Ranch Retreat, Nature Tours, and Wine Romance in California

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California Dreaming,’ this is no teenage dream but every American dream to visit the great state of California at some point in their lifetime. And, now I understand why. Californians really don’t leave their home unless they must. This state, home to millions have much to celebrate and a kaleidoscope of nature loving activities to keep the young and old active, and miles of green spaces. And while the summer heat index rises in other parts of the country, the hills of California offers cooler temperatures for getaways where there is much fun to be had. So Gary and I embarked on a five days nature loving adventure crisscrossing California’s greenland.  Our trip included a Napa Valley wine exploration, chasing wildcats through Jacks Peak park, scenic drive along the coastal Highway 1 (Route 1), hikes through the hills, rabbit hop along the 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, horse back ride tour through the forest amongst ancient redwood trees, a brisk dip in Big Sur River, private winery tour, a ranch retreat, beekeeping experience, hilltop yoga and more.

The state of the economy has changed and so too are the programs offered by resorts and hotels to keep their guest stimulated, and entertained. It is no longer about the spa experience, the infinity pool or their in-room entertainment system or amenities. Hotels are now going beyond the mundane.  Now more than ever emphasis is placed on the special programs created to offer a creative experience, education and most often fun. And with a taste for the outdoors and a little adventure, Gary and I flew out to California.

Our trip began in Napa Valley, an area known as the international wine destination with opulent wineries, spectacular lodgings and fine eateries. During our brief stay in Napa we dined at one of the areas most favored eateries, Boon Fly Cafe with a barn-like kitchen atmosphere offering a completely mouth watering menu of fresh and healthy fares to guests of the Carneros Inn and visitors to the area. The farm-like outpost was reminiscent of our simple and childhood days. Our early morning libations included Green Eggs and Ham ( poached farm fresh eggs wrapped in honey cured ham, lemon leeks, cream and crispy hash browns) and the Boon Fly Benedict (artisan Pain Levain, thick sliced Caggiano ham, poached eggs, jalapeno hollandaise, crispy hash browns, sour dough toasts) with fresh tea and coffee.

Intrigued by the cafes simple décor, I was drawn to the swing bench out front where Gary and I relaxed with our legs up after breakfast. Our wandering spirits wanted to see what more the property had to offer. Our curious legs and eyes brought us behind the gates of the Carneros Inn private property, for guests only. Two very gracious attendants came to our aid and offered us brochures and a guided tour of the property in a club car, one of those used as a mode of transportation to shuttle people throughout the compound.

I grew up in a rural community where the vast backwoods was my playground. Driving around this property reminded me of those days, the freedom and open landscape that allowed us to roam amongst tropical fruit trees, cattle and other farm animals. The owner’s cow was also on the property.

Our gracious guide took us atop the hill, where outside in front of the registration office were two Audi that are available to shuttle hotel guests around the Napa area. Adirondack chairs were placed in front of the office, allowing guests to rest awhile, and assembled in the courtyard was a link of lime green bicycles for guests to use to patrol the grounds or take a leisurely tour around town, one of which I mounted. We had a chance to see their dining options which range from casual to elegant and their popular Farm restaurant. I loved the pool area which sits in an area all by itself in the open field with lounge chairs surrounding it. Definitely if you needed a place to truly get away, this was it. The view from the pool looks out into the rest of the vineyard.

We were escorted back to our vehicle, and before driving off to the wineries, our host recommended a few things to do before heading back to Miami. One of her recommendations was to stay at Carmel Valley Ranch, in Carmel a small town where the movie star, Clint Eastwood was once mayor.

After a filling breakfast, we set out on our wine exploration which took us through Napa Valley down to Sonoma Valley for the most thrilling wine experience. If you are a social drinker like I am, and of course, Gary does not drink, forget the rules of wine tasting and just enjoy yourself. Swirl–Sniff–Savor–Spit was definitely not practiced. Instead, I swirled, sniffed, savored and swallowed every bit of wine poured in my glasses. Of course it was done in moderation and in between bottles of water and occasional bites.

Napa and Sonoma are the playgrounds for wine enthusiasts and aficionados. And we ran into those who were very serious about their wines, as well as those who were there to enjoy and learn.

Wineries are peppered throughout the valley both small and established. With the aid of locals, we selected just a few that we would truly enjoy. We visited two of the castles of Calistoga in Napa Valley–Chateau Montelena Winery and Sterling Vineyards, and later accidentally happened on the Lancaster Estate Winery in Sonoma.

Close friends of ours insisted that the Sterling Vineyard was a must see, and a drift from the norm. First impression lasts, and I fell in love with the conveyor system used to transfer us from the main lobby and registration area to the tasting room. We were hoisted 300 feet above the ground in the aerial tram that seats up to four persons and gives a breathtaking view of the of the lush vegetation of the valley below. Arriving at the hilltop tasting room, I swirled the 2010 Cellar Club pinot gris with notes of pears, apples and lemon tarts–sniffed the 2010 Napa chardonnay and 2009 Napa Valley merlot–savored the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and swallowed their 2010 Cellar Club Malvasia Bianca with aromatic and floral scents of candied ginger, orange blossom and honeysuckle. We ended the tasting with a VIP sample, and two Sterling Vineyards labeled wine glasses as parting gifts.

We literally walked into a stone castle with a Gothic appearing exterior, when we entered the property of Chateau Mentelena Winery. This hillside winery is one of Napa’s celebrated winery with its unique, rustic and elegant characters. We explored their tasting room, estate room, crush pad, cross their courtyard, and along the way to the estate lake, we stopped for a game of bocce. For us, it was less about the wines at this property.

We were enthralled with its picturesque and enchanting surroundings. Our tour ended at Jade Lake, a make shift pond with crocked footbridges connecting the main islands. It is also home to fish and swam which occasionally glides across the lake. A perfect place to picnic with a bottle of the estate’s wine.

After leaving Chateau Montelena, we roamed the valley in search of another winery that offered a little more than wine. Our drive took us through Napa into Sonoma, where it was evident that we were lost and miles away from base. Our stop at a local food market in Sonoma offered us more than a bite to eat. A local recommended that we visited the Lancaster Winery which offered a walking trail, scenery, wine and an exclusive tour.

On our way back to Napa, we meandered through the streets of Sonoma and happened on the Lancaster Winery in a beautiful hillside setting, not generally open to the public. The exclusive winery sits on 53-acres of hillside vineyard at the southernmost tip of Alexander Valley. We walked in and received a warm welcome without prior appointment. They offered indulgences in their finest selections of wines, and I sampled their wines that are mass distributed and a few of those that are reserved only for club members. We were given an intimate tour of their cellar with mountains of barrels filled with Lancaster’s best. This cave serves as a cellar and tasting room. Gary was pleased with this property as he was able to hike through the vineyard and enjoy the views from the top of the hill.

This wine country exploration was our ticket to taste a wide variety of wines and have a mini education along the way, while exploring California’s most alluring wine destinations.

Gary and I were impressed with the sculpting of the rocks-the dramatic edges and cliffs along Highway 1. Our drive along the coast to Carmel had the most spectacular vistas, historical sites and incredible roadways. Other points of interests included the prominent landmark, The Golden Gate Bridge which was covered with fog, during the mid morning hours.

It was like picking up an old storybook and dusting off its cover to reveal the joyous childhood memories of the farmland, trails, swings, camp days around the fire with s’mores, the vegetable garden, hiking, hilltop yoga and honey bees, when we arrived at the Carmel Valley Ranch property. It was an uncorrupted playground to create beautiful memories with kids or relive childhood moments and romance.

Like the CVR aptly describes the resort on their brochures, “This is summer camp without the discipline.” The CVR lifestyle attracts couples, families and those in search solitude and relaxation. After check in, we received a playlist of programs and activities offered by the hotel to their guests, and for each day of our stay we received and updated CVR playlist that promised a healthy list of social activities during our stay. Madelaine, the concierge was very knowledgeable about the area and recommended some excellent choices that fitted what Gary and I were looking for. We were very pleased with her suggestions.

While I was reviewing the CVR website, the beekeeping experience offered twice per week by beekeeper and resident farmer, John Russo, caught my eyes. While I was in the lobby I spotted the hood in the gift shop. Not knowing that our stay would have been extended to participate in the upcoming program I wanted to have a mini adventure with the hood. When I asked around in the gift shop, I was dismissed by the manger, which was a turnoff for me, so I walked out a bit disappointed. My disappointment did not last long and was quickly erased with all the activities that followed.

Our suite was exactly as we imagined it, spacious, easily accommodating us with two fire places, one positioned below a flat screen television in the living room and the other in the bedroom, surrounding balcony, male and female robes in a full bath and standing shower bathroom with double sinks. And just in case it pours and you would like to go play in the puddles, a loaner umbrella was provided in the closet. Even though we are on vacation, we still make time to be updated with the outside world. And CVR delivers the news (New York Times) in style.

This trip we have doubled the activities we participated in on any other trip. It felt like we were making up for last month (April 2012) when I became ill right around my birthday and we were unable to travel.

We settled in on the ranch for about 30 minutes, after which I trailed Gary along the huff puff and horse shoe trails. There we had encounters with the wild, bambi, a young snake and rescuers who were searching for an elderly lady who had gone missing along the river for over 72 hours. Luckily she was later found and rushed to the hospital.

We had so many options to chose from on this trip, so we selected a few that will go down in our travel log as the most adventure-filled vacation. For the remaining of our time at the ranch which was a total of four days, our itinerary was packed with nature loving pleasures. California has an unbelievable amount of land dedicated to preservation and recreation and right below Carmel was Lobos Point and Big Sur, our playground for the rest of the trip.

Gary wanted to get a taste of the mountains, so on the second day in Carmel, we took several hikes during our drive along the beautiful and scenic coast while making stops at various points to grab a bite to eat. At the Phoenix we sipped on martinis while watching the birds fight for crumbs from diners’ table. We later hopped over to Ventana restaurant for a quick lunch, and spent some time staring out into the ocean from our perch on the hill. We meandered through the park, splashed our feet in the iced cold flowing stream of Big Sur, and hiked up the trail above the Big Sur Inn. Before returning to the ranch for the evening, we went on a private horseback tour through Andrew Molera State Park. Kathleen our guide took us deep into the forest through flower studded meadows, groves of sycamore trees, across Big Sur River, and the redwood forest where we were shadowed by ancient redwood trees over 200 years old towering hundreds of feet above our heads. It was the most gratifying experience.

With helpful tips from our concierge, Madelaine, day 3 was another adventurous day for us. Our 17 Miles Drive through Pebble Beach and Del Monte Forest was like taking the young ones on a road trip. Gary and I were hopping from the car like rabbits to take pictures of each marker that highlighted points ofinterests along the coastline. London 2012 in only a few weeks away and it felt like we were already there. Almost exhausting at times as some of the markers were so close together–in and out we go. It was fun. The most interesting on this route was the Ghost Tree #17. I sat on the trunk of a tree that was bleached white from the ocean wind and further down was the Lone Cypress. This single cypress tree, a California landmark has inspired many from its perch on a rocky mound overlooking the sea. At other stops we had encounters with the wildlife like birds, sea lions, seals, and deer. This trip took up most of our day and before returning to the hotel we stopped in Downtown Carmel to grab a bite just enough to stave off our hunger.

The CVR is 500 acres of pure pleasure, and definitely a playground for both the young and young at heart. Here you can let loose, go freely and bask in the open and fresh air of the valley. Special programs on the property evoked the nostalgic, bringing back childhood memories; like the swings that hang from several oak trees throughout the property are great for romantic interlude; the s’mores pit, a camping tradition that the resort adopted as a classic where guests gather by the burning pit each evening to make marshmallow sandwiches, connect and to add joyous memories to their travel log.

And after Gary and I have patrolled Pebble Beach, dined in Downtown Carmel, our lackadaisical disposition kicked in, and we made the s’mores pit our respite. We were later joined by a medical construction manager and his two boys, one whom had landed a consulting job immediately after graduating college. They were at CVR to celebrate late Mother’s Day and his new job offer. A local mother with her two young children, and an English couple later joined in. it was time for conversations and to see who was the s’more’s master. Sorry, we all burned the marshmallow at some point.

Beekeeping is one of the programs offered by CVR. On our final day, before rushing off to the airport for our flight back to Miami, we participated in this most unusual activity. Gary and I donned our bee suits and entered the apiary with beekeeper, John.

John educated us on the complex world of the bees and we witnessed for the first time, the dethroning of a queen bee. Several queens in the hive were showing inconsistencies and had to be replaced. We had a unique experience and tasted freshly produced honey on site.

The 500-acres of CVR land is creatively developed to please the active and non-active guests with an extensive hiking trail, a Pete Dye designed golf course, a small vineyard, an organic garden, a lavender field and lots of land space for wildlife to frolic and guests to roam and enjoy.

There is an eclectic blend of lavender gardens. According to farmer, John, they will introduce a lavender program later this year. They will be harvested to make essential oils and other products used by the hotel. Soon there will be days of wine and lavender. After harvesting the lavender, you will be able to relax and sip on a glass of the CVR reserve wine, coming soon.

Following our honey run, we left for the airport. We were a bit early for our flight, so Gary diverted to Jacks Peak Park. Gary’s indefatigable manner was becoming almost irresistible so I followed. We chased a wild mountain cat along the way, strolled by wild mushrooms and other wild plants to get a glimpse of the valley below.

Escaping the brick cities and concrete jungles, our stay in California allowed us to express our inner child and to connect with nature. The most satisfying for us was knowing that we were almost one with nature from our close ups with the wildlife, being embedded in the deep forest among giant redwood trees, to splash in the streams of Big Sur, and our coastal journey down Route 1. We had a chance to embrace the mountains and its surroundings. We connected and now we are hungry for more.

Trip: May 2012