Choose Your Own Adventure from Switchbacks to Spas
written by HEATHER KW BROWN | photography courtesy of STOCK.ADOBE.COM; AUBRIE PICK; RUSH CREEK LODGE; CHATEAU MONTELENA; FOUR SISTERS INNS; CALISTOGA RANCH
Every once in a while, life sends us to places that come with a sense of belonging –– as if we’re destined to be there, to absorb it firsthand. Walking the same steps as John Muir, Mark Twain and Jack London, I felt an ordinary experience turn into a legendary, if not literary, one. Few destinations can surpass an untamable sense of wonder and superior cuisine like California.
Recently, an intrepid ally and I traveled deep into the heart of Yosemite National Park and the shimmering shores of Lake Tahoe for an epic outdoor fix, then to Sacramento, Calistoga and Sonoma for a taste of finer things.
We landed in Sacramento, grabbed a bite at Cafe Bernardo, a local bistro where a watermelon and cucumber salad hit the spot before we hit the road for Yosemite.
Sacramento residents know farm-to-fork as a way of life rather than a turn of phrase and while the term teeters toward trite elsewhere, Sacramento has been an agricultural powerhouse since the 1800s. With a year-round growing season, ideal climate and a bounty of crops positioned across 1.5 million acres, sharing its fervor for flavor is not a passing trend.
For self-proclaimed foodies, the best time to visit this “Farm-to-Fork Capital of America” is during its annual Farm-to-Fork Festival held in September; however, even if your schedule doesn’t always align, your palate certainly will. Start by calling one of the well-appointed rooms in The Citizen Hotel home, followed by dinner reservations downstairs at its onsite Grange Restaurant.
The Citizen Hotel, a beautifully and whimsically decorated downtown landmark, was chosen for its location and design as a prestigious addition to Autograph Collection Hotels. In a former life, the hotel was known as the California Life Insurance building and, constructed in 1925, it also became the state’s first skyscraper.
Today, the hotel personifies not only the city of Sacramento but the state of California in that no two rooms are alike. The same is true of the dishes at Grange, which are based on Executive Chef Oliver Ridgeway’s deeply rooted philosophy of using only the freshest local ingredients.
Highlights of our culinary experience included heirloom melon with avocado, cucumber, opal basil, extra virgin olive oil and Calabrian chili as well as the Storm Hill Zabuton served with Brentwood corn, pickled onions, radishes and cilantro. Don’t over do it, as desserts like the Mexican Chocolate Fritter with ganache and dulche de leche or the Grange Chocolate Hazelnut Bar made with salted caramel, coffee ice cream and cocoa nib crumble await.
With that kind of indulgence in mind, it helps to know the hotel is walking distance to a number of museums and Sacramento has many to discover. Among the cultural detours available, the Crocker Art Museum left a lasting impression. Edward Bryant (E.B.) Crocker and his wife became wealthy through his role as the attorney for the Central Pacific Railroad. Seeking to bring culture to California, they commissioned a ballroom for community use and showcased the family’s ever-expanding art collection by adding an adjacent gallery. Established in 1885 as Crocker Art Museum, it is the first public art museum founded in the Western U.S. and remains one of the leading art museums in California.
Craving California’s outdoor culture, we bid adieu to Sacramento in lieu of Mother Nature.
“Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company, full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action…”
– John Muir, “Yosemite National Park,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1899
Make no mistake, once you’ve driven a single mile into Yosemite National Park, you’re smitten. The 761,000 acres of wilderness gracing the Western Sierra Nevada Mountains were established as a national park in 1890 and continue to amaze visitors today.
I learned this lesson firsthand as I found myself propped against a massive rock wall in an effort to catch my breath and safely admire the view. A result of the scenery rather than the climb, I could only shake my head. I tried to convince myself that eventually, the scenery would get tiresome and such incomparable impressions would fade the longer we hiked. With every craggy crest, another somehow more spectacular than the previous presented itself as proof that, in fact, I was wrong. Yosemite, I learned, is not a destination for doubt.
We, like many, had come specifically for a perspective found only via twisting trails and gorgeous slabs of granite en route Half Dome. You know it’s going to be a good day when the shuttle stop that escorts hikers to the trailhead is known as Happy Isles. There, our steep ascent did not delay. We padded up the Mist Trail, a short, but challenging signature hike named for the spray that greets guests as they enjoy the up-close views of both Vernal and Nevada waterfalls.
Vernal Fall Footbridge is about .8 miles from the start, according to the GPS on my watch and led us to the top of Vernal Fall — a welcome reward for conquering a stairway of more than 600 steps. After the footbridge, the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail diverge and ambitious hikers can dig in for a longer day of climbing their way to Yosemite’s iconic dome.
To minimize the crowd, hikers need a day pass to summit Half Dome. Without it, I recommend going as far as you can before a ranger stops you, then take a different trail back to the village.
It’s worth noting that if Half Dome is on your Bucket List, heed the warning of using extreme caution. It was a 14 to 16 mile day of hiking, and not an easy one. Even longer than my double-decade wait to explore Yosemite National Park was the 25 years since the sound of construction has interrupted the cacophony of resident crickets. Last summer, Rush Creek Lodge, the first contemporary hotel in the area was built to host another generation of explorers. Equipped with 143 rooms, along with suites and hillside villas for larger parties, its lofty cabin-like facade fits into the landscape as easily as it earns accolades for amenities — ideal for counterparts inclined to the great indoors as well.
Debate suddenly emerges over where to dedicate more time: the heated pool or the activity area, where games like bumper pool, Foosball and shuffleboard commonly entice friendly competition. We opted for snacks and cocktails from the poolside terrace while soaking our tired muscles in the heated pool, followed by a hearty dinner at The Tavern and fireside s’mores for a well-earned dessert.
Billing itself a destination within a destination, the property boasts a recreation team that hosts nature talks, hikes, games and live music daily in addition to an impressive list of guided experiences that promise plenty of postcard-worthy moments.
By the time we left Yosemite, we understood Muir’s passion and how his musings became synonymous with a contagious call into nature.
SHORES AND SWITCHBACKS
As our path would attest, we weren’t prepared to end the expedition, as we essentially drove from Muir’s stomping ground to Twain’s. In his 1872 account “Roughing It,” Twain ruminated the following about Lake Tahoe:
“The shore all along was indented with deep, curved bays and coves, bordered by narrow sand-beaches; and where the sand ended, the steep mountain-sides rose right up aloft into space—rose up like a vast wall a little out of the perpendicular, and thickly wooded with tall pines.”
The land lived up to the description. Aside from a starting elevation of 6,800 feet and a finishing elevation just shy of 9,000 feet with a panorama of Emerald Bay, Granite Falls and Desolation Wilderness, we were working hard but hardly roughing it in South Lake Tahoe.
The Lake Tahoe Basin originated from a geologic faulting approximately 2 to 3 billion years ago and, as the second deepest lake in the U.S., Lake Tahoe sits with about two-thirds in California and the remaining in Nevada. With only one day to spend on the south shore, we picked up our pace.
Touted to be the most prominent and one of the most beautiful features along the southwestern shore, Emerald Bay was our next stop. From here, hikers have a couple of options, all of which gain a fair amount of altitude and boast views of amazingly azure water. Treated to both, we followed the same sinuous trail we’d taken on the way up, but daringly dipped our toes in the frigid water and enjoyed a slowpokey clip on the way back.
Premonition or not, we slowed to a crawl again hours later at Cold Water Brewery. Perhaps the best craft beer and food scene on the south shore, winner of the “Best New Business” award and voted best new overall restaurant in South Lake Tahoe, Cold Water Brewery also deserves credit for the Lake Tahoe Brewfest, which supports South Lake Tahoe Boys and Girls Club.
Although Twain wouldn’t have waxed poetic on the brewery or the homemade chai lattes from Free Bird Café, his claim that “[the eye] suffered but one grief, and that was that it could not look always, but must close sometimes in sleep,” was true. The time for a sojourn into sophistication had come.
WINE BY THE GLASS(ES)
When visiting California’s Wine Country, a little geography lesson is helpful. Within Napa Valley, just an hour from the San Francisco Bay, are a handful of distinct towns — from north to south you’ll find Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford/Oakville, Yountville, the city of Napa and American Canyon.
We started in Calistoga, known for its hot springs and spas before top-tier cuisine helped to solidify its reputation. From there, we ventured to Sonoma Valley, replete with its own set of cities like Glenn Ellen, the last home of “Call of the Wild” author Jack London.
Only during a vacation among the vines does one start sipping wine shortly after breakfast. Wine tasting at Tamber Bey, a horse and wine lover’s paradise, was a fabulous start. Originally known as Deaux Chevaux Vineyards (DCV), the winery was renamed after Tamborina and Bayamo, the winemaker’s first two Arabian horses, and is, as anticipated, unlike any other.
Situated on Sundance Ranch, a world-class, 22-acre equestrian facility, Tamber Bey is the stunning result of a 15,000-square-foot covered riding arena being remodeled into a state-of-the-art winemaking facility. The original barn clubhouse is now the tasting room, but we wandered, as we are apt to do, outside.
There, we settled in for our first sips paired with savory cookies like the Cardamom Crunch served with DCV Rabicano. While you sip and swirl, stories about the horses go neck and neck with those about the wine.
Of course, when it comes to wine, few have stories to tell like Chateau Montelena. If you aren’t already familiar with what is known as the “Judgement of Paris,” there’s a movie with the same name as the fateful decision on June 7, 1976. Ah yes, that unthinkable moment when nine of the finest oenophiles in France unknowingly voted against their own and put Napa Valley officially on the map. The topsoaring red winner was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ’72 while the white was Chateau Montelena ’73.
Though we didn’t sample the historic wine, we were treated to a modern tasting, including the 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Due to the movie’s recent traction, this winery established in 1882 is now the background for so many photos, a tripod to hold cameras is already set up and ready to record your visit.
Enjoying its own renaissance as of late, Madrone Estate Winery, one of Sonoma Valley’s most historic estates and the longest operating winery in Glen Ellen, was a welcomed stop. Madrone’s resurgence came in 2017 when the Stewart Family added a small-lot winery within the original barrel cellar built in 1887. The Stewart family, three generations of vintners, remodeled the tasting room along with its offerings, reviving the original establishment. Today, winemaker Kat Doescher is at the helm of the boutique Madrone Estate, Stewart Family Reserve and Valley of the Moon wines.
Infusing more literature into our California experience, we popped into Pangloss Cellars, housed inside a 114-year old historic building in Sonoma’s town square. Typed on the tasting menu were the words, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” This Voltaire quote is no coincidence as the winery, which was established to celebrate optimism as a way of life, is aptly named for Dr. Pangloss, the eternal optimist in Voltaire’s novel “Candide.”
The Tasting Lounge embodies that of a friend’s family room with its warm, inviting and comfortable ambiance. Towering over the bar is a 15-foot olive tree — the only distraction from the vintage armchairs where sipping winemaker Erich Bradley’s craft provides plenty of positivity.
Some days start as only they should in Sonoma — with a spa treatment at an elegant Spanish Mission–style treasure tucked into the heart of wine country.
Listed among Travel + Leisure’s top 25, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa presides atop an ancient thermal mineral spring historically revered by Native Americans for its healing power. As tough spa decisions go, the 40,000-square-foot retreat makes life easy with a menu divided into categories of Relieve, Restore or Results. Its welcoming amenities, on the other hand, do not make it easy to depart.
Alas, after a Total Body Recovery treatment and a fair share of serenity, we traded one posh stop for another. Wrapped into a collection of independent hotels, each with its own unique story to tell, the Gaige House, situated just off the main road in Glen Ellen, was a sublime surprise. The Four Sisters Inn brand of hotels, found only in California, vary from one to the next in personality but as our stay indicated, deliver a stellar experience.
Our room, the Zen Suite, is one of its 23 stylishly appointed guest rooms, where the polished Asian-inspired aesthetic like the glass atrium works incredibly well. Creekside and garden suites are other spacious options.
While in Sonoma, definitely don’t miss the girl & the fig, owned by renowned cookbook author Sondra Berstein. We were easily lured into “Country food with a French passion,” prior to more California cruising.
LIFE OF LUXURY
Our refined residence in Calistoga was one of the modern bungalows at Solage, a Forbes Five-Star Napa Valley resort. As part of the Auberge Resort Collection, Solage provides guests every bit of the pampering you’d expect including the sixtime Michelin-starred Solbar restaurant, where we found plenty to love. Decisions here included Frog’s Hollow autumn flame peaches, Parmigiano mousse, prosciutto san daniele, charred onions with honey-lavender vinaigrette and crispy Louisiana Gulf shrimp with heirloom melon, puffed forbidden rice, picked lemon cucumbers, ginger and mizuna.
Each room comes with complimentary cruiser bikes to explore the resort, but we opted to go for a run through downtown Calistoga and on our way back, we found the bocce ball court, the pool and a fantastic fireplace. Solage, along with its parent company, Calistoga Ranch, provides a small fleet of Mercedes-Benz for guests to use during their stay.
Should the ultimate in luxury and a complete retreat into nature be a top priority, then a retreat at Calistoga Ranch is a necessity. This unparalleled piece of heaven is essentially an oasis for the upper echelon to vacation in privacy. Each of the 50 guest suites nestled into the 157 secluded acres was built off property, flown in by helicopter and placed. Doing so brought the outdoors in and prevented any alterations to the land.
The 12-year-old property, which is not open to the public as a means to maintain its privacy, is both family and pet friendly. As a guest, everything at the resort is accessible including the 256 Calistoga Ranch employees. The Spa, rated among the top 25 small resorts by Condé Nast Traveler, is where nature’s elements collide in every pampering way possible, compliments of Calistoga’s naturally healing mineral water pools. The property has a 3- and a 5-mile hiking trail, both boasting views of Napa Valley as well as a set of stairs to an observation deck where the resort offers stargazing and wine tasting.
Our visit also included the chicken coop, outfitted with a chandelier for a hen named Phyllis. Along with more recognizable celebrities, she is as much of an attraction as the wine cave. Used mostly as a special events location, the wine cave can be outfitted for a private dinner experience for guests, who also have their choice of dining among the vines or hiking to Hourglass Vineyard where a private barrel tasting at the winemaker’s home can be arranged.
We were perfectly content to snag a table by the outdoor fireplace at the Lakehouse Restaurant, where a true Napa Valley experience beckoned. Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello, the creative talent at the Lakehouse for almost three years since leaving The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, sent a parade of beautiful bites between his kitchen and our table. Among them were a charred octopus served with sunchoke, fresh anise, citrus and blood orange glaze and watercress vichysoisse with potato confit, caviar and pickle, followed by rabbit rossini with foie gras, truffle, madeira and citrus coriander bloom as well as branzino with red Russian kale ravioli.
My table of two shared a bottle of Calistoga Ranch’s Cabernet. Rated in the high 90s by Wine Spectator, it was a most appropriate finish to our time in Napa.