As a born and bred Californian (and now a Memphis resident), a road trip down the coast of California may not be the first choice for the most adventurous or exciting vacation, but do the Golden State’s rolling hills, ocean blues, dramatic cliffs and rustic beauty ever get old? That remains to be seen.
My husband is wrapping up his fourth and final year of medical school and preparing to enter that ever daunting phase of life called “residency.” His spring break was our last hoorah before he goes into hibernation for the next three years. When discussing ideas for our trip, the choice was relatively simple. Things we love? The beauty of nature, good food, great wine. Things California has? The beauty of nature, good food, great wine. Sold!
My parents still live in the suburbs just north of Los Angeles, so we chose to fly in up north, rent a car and start our adventures in the Napa Valley before working our way down south. I’ve turned our amazing trip into the ideal itinerary for anyone looking for a romantic escape!
Napa Valley functions as a giant playground for adults, so be mindful of the time of year you choose to go. Our trip was in March, which meant rolling green hills fresh from spring rains, slightly cooler temperatures and smaller crowds. The deeper into the summer months you get, the crazier it becomes. Regardless of the season, Napa is always a good idea.
We chose to stay at the new Archer Hotel, which is located in downtown Napa. The energy downtown is a little more upbeat and lively, so if you are looking for the low-key, wine country feel, it may be better to stay somewhere up valley, like Yountville or Saint Helena. Uber has now made the valley incredibly accessible for tourists, so stay wherever your style and budget allow.
Archer is walking distance from some fabulous local restaurants like Oenotri for Italian, Torc for American and Miminashi for Japanese, as well as Oxbow Public Market. Oxbow is home to local merchants selling wine, cheese, oils, spices, produce and everything in between. Almost like heaven! They also boast an array of dining options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including the beloved Gott’s Roadside. In the morning, we enjoyed breakfast tacos from C Casa and pour overs from Ritual Coffee Roasters — great fuel for a long day of wine tasting!
Another must-visit Napa spot is Model Bakery. There is a location at Oxbow and several others up valley. Go and order an English muffin with your preserves of choice. Trust me — you will not regret it!
While we did love the vibrance of downtown Napa, we decided that whenever we return, we would prefer to stay somewhere in Yountville, Rutherford or Saint Helena. They are equal parts charming and peaceful — the kind of relaxing escape to wine country that folks dream about. Airbnb has some fantastic options in the area, and there are a variety of small motels, inns and bed and breakfasts to choose from as well. If you’re looking for luxury, there is no shortage, with destinations like Solage, Meadowood and Auberge du Soleil, which has the most gorgeous view of the valley.
Our favorite Napa winery tour and tasting was Schramsberg, partially because we have a penchant for sparkling wines, and partially because it is one of the two oldest Napa wineries still in existence. They are still aging their wines in caves dug before prohibition, and the tour gives you a great feel for the old, pre-commercialization Napa. Plus, you get to taste their wines in the caves, and what’s cooler than that?
Another highlight was tasting at Maisonry in Yountville. They only carry boutique, small-batch winemakers from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast, and they curate a tasting to suit your palate. One of the winemakers came and sat with us and talked us through our tasting of his Sauvignon Blanc — unforgettable! Then Frog’s Leap has a lovely tasting menu served on the back porch of their Vineyard House, complete with a staff of oenophiles eager to talk soil types, appellations and vintages. It’s a wine lovers dream!
The quality of wine in Napa is matched only by the quality of the cuisine. Chefs in Napa Valley are doing incredible, unparalleled creative work and influencing the rest of the culinary world from their kitchens. We tasted unforgettable beignets with bourbon caramel sauce at Long Meadow Ranch’s Farmstead, salmon rillettes that haunt my dreams from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro and meatballs that tasted like heaven from Richard Reddington’s Redd Wood. The food alone is cause to visit.
If it is within your means to have a meal at The French Laundry, do yourself a favor and go, then please call me the next day and relay every delectable detail. Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurant is a mecca for food enthusiasts, so much so that I had to wait my turn just to take a photo of the sign. It is a bucket-list kind of destination.
Talk to any Californian about Sonoma, and they will immediately bring up The Fremont Diner. Widely loved by locals and tourists alike, this was the first item on our Sonoma to-do list. However, we did not anticipate walking in to find Hank Williams blaring over the speakers, Hatch Show Prints hanging from the walls and waiters raving about the most popular item on their menu — Nashville Hot Chicken. For those of us who call the South home, this won’t be a groundbreaking culinary experience, but it’s worth a visit nonetheless. Their food was delightful, and it was fun to see a California spin on classic Southern dishes.
Of all the places we tasted at, Scribe likely tops the list for me. The only thing I love more than wine is food and wine. For me, wine is best enjoyed alongside a delicious meal, and you can’t purchase a wine tasting at Scribe without a food tasting — my kind of destination! Sit out on their gorgeous hacienda, sip on a crisp rosé or a light-bodied pinot noir and enjoy whatever their chefs feel like cooking up that day — always scrumptious and always seasonal.
Other worthwhile spots to visit are Iron Horse for my fellow sparkling wine enthusiasts, and Russian River Brewing Company for beer enthusiasts seeking to join the elite club of people who have experience the limited-distribution Pliny the Elder.
After our time up in the wine country, we hopped on “The 1” and rolled on down to the Monterey Peninsula. We resisted the temptation to stop in San Francisco, as that city is deserving of a trip unto itself, and there is plenty to enjoy further south. My family has a home in the area, but there are plenty of fabulous choices for lodging, like La Playa Carmel or The Lodge at Pebble Beach.
If you love to shop, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a darling little town with boutiques galore. Lose a day wandering in and out of small local shops offering everything from clothes and shoes to home decor and kitchen supplies. Stroll along the dog-friendly Carmel beach and enjoy all the people and puppy watching. Then grab a delightful lunch at La Bicyclette or Patisserie Boissiere or an unforgettable dinner at Casanova.
If shopping isn’t your forte, there are plenty of fun daytime activities, like visiting the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium or driving out to Carmel Valley for more wine tastings at spots like Talbott Vineyards or Bernardus Winery. As far as sight-seeing goes, the 17 Mile Drive of Pebble Beach is a must — dramatic forest terrain colliding with the ocean, lined with awe-inspiring mansions and renowned golf courses. There are places to pull off the route and go for a long walk or jog. You’ll never find a more gorgeous spot to do so!
Sunset is the perfect time of day on the Monterey Peninsula, so be sure to find a gorgeous spot to watch the sky change. The Links at Spanish Bay have a piper play as the sun goes down, or you can watch the colors over the iconic 18th hole of Pebble Beach at The Bench.
Santa Ynez Valley
Our final stop on this journey was the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. A much more laid-back, unpretentious alternative to Northern California wine country, Santa Ynez has a warm and inviting atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where you wander into a tasting room and the guy who is pouring your glass of Syrah could tell you what the weather was like on the day he harvested the grapes.
We stayed in a darling Airbnb cottage tucked away in Ballard Canyon, but if you’re looking for something a little less rustic and more sophisticated, Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Ballard Inn are both lovely places to stay.
Prepare to use your spitting glass at tastings or choose a designated driver, because Uber is not an option in this low-profile valley, but some of the most worthwhile wineries are located at the end of long, winding, one-lane back roads. There were moments where we felt like we were the only people for miles. Make the drives to hidden jewels like Demetria Estates or Rusack Vineyards, where the wines — and the views — are well-worth it!
Then, wander around downtown Los Olivos. There are fabulous tasting rooms (Hello, Story of Soil and Tensley Wines) and adorable little shops (Hi, Los Olivos General Store and Olive Hill Farm) galore. Then, grab a bite to eat at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe. You will feel straight out of the movie Sideways.
As always, the trip is more about the journey than the destination. The sweetest memories to me are singing along to the radio with my husband, in awe of the beauty around us. So, hit the road with someone you love and enjoy all that the Golden State has to offer.
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