley, a balloon ride could be memorable (no, we let this tour get by us). There are 3 different companies offering this special option.
Whether touring by car or another mode, you can’t help but notice the that the landscape has a distinctive feeling of Italy to it,
I’d wager that Chris was more than a little nostalgic.
Besides touring through the countryside and lunching in one of the small towns, we did manage to take in one impressive tour. Near the small town of Calistoga you’ll find the most unique winery of them all—a 13th-century Tuscan castle nestled at the base of the valley’s tallest hills. Open for touring daily (reservations are well-advised), an all-inclusive ticket will get you a tour of the castle’s public rooms, a complete tour of the winery operations and end with a personalized wine tasting experience. It’s a popular attraction that pulls in the tourists all day long . . . on the weekends it’s known to be pretty crazy with the crowds.
Castello di Amorosa is nestled in the western hills on 171 acres just south of the small town of Calistoga in the Napa Valley. After several years of visiting and studying construction of medieval castles throughout Italy and Europe, Dario Sattui, a 4th-generation winemaker and entrepreneur, began building the castello in 1994. It is the only authentic medieval Italian Tuscan castle and winery in America and has evolved to include over 136,000 square feet, including 107 rooms (95 of which are devoted to winemaking and wine storage), 8 levels with 4 underground. It took 15 years to complete.
To say this is a unique winery would be a huge understatement. And it’s quite the tourist draw. For good reason. Just to tour the castle and see details up close, is quite an impressive experience. You can take a self-guided tour, or go for the whole enchilada and take a guided tour, complete with a wine tasting.
Dario wanted every detail—from the drawbridge to the dungeon—to be as authentic as possible. He hired master builders from 5 countries to bring his vision to life.
You pass by a roadside chapel as you enter the Castello grounds.
We learned many facts, both in key details and building techniques, from our very personable guide. Architecturally faithful to the 12th and 13th centuries, there are features such as a moat, a drawbridge, defensive towers and an interior courtyard.
But it’s the interior rooms that are truly amazing. From the authentically-designed chapel . . .
Kinda takes your breath away . . . impressive doesn’t quite cover it.
We saw French oak barrels around every corner. The underground caves offer an ideal environment for aging wine with cool, constant temperatures and high humidity. The barrels are from trees at least 150 years old, and are only used once or twice before they are sold.
The Grand Barrel Room, located 3 levels below ground, is overwhelming and huge (12,000 sq.feet huge). The centerpiece is the 40 cross-vaults ribbing design made of hundreds of years old brick. This design, invented by the Romans, distributes the weight of the ceiling to the side walls or pillars so that it can support substantial weight without collapsing. It took over two years just to construct.
Okay, some might call the castle a little hokey, others might say it’s a tourist trap, but to us it was a marvel and something that totally fit in with the Napa picture.
That pretty much ended our day, as well as our stay here in the pastoral Napa Valley. One last look over the castello’s vineyard and then it was time to take that long drive back to the San Francisco Airport.
Until we travel again,
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris