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Nothing like planning a trip to God’s Country to get my heart beating a little faster (in anticipation of all that resveratrol, no doubt.) Problem is, even vets can forget the basics when planning an exciting wine country jaunt. So I decided to write it down, for both of us.

• OFF-AIRPORT RENTAL CARS – If you weren’t able to fly into my favorite airport of all time and are forced to get to Sonoma via SFO (San Francisco International Airport) you can save yourself a bundle of cash by renting your car from one of the off-airport rental agencies. All the rental car agencies are accessed via a multi-stop tram ride from the main terminal. Once you get to the rental car building, if you’re going with one of the “bigs” (Hertz, Avis, etc.) you’re set. But, if you’re willing to add an extra half hour or so, you can save big and take a second shuttle to one of the off-airport rental agencies.

I was actually referred to our off-airport rental agency by an agent at Hertz when I was booking a busy holiday weekend. They recently purchased a company called Advantage that carries Hertz cars (maybe they’re a little older? Ours only had 11,000 miles on it) but at half the price ($173 for aChevy Malibu with free GPS for a busy holiday week versus double that at Hertz.) That brings me to my next must…

• GPS…AND DIRECTIONS – GPS is an absolute necessity on the windy, not always well-marked roads of wine country. Maps are annoying and often useless. Rent or bring your own GPS. And whatever you do, DO NOT depend on the GPS on your cell phone or Waze, or any cell-dependent service that does yeoman service in the big city. Cell service is notoriously spotty in Sonoma and will inevitably leave you hanging at some inopportune time. Once you’ve achieved GPS, you should STILL get directions. GPS is excellent at getting you to the right general area, but more often than not, you need to know that you “cross three cattle guards then take a right at the wagon wheel” to actually get where you’re going.

• ADDRESSES – Another reason to ask for directions and confirmations is that many wineries, especially smaller ones that don’t have formal tasting rooms, often have multiple addresses. One might be the actual vineyard, one the winemaker’s private home and another the space they use for tasting, sometimes a barn, storage facility or space in an office park. Call or e-mail ahead and make sure you’ve got the correct information. I remember years ago scheduling a tasting at Merry Edwards before she opened her tasting room. The Mister and I followed our trusty GPS to the address we’d found online and were quite confused when we found ourselves on a leafy suburban cul-de-sac, no vines in sight. But when we “arrived” we did see Merry Edwards…unloading groceries from her car. We’d gone to her house!  Not only embarrassing, but made us late for a private tasting with their gracious tasting room host, Ron. You don’t want to be late for Ron, trust me.

• TRAVEL TIMES – Just as your “citified” cell phone GPS will do you no good in Sonoma, neither will your big city/suburban notions about travel time. “10 miles away” in Los Angeles is a completely different animal in wine country when you’re talking about twisting one-lane roads, being stuck behind a bike tour or a combine, and the inevitability (even with the GPS and spot on directions) of getting lost. Pre-program your GPS to see what the estimated travel time is from point A to point B and then add at least 50%.

• DRINKING AND DRIVING – Obviously, if you’re visiting tasting rooms there’s going to be at least one person in your vehicle who has been drinking. The legal limit in California is %.08 BAC. You obviously don’t want anyone to get hurt or arrested. There are ways to keep that from happening. The most effective are hiring a car service (any hotel can arrange this for you, or you can look online) or designating a driver. If the person who is driving is going to have a few sips, these are my suggestions —

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Lucy at Hartford Family, know “when to say when” Lucy!

– A standard pour at a tasting room is going to be about 1 ounce. A standard glass of wine is about 5 to 8 ounces. Depending on your sex, height and weight, you’re able to metabolize between half a glass to two glasses in an hour. Here’s a blood alcohol calculator that isn’t intended as gospel or binding legal advice, but at least gives you a good idea so you can be conscious of where you stand and then make sure you stay well below your limit.

– Swirling and spitting is completely acceptable (of course ask for a bucket or cup, spitting onto the floor is considered gauche even in laid back Sonoma!)

– Drink LOTS of water. Stash big bottles in the car and sip as you go.

– And my personal favorite, share a tasting. Just because the tasting sheet specifies a price “per person” or “per tasting” doesn’t mean that everyone in your party has to do their own. The Mister and I share tastings all the time and no one ever bats an eyelash. Then, if you find yourself dying to have more, buy a bottle (or a few!) Most places will comp your tasting fee when you make a bottle purchase, and it will give you something to look forward to when you get home, and something to sip on as you plot your next adventure in God’s Country!

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Okay, so you’ve re-stuffed your maw at the Ferry Terminal Marketplace after reading the not-to-be-missed rundown in A HALF DAY IN SAN FRANCISCO PART TWO: THE FERRY TERMINAL BUILDING, and you’re wondering whether this “walking it off ” is all it’s cracked up to be. Never fear, you’ll continue in the direction you started. There’s plenty to see as you stroll The Embarcadero.

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Restored colorful trolly cars from every era run the distance of the street. Great views of Coit Tower peek out from between high rises.IMG_2163

And you’re right on the water, so there are plenty of opportunities to step closer and take in The Bay as well as all kinds of colorful local characters. Yeah, there’s lots of tourists, but the locals make themselves known.IMG_2152

You will continue about 1.8 miles. If you’re not feeling it, you can drive, there is a “one hour free” parking lot before 6pm when you hit Pier 39 (your penultimate destination.) But, if those dumplings (and macaroons, admit it, you found room) are weighing heavy, take the stroll, it’s lovely.IMG_2165

You’ll know you’re getting close to Pier 39 when everything gets a little more cotton candy-street musician-guy-hawking-boat-trips-to-Alcatraz-y. You’ll know you’re actually AT Pier 39 when you either see the large Pier 39 sign or find yourself passing a Tourista Hellscape (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Shirtique, Krazy Kaps and multiple opportunities to indulge in fudge. I think you know what I’m laying down. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

Pier 39 does have three things going for it. Amidst all the mass produced tourist trap tat.

• A rather sweet, dual level old fashioned carousel in the center that would be fun for kids or a nostalgic spin of your own.https://i2.wp.com/farm4.staticflickr.com/3657/3605929300_329dc9b96a_m.jpg

• Clean public restrooms on the second level (it’s been a while since that pot of chrysanthemum tea.)

• And, most important of all, the SEA LIONS!

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But you won’t find these charmingly lazy louts of the sea among the teeming masses that inhabit Pier 39. The best way to get to them is to get back out on THE EMBARCADERO. Continue in the direction you were originally walking. Pass the entrance to Pier 39 and all that madness (Hard Rock Cafe, the Aquarium, etc.) Take a right and walk down the pier.  (If you get to where the Alcatraz tour boats are docked you’ve gone too far.)

Walk down the pier towards the water. It will smell like a zoo. There will be grunting and guttural moans. You will ignore your better instincts and everything your mother ever told you and continue towards these sounds.

At the end of the pier there will probably be a crowd gathered. They will be watching the sea lions. You should too. They are ridiculous and slovenly and very cute. Sometimes fights break out when someone gets on the wrong side of an alpha male. But even the fights are pretty funny. To see two half ton blubbery blobs “ark” at each other over territory isn’t exactly the blood sport of the Serengeti.

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The end of the pier is also a great place to catch a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. If you’re headed here in the Summer months, you might want to check in with the sea lion webcam just to make sure they haven’t migrated to their summer shares in So Cal or Mexico, ya know, ’cause they’re glamorous like that.

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Continuing back on The Embarcadero you will hit Fisherman’s Wharf. More touristy hoo hah, although Fisherman’s Wharf is heavier on the fine dining and lighter on the “Your name rendered on a grain of rice.”

Alioto’s Restaurant is a San Francisco institution since 1925. Good seafood, great views of the San Francisco Bay.

• Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Manufactory offers you a glance into the chocolate making process and of course, has plenty of the deep, dark for sale.

And, last but not least, The Mister’s favorite…

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Boudin Bakery – The place of his youthful sourdough dreams. Yes, you can take a tour, yes, there’s a bistro and a gift shop full of logo aprons and Pete’s Coffee. But if you’re like my fella, ignore all the pomp and go straight for a fresh out of the oven loaf of that deep, sour, crunchewy fantasy bread. It’s worth the hike. And you can walk that off getting to your car…Two miles back to Yank Sing!

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So I trust you enjoyed your dim sum brunch at Yank Sing from A Half Day in San Francisco Part One? Of course you did. You’re welcome. Time to walk it off.

With your back to the SPEAR ST. entrance of Rincon Center walk half a block to your right to MISSION. Walk two blocks towards the water (can’t miss it.) The big street bisected by trolly car tracks is EMBARCADERO. Cross the street so you’re on the water side and take a left on EMBARCADERO heading away from the bridge.

In a couple blocks you’ll be at the Ferry Building Marketplace. Go inside. You’ll dig it. Trust me.

Inside is a treasure trove of local artisanal food, flowers, produce, skin and body products, cookware, you name it. If you’re still on your way to Sonoma, this is a great place to whet your appetite for what’s to come. If you’re like me, and you can never cram in enough food and fun in your always too short time up north, this is a great place to pick up culinary souvenirs from delicious Sonoma spots you might have missed on your way back.

• Cowgirl Creamery is a Northern California institution. They have been making amazing handcrafted organic cheeses since the 1990’s and have facilities in both Pt. Reyes in Marin County and Petaluma in southern Sonoma County. Both are open for tours when booked in advance. But, if you can’t make it, this is the perfect place to get a taste of their  pungent, decadent triple cream Red Hawk, their tangy, teeny Inverness and, one of my favorites, the Humboldt Fog, a partnership with Cypress Grove creamery, a truly unusual goat cheese that is tangy and crumbly at its center, but runny and almost brie-like around the edges under the bloomy rind. With a thin layer of signature ash shot through the center, it’s a cheese as dramatic as it is delicious.

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Beekind is an emporium of honey and bee related products from around the world. Candles, cosmetics, soaps, and of course, plenty of the unfiltered sweet amber itself. There are quite a few Sonoma County honeys represented in their ever changing repertoire. They also have a location in Sebastapol (921 Gravenstein Highway South) a great stop when you’re up there.

Benedetta, founded in 1996 in Sonoma County specializes in botanical skin care utilizing farm sourced ingredients from California and around the globe. Recyclable packaging, no animal testing, no chemicals or toxins. But the most important thing to me, is that these products smell and feel like heaven!

Other personal favorites include —

Acme Bread Company, The Mister spent many childhood years in the Bay Area and has become a self-styled sourdough aficionado. His criteria is based on 1) heavy sourdough flavor and 2) “Crunchewiness” which I’ve come to understand as a crisp, well baked crust, bonus points for a hint of brick oven smokiness, and an elastic bounce back from a dense interior. A loaf of Acme’s had to be purchased if only to compare to his childhood gold standard down the road a spell, but I’ll save that for part three.

• I think top sweet honors go to the Black Jet Baking Company. Caramelized coconut macaroons? Apricot crumb hand pies? Besides the diabetic coma you’re about to slip into, what’s not to like?

If you haven’t stopped off for a second brunch, and believe me, the temptations are many, time to move on down the Embarcadero, remember Sonoma is on small town time, they roll up the sidewalks early, you don’t want to miss that first sip of pinot!

So on to large, grunting, foul tempered, lazy beasts…no, not him! As we move on to A Half Day in San Francisco Part Three: Pier 39 ghastly!

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This is, by design, a Sonoma-centric blog. But you’ve got to get to God’s Country somehow, and more often than not (unless you were wise/lucky enough to fly directly into STS) that involves flying into SFO or OAK.

Rincon Center Lobby

I completely understand the instinct to burn rubber straight to Healdsburg the second you grab your rental car, but if you have the time and inclination, there’s a wonderful San Francisco detour to be taken, that could last as little as an hour or so and as long as a day, depending on your schedule. And it’s on the way from the airport(s) so you’re not going way out of your way.

If you arrive in the morning or early afternoon, get thee to YANK SING! Housed in the Rincon Center, a former 30’s era post office, Yank Sing is a dim sum mecca. By 11 am the place is packed with a line out into the unique building atrium (with its own indoor waterfall) so I suggest calling ahead.

Rincon Center mural captioned “Beating The Chinese.” Thank God things have changed for the delicious!

The room would be best described as upscale business hotel conference room chic. Acoustic tile ceilings, blonde wood and strategically placed potted bamboo trees. Even though it’s a large room the noise level is moderate, probably because everyone is so busy eating!

If you’ve never had  dim sum before, it’s basically a  small plates based Chinese breakfast/brunch. Traditional dim sum involves servers traveling around the restaurant with steam tray carts piled high with bamboo steamers filled with various dumplings, baked and fried dishes as well as vegetables. The cart lady (it’s almost always a lady) will explain what all the items are in the steamers and you just tell her which one(s) you want, and if nothing floats  your boat you just wait until the next cart comes along.

A nice twist at Yank Sing, is, you can also order dim sum items off the extensive menu, so if there’s something you don’t see on the cart, just ask the server who brought your drinks and she’ll put in your custom order.

The Mister and I stuffed ourselves silly. Here’s how:

  • BBQ PORK BUN – Pillowy bao, with no strange neon orange sauce to be seen anywhere, just minced chunks of flavorful, warmly spiced pork.
  • SPINACH DUMPLINGS – Far more interesting and tasty than the name might suggest. The dumpling wrapper is shot with bits of emerald green, and the spinach filling itself has an almost meaty density to it. There has to be pork in here somehow, maybe it’s liquified, no wait, that’s next…
  • SHANGHAI KUROBUTA PORK DUMPLINGS – Shanghai dumplings, also known as soup dumplings, are tasty little pillows filled with a dollop of spiced pork surrounded by molten broth. You pick up the dumpling in a spoon, season with red vinegar and ginger  slices, and then, for the timid/wise, bite off a wee bit to allow the steam to escape and the broth to splash into the spoon. For the brave/foolhardy, bite right in and ignore the 2nd degree burns on the roof of your mouth because you’re so transported by the rich, deep, five spice infused pork essence of the broth, followed by the tender, gingery dollop of tender Kurobuta pork that follows. This is one of the most expensive dumplings I’ve ever had ($12.25 for 6) but it is one for the record books.
  • POTSTICKERS – Dense skin with a crispy, dark crunchy layer on the bottom and a bounce back, rustic chew to the skin. The filling isn’t your typical MSG bomb either, more of a nuanced silky, fatty port with complex spicing and a lingering Szechuan pepper finish.
  • SEAFOOD BASIL DUMPLINGS – If there had to be a “meh” in here, I’d give it to these. While the execution is proper, the skin perfectly springy, the tiny dollop of roe on top festive. These ones have a sort of indeterminate seafood flavor and the basil doesn’t really elevate it like I was hoping it would, in fact it was kind of lost. This is the one item we had I wouldn’t order again.
  • SHRIMP DUMPLING (AKA HAR GOW) – This is one of my favorite dim sum items, and my favorite personal quality tests (And according to Wikipedia  it’s the gold standard by which to judge a dim sum chef’s skill. Who says tests aren’t fun?) By every metric, Yank Sing comes through with flying colors. The shrimp are meaty and extremely sweet. The pleated transluscent wrapper has a perfect elastic stretch, and the dumpling doesn’t fall apart when picked up with chopsticks. Really, the only negative is there weren’t about 30 more!

Shrimp dumplings inside steamer behind the chive dumplings with sauce foreground.

  • PAN FRIED CHIVE DUMPLING – Unlike the more common scallion pancake on many dim sum menus, these are more like delicate fried phyllo rings filled with sweet, sautéed chive and served with a beautifully contrasting earthy, sweet, sesame paste sauce. light, ethereal, heavenly.

Whatever you do, be sure to indulge in the house CHILI PEPPER SAUCE. Shot through with dark, resinous, smoky beans and a kick of lingering, burning spice on the back, this chili sauce puts all others to shame. You can pick up a jar on the way out if you’re as haunted by this lil’ bit of hellfire as I am.

Alice Y.H. Chan. My sista from anotha mista!

The house tea is Chrysanthemum, extremely delicate, floral and presented in a large, elegant, glass tea pot; a far cry from the typical heavily tannic black tea served in stainless steel pots at your average dim sum joint. Although, I will admit, just thinking about those stainless steel pots brought me back to the red flocked Cantonese dive of my misspent Boston girlhood where a late night order of “Cold Tea” delivered said stainless steel pot filled to the rim with draft beer, blue laws and ID checks be damned! But I digress…

If you’re familiar with dim sum, you know it’s cheap and often good, but not AMAZING. Yank Sing wouldn’t qualify as the former, but it makes up for it by delivering the latter, in spades. The dishes above which managed to stuff the two of us (hearty eaters both) ran $62 before tip. At our local joint, a similar array would have been more like $30-45, but not nearly as inspiring. One great way to justify your splurge (as if the shrimp dumplings weren’t enough) how about…

FREE SAN FRANCISCO PARKING!!!

Because, The Sonomaist loves luxury, but isn’t made of money (maybe 60% pinot noir, but, alas, not money) she understands that parking in a city like San Francisco can be exorbitant.  The beauty of Yank Sing is, validated parking is FREE, yes, FREE PARKING IN SAN FRANCISCO, dear reader.

How to take full advantage of Yank Sing’s vehicular largesse and walk off your feast will be covered in A HALF DAY IN SAN FRANCISCO PART TWO: FERRY TERMINAL BUILDING.

So, although Yank Sing is somewhat more pricey than the average dim sum house, it makes up for it in quality, top notch service AND parking fees. So whether you’re an old dim sum pro looking to up your game, or a newbie undeterred by the fact that your palate may be permanently jaded, and you’re feeling expansive on your way to God’s Country, give Yank Sing a shot, you won’t regret it!

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If you are blessed (or cursed, depending on who you’re talking to) to live in San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland or Seattle, there is a little known, and completely fabulous travel option for Sonoma County. It’s the Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa, right in the heart of Northern Sonoma wine country. Only one airline flies in and out of STS (Alaska Airlines, go figure) and the planes are little wee things. But if you are at all able, do yourself a favor and look into this option. Not only do you fly directly into Santa Rosa (The final approach is stunning, you come in right over vineyard rows, welcome to Sonoma, indeed!) But you avoid all the madness of landing in San Francisco or Oakland, only to delay your arrival in God’s Country by having to schlep for an hour and a half on crowded city freeways (hardly an auspicious start to your wine country visit.)

The teeny airport is like something out of a bygone era (if you’re from LA and familiar with the Burbank Airport, this joint makes it look like O’Hare) but equipped with all the mod cons. All the major car rental agencies have desks with cars on site, there’s taxi and bus service. And, lest you forget you’re in California, a sushi bar. Yes, the onsite restaurant is the Sky Lounge Steakhouse and Sushi Bar.

Charles M. Schultz (if the name is ringing a bell, but you can’t place it) spent his later career in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, and is the creator of the Peanuts cartoons. Snoopy is the airport’s mascot (Red Baron that he is!)

Perhaps the best thing about this airport, and there are so many, it’s hard to pick one, is that Alaska Airlines allows you to CHECK A CASE OF WINE AS LUGGAGE FREE OF CHARGE! Yes, free! Just make sure you purchase proper packaging at one of your winery visits or a local shipping store.

So enjoy your flight, and rest easy in the knowledge that within a half hour of landing, you will be sipping Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, enjoying a farm fresh lunch in quaint Healdsburg (20 mins by car) or perhaps visiting the Schultz Museum to visit the namesake of this fantastical transportation hub and well-kept secret!

http://www.sonomacountyairport.org

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