Coastside Weekend – Ano Nuevo & Half Moon Bay

Yellow Flowers in Pescadero
Yellow Wildflowers in Pescadero

In addition to the myriad delights of the city itself, one of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to get away from it all fairly quickly. In just over 25 minutes, you can find yourself in the Marin Headlands, in the middle of the Bay, or, if you head south down the coast, to the charming enclave of Half Moon Bay. On weekends when everyone in San Francisco seems to be heading up to Marin for a daytrip, cruising south is a great way to get out of town while fighting less traffic and crowds. The towns of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero help you instantly forget city stress, and get the cool, chill vibe of the coastside lands.

Day One – Elephant Seals & Pocket-Sized Pescadero
Starting out from San Francisco on a Saturday morning relatively early in the a.m., head south on the Great Highway and keep following signs for Highway One. The drive’s a beautiful one, particularly once you get to the open stretches of coastal road that dramatically hover above the coast past Pacifica. The coastline’s dramatic, the water’s blue, and there are scads of lovely little beaches if you want to get out for a leg stretch, or just to marvel at the great waters of the Pacific.  

Your destination this morning is Ano Nuevo, a California state natural reserve. Ano Nuevo is a beautiful landscape, representing coastal dune vegetation and the NoCal coast as it was before modernity began to forever change these habitats.

Though Ano Nuevo is a beautiful place for a nature hike anytime of year, the best times to visit coincide with the presence of the elephant seals. Ano Nuevo is an important spot for elephant seals, where they haul out to recreate, reproduce, and rest. And they do need some rest; Ano Nuevo is also a popular haunt of Great White sharks, who feed on the abundant elephant seals here. Marine scientists have deemed the sharks of Ano Nuevo a significant population for understanding the mysterious Great Whites’ behaviors overall. Before you go, be sure to check out any permit requirements. Because Ano Nuevo is so important for the elephant seal population, there are times of year when visitation of the beaches is restricted: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

After 2 or 3 hours at Ano Nuevo, the sea air and the hiking should have amply whetted your appetite, preparing you

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
Yum. Duarte’s Tavern.

 for one of the best meals you’ll ever eat at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Also affectionately known as “Doo-arts” by some SF locals.) To get to Duartes from Ano Nuevo,  just need to head north on Highway One, and after about 30 minutes, turn right when the sign for Pescadero appears. The restaurant’s one of the only things in the sweet, pocket-sized town of Pescadero, so you can’t miss it. Give your name at the front of Duarte’s for a table, and then, go wait in the wood-paneled, wonderfully old-school bar. Sample a local beer, Anchor Steam, or try one of their refreshing bloody marys.

Once you get your table, prepare to be delighted. This James Beard award-winning restaurant serves some of the freshest seafood around, along with the best of local ingredients in general. Start with a cup of “half and half” soup, a combo of their cream of artichoke (made from chokes growing down the road) and chile soups. For your main course, the cioppino (the Italian fisherman’s stew) never disappoints, nor does the abalone sandwich. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for pie; pies served at Duarte’s are nothing short of fantastic, particularly the ollalieberry. For more detailed directions or some other info, check Duarte’s out online at: http://www.duartestavern.com/

After lunch, you’ll need to walk off whatever you gorged on at Duarte’s. You should check out the shops on Pescadero’s main street, which showcase crafts made by local artists, and also, foods featuring local ingredients. Stop in Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market (http://www.normsmarket.com/store/) to pick up some wonderful breads and foccacias, cheeses (especially the local, delicious, Harley Farms goat cheese), more pies, and local treats like pickled garlic, artichoke spreads, and more.  (Be sure to stock up on items that will keep until tomorrow to enjoy at a picnic.)

If you still feel like a little more nature as you leave Pescadero, on the way back out of Pescadero at Highway One, there’s a wetlands for bird watching and a beach with some tide pools. If you go to this beach, be careful: the surf is treachorous here, and the rocks very jagged. Make sure you know which way the tide’s running so you are more certain to keep sure footing. (Particularly if you’re one of the lucky passengers who got to have more than one Anchor at Duarte’s.)

Smoking bus at Camerons Pub
Double-decker bus at Camerons Pub

Once you’ve enjoyed all of Pescadero’s delights, you’re heading back to Half Moon Bay, and after the intersection with 92, you will see Camerons (http://www.cameronsinn.com/) on the left of Highway One. You should definitely stop for a pint, and, if you’re hungry even after Duarte’s, some decent pub grub. (Camerons also has a little shop with British goods, should you need a Cadbury Flake fix.) You won’t be able to miss it, as the pub is surrounded by double-decker buses from England. (You can even smoke in one of them, if you’re one who still indulges in tobacco products.)

After a quick pit stop at Camerons, continue north on Highway One, until you get to the Beach House on the north side of Half Moon Bay, where you’re staying for the night (http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay-hotels.html) Rooms are spacious, and can sleep 4 if you’re trying to save a penny or two, as they have living areas with pull-out beds. Enjoying a bottle of wine on your patio while the sun sets from your perch right on the coast is a very nice way to end a busy day. You can also soak your troubles away in the hot tub or the small pool.

If you feel a bit more peppy in the evening hours, walk on the coastal path a short distance to Sam’s Chowder House, conveniently located just next door. Sam’s has good seafood staples, and really nice ambiance outdoors, where you can sit on a deck above the sea next to communal fire bowls and enjoy a cocktail or several. Sam’s also has music on weekends, and you can see the schedule here: http://www.samschowderhouse.com/ 

NB: Though there are many fine places to go in Half Moon Bay for drinks and/or dining, particularly in the charming downtown that’s inland from the coast, Sam’s is the best evening pit stop when staying at the Beach House, as you can walk back to your bed rather than driving after imbibing. If you actually have a designated driver with you, your evening options are a bit more open, though Sam’s is a very worthy place to spend an evening regardless of its proximity to the Beach house.   

Day 2 – Beach Walk & Bocce
In the morning, be sure to make the most of your coastal location, and have a great walk on the shore and/or coastal path from the Beach House, after enjoying the complimentary continental breakfast. Have a soak in the hot tub, and enjoy yourself until check-out.

Before you leave your hotel, pack up your picnic lunch that you assembled yesterday. You’ll head south a bit on Highway One to 92, and turn left, going to La Nebbia Winery.  (The entire trip will take you about 15 minutes.) On 92, you’ll pass by a lot of the garden/farm supply places that Half Moon Bay is known for, and see a lot of pumpkins if you’re here in the autumn before Halloween. (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of NoCal, and has a festival to prove it.)

La Nebbia gets surplus juice from a lot of different wineries in Sonoma/Napa/Santa Cruz and bottles it, meaning you get some wines that normally cost $40 for more like $10 when you buy them at La Nebbia. The folks who work here are always really informative about what’s being poured and very fun and friendly. The property has picnic tables and a great bocce court, so have your picnic, raise a glass or two, and enjoy some bocce for the afternoon. La Nebbia also has many events, so see what’s on before you go: http://www.lanebbiawinery.com/

Depending on the weather (fog or lots o’ fog in the summer), after La Nebbia, cruise home on Skyline or take Highway One back. For either route, signs of city life will appear quicker than you think, shaking you out of the cool, laidback coastside ambiance. You’ll be so restored you won’t believe you’ve been gone from the city for only 24 hours.

Merry Edwards

Merry Edwards Winery
An Inviting Place to Sit & Sip

If you are a pinot noir fan and about to die and haven’t had the following yet, you should definitely try to get your hands on a bottle or several of pinot noirs from Merry Edwards. The fact that these exceptional wines are made by a woman winemaker (which is still a bit more rare than it should be in this day and age) is just icing on the already excellent cake.

I thought that her pinots really couldn’t be topped, until I had her sauvignon blanc. If you’re a sauvignon blanc fan, you’ll love it, and, if you’re not a white wine fan, this wine could change your mind forever.

For more info about the exceptional Merry Edwards wines and the exceptional woman who makes them, take a look at the site:  http://www.merryedwards.com/ 

For a visit, Merry Edwards is located at 2959 Gravenstein Highway North, in what is officially Sebastapol, but also in the magic little part of the world called Graton. And, as if the wine’s not amazing enough, her facility uses a lot of clean, green solar energy to make it run. Cheers to that!

Larson Family Winery

Old Sonoma Rodeo Sign, Larson Winery
Site of the Old Sonoma Rodeo - Larson

As the Wine Country installs more places that look like Tuscan villa-spaceships landed in the middle of Northern California, Larson Family Winery brings us back to authentic Wine Country roots: a Western, ranching, agricultural life. And oh yeah, great wines.

Larson is a historic property, on the site of the old Sonoma Rodeo. Once you turn down a tiny lane, replete with funny signs pointing the way, you find a lovely red barn and some historic houses (one of which is available to rent.)

Adults enjoy the fabulous reds. The cabs and the Meritage are truly exceptional, and have always been consistent award-winners for the winery. Kids enjoy the gentle, loving wine dogs and animals roaming the property. I don’t normally recommend bringing kids to wineries, but Larson rolls out the red carpet for visitors of all ages. (Horseback rides through the vineyards are also possible for kids and grown-ups alike.) 

The staff love wine, and love talking to you about it. You’ll always end up pleasurably staying and chatting much longer than you thought!

If you bring a picnic, there’s a nice bocce court in the sunshine where you can also enjoy some of Larson’s great creations. On a hot day outdoors, I’m a big fan of their highly drinkable Pinot Noir Roses.

Info on the winery that “drinks what they can and sells the rest” (their official, and admirable, slogan) is here: http://www.larsonfamilywinery.com/ In the physical world, they’re just off Highway 121, only a few minutes from the plaza in Sonoma.

Iron Horse

Green Valley from Iron Horse Winery
Heaven? No. Just the Green Valley, as seen from Iron Horse

The Green Valley is one of those places on this fine planet where everything is as it should be: bucolic, vibrant green vistas; good, down-to-earth people; fantastic wines. 

There is no place to better enjoy all of the above than at the Iron Horse winery in Sonoma County.

Some of the best sparkling made in America (if not the best, in my mind), along with fabulous still wines of red, white, and rose varieties to please every palate. In fact, Iron Horse made a sparkling wine that may have helped end the Cold War (Russian Cuvee), so it’s definitely a must-stop if you’re up in the Wine Country.

Though Iron Horse has played a role in history and on many a White House table, the winery stays true to its roots. The tasting room is outdoors, overlooking the blissful, Shire-like Green Valley. The tasting table embodies rustic charm at its best: simple planks on barrels. The wine’s the real star.

The staff at Iron Horse shine just as brightly, however. The people who take you through the tasting and share their knowledge with you are some of the friendliest, warmest folks you’ll ever meet.  They’re serious about wine while still having fun with it and all that wine culture entails.

Iron Horse’s harvest party is exceptional, and other events are always amazing– with great food and wine pairings and fun people. (If you live in San Francisco, become a member immediately if you ever enjoy a visit to the Wine Country.)

They do a lot of things year-round, so be sure to check out their Web site before you go to see if you can time your visit with one of their events. Or, just go when it’s only you and a few other wine-lovers, soaking up some sun while drinking sparkling and taking in the truly green Green Valley. Call first if you’d like a tour.

For info, including driving directions: http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com/ Iron Horse is physically located at 9786 Ross Station Rd. (Postal address is Sebastapol, but it’s just a stone’s throw from the delights of Graton.)

Seek the Sunshine – San Jose Weekend

Sometime around July in San Francisco, you begin to wonder if the yellow, life-giving disc in the sky is ever going to return. I once spent a 4th of July steps from where they shoot off fireworks unable to see them because of the San Francisco fog. When this happens to you for too long, as a San Francisco city dweller, you know you’re in need of a sunny escape.

Fortunately, the urban conglomeration of San Jose is not too far from San Francisco, and the sun always seems to shine over the capital of the Silicon Valley. So, rent your car and head out on the highway, humming “Do You Know the Way…” all the while. (To reduce your carbon footprint, this weekend jaunt, omitting the wineries I mention, can also be done on the train, as there’s Caltrain Service from San Fransciso to San Jose.)

Day 1: Do You Know the Way to San Jose?
If you wake up fairly early in San Francisco on a Saturday morning, you can have a light breakfast of toast/coconut/espresso over at Trouble Coffee, over on Judah, between 45th & 46th. Then, cruise down the Great Highway over to Skyline Drive, heading south through some beautiful forested areas, and the lovely town of Woodside.

On your left, a few miles outside of Woodside, your first wine stop will be Thomas Fogarty, which makes some great vino– especially their barberas if you’re a fan of those.  You can see how much the fog that plagues you in San Francisco contributes to some fine wine production when you taste the many varieties at Fogarty. (You can find Fogarty, along with the best driving directions to find them, online at:  http://www.fogartywinery.com/)

Keep meandering down Skyline, one of the world’s great drives. You’ll pass through redwoods, see scenic vistas of the Bay below, and a variety of flora and fauna.

When you get to Highway 9, turn, and head toward Saratoga. (Highway 9 is also known as Big Basin Way.) Your next stop will be the Savannah-Chanelle winery, a maker of some very nice wines, particularly reds. You can also snack on some salami and cheese for sale there, as the winery has a nice picnic area in front. (For some info online, see:  http://www.savannahchanelle.com/) From Savannah-Chanelle, you’re just a stone’s throw from San Jose, your final sunny stop.

If you left early enough and were leisurely enough at the wineries, you should be arriving in San Jose around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Maybe earlier. You’ll be checking into the Fairmont, in downtown San Jose, which has great rates on weekends when the Valley’s business activities grind to a halt. The pool at the Fairmont is a fabulous place to soak in the sun. You will forget that the fog ever plagued you after an hour or two here.

Irish musician at O'Flaherty's
Irish musician at O'Flaherty's

After your swim, hit the showers and leave the hotel for the evening. (You won’t need to drive, which is nice if you plan to imbibe.) O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub at 25 N. San Pedro Street is a good time with good pub grub. The staff make you feel at home. There’s often music too. Visit online for more info:  http://www.oflahertyspub.com/

Should you tire of the flavors of Ireland, you can head around the corner to the Brit, or Brittania Arms, at 173 W. Santa Clara. The Brit’s a big pub, and often, has some DJ action and/or a BBQ on a nice back patio (http://www.britanniaarmsdowntown.com/) Once it’s time to hit the hay, you’re just a few blocks away from your comfy bed at the Fairmont.

Day 2: Sunshine & Science
Sunday morning, have breakfast in bed with the Fairmont’s excellent room service, or head downstairs to the plaza between the Fairmont’s main building and adjoining tower for some excellent European-style pastries and coffee. Then, hit the pool until you can’t stand the sun any more. (Though fleeing from the fog the morning before, the sun is hot enough in San Jose that you will soon tire of it. Or at least, your skin will.)

Once you do need some shade after your poolside stint, cool down across the street at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. In addition to some great exhibits about the business of Silicon Valley (clean rooms for micro-chips, body scanning, & more), there’s an IMAX theater with a variety of shows. You can even make your own customized Web page as a souvenir by using the museum’s special scanner system. To get the most out of your visit, plan prior using the museum’s Web site: http://www.thetech.org/

At the end of the day, hop on the 101 and get back to San Francisco in around an hour and a half. After so much sunshine, you may even be happy to see the fog.

Matanzas Creek

Just outside of bustling Santa Rosa, on a lovely road that showcases all that is good and rural about Sonoma County, sits Matanzas Creek. Matanzas has been a leader in efforts to preserve the beautiful Bennett Valley and get the area declared its own viticultural region.  For this alone, they’d be worthy of support. The high quality wine has always been another reason to keep coming back for more. 

For many years, Matanzas’ winemaker was a remarkable Frenchman, Francois Cordesse. M. Cordesse’s creations remain for sale at Matanzas and should definitely be snapped up when you visit. Apparently, Francois is now at Coppola which should result in some fine creations at that winery.

Representing the best of French technique with some of America’s best fruit, Francois’ wines for Matanzas are all great, embodying the unique terroir from which they grow. Francois’ sauvignon blancs and merlots (in particular merlots from the Jackson Park vineyard) always delight.  (The 2006 Jackson Park merlot drinks very nicely; I also just sampled a 2006 cabernet sauvignon that was pretty darn good, particularly with full-bodied cheeses.)

The winery’s higher end productions from their “Journey” label are worth trying and showcase Francois’ best handiwork for the vintages he produced. The 2007 chardonnay is everything a chardonnay actually should be: a balanced, delectable sipper with a pleasant creamy, roundness to it that plays off the light tang of the fruit. (Sorry to report, but I am not a fan of the extremely bad habit California producers have gotten into over the past decade, in which chardonnay tastes like an old, wet oak plank smeared with butter flavoring.)

The 2007 Journey Chardonnay is darn near perfection and has cellared well.  The really nice lady at the tasting room said that Francois, the wine’s maker, thinks it could be put away very nicely for up to 4 years. (That is, if you can avoid the obvious temptation of drinking it now, but as we’re in 2011, you have an incentive to drink it now, given the tasting room lady’s guidance). My mom and my step-dad enjoyed it as they’re both fans of French white bordeaux.

Though there’s no longer a Frenchman at the helm, Marcia Monahan is now creating for Matanzas. In August 2011, I tasted the fruits of her labor in the form of a highly drinkable and pleasantly crisp sauvignon blanc. It’s nice to know that the winery has a history of featuring female winemakers; the incomparable Merry Edwards also once created for Matanzas. I look forward to seeing what Marcia creates from the amazing fruits of Matanzas terroir.

Though some things have changed behind the scenes at Matanzas, others remain the same on the front-end. The staff are always friendly and really helpful. There’s none of the pretention that, sadly, permeates so many other wineries, particularly those in Napa. The folks at Matanzas like and enjoy wine. They want you to like and enjoy it too.

Enjoyment is further enhanced by the beauty of the Matanzas property. The deck is a great place to sit and sip surrounded by lovely greenery, with sweeping views of the lavender gardens and the mountains across the way. The bocce ball court is another fine spot, perfect for a picnic and a glass or 2 of one of the refreshing whites or roses made at Matanzas. There are a few additional picnic tables and benches tucked away around the gardens as well, should you wish to enjoy your wine outdoors in a more secluded way.

In keeping with enjoying the Wine Country lifestyle, Matanzas hosts many events for the public and for members throughout the year, most notably, their legendary Lavender Festival. Be sure to take a look at their Web site for the events schedule and plan your visit so you can take part. If you live in San Francisco, Matanzas is also one of the best wine clubs to belong to, both because of the excellent wine and the great member events throughout the year.

Matanzas is located at 6097 Bennett Valley Road, on the outskirts of Santa Rosa.  More info, including listings about events is at: http://www.matanzascreek.com/ Get there quick so that you can get a bottle or two of Francois’ divine creations and eventually say, “I got this wine before he became truly famous….” (That is, if you can manage not to drink these delightful wines now.)