Trace Back : Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

 

Why do we travel? Many writers have tried to answer this question over the years, and this is my take on it. For me travel is an act of acknowledging the diversity and expanse of this beautiful world. We travel to meet people, explore nature, go back in time, taste cuisines, get lost, find ourselves, and to rest our weary soul.


This weekend Agam and I took a three day trip to Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge area. We flew into Portland, rented a car and drove down I-84 E criss-crossing our way across the bridges connecting Oregon and Washington. We had no agenda and no itinerary. We only wanted to relax and enjoy the views down the gorge along the various vista points on the way. Parallel to I-84 E runs Historic Route 30 that goes up and down the hills offering close views of some beautiful waterfalls and panoramic views of the gorge. I recommend that you take this route. It is like one long nature trail. I won’t go into the details of the points of interest. Follow Frommer’s driving route and you won’t be disappointed. Just add a hatchery visit in Washington to the list and you will be all set. Also avoid the restaurant at Multnomah Falls Lodge. I was quite disappointed by it. If you have time on hand, hike to the origin of Multnomah Falls. It is beautiful up there.

There were many moments on this trip when I was reminded of Prague. The whole place has an old world feel to it. There were times when I looked across the river and imagined a lonely yet colorful Kafka-ish house across the Charles bridge. Maybe it was there, maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps that’s also #whywetravel. To imagine.

 

 

And so, after a day of leisurely driving, we reached our bed and breakfast which is located in a place called Parkdale in Oregon. This small town is very rural and is situated in the foothills of the picturesque Mt Hood volcano. There are only a couple of places to eat in this town. We tried the Apple Valley BBQ place and loved their homemade BBQ sauce (spicy) based on our inn owner’s recommendation. The place was small and not at all crowded for a Friday night. That surprised us a bit. But the food was good.

 

 

Our waitress was really nice and I enjoyed speaking to her. There was a sense of calm about her that reminded me of my small town days. Things are much simpler in small towns. And the pace of life is much slower. Speaking to her made me realize how much I miss that simplicity every day in my big city interactions. People have masks, alternate personalities and different versions of themselves that they carry around. You can never tell whom you are talking to. Everyone is just so busy managing their ‘selves’ that they have no time for each other. (There we go … I also just let my old soul take over). Regardless, the meal was satisfying and the conversations were refreshing.
Next day at breakfast we met a couple who was also staying at the same b&b. A young duo, quite like us. Just a few years younger perhaps. The girl was from a small town 100 miles from Portland that is decaying over time. Her father is a farmer and she is one of those who flee the nest early since they know that there is more to be done and seen than what the small town has to offer. Her experience of living in LA resonated well with me. We shared similar views on a lot of things and I wondered why I don’t find people like her up where I live.

We enjoyed the sumptuous breakfast and drove to the Mosier Twin Tunnels for a hike. It was a moderate hike that offered beautiful views of the gorge. We then drove further east and explored Mayer State Park and then decided to turn back west a little before the exit for the Dalles. We returned to Hood River downtown and enjoyed a stroll along the boutique shops. After building enough appetite we enjoyed a long and savory lunch at Trillium Cafe. I loved this place. Awesome music, food and (again) people. Post lunch we picked up coffee at Doppio Cafe and explored a local bookshop. I was surprised at how the collections of books in the store seemed very female centric to me. We drove back to the b&b along the fruit loop. The orchards were all barren at this time of the year.

It snowed that night and we counted our blessings to have arrived back at the b&b before the mess hit the road. We spent the evening reading and enjoyed seeing the snow fall over the entire ranch. In a few hours I could see no patch of the green grass. We were in a vast field of snow. It continued to snow until the wee hours of the morning and so by the time we woke up there was over 4 inches of snow around us.

Sunday morning we had one more couple at the b&b join us for breakfast. This new couple was in their 60s and were a fascinating duo. The gentleman was a very soft spoken, well mannered and humble man. His wife on the other hand was an outspoken, pragmatic and bold woman. They made a cute pair, I thought. They complemented each other’s stories with quirky remarks and I enjoyed their ‘when it snows in Portland’ stories. I am unable to recall the context, but I will always remember this couple for how proud they were of their daughter’s accomplishments. I just sat there and smiled and wondered if that was how my father talked to people about me. I fought some tears and brought myself back to the conversation. The group gave us some lessons on how to drive in snow and with that Agam and I drove back to Portland on Sunday afternoon.
 
I love the energy in Portland. It is young and dynamic. The place has good potential. And given its proximity to the Bay area, it is only a matter of time that we will see more tech startups gravitate towards that area due to cheaper real estate and labor. We enjoyed coffee at Stumptown Coffee Roasters and walked to the Saturday Market (yep they call it Saturday market even on a Sunday). I bought some trinkets and then we grabbed lunch at a nearby Thai place.
Our last attraction was Powell’s Bookshop and we spent over two hours in the alleys of the store. It was like a huge library where everything is on sale. We enjoyed exploring their well categorized sections and eventually got tired of walking around the store. Our flight back home was awesome because of the free beer that Alaska Airlines served. I might just pick them for another trip for this gesture. 


So that was our little getaway trip to Oregon. Short, sweet and refreshing.

We travel for various reasons but for me this trip was all about people. The naive, reflective, smart, honest and wonderful people that we met in the small town of Parkdale,Oregon.

 

 

Trace Back : Pismo Beach

Looking for a quick getaway to kill some stress and revive your spirits? Well you won’t have to go far if you live in California. Within 200 miles of bay area, there are several weekend getaway destinations that can give you just the right amount of relaxation and also hurt your pocket just a slight bit. This long weekend Agam and I visited the Pismo Beach area. We did not plan anything except for the fact that we would drive down CA-1 and stop at Pismo Beach. And so we bid on Priceline a month in advance and got ourselves a great deal at the Hilton Garden Inn at Pismo Beach.

We started from Mountain View at around 10:00am on Saturday morning and headed down CA-1. Our first checkpoint was Big Sur River Inn. A cute and comfy inn that allows you to stretch your legs and sip some mimosas as you watch little kids enjoy their easy access to a nearby shallow river. You can actually sit in the middle of the river and enjoy nature’s orchestra at leisure. The water tends to be a little cold, so be prepared for that. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the Inn and drove down CA-1 south. There are a lot of vista points you can park at and enjoy the scenery. We took a few of those and enjoyed the 75 degree weather that blessed the area on Saturday.

It was close to 3:00 pm and we decided to make a short term goal to find a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset. But before that we needed another cup of coffee to rest our weary souls. And we found Sebastian’s store a little off Hwy 1. A cute little nook that served everything under the sun. We grabbed two coffees and walked to the nearby Hearst Memorial Beach. This beach was in the San Simeone area that seemed to be close to a lot of wineries and looked like a perfect little town on the central coast. You get the picture I guess … small, green, laid back, with a few churches in the vicinity and of course, right by the ocean. On this trip we basically ditched Hearst Castle and wrote it off our list as “too touristy to try”.

We then drove further to Morro Bay State Park to enjoy the sunset. We made it a few minutes before sunset and satisfied the child in us by climbing a few rocks and enjoying a cozy sunset by a quiet bay. I was surprised by how few people were in the park at that time. We got lucky 🙂

I love clicking sunsets. And sunsets are my “thing”. Just like coffee. And so I clicked to my heart’s delight. And finally I came to the conclusion that I click to capture my emotion, and not to capture a moment that I can share with others. And hence I click a lot. I click every dimension. It is my attempt to give shape and form to every feeling I experience as I am witnessing a phenomenon, a moment or a monument. And then I wondered whether people can see those feeling when they see my pictures. I secretly wished that they cannot. 

Moving on…The sun finally set, splashing vibrant colors across the sky and leaving us behind laughing and giggling at the circle of life. Tomorrow was going to be another day, another sunrise and another sunset. We resolved to catch the sunset on Sunday as well. For now we were tired and headed straight to our final destination – Hilton Garden Inn at Pismo Beach. A decent hotel in a decent neighborhood. Nope, it did not have ocean views, but you might catch a glimpse, if you stretched a little in the parking lot 🙂 We checked in and picked a Thai place in the neighborhood for a quick spicy dinner.
The food was OK. We retired for the night and started Sunday with a new and renewed spirit. We found out that there are some sand dunes nearby and ATV rides in the dunes is THE thing in Pismo Beach. And so we rushed to grab a quick bite at Lil’ Bits and drove to Oceano to rent our ATV. Angello’s had a decent inventory and we rented a two seater bike. After a small training session and a few videos we were ready to conquer the dunes. If you have been on a motorbike before, the experience is quite similar. But the thrill factor is that there are no rules, no lanes and a lot of dunes that you can ride and dash into. We started slow and then caught up. Agam was the primary driver, but I tried my hand on the beast for a little while. It is quite easy to get lost since all you see for miles and miles is SAND. 

We got back to the base and after a few attempts to clean the sand off us we drove to Monarch Butterfly Grove on CA1. It was a WOW experience to see SO many butterflies clustered around a few trees. There are so many of them that from afar they give a perception of fall leaves on the trees. We enjoyed the butterflies and then drove on to Avila beach to get some sun and some rest after the tiring ATV rides. After some sun soaking and ice cream binging we decided to head towards our next sunset destination: Montano de Oro State Park.

After a short drive through the countryside we were again by the bluffs and the ocean. This time we decided to take a short trail. The Bluff Trail is a short 2.1 mile hike to the most amazing vistas in this state park. The hike is pretty easy and offers grand views of the Pacific. Formations and vistas like I have never seen before, unfolded after every few steps. We found a nook that we picked for enjoying the sunset and after a few hops and leaps we were by the shore, waiting for the sun to dip. It was beautiful down there and we counted the seconds to the sun set. As soon as the sun dipped we took quick steps back to the trail to avoid the dark skies as we walked back to the car. A few rushed steps and we were down the hill, now planning a good dinner in downtown San Luis Obispo. 

Downtown SLO is a nothing short of Pearl Street in Boulder or B Street in San Mateo. Just a little more charming if I may add, with the creek running along it and several restaurants offering creekside dining. We picked Big Sky Cafe based on the Yelp reviews and it was very satisfying. We drove back to Pismo Beach and enjoyed a night in front of the TV. The next morning we packed our bags, grabbed a quick coffee at the hotel and drove back to Mountain View.

A short sweet and adventurous getaway – just what we needed, after a month of sickness and some rather hectic times at work.

On to more interesting things in life … like getting back to the rat race tomorrow.


Trace Back – Sonoma


Ever wondered why we travel? I cannot speak for you, but I travel to learn something new — to meet new people and have conversations with them that I can cherish forever.  I cannot have this sitting in my house, no matter how much I love it here. I travel to see the world I should be seeing, and not the one that I choose to see. I travel to capture moments of joy and splendor and pack them in my camera lens and share them with the rest of the world. I travel to forget who I am, and where I work, and imagine who I can be and what I can do. I travel to fall out of the rut of “work, home, play” and take a dip in the wonders of unplanned and untimed pleasure. 

My definition of travel is not exotic. I used to stay in Marriotts in my past life and that was only because I had the points and miles. I don’t like resorts that keep you in all day long and you don’t even step out to enjoy the local scene. I also don’t like travelling with a lot of people. I like it simple and I like it deep. I like it quiet and fulfilling, rather than rushed. There are some magical ingredients that make my travel special — serendipity is one of them. Be it finding a song that I had been looking for or finding a book that I always wanted to read.

So, last weekend, Agam and I drove to Sonoma County. The Russian River Valley area is a cute nook in this large county. As cliched as that sounds, our primary reason to step out of the house was to enjoy some fall colors.  I miss NY fall more than anything else. There is something pretty amazing about seeing a leaf fall. And you can argue that you can see it sitting in your backyard. But I would counter-argue that it is the backdrop that matters. When you are at home, there are so many things on your mind that dilute your experience. (I know I know, you have to master your mind and all that, but seriously, how many of us have done that so far?)

There is something overly romantic about fall. Something so calming. Of the 48 hours we were away, I spent a big chunk of my time romancing the fallen leaves. This weekend I reconnected with my photo-lover self. I feel that each scene is picturesque if seen from the right lens. And a good camera is just a bonus. I was not always like this. But somehow photography has helped me look at every view as a scene from a movie, crafted perfectly to bring out the best in its subjects. It does not matter what you are clicking. As long as you can appreciate the subject and let light play its games, you can turn every apple into a model and every landscape into a painting.

We left on Friday evening. US-101 was a breeze, but it got a little nasty after Sausalito. I am always appreciative of the variety of options the Bay Area offers for getaways. You can drive for an hour and get to some place perfect for a small and laid back getaway. Thank you CA. You are beautiful. We reached our cozy little B&B Inn at 8:15pm and met with our hosts. This B&B is tucked in the woods right on Hwy116 in Guerneville. Santa Nella House was a perfect place for us to park our tired souls for the weekend. The owners Bob and Betsy were very gracious hosts. They suggested some restaurants in the town nearby and we picked Boon for our friday night meal. They have a collection of tapas and main entrees. Their ingredients are fresh and locally grown. After a light meal and a quick walk in the neighborhood, we retired for the night.

The next morning I woke up early around dawn. I was curious to see the colors outside our window. Sinced we reached late in the night, we missed the daylight. Beautiful golden yellow leaves were a perfect way to start the day. Agam and I explored the property and I captured its cute little nooks to my heart’s content. The best thing about B&B’s is that you get to meet people from different places and vocations. We had some elderly couples celebrating their anniversaries, some Sonoma lovers from Boston and Austin and a young chirpy couple like us. It was a great mix and the conversations were rich and diverse.

We asked our hosts what we should do with our day and Bob gave us a perfect itinerary. We started the day with a short walk in the Amrstrong Wood State National Reserve, home to some really old and really tall redwood trees. We had a great morning walk. I got some great shots and even though there weren’t many fall colors, there was a lot of refreshing green. After our walk we drove down the Westside Road and made some stops at the wineries. Since our objective was not wine tasting, we avoided the usual suspects and reached for the ones with grand landscape views and which were tucked in a corner, away from the crowds. We stopped by Korbel Vineyards and decided against taking a tour. The tour we took at Sterling Vineyards in Napa was good enough and not that long ago, so we avoided it.

Sonoma is beautiful in fall. There is a bed of wineries on both sides of the road. Almost like a yellow blanket covering the fields, with an occasional red patch. Our first major stop was Copain Vineyards. A beautiful winery perched upon a hill with grand fields of wines unfolding below you. The view from Copain is breathtaking. They have a decent wine tasting offering and their Chardonnay was amazing and quite decently priced. We hung out in the area to sober down before we started driving down to Healdsburg. This was a perfect opportunity for me to slip away and capture some grape moments. What I love about macros is how I bond with the object. Again a cliched way to put it. But I really mean it. I try to capture it from different angles, proximity and dof. What joy it is to focus on just one thing. Just one object. Wish we could apply this to our daily lives.

After Copain, we drove to the charming town of Healdsburg. It has a pretty big downtown for its size. We were hungry and picked Costeaux French Bakery based on its reviews on Yelp. It was an awesome quaint bakery with a homely feel and it smelled of yummy butter baked goods. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and took a stroll in downtown that was glowing with fall-struck trees.

As I window shopped at Limestone, a home store in Healdsburg, I heard a really nice song playing in the store and could not resist walking up to the cashier and asked for the song. I could have shazamed it. But I was lazy. The girl did not know about the song either and so she shazamed it for me and I finally got hold of the song. This is the serendipity I was talking about. And it only got better when I heard another song at dinner, at Chef Patrick’s in downtown Guerneville, that I fell in love with too. It was a known melody, but I liked this version more than others. This time I shazamed it and within seconds I had the song with me. We listened to it on our drive back to the B&B and marveled at the power of technology.

The next day we enjoyed Bob’s delicious french toast and then I spent some time reading Sophie’s World on the porch. It was magical to see leaves fall as I turned pages of my book. I could have lived that moment forever. It was time now to bid adieu to our hosts. Bob’s french toast recipe was a must have, and he convinced me into getting a cook book that featured recipes from the B&Bs in Sonoma area and also some from the wineries. I packed my book and we left for our days’ adventure.


Our first stop was Iron Horse Winery on Eastside Road. Another beautiful location with a sun drenched patio and gorgeous views of the valley. They also have a picnic area in the back that was right by the vines and was a perfect place for morning banter.  We further drove to the quaint town of Occidental and took a little walk. Something so charming about these small Californian towns. Our next destination was Sonoma State Beach. We took the Coleman Valley Road from Occidental all the way to Bodega Bay. It is a beautiful drive and the road attracts a lot of cycling enthusiasts, mostly professional ones.

We drove along the Bay and decided to take a stop at Spud Point Marina. Bob had recommended Chowder at Spud Point Crab Company and we were shocked to see the lines at this tiny little hole-in-the-wall place. They serve clam chowder — red and white, and crab cakes on weekends that are to die for. We savored the chowder and the crab cakes and after a small stroll along the marina, decided to head back towards Mountain View. That was our little getaway to Sonoma county. Full of yummy food, falling leaves, grape moments, just enough wine, serendipitous musical encounters and some relaxing moments spent in each other’s company.

Have  a Happy Fall!

Trace Back – Bryce & Zion National Parks, Utah

Utah, home to some of the worlds most famous and awe inspiring national parks, is a hidden gem of the mid-west. It is a pleasurable retreat for those who seek comfort in wilderness. To witness this spectacle of nature left to its own terms, we decided to spend a long weekend in Utah, exploring two of its most famous national parks – Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

In order to avoid the long weekend rush, we picked the week right after Memorial Day for our adventures. The airports nearby are Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and St George. We chose St George because of its proximity to the parks. If you do not want to spend a lot of time driving, pick St George. Just make sure you book in advance, since there aren’t many airlines that fly there.

I would recommend staying inside the park, since it saves a lot of time and the experience is so much better.  You can camp inside the park or make reservation at the lodge. The lodges usually sell out very soon, so book at least three to six months in advance.


From St George to Bryce Canyon is a three hour drive (including some rest breaks). I was awed by the landscape around me as we started driving from the airport towards I-5 North. Vast open spaces reveal themselves as you drive up the highway. As you approach Bryce Canyon, you will come across the bright red hoodoos of Red Rock Canyon that give a slight taste of what you will see and experience in Bryce later on.

If you stay at Bryce Lodge, the famous “amphitheater” is just two hundred steps from your room.  The vastness and beauty of this amphitheater can leave you spellbound.  I was left dazed for quite a while, to see miles and miles of strange, yet beautiful formations unfolding before me. The fact that these formations have been there for several years was even more astonishing.  The first question that came to my mind was: how have these things been standing, maintaining their balance, unshaken by rains and storms over several million years? And the answer was simple – if nature is left to its own terms, it reaches balance.


You can walk the rim of this amphitheater or take the shuttle that goes around the park, making stops at major tourist attractions like Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and more. 

If you are up for a short but steep hike going deep into the canyon, Navajo Loop trail is a good one. There is also a short hike that starts from Sunrise Point, goes around The Queen’s Garden and Thor’s Hammer and brings you to the originating point of Navajo Loop. You must hike Inspiration point as well. It is a very short hike, but steep climbs take you to one of the highest points looking out into the amphitheater.  You can feel the air getting thinner as you climb up to the point. The name justifies itself — you will leave inspired by the variety and scale of the formations.

The Rainbow Tour is another attraction that is offered free to park visitors. You need to book it in advance at the Visitor Center, usually a day prior to your trip. It is a short three-hour trip that takes you to the highest elevation points in the park – Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point. The bus also makes several stops on the way and gives you ample time to explore some notable hoodoos. The tour guide also shares some interesting trivia about the local fauna, history and origins of the park. Some interesting attractions on this tour are Natural Bridge, Aqua Canyon and Ponderosa Point.


If you are short on time then the attractions covered above are pretty much what you can cover in a day and a half at Bryce. If you are staying the park, the lodge offers a very comfortable stay and is walking distance to the shuttle bus. Dining options are limited in the area, but the lodge dining hall has an impressive menu and an even more impressive wine list. The dining hall takes reservations for all meals, but walk-ins are also welcome.

Zion National Park is a ninety-minute drive from Bryce, and an hour’s drive from St George. There are several entrances to the park but the one from the east side is the most scenic and gives you an opportunity to drive through the Zion-Mt Carmel tunnel. Some of the sites to look out for are Checkerboard Mesa and Zion Arch.

Zion receives thousands of visitors every day, and to avoid the traffic on what is mostly a single lane road, the park provides a shuttle that covers all major points of interest. The quickest and simplest way to see the park is to ride the shuttle and get off at stops that are of interest to you. Simply leave your car in the parking lot and enjoy the recorded narration in the shuttle that tells you about the significance and history of each of the major attractions as drive past them. Zion is an eco-friendly park, where bottled mineral water is not sold in stores or restaurants. The gift shops sells reusable water bottles made with recyclable plastic that can be refilled at each shuttle stop.

The Temple of Sinawawa is the last stop of the park shuttle, and also the originating point of the famous river water hike, the Narrows. It is a 16-mile hike through the narrow rock formations on the Virgin River. The water is not cold, and you can always do a part of this hike, instead of going all the way. It is quite an awesome feeling to paddle your way through water, as you balance yourself on the bed of rocks. Make sure you pick up walking sticks from the gift shop to help you on your way.


Like Yosemite, Zion is heaven for hikers. Some of the noteworthy hikes are Angel’s Landing and Observation Point, which are both quite strenuous. There are several small to medium hikes in the area and some of them are also wheelchair accessible. Make sure you get a daily park newsletter (or check with a ranger) to know which hikes are currently open. The Emerald Pools trail is a small but interesting hike that starts right opposite Zion Lodge and can be completed in less than 2 hours.

Some other major attractions of the park are – Weeping Rock, The Great White Throne, (which can be best viewed from Angel’s Landing) and The Organ. You can also enjoy quick photo shoot opportunities at the Court of Patriarchs and Canyon Junction. There is a short scenic trail that runs from Canyon junction to the Human History Museum, called the Pa’rus trail. Don’t miss a short break at a small waterfall, halfway through this trail. The museum is a great place to catch the sunset and also offers great views of the West Temple, the Sundial and the Altar of Sacrifice. There is also a movie that is screened every hour about the origin and development of Zion National Park and the people who inhabited this region long time ago. If you have additional time on hand, Kolob Canyon is a great area to explore and hike.


Unlike Bryce, Zion has plenty of food options in the vicinity and you don’t have to depend on the food available in the lodge and the cafe. The town of Springdale is eight miles from Zion lodge and offers plenty of options to satisfy your appetite. 

Our three day tryst with nature at its own terms left us wanting more of it. The silence and grandeur of these parks is imprinted in my memory and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be back to explore more of Utah in the coming months and years.

One of the pleasures of living in the US and especially on the west coast is the proximity to natural wilderness that is well maintained and regulated by the National Park Services. We take the best things in life for granted and NPS is one such organization that has been undervalued and is currently operating under severe budget cuts. Let’s do our bit, and helps NPS maintain these splendors for us, so we can keep coming back.

Trace Back – Napa Valley

A couple of Fridays ago, I felt like life on earth was coming to an end. There was just too much going on at work. And I had committed myself to way too many events.

After 8 hours of work and a few holiday parties, I met Agam in SF and we started off from downtown at about 7:00pm. I was sure that traffic was going to be bad and we wouldn’t be able to make our reservations at 8:30pm. I was proved wrong and we reached Uva around 8:00pm, almost thirty minutes early.

My obsession for food resulted in a short list of must visit restaurants. Perhaps you can use it on your next trip (also see note below). For Friday I had made reservations at Uva (http://www.uvatrattoria.com/) — An Italian restaurant at the very end of Main Street, in downtown Napa. The live jazz was a big highlight here and the service was commendable. Their seafood pasta and veal were amazing. We also relished their bread pudding with freshly brewed Lavazza coffee. With full stomachs and heightened senses, we drove to our bed and breakfast in Calistoga – Brannan Cottage Inn

Brannan Cottage Inn is a cute little cottage with only six rooms, and is walking distance to downtown Calistoga. Since we were arriving late we had a key waiting for us at the porch, and we found our way to our room in complete darkness. The room was a complete surprise. A Victorian style well decorated studio with flowery upholstery, tiny Victorian lamp shades and creaky wicker furniture. I felt like I was in a fairy land. The pinkness of the room was initially annoying, but it slowly rendered itself to the theme and we slept well in our creaky wicker bed.

I had researched before that the Old Faithful Geyser of California was only a few miles away from our hotel and so we made it the first stop on our way to explore the wine country next morning. The Old Faithful Geyser is quite a sight. Every 10 minutes you get to see a natural fountain of steam and water. Nature couldn’t be more impressive in any other form.

 

Now we had to make a decision that would determine the course of this trip – Are we here to get drunk or are we here to enjoy good wine and learn about something that we both enjoy. We picked the latter and decided to visit only one vineyard. We followed the Silverado trail and drove amidst the vines — the dried vines to be precise. Fields of brown vines all around you is enough to get you high.

We picked Sterling Vineyards for this trip. There is a trolley that takes you atop a hill where this winery is perched. The views of the valley are fabulous from the top. You can take a self-guided wine tour and can pay a little extra to experience some wine tasting in a tasting room, usually open to members of the club. We chose to do so.

The self-guided tour was quite interesting. We learnt about the wine making process and how it differs for white vs. red wine. Red wines need a warmer temperature as opposed to the white wines. We also learnt that red wine gets color, not only from the grape but also the skin of the grape that is added to the fermentation vessel. There were many other trivial things that one can probably pick up on Wikipedia but when learnt in context, they register better in one’s memory.

At the end of the self-guided tour we were escorted to the tasting room, where we met Jean Pierre Huser.  A grey-haired gentleman with over 52 years of wine tasting experience. He asked us to pick three wines each, that we would like to taste from Sterling’s reserved collection. Agam and I made our picks.  I picked the flowery, fruity ones and Agam picked the ones with cinnamon and oak flavors.

As we tasted wine, Jean Pierre explained to us why Napa is so famous for its wines. I wish I could record all that he was saying or perhaps I should have written this article a little bit earlier in the week so that I could have recollected his words better. But it went something like this – Napa has the variety of climate that most wine regions in France put together cannot compete with.  Hence we have a variety of wines that come from a very small valley. It is a combination of weather, soil and geography of Napa that makes it unique. The only thing that Napa lacks is rain.

Jean also went on to tell us the story of how he got involved in wine tasting and took pride in telling us that he thinks his son is even better than him when it comes to recommending wines. The shine in his eyes while he spoke about his son triggered a tear in my eye and I thought of Papa.  One additional trivia that he shared with us was about wine bottles. I for one have never even noticed how the shapes differ. He told us about the shapes of the German, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne bottles. Each of them thus defining the shape of the glass in which the wine should be served. (Hence the vast variety of wine glasses available in the market.)

 

Agam thoroughly enjoyed talking to Jean. I felt as if he suddenly started seeing the rationality behind the different types of wine and how one can be better than the other. I thanked Jean for that and he posed for us with his signature bottles.

The tour ended with us purchasing some bottles of Malvasia Bianca, a sweet specialty of Sterling Vineyards. He told us it pairs well with Indian food. He might have made that one up though 😛
Super happy with our wine tasting experience we drove to downtown Calistoga for coffee and a light snack. Then we ventured into a local bookstore called Copperfield. I picked up a couple of books, including the one I am reading right now, Eat, Memoryby Amanda Hesser.  We then decided to hit Domain Chandon to buy some champagne (originally intended for the wedding in India, but PapaG convinced us that it will add to the luggage unnecessarily. Oh well – perhaps we can open it when the bride and groom come to visit us in bay area).  After some champagne shopping we hit the outlet malls and then on our way back stopped at Tra Vigne (http://travignerestaurant.com/tv.html) for a delicious and romantic meal in an old château like setting.
The next morning we stuffed ourselves with a heavy breakfast at Calistoga Inn and drove back to Mountain View. A super relaxing and indulging weekend came to an end.
Cheers!
Note – Some of the other restaurants worth considering are – Angele (http://www.angelerestaurant.com/) and Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntunapa.com/). Unfortunately we could not keep our reservations at Angele on Sunday since we had to rush back home a little earlier than planned. But I will most definitely try to make it to this one in the summers.

Trace Back – Big Island, Hawaii

The right frame of mind is what you need to enjoy anything and everything around you. Be it a book or a conversation, a cup of coffee or a vacation in Hawaii. If you are in the right frame of mind, you will enjoy the experience and feel enriched. If you are not, then you will be exhausted. We did not do anything special to create this frame of mind. It was just perfect timing. I had wrapped up a project, finished some exams. 

The vacation kicked off when Alaska Air started serving free Mai Tai in flight. Now Agam and I had been off alcohol for over a month and a free kick to our Hawaii vacation was very refreshing. Alaska flies directly to Kona International Airport. The flight leaves SJC at 7:00am and gets into Kona at about 10:45am Hawaii Time. The weather was perfect, 25 Degrees Celsius with light winds. At the Thrifty counter, I requested an upgrade on our rental and we got a convertible for $19 a day! Now that was a good start for sure.

It is no surprise that I am a planner and I like to know about the place before I head there. I enjoy the virtual exploration and keep a list of must do and must see handy, just in case, we fall short of things to do. So here is what I did for my homework http://g.co/maps/76z3f. Kind of elaborate, but the objective is not to visit all these places. It is just to be cognizant of the highlights in each neighborhood. For us vacations are most fun when we are exploring on our own – finding routes to places, yelping for best food bets and figuring out the geography of the new place in the few days that we are there. We stayed at a Sheraton this time. I know – I am a snob when it comes to staying at non Marriott properties. But our stay at Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort  was comfortable. It was not as splendid as a Marriott stay, but it is definitely a key property on the bay and offered some unique vistas. Alright SPG, I give you some credit this time.

Our day one on the Island was meant to be an easy one. So we freshened up and starting driving North on Highway 11. We were starving and took a lunch stop at Paparoni’s. Food was fresh and location was convenient. I really like the Island trivia cards on their tables. After that we drove up the highway and came to a coffee shop that is raved in the NYTimes – The Coffee Shack. This place is a jewel. It is perched upon a hill, offering gorgeous views of the bay and the Island’s coastline. We enjoyed our coffee and then drove to the Pu’uhonuao Hōnaunau National Historical Park .This was a unique experience. I felt as if I was transported to an old ancient village with wooden structures, neat little huts and handmade wooden boats. It was definitely very picturesque here and we spent a few hours exploring the grounds. It was our first experience walking on lava fields. The silhouette of the palm trees against the Pacific waves was just perfect. 



I had made reservations at Kenichi Pacific  for 8:00pm and although we had a couple of hours, we decided to head back to the hotel. I headed to the gym, while Agam took a short nap and then we were ready for Kenichi. I had heard about this place from some colleagues and it was also recommended on Frommers. We were not disappointed. It is tucked inside a shopping complex and has amazing sushi.  Our favorite was Yellow Tail with lime and Jalapeno rings. I also loved the Black Miso cod. It is usually on the sweet side, so if you don’t have a flare for sweet fish, you may give it a pass. We called it a night after Kenichi and were excited about the next day

For the next day we had made bookings for the Mauna Kea Summit tour. Read about Mauna Kea here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauna_Kea. The tour includes a drive up to the summit, talks on the geology of Big Island, the types of lava flows, the number of volcanoes on the Island, the observatories, Sunset views and then star gazing after dinner. The package was appealing and we booked a tour with this company . The tour starts at 2:00pm from Kona, and so we decided to drive south on Highway 19, and enjoy the chain of beaches and drive up to Highway 11 and head to Hapuna State Beach Park. We enjoyed the drive in our red mustang and soaked in the sun. Remember to pack your audio connector for iPhone and phone car charger. We enjoyed Pandora and Saavn and music on our phones all through this trip and found these two cables really helpful in enabling the experience. 
The drive to Hapuna is marked with ever changing landscape. From industrial belt of Big Island to black lava fields to vast expanse of clear skies and at times the sight of volcanoes dipped in clouds. No words can do justice to these vistas. They are breathtaking and you are left to wonder how beautiful Hawaii is. We took a lunch stop at Paradise Grill at the Hapuna Beach and turned around to go to Kona for out Mauna Kea tour.
We started ascending the summit, and enjoyed the running commentary of our guide, Chris. Chris was a jack of all trades and his stories were as colorful as his humor.  We enjoyed watching the cinder cones and their shadows in the sun. The drive up is quite a bit of a ride. The summit is at 13,792 feet. The visitor center is at about 9000 feet and is a good place for restroom stop. After a light dinner, we headed up to the summit, where the temperature is usually below freezing point. The good thing is that the tour company provides jackets and gloves, since no one packs for -10degrees in Hawaii. The observatories are all perched upon the summit, capturing the skies in the northern and southern hemisphere. It is the best place in the world for astronomers. We also learnt about the history of the telescopes there and finally soaked in the sunset from 13000 feet. It was the best sunset and the best thanksgiving ever!

The skies did not cooperate with us for the star gazing, but it was clearly evident how MANY stars there were in the sky, once the clouds became thin and started receding. I clicked endlessly on the summit and was exhausted with the views by the time we decided to descend the summit. Even now it feels like a dream that we were up there, under the bed of stars, with thick clouds beneath us. That was a wrap for day two


And now it was time for Volcanoes. The Volcanoes National Park  is approx. 95 miles from Kona. We started our day early and decided to go around the circumference of the entire Island.  We were being ambitious. But we did it and it was one heck of a day. At the National Park we spent around 3-4 hours covering the highlights that included a drive down to the ocean along the chain of craters road down to the Holei Sea Arch. It is at the end of the drive that you come to the road that is now blocked by lava that was heading to the ocean. It is a beautiful drive through very diverse and fast changing landscape. You will encounter rain forests, craters, lava fields and steep hills, with fascinating views of the ocean. The contrast of blue and black is beautiful and you surrender to the grandeur of the volcanoes around you. It is intimidating to be a speck of life a midst the largest of the nature’s creations.

We also covered the Jaggar Museum, Thurston Lava Tubes and Steam vents on the way.  There is an ongoing eruption right outside Jaggar Museum that can be seen from very close. But the Crater Rim drive is closed due to sulphur emissions from the eruption.


Our next destination was Hilo. Hilo is the wet part of Big Island because of the rain it gets throughout the year. It is rather old and more commercial than Kona. I personally did not like Hilo as much. We explored some restaurants in Hilo and then drove to Hamaku bay. It is a beautiful drive along the bay. At this point we made an impromptu decision to drive to Bamboo’s Restaurant and Gallery near the Kohala coast. And so from Hamaku we drove through the Waimea area, across another volcano and approached Kohala. It was a rather intimidating drive through the mountains with no street lights. But we finally reached Bamboo’s and enjoyed our meal. They serve lilikoi margheritas that are out of this world. The drive back from there was simple and we took little over an hour to get back to Kona. A long and adventurous day finally came to an end.

After a hectic day, we decided to take it easy the next day. We slept in and decided to head to Kailua Kona area for shopping, mimosas and breakfast on the beach. Highlights of shopping include two of my very firsts – Crocs and Black Tahitian Pearl. The Crocs were long due and the pearl came in as a Christmas gift. The lady at the Pacific Gold Jewelry shop  was very nice and helped me pick my perfect piece. I loved it how she referred to pearls are life creations that need to be attended to. The breakfast this morning was at Bongo Ben’s Island Café . Oh what a lovely meal with Mimosas and fresh Mahi Mahi with biscuit and fruits.  We loved the location, food and service here.

                                                                     

After some Hawaii shopping at ABC Stores we headed back to the hotel to get ready for Lua’u at the Fairmont Orchid. Lua’u is a must when visiting Hawaii. It is a feast from four different cultures – Samoa, New Zealand, Hawaii and Tahiti. There is a buffet spread from the best dishes from these cultures, some fire shows, lots of free alcohol and a cultural extravaganza with dances and performances portraying the culture from these four Polynesian regions. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening at the exquisite Fairmont Orchid. I would love to stay there sometime.  And that is how spent our last evening on the Island.  The drive back was full of nostalgia and included some star gazing. I think I saw nebulas with my naked eye – I am not kidding. The sky is simply perfect in Hawaii.


For our last day we decided to head to Hapuna State Beach Park for an afternoon of sun bathing and beach time. We loved the white sands at the beach and walked up and down the beach, soaking in the sun. Out of all the beaches, we found this one to be least crowded and the largest as well. There was a lot of wind that day and we were wrapped in sand from head to toe. There are open air showers at the beach park that did come to our rescue. So we showered with clothes on and enjoyed the experience. It was a little awkward at first, but it was so refreshing.  Now it was time to grab a quick bite at the Queen’s Market Place in Waikoloa Village and then drive back to the airport.

We loved Big Island and are looking forward to our next trip to another one of Hawaii’s beautiful Islands. Mahalo Big Island, we will be back very soon.

Tour De Paris – Just Landed..

It is not possible to capture Paris in a single blog post. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that big a city, but its dense neighborhoods, and varied charm is impossible to summarize in one post. If someone was to ask me, “We are heading to Paris for a few days. Any suggestions?” my simple response will be – go buy the Frommer’s guide to Paris and follow it to the T. But if you are going to be in Paris for a week, like we were, then you might find something interesting here.

 Our flight landed in Paris at 3:00pm on a Saturday. Do NOT reserve one of those airport shuttles ahead of time. No one showed up at our gate at the expected time and so we ended up taking a cab to Marriott Champs Elysees. The cab ride was quite uneventful, given that the driver was not too interested in speaking to us. And Agam made it worse by trying to speak some French with him. The French are prudish. Simply avoid trying to speak their language if you are not certain of the pronunciation. I was a tad bit disappointed to begin with since we lost an hour or so waiting for the shuttle at the airport, but little did I know that in summers, the sun sets at 11:00pm in Paris. We checked in, showered and walked out of the hotel to merge into a sea of tourists.
Staying in Champs Elysees was like living at Times Square in NY. It is always crowded and always buzzing with energy. Even at 2:00 am in the morning, you can hear live bands playing on the streets, young Parisians drinking in the open and restaurants packed with tourists. Do I recommend staying there? Well, if you have hotel points – Yes, if you are spending your dime – No. It is very expensive and I’d rather live in the heart of the commons, than in the alleys of Cartier and Swarovski. 
So our first evening in Paris was spent walking up and down the most famous street in the world Avenue des Champs-Élysées. To be honest, it was no different than walking down Fifth Avenue in NY. The Cartier’s, Louis Vuitton’s, Swarovski’s, Gucci’s and Chanel’s all lined up in a row. The only difference is that this historic street is wrapped at one end by the Arc de Triomphe and at the other end is the Place de la Concorde, that further leads into the Jardin des Tuileries and further up to the Louvre. It is quite a grand view, if one was to stand in the middle of the street. Beware of the traffic though!

Unlike NY, Paris is not at all intimidating. After exploring the Arc de Triomphe from every possible angle, we wondered off in one of the streets around the Arc called Ave de Victor Hugo. A fine street with a fine canopy of trees, fancy cars, designer boutiques and up-scale dining options. We traced our steps back and started heading back towards the hotel.
To end the night we landed at a restaurant that seemed a bit reasonable in terms of prices. Combo offers are very common in Paris. Dinner at 17 Euros per person was the lowest we could find it included an entrée and small dessert – not bad.  Just like the rest of Europe, service is poor in Paris. So be prepared for long waits and rude waiters. They really do test your patience with their relaxed pace of service. I don’t blame them. Dining is a leisurely activity in most of Europe. I remember how team dinners in Amsterdam lasted over five hours sometimes.  If you need a quick bite – go eat at McDonalds or Pomme de Pain.
That was a wrap for Day 1! Paris impressed me with its energy… I was already in love with this City. More in the upcoming posts..