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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Tag: Northern California

A Perfect Weekend Getaway to Napa Valley

Paula Gaston

It has been a long time since I have been Napa Valley, the most famous wine growing region of the United States. There are so many wine areas in California, and Napa Valley out of all of them, is by far the most expensive to visit. That might be why we don’t often go there even though it is only a couple hours drive from our home. This time we decided to do a little getaway weekend with my girlfriends, and combine a wine trip with a little spa retreat. And it was so worth it! It was great to have some time off from home and being a mom, and just be with friends enjoying the springtime sun.

 
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We left the San Francisco Bay Area in my friend’s van, and we had booked a driver for our group for a whole day in Napa Valley. She was already waiting for us when we arrived to our hotel in the town of Calistoga. She’d made us some reservations to four different wineries and so we headed to our wine tour. My favourite places in Napa Valley are absolutely both Calistoga and St Helen where they have many nice wineries and spas. Since it is a volcanically active area, many spa hotels use the mineral water from the hot springs at their pools. They usually also offer many kind of treatments like mud baths.

NAPA VALLEY’S FOUR DIFFERENT KINDS OF WINERIES

We started our tour from Sterling Vineyards. I actually wasn’t so excited after seeing their website, since it seemed to be showing only millenials partying in their night club clothes rather than the wine. But our driver assured me that this would be a nice place to visit…and it was. The wines didn’t really strike me well, but people are taken up the hill to the winery in a gondola and the views are great of course. Like so many other wineries in Napa Valley, you are paying for the experience rather than the tasting itself. The tasting included a self guided tour at the winery, gondola ride and a wine glass to take home.

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At our next winery, Frank Family Vineyards, we had planned a picnic lunch. Before leaving on the tour, we stopped at a little market in downtown Calistoga and got some salads and sandwiches. Our driver Linda was well prepared for this too; she had brought a picnic basket with plates and everything. From the winery we bought a couple bottles of bubbly for the lunch and enjoyed their picnic area outside. So we didn’t actually try their tasting menu, but the wines we chose for the lunch were excellent.

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After our picnic lunch we headed to the third winery which actually has a long history in Napa Valley. There are two reasons why this vineyard is important to Napa. Some of you might have heard of the so-called Judgement of Paris in 1976. It was a wine tasting contest organised in France and done blind folded. To everyone’s surprise, a wine from Napa Valley won. Normally the French were kind of laughing at Americans and their wines, but now they had to admit that there was something better than French wines. The winning wine was from a winery called Chateau Montalena which still exists in Calistoga, and where we have visited earlier. In that same competition, fourth place went to another wine from Napa Valley called Spring Mountain Vineyards. And that is where we headed next.

Another reason why this winery is known, is a television show from the 80’s called Falcon Crest. It was filmed here and even the main house from the show is at the vineyard. Spring Mountain is a very private and calm place, and they only take a handful of visitors who have made a reservation beforehand. And the wines? Amazing! But also very pricey. Many of them can only be bought straight from the winery.

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Mumm Napa, the last place we visited, ended up being a waste of time. Not because it was bad, but because we were late from our schedule and they had given our table away. Wineries in Napa close early—around 4 or 5 pm—and we wanted to get to the hotel anyway before our dinner reservation, so even though we could have waited to get another table, we decided to head out. I didn’t mind so much, because I have visited it many times. Mumm Napa is very popular among the visitors and I recommend making a reservation if you plan to go there.

I will tell you about all these wineries more later.

EATING, SHOPPING AND BATHING

There are many small, nice restaurants in downtown Calistoga. We actually voted about where to go, and a French restaurant “Veraison” won. It was a great choice. Nothing extra special, but the food was good and they paired everything with wine of course. I went with the chef’s menu which had Osso Bucco as a main course. The next day before heading home we also had a brunch at Sam’s Social Club which had a great outside patio. After bathing and swimming, the avocado toast with mimosa was to die for.

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If you are staying the night in Calistoga, you should absolutely choose one of the spa hotels, so you can try out the warm mineral pools. This time our hotel had two saunas: a dry sauna and a steaming one. From the sauna, we ran to the pool area, where the water comes from the warm springs in Calistoga. The hot tub was way too hot for me in the sun, but I did enjoy the actual mineral water pool. The water looks a little different from the regular pool water, but they do say that it can be a different color at different times of the year. Some hotels also offer mud baths with volcanic mud or other treatments. Last time we did try the mud bath and it was a fun experience.

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When we left back home, we stopped in the city of Napa to visit the Oxbow Public Market. It’s a market place where local producers sell their products, food and wines. It was a great place to buy something to take home with you.

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This kind of weekend more please! What is your best getaway weekend activity?

Visit to Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco

Paula Gaston

Few weeks ago we celebrated the Chinese New Year in Chinatown San Francisco. Before the main event of the evening; New Year Parade, we went to eat some Chinese food. Here when you finish eating in a Chinese restaurant, you usually get a little fortune cookie for dessert. We had planned to visit also the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on the same day, so before heading to the parade area, we stopped at this cute little place.

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CHINESE FORTUNE COOKIE BUT NOT FROM CHINA


I had never thought about it, but the fortune cookies are actually an american thing and most likely, you wont run into the in Asia. No one knows for sure where they originate from, but many believe that they came to America with the Japanese immigrants in 19th, or early 20th century. You can actually still find a cookie a little bit similar to this to be sold in Kyoto, Japan. Some say a Japanese man called Magoto Hagiwara was the first person to offer these cookies to people in the Japanese Tea Garden located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Few others have also claimed to be the inventors of the fortune cookie, but no one has been able to prove it true.

Fortune cookies are made from flour, sugar and sesame oil, and flavoured with vanilla. Originally all the cookies were made by hand but the cookie production got a lot faster when a fortune cookie machine was invented in Oakland, California. Inside the cookie there is a little note with a Chinese phrase or an aphorism, and often some lottery numbers as well.

THE TINY GOLDEN GATE FORTUNE COOKIE FACTORY

When we arrived to the Fortune Cookie Factory we almost turned away after seeing the line. We soon noticed though that it moved very fast, and decided to stay. The reason the line moves so fast is because the factory is actually very small, tiny in fact, and it only takes couple minutes to tour it around. You will see how couple staff members make fortune cookies, and you can buy cookies to take home with you. Among the traditional fortune cookie, there are also some other flavours and fortune cookies covered with chocolate, and even some giant cookies. You can even add your own note inside a cookie. Wouldn’t that be a great hint to someone who is planning to propose?

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

We followed the line inside and bought some chocolate covered fortune cookies to take home with us. Even though the line moved promptly, we had some time to snap couple of photos from inside too. From people who want take photos, they ask either a 50 cent donation or to purchase something from the factory. Fortune Cookie Factory was opened in 1962 and it is owned by Franklin Yee. They produce about 10 000 cookies a day.

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Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
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About a week after visiting the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory I saw in the news that they might have to close their doors soon. San Francisco’s absurd rent prices are really killing the small businesses. It would be such a shame if the fortune cookie factory would be gone since it truly is a piece of Chinatown’s history and a great little place to visit!

 



California Academy of Sciences

Paula Gaston

For some reason, I have kept this post waiting for a long time. I'm not sure, there is no real reason for it. So lets go visit one of the world's biggest natural history museum: The California Academy of Sciences.

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The museum is located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, so it is easy to find if you are visiting the city. This museum has a very long history. The academy was established in 1853 and the first museum opened in 1874. After that, it has changed its name, moved the location and gotten a new building several times. The museum was almost completely destroyed by the big fire after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. After that, it was opened in a new location in Golden Gate Park, but even that building got damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Then a decision was made to completely renovate the museum. The current museum building was planned as ecological as possible, and it is known for its green grass rooftop.

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Among all the nature things you can see in the museum, there is also a planetarium, aquarium and a rainforest in it. In the natural museum one can visit exhibits from all over the world. One interesting section is the part where they showcase evolution. Another popular spot is the earthquake simulator where people can feel what it would be like in a major earthquake. 

Our favorite is absolutely the rainforest. In a hot and steamy tropic room you can see all kinds of animals from poisonous frogs to beautiful butterflies. You might have to stand in a line for a while to get in, but it is well worth it!

Another one that we like is the Steinhart Aquarium which showcases one of the world's most diverse coral reef. I could stay in the aquarium for hours to watch all the sea creatures. Kids and adults too can get close to ocean critters in a touch pool where the staff will tell you about what you are looking at. I also love the colourful, tropical fish. Kids usually love to watch penguins getting fed, and they also have an albino alligator which would not survive in nature. 

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We have visited the California Academy of Sciences multiple times and it is always fun. A day goes really fast there and every time we learn something new. It is a perfect place if you get tired of sightseeing or if it is raining. I can truly recommend a visit!

TIPS FOR VISITING THE CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENcES

  • If you want to avoid standing in line, you can buy your ticket ahead of time online. You should also google some discount tickets that can often be found.
  • Going through the museum takes hours. So bring comfortable shoes and reserve a lot of time for your visit. Take a program with you from the door so you can check when the different shows start. 
  • The museum has a nice cafe where you can buy both food and snacks. 
  • There is a big parking garage next to the museum but especially on the weekends the parking fills up fast. The earlier you arrive, the easier it will be to find parking. 

It's Pumpkin Time in California - Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival

Paula Gaston

Autumn is here and it's harvest time. In October it is still quite warm in Northern California, and every place is decorated with pumpkins. People are eager to start the holiday season which starts with Halloween on the last day of the month. During October, people usually stop by pumpkin patches. There are big playgrounds for kids, and you can get your decorative pumpkins as well as the ones you want to eat. So if you happen to be in United States during October, don't forget to stop at a pumpkin patch, or check the events calendar for all the special events related to that. 

For a few years now, we have been driving over to Pacific Coast Highway, to Half Moon Bay for the pumpkin festival. We had planned to do that this year also, but the first autumn storm got in the way. The rain would have not stopped us, but we didn't want to spend the day in traffic caused by the rain. So we took our Finnish guests to a pumpkin patch in our hometown instead. Maybe we will head to Half Moon Bay some other day, but here are some of our experiences at the pumpkin festival from recent years. 

House of pumpkins in our hometown

House of pumpkins in our hometown

Half Moon Bay is a small coastal town, a little over half an hour drive from San Francisco to the south. It is known for the agriculture, fishing and the yearly pumpkin festival. Many people visit Half Moon Bay for it's nurseries or christmas tree farms. I have also been in Half Moon Bay for a few times for horseback riding trips. Most of the trails follow the coastline or take you down to the beach, so the views on these trails are magnificent. 

 

The Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival is held every October, and runs through the weekend. You should arrive early since the festival has gotten very popular in recent years, and it might be difficult to find parking, or get through the traffic. Half Moon Bay's Main Street will be closed during the festival, and it is full of art and craft booths, food vendors and entertainers. The first pumpkin festival was held in 1971. A committee which was established to maintain the historic downtown and Main Street started a festival tradition in order to raise some money. In the first year they got approximately 30,000 visitors during the weekend, but today this number has at least doubled. 

Usually, when we visit the pumpkin festival, we walk around the area and then find a nice restaurant or cafe to eat at. There are also a lot of street food options, and at least wine and beer for sale. Most times we haven't bought much, but if you like arts and crafts, I'm sure you can find lots of nice things. 

There are plenty of things for kids. They can for example participate in a pumpkin pie eating contest or pumpkin carving. There is a playground and last year, there was a miniature mechanical bull for kids. The festival starts in the morning with a costume contest for both, kids and adults. If you walk a little further from Main Street, you can visit a haunted barn.. but only if you dare!

We have mostly been interested in the pumpkin related things. The area has always been nicely decorated, and before the festival weekend the farmers bring their biggest pumpkins for weighing. The biggest one is hidden in a tent and you can get yourself photographed with it for a small fee. For us, it has been enough to see the other pumpkins that participated in the contest. They always look enormous too. In my opinion, the most interesting thing is to see, what kind of pumpkins farmer Mike have carved. He truly is a master of pumpkin carving, or what do you think?

Farmer Mike

Farmer Mike

There is no entrance fee for the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, and it easily becomes a whole day thing. However, there are other things you can do at Half Moon Bay too if you visit. You can go and get your own pumpkins from local pumpkin patches, or go for a nice stroll on the beach. You should however bring your umbrella. Based on these pictures you can see that it has been raining then too. I hope we get to visit the pumpkin festival next year!