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Been dreaming of California

Article by Natalie Ayotte & Photography by Michael Morcos 

At the beginning of each year, my husband and I make our wish list of places we would love to visit in the coming year. With so many places to see, we take on this task with enthusiasm and prioritize our three key criteria: 1- Time of year we are both free for traveling 2- What we want to see and do and 3- Which country we want to explore… usually by then the location just falls in place!

In 2015, our dream-trip would take place in mid-fall. There would be no guided tour for us on this trip. Just a car, us and the open road! Map in hand, we travelled at our leisure while enjoying good weather, spectacular scenery and lingering on in some of the best cities in North America! I told you the location would fall in place on its own… California it is!

Preparing for California

California is such a beautiful state and I wanted to make the most of our 10 day journey. Being a Canadian world traveller, I have learned that mapping out your trip ahead of time is the best way to insure satisfaction.

With a plan in mind of where we wanted to see and what we wanted to do, we sought out the expertise of the California tourism office.

They provided us with some great insights on how to make the most of our trip while keeping to our budget.

One of many recommendations was to begin our journey by landing in San Diego and finishing with San Francisco. Ideal, the trip would allow us to visit all the wonderful destinations in between, such as La Jolla, Los Angeles, Hollywood beach, Beverly Hills, magnificent views along Highway 1, the beautiful wine region of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Carmel By the Sea, Monterey, the famous Red wood trees, and Napa Valley. Last but not least, we could not wait to experience tasting California’s renowned worldwide cuisine of fresh regional produce and pairing these with local California wines

San Diego & La Jolla

Starting your California trip with San Diego makes a lot of sense. If you are like us, you need a couple of days to unwind, get into vacation mode, and catch up on some R&R before starting new adventures. This was why the California tourism office proposed that we stay in La Jolla, located within a few kilometers of San Diego. This jewel of a city is well-known to Californians for its beautiful beaches and cliffs, high end shopping, fine restaurants and year round tropical weather – absolutely perfect for us!

I was most excited about our first destination and wasted no time after landing, we picked up our car and headed to the beautiful and luxurious La Valencia Hotel, also known as The Pink Lady of La Jolla. We purposely chose La Valencia, part of the Preferred Hotels Worldwide, for its classical Spanish architecture. Built in 1926 as an apartment hotel, it has survived many transformations and now boasts 114 luxurious guest rooms. As I walked through the lobby, I was immediately transported to an exotic and beautiful Mediterranean hotel and fell in love with it on the spot! (You can read more about this great hotel in the Stay & Play California page click here).

Once unpacked, showered and rested, we left our magnificent ocean front villa to walk along La Jolla’s coastline, just steps away from our hotel. We feasted on the magnificent views of breathtaking beaches and walked along dramatic cliffs, sandy expanses and secluded coves. With camera in hand, I immortalized splendid ocean views, swimmers, sunbathers, snorkelers, surfers, and dozens upon dozens of seals resting comfortably on shores. Time just seemed to stand still for us as we drank-up the beautiful coastline before us. Fully content, we made our way back to La Valencia Hotel with a mind to enjoy the last speck of the sun’s setting into the ocean from our private terrace while sipping on a glass of California cabernet sauvignon. Perfectly romantic!

California Dining 

Our first dining experience took us to Nine-Ten restaurant located in the Grande Colonial Hotel, just minutes walking distance from La Valencia. Nine-Ten defines itself as a unique seasonal style of “Evolving California Cuisine”! Under the supervision of Chef Jason Knibb, named “Chef of the year – San Diego 2014” by the California Restaurant Association, he is known to prepare delicious meals from fresh produce brought in by local artisans from their daily harvest. I enjoyed a sumptuous swordfish, paired with a California wine – A wonderful way to end our first day!

After a restful sleep that helped us recover from jet lag, we were ready to hit the pavement and discover the hidden treasures within the vicinity of La Jolla. Our morning comprised of visiting two major attractions: The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, showcasing an internationally recognized collection by some of the world’s most renowned contemporary artists followed by a visit to The Birch Aquarium at Scripps, where you can view coral reefs, sharks, jellyfish and much more.

After a delicious lunch at the Ocean View Terrace in La Valencia Hotel, we met with Lynda Forsha, Program Curator for the Murals of La Jolla. Lynda took us on a guided tour of the spectacular Murals of La Jolla. Each mural had a very personal story that are well worth seeing. We pursued our artistic discovery by strolling through La Jolla’s the many beautiful galleries. We suggest you stop in to see the Secret Art of Dr. Seuss at Legends Gallery, and the new National Geographic Gallery, as both are quite impressive to see.

For our second dining excursion, we looked for something simple and laid back, something authentically Mexican… We found just the perfect place at Galaxy Taco, in La Jolla, where chef Trey Foshee’s pays homage to Mexican culture and cuisine. You will surely enjoy their various tacos rooted in the flavor and traditions of Mexico. Their tortillas are handmade and crafted with fresh masa pressed on-site daily. I enjoyed trying their specialty, lamb barbacoa.

We started our last day visiting San Diego at the famous and renowned San Diego Zoo, known worldwide for its natural animal habitats, including their ever so popular Giant Pandas. It is truly a magnificent, well organised, impeccable Zoo and well worth visiting. We then moved on to the Balboa Park, where we enjoyed visiting numerous museums. After lunch, we strolled along the San Diego Harbor, and visited the retired aircraft carrier USS Midway. My husband was so excited to view the collection of war planes on board, reminiscing on all those toy models he built as a young boy. Our last sightseeing venture was to go on board the San Diego Harbor cruise and Sea Lion adventure for a harbour tour in San Diego Bay which is a great way to see all the various maritime heritage along the Bay including a prominent U.S. Navy presence, among many other vessels (cruise ships, recreational sailing etc)

As our journey in San Diego came to an end, we decided to offer ourselves a real treat. For our 3rd dinner affair we chose Island Prime, a restaurant set on stilts above San Diego Bay, overlooking the city skyline and Coronado. It is by far the most beautiful panoramic view of the region. The service and the food were sublime with everything cooked to perfection. We had the pleasure of meeting the renowned chef Deborah Scott, who gave us a taste of some delicious appetizers. To finish off this wonderful meal, our waiter insisted we try the Retro Island Prime Mud Pie, with a promise that we would not be able to polish it off… he was right, I had never seen such a huge piece of pie. With a pang of sorrow, we left the following morning with more than 200 pictures with a few mementoes in our luggage on our way to our second adventure… Los Angeles!

Welcome to LA! 

Because it’s only a 2 hour drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, we knew that we would have extra time on our hands before checking in to our hotel. We planned our day well in advance to maximise our time in LA with our first stop being Santa Monica and Venice beach! It was a perfect autumn day, blue sky, peaceful and beautiful, such a nice way to enjoy the moment along the boardwalk. After lunch, we moved onto Venice beach, which does not quite have the same tranquility as Santa Monica. It is filled with street vendors and unusual stores and entertainment like some awesome skateboarding from locals. I was amazed by their agility, speed and talent. We heard music from street performers and gospel from street preachers. We saw people training in an open-air gym located at ‘Muscle beach’. Venice beach is a place where you could spend an entire day just people watching, it is entertaining, lively and filled with action. We left reluctantly, but with purpose to be on time for a very special activity, a grand tour of Warner Brothers Studios.

WB -A must while in LA

For about $60 American, you will get a 2 hour guided tour through iconic backlots where great movies and TV shows were filmed. You will get to visit the Archive to view the Batman and Harry Potter exhibits, and also the Picture Car Vault, which is a room transformed into a BATCAVE that exhibits incredible Batmobiles used in the films like the Tumbler, Bat-Hammer and the Bat-Pod. You will also be shown the Central Perk set from FRIENDS and enjoy a photo-op while lounging on the famous couch with coffee in hand! You can then finish your tour with a self-guided visit to Stage 48 (script to screen), where you will explore the key phases of the entertainment production process at how the magic of Hollywood is made, and if you wish, take a picture with a real Oscar – expect this part of the tour to take an extra 45 minutes but it is well worth it!

By the time we left the WB Studios, we were ready for a little rest at our hotel before dinner. We checked in at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, located in the middle of all the action! You will find the Dolby Theater (where the Academy awards ceremonies are held) adjacent to the hotel with the Walk of Fame, TCL Chinese Theater, and much more. Our room had the view of the famous Hollywood hills, with the «HOLLYWOOD» sign bright and clear right in the middle.

Over years of travelling, I have come to appreciate a certain routine; rise early, sightsee all day, return back to hotel in late afternoon for some rest and cocktails before heading back out for dinner and a night-out in town… So what pleasure it was to just sit back comfortably, catch up on my travel journal, and sip on some perfect Chardonnay while munching on delectable local cheeses… ah the beautiful life! 

Dinner in LA 

For our 4th dining experience, we wanted to choose wisely, as dinning in Los Angeles can be overwhelming, with hundreds of restaurants to choose from and many requiring reservations dates in advance… If you have an idea of what you want prior to

leaving, book ahead – that’s what we did! Friends of ours recommended we try Birch, a quaint little restaurant located on Cahuenga Blvd., and about a 15 minute walk from our Hotel. Ever curious, I was eager to try out some of the many raved about dishes posted on line and produced by Chef Brendan Collins. As you enter, you can tell you will enjoy yourself after being greeted by a charming hostess. This small and cozy restaurant is bustling busy and by far, a local favorite! 

The portions are smaller and you may choose to share several dishes with friends. We particularly enjoyed the rabbit baklava with dates, white beans, pistachios and carrots, and the monkfish tikka masala with basmati rice cracker. Everything was fresh, elegantly served and delicious.

How to make the most of your one day stay in LA!

With our two Starline Tour passes (about $40 US each), we had a choice of six different colour code routes to choose from. Each route will take an average of 1 to 2 hours from beginning to end. Of course, you can hop off anywhere the bus stops, and hop on back again, it is important to factor this in your time schedule if you choose to do multiple routes… Since we already had done some sightseeing the previous day, we chose the red route, which is a two hour ride through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We hopped-off in Beverly Hills and walked along the famous Rodeo Drive looking inside chic boutiques eager to spot anyone famous! By late afternoon I kept shopping while my husband went to the downtown core.

For our 5th dining experience, we chose to eat at The Hungry Cat, located on Vine Street. This restaurant serves excellent high quality seafood – we ate their clam chowder for starters, and enjoyed Oysters, fries and beer as the main meal, the perfect comfort food for our busy day. Of course this being LA, we enjoyed our meal outdoors. As we gazed at the stars reminiscing on our two day stay in Los Angeles, we were very impressed by the city’s charm. Not one to enjoy large crowds, I felt very secure in Los Angeles, it is a clean city, and the locals are friendly and courteous and the food is exquisite – Magnifique!

Santa Barbara

We would take the next couple of days to drive through some spectacular vistas. Our first destination was Santa Barbara to enjoy a few hours in this charming city. We first drove to the famous Stearns Wharf which is California’s oldest wooden working Warf. I got an eyeful of the beautiful ocean and Santa Ynez Mountain. There were not many sunbathers on the beach on this November day, but none the less, the beach was beautiful and tranquil. We decided to linger on for lunch, by walking along State Street, built with cobblestone and filled with fun boutiques and restaurants. Before leaving, we finished our tour of the city center at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, where we saw how Santa Barbara became the city it is known today painted on the walls of the courtroom. We also climbed to the clock tower to enjoy one last spectacular view of the city and its surrounding.

San Luis Obispo

We had about a 1½ hour drive ahead of us, just before night fall. As we drove along, we could see the effect of months of arid climate had on fields and mountains, but surprisingly, we also saw beautiful fields of grapes, vegetables and fruits growing ever so stubbornly amidst this difficult climate. We were heading for San Luis Obispo, a wonderful and well known wine region of California populated by artisan vintners and family-owned wineries. The region is unique for its distinct growing conditions, from oceanfront settings to wide-open back roads. You can cover the entire vineyard region within a 30 minute drive. Vineyards closest to the pacific oceans amid the rugged Santa Lucia Mountain range boast of their unique soils and cooler environment, said to bring out exceptional balance and flavours to their wine.

Our 6th dining experience was a memorable one! We were invited to dine with local winemakers under the stars in the heart of the Edna Valley at SLO Wine’s Crafted on the Coast Winemaker Dinner. Dinner was prepared by the acclaimed chef Julie Simon, and paired with wines presented by winemakers/proprietors Ryan Deovlet (Biddle Ranch), Tom Greenough (Saucelito Canyon), Steve Autry (Autry Cellars), Christian Roguenant (Niven Family Wines), Don & Gwen Othman (Kynsi), Coby Parker-Garcia (Claiborne & Churchill) and Mike Sinor (Sinor-LaVallee. An evening that will forever be etched into my memory. I truly saw the passion and the art in each of these winemakers. Many thanks to Heather Muran for inviting us to this wonderful and memorable soirée!

The next day, after being well-rested at the Sands Inn and Suites, we ate with Molly Cano, from the visitors’ centre, who took time to show us around Downtown San Luis Obispo. It is such a quaint, charming town and I only wish I had an extra day to linger here. Don’t pass on this little jewel, it’s like a hidden secret and deserves to be discovered.

Picture Perfect Highway 1

This was our most exciting and anticipated drive… We have seen beautiful places in this world, but this was by far the most spectacular coastal scenery I have seen, with a pure blue, clear California sky! Highway 1 offers spectacular views all around, and my poor husband had to drive infinite curves, with each new turn we were in awe with the scenery. You must add on extra time to your trip, because you will be making several stops along the way. You will also need to give your driver some time to enjoy the views as well, and some rest, as it is not an easy drive with all the ups and downs and curves and listening to the passenger going ooh and ahh every other minute is quite distracting. There are several trails along the way for those that wish to make it a full day activity. Just take your time and enjoy this drive, it is well worth it!

We arrived at Carmel by the Sea just 30 minutes before sunset. Enough time to check in to Hofsas House, a quaint hotel set in the higher part of Carmel, on San Carlos Street. We unloaded our luggage, put on our running shoes and made our way to the beach for a memorable sunset picture, where, upon arrival, we were not surprised to see hundreds of people doing the exact same thing!

We walked slowly back to our hotel, browsing through the numerous little stores, galleries and coffee shops. Carmel is the perfect town for artists, I could see the painter in me, dying to set up my easel and capture the magnificent views of this charming city, but after a long day traveling on Highway 1, it would be an early dinner for us at the local Pizza place, get to bed early, for tomorrow would also be another busy day traveling.

Monterrey to San Francisco 

Depending on how much time you planned on staying in this magnificent region, the Monterrey Peninsula will provide you with breathtaking views of coastal bluffs, sandy beaches, nature trails, vineyards, golf courses and much more. We were up early the next day to make the most of the few precious hours left on our schedule to enjoy this splendid area. Since we spent most of our previous day driving on highway 1 and got our fill of breathtaking views, we decided to visit the Monterey Cannery Row district and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers an amazing view of the sea-world. It is a beautiful Aquarium, very interactive for small children and well known for its school programs. They offer multiple exhibitions such as the Tentacles, Giant Pacific Octopus, the Monterey Bay Habitats, the Open Sea, the Rocky Shore, the Sandy shore, Sea Otters and the Penguins. Both my husband and I were amazed by the grandeur of this aquatic monument. After spending a couple of hours indoors, we opted for a lovely walk around the oceanfront district where you can find some great gift shops, restaurants and galleries. Satisfied with our morning adventure, we left this beautiful region with countless mementos, anxious to get to our next destination!

San Francisco and much more

It’s about a 2 ½ hour drive from Monterrey to San Francisco, so we headed directly to our hotel. We wanted to quickly unpack, freshen up and enjoy the last vestige of the sun in this fun city. We stayed at the Pier 2620 Hotel – fisherman’s wharf– located at 2620 Jones Street. This quaint hotel boasts 233 guest rooms and is located in historic Fisherman’s Wharf, 3 blocks from Pier 39, a couple of blocks away from both the Cable Car turnaround and the street car line. As we wanted our last three days to be perfect, we opted for a suite, enjoying the comfort of a larger room, decorated with nautical flair, comfortable couch and cozy throw to lounge on after a long walk in this windy city! All this would have to wait for we only had a few hours of daylight left to tour San Francisco.(You can read more about this great hotel in the Stay & Play California page click here).

Our first destination took us to the Fisherman’s Wharf where we enjoyed walking along the many piers. All along you will see great shops, delicious sea food restaurants, and great views of the city. For dinner, we chose a quick meal and had the famous fresh Dungeness crab served steaming hot at one of the many outdoor stands – delectable experience! Once stomachs were satisfied, we wanted to experience a ride on the renowned and historical San Francisco cable car before going back to our hotel. From Union Square, we enjoyed our first ride through the steep hills and great city views. To make the best of this unique transport system, ride the Powell cars leaving from the Fisherman’s Wharf area. There are two routes to choose from, both start and end at the same place. We experienced the ride during the day and at night and it was fun!

After a restful sleep and hardy breakfast, with our San Francisco cityPass book in hand, we made our way to the Sightseeing office to visit the Muir Woods! We chose the earliest ride (9am) on the schedule in order to avoid the larger crowds, and return back as early as possible to tour and discover more of San Francisco city in the afternoon. On your way to Muir Woods, you will enjoy crossing the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge – the bus will make a stop at a beautiful vista area allowing you to take some post card pictures of the magnificent view and the famous red bridge! You will then drive by Sausalito city towards mountainous terrain for a breathtaking drive. Once we arrived at our destination, I was instantly taken by the beauty of this middle aged Redwood forest, where the average age of trees range from 400 to 800 years. The oldest Redwood tree in California is about 2200 years old. It is a challenge for me to describe in details the majestic and powerful scenery that stood in front of us, but to say that I was enthralled by this experience is to say the least…

After spending a couple of hours in the Muir Woods we were ready to go back. We arrived in San Francisco with enough time to visit the city in broad day light (sun sets early in November). Using our city passes, we enjoyed a city tour with the hop-on-hop-off buses, learning about some of San Francisco’s history, finishing up in the city center for some last minute shopping.

Our last Californian dinner was at the Fog Harbor Fish house at Pier 39. This favorite local family owned and operated restaurant offers the freshest seafood in San Francisco. The menu is rich in various seafood dishes ready to please everyone’s palate. Located on the second floor of the Pier, our table offered a beautiful view of the Pier 39 Sea Lions. While my husband enjoyed their award winning Clam chowder (best one he’s ever had) for starters before getting his Surf and Turf meal, I preferred to leave room for my Shellfish Platter – garnished with crab, mussels, clams, shrimps and much more… What a delightful meal, everything served with perfect taste and attention, an excellent service, a memorable night!

Last day – Napa Valley! 

It is said that first impression always stays but I also think that what you do on your last day is often what you cherish the most… I have enjoyed on this trip the wonderful sceneries, delicious food and not the least the fantastic wine. Our journey to Napa would take us to two spectacular wineries of the region. Our first stop was at the V Sattui Winery, a California Winemaking Family tradition spanning three Centuries and 2015 Winemaker of the Year!

Under the direction of Brooks Painter, The Sattui Winery is located on a 38 acre organically farmed Vineyard in St-Helena and produces more than 60 different highly rated wines from 20 different grape varieties and are sold exclusively from the winery. We enjoyed a personal tour of this unique Winery Estate, with its multiple rooms of award winning wines, mementos of family history, the famous Visitors Hall of Fame room, and much more. Our grand finale was, of course, the wine tasting room, where we enjoyed tasting some of their finest wines. We were then left on our own to browse in the Winery store while a picnic was being prepared for us by the folks of Sattui. Their store is filled with great foods, artisanal cheeses, great charcuteries, and all sorts of other products that make choosing the perfect wine bottle a memorable experience! I could not resist a bottle of their 2012 Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir and their 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet. With our picnic ready, we moved to a superb outdoor terrace facing a beautiful rose garden still blooming in November, to enjoy a delightful meal filled with local produce. This was truly a wonderful way to end this tour, sitting just the two of us enjoying great views, while feasting on great food and great wine. For more information on The Sattui Winery, please visit their site at : https://www.vsattui.com

Our second destination, The Cairdean Estate is also situated in St-Helena. The estate is a one-of-a-kind wine and food destination offering multiple wine tasting experiences along with spectacular dining and shopping.

Cairdean complements its contemporary winery and tasting room with two unique dining experiences: 1) The Farmer & The Fox restaurant, recipient of a 2015 Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, is a European-style gastropub in Napa Valley. Sourcing the best quality produce and ingredients from local farms and producers, its seasonal menu is a creative and locally-inspired ode to the classics dishes of Scottish and English pubs. Closed for the winter season, but will open for private dining experiences.

2) Butterscots Bakery & Deli, is an artisan bakery, deli and culinary boutique serving distinctive, hand-made baked goods and picnic provisions – sandwiches, pastas, salads and sweets – inspired by Scottish and English heritage. Here also, the menus are locally-inspired using fresh ingredients sourced from farmers and vendors in the Napa Valley and Bay Area. Enjoy the wonderful view of the Mayacamas Mountains while savouring your favourite dish paired with a perfect glass of wine. For more information please refer to http://www.cairdeanestate.com/.

After these two magnificent visits, we decided to do a pit stop at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) located only a few minutes from the Sattui and Cairdean Wineries in St-Helena. This is a unique and inspiring campus for food and wine education, where great future chefs are schooled. Many well-known personages have received their education through CIA, such as Anthony Bourdain and Scott Jones to name a few… Founded in 1946, The CIA is the world’s premier culinary college, and has been setting the standard for excellence in professional culinary education.

The ending to a perfect trip, spending a day in the great Napa Valley, eating great food paired with the best wines !

As we drove back to our hotel in San Francisco, my husband asked if I had a favorite activity in the course of our trip… through great difficulty in choosing, I have to admit that I will forever remember the most spectacular coastal drive on Highway 1 from LA to Carmel… Safe travels!



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