Northern California: From San Francisco to Tahoe - Part II
Updated: May 23, 2022
"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us."
Monday, March 21, 2022 -- Leaving San Francisco
Though our destination that day would be Napa, we still had a bit of business to conclude in the exquisitely fascinating and enchanting city of San Francisco. First on the list was breakfast. Poking around in the immediate surroundings of our hotel during the past few days, we noticed a deli about a block and a half away. (David's Delicatessen, 474 Geary Street, (415) 276-5950). When we arrived that morning, there was plenty of open seating at the wrap-around counter. The interior of the restaurant harkens back to the golden age of the American diner -- long before fast food establishments began to supplant them. In the context of today's dining experience, David's Delicatessen feels fun and retro. Each of us ordered something different, and each of us declared the food to be satisfying and tasty. Oddly, online reviews of the deli show a cumulative rating of just 2 stars, but since the start of the pandemic, those ratings are almost all 5 stars, suggesting significant changes were made two years ago to improve customer service and menu quality. We would definitely give David's Delicatessen a 5-star rating.
With the Nissan Armada fully loaded with our luggage, we left the hotel for our next and final stop in the city -- Ghirardelli Square. Founded in 1852, just four years after the start of the California Gold Rush, the Ghirardelli chocolate factory is today, along with its shops and central square, one of the biggest tourist draws in the city. Located on North Point Street between Larkin and Polk Streets and adjacent to the San Francisco Maritime National History Park, it is a marketplace campus encompassing an entire city block where you can tour the factory, shop the boutiques, sample the chocolates, pause to admire Andrea's Fountain, sit down for a meal at one of the many restaurants, or, as we decided to do, order hot fudge sundaes and sit in the dining area facing Larkin Street where the glass walls invite tons of natural light.
We said goodbye to the city as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, northbound on US 101. Our next stop would be Muir Woods National Monument -- or so we thought. When we were within 20 minutes of the park, we saw signage warning that reservations were required to enter. We did not make reservations, and though we tried to do that online at the last minute, we were unsuccessful. The crew really wanted to see the redwoods and Muir Woods would have been the perfect place to see them. Instead, we quickly checked for other less restrictive options and found there was a publicly accessible stand of redwoods about a 30-minute drive away, mostly along the route to Napa -- a place known as Roys Redwoods Preserve. It was located just outside the town of Woodacre and well worth the detour.
We lingered long enough to soak in the majesty and grandeur of the noble giants towering over us as they filtered sunlight down in scattered shafts of light. We captured some great photos as we moved through the peaceful stillness of the forest in absolute awe. We didn't stay long, though. We had reservations to tour a winery in the Napa Valley and daylight was burning.
We made good time getting from the redwood stand to the city of Napa where we checked into the Westin Verasa Napa hotel. It was simply one of the finest hotels I've stayed in. Shirley had reserved one of the best rooms in the entire property for us -- an enormous two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, separate baths and sliding glass doors leading out to a private patio. The furnishings were modern and stylish, and the seating areas were more than comfortable. It was so spacious and inviting and well-provisioned that my only regret was that we were staying just one night. The hotel is just a few minutes walk from downtown Napa and immediately adjacent to the Napa River and several popular footpaths.
After a quick change of clothes, we jumped back in the Armada and headed north along SR 128 toward the town of St. Helena and the Del Dotto Estate Winery and Caves. Shirley had arranged for us to take part in a guided tour of the cave which would include wine tasting and interesting anecdotal tidbits on the art of viticulture. Our guide was an affable oenophile with a great sense of humor and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of wine-making. Our tour started in the main lobby of the winery, surrounded by Venetian architectural elements, including marble floors, columns and arches, mosaic tiles, fresco paintings, gold inlay, chandeliers and intricately fashioned wrought-iron railings along the second floor balcony. We were then led into the cave, which was far more elegant than what the word "cave" conjures in the mind. Built with stone, marble and terracotta from Italy in 2007, it is a grand underground passage with vaulted ceilings, lined with dozens of barrels of wine and illuminated by sumptuous crystal chandeliers that are placed at junctures where small tasting stations cut into the walls.
Using a glass wine thief -- a tool used to siphon small amounts of wine from a barrel -- our guide treated us to a variety of varietals, including a cabernet sauvignon, a zinfandel and a rosé. He shared fascinating factoids about the barrels the wines are stored in: how they are constructed, the kinds of wood used in their construction, where the wood comes from, how many times the barrels are used before they are decommissioned. As we learned, all of these factors play an important role in the development of the wine's flavor. To illustrate his point, we were invited to take part in a side-by-side comparison of a single vineyard cabernet aged in French oak alongside the same cabernet aged in American oak, and the difference was astonishing. The tour lasted approximately an hour, and at the end, we were treated to a wood-fired cheese pizza back in the main lobby. The experience of the tour was entirely unique and entertaining, and I highly recommend this if you are visiting the Napa Valley.
Back in town, it was time to find a place for dinner. For a Monday night, there were lots of people crowding the sidewalks and filling the bars and restaurants. Wait times were long just about everywhere. After checking out a few options, we decided to dine at Allegria (1026 1st Street, 707-254-8006), an Italian restaurant located in the virtual beating heart of the city. The wait time wasn't too bad -- about 30 minutes. The restaurant was converted from an old bank; the former vault is used as a private dining area. Before long, we were seated at our table. The food was outstanding. I ordered the gnocchi al pesto and it was a little plate of heaven.
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
The next day, we decided to have breakfast at an eatery we spied the night before during an evening stroll through the center of town -- Downtown Joe's on Main Street (707-258-2337). We were pleasantly surprised with what we found at Downtown Joe's -- staff who greeted us warmly when we arrived, great menu options at very reasonable prices, and stellar service. Since the weather was so warm, even at 10 a.m., we sat outside in a covered, enclosed area just a few feet from the street itself. The food was excellent. Be sure to check this place out if you're in Napa.
After breakfast, it was time to point our vehicle eastward and head up into the Sierra Nevadas. Our destination was Lake Tahoe where we would spend the next four nights. But first, we needed to gas up. The price of a gallon of gasoline had risen steeply everywhere in the weeks preceding our trip to California. We knew it was going to cost more to drive around. Back home in Washington, the average price of a gallon was around $4.79. In California, it was closer to $6, and we were driving a hulking beast of an SUV. It cost about $90 to fill a little more than half the tank.
From Napa, we took SR 12 south out of town and soon connected with I-80 heading east. In Sacramento, we veered to the right onto US 50 and began the gradual ascent up into the mountains. In all, it took just a little over three hours to make the journey to the south shore of Lake Tahoe and the scenery along the highway gradually transformed from the ordinary to the spectacular as we approached our destination. Having arrived at the end of March, there was still a fair amount of snow in the higher elevations, but South Lake Tahoe, California, and its smaller neighbor to the east, Stateline, Nevada, were practically devoid of it. Accommodations were provided by the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on the Nevada side in Stateline. We were eager to check in and unwind a little from the drive.
A few words about the Hard Rock Hotel
The room rates are fairly reasonable, compared with other hotels in the area, but the reasons for this soon revealed themselves to us. The property is clearly in decline and lacking in basic amenities. Wayne and Shirley chose to upgrade their room to a suite and, though it cost them a little more, got a spacious room with a kitchenette and stunning views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding snow-capped mountains from their balcony. Matthew and I, on the other hand, were traveling modestly and reasoned that, since we're not planning to spend much time in our room, we could suck it up and make the best of it. After all, we came to Lake Tahoe for the adventures outside the hotel. It soon became apparent to us just how important it was to continuously remind ourselves that our hotel room was just for sleeping and personal hygiene, nothing more. Our room did not have a coffee maker or climate controls. We were shocked to discover that we could not turn on the A/C when our room temperature reached 77°F. The room temperature is set centrally for all rooms. We were given a cheap little fan to run in our room to offset the heat which, naturally did nothing. You can crack open the floor-to-ceiling window about an inch, but nothing more than that. No one made our bed the whole time we were there and getting fresh towels was harder than it needed to be. There is no indoor pool which didn't make sense for a hotel that is surrounded by winter half of the year. The elevators were in poor shape, scuffed and damaged with linoleum peeling from the floors (or missing in places). There was no concierge. There was no valet. Most public spaces were dirty and worn. The only way to get coffee in the morning was to stand in line at Fuel in the lobby where there is just one barista at any given time. Parts of the casino floor were so hot it was like sitting in a sauna. Good luck trying to find a place to eat after a certain hour -- everything shuts down after 8 or 9 p.m. Okay, rant over.
After settling into our room, we walked down to the end of the hallway to Wayne and Shirley's suite where we got amazing photos of the lake and mountains.
That night, Matthew and I played the slots; Shirley played roulette and Wayne took his turn at both. We started at the Hard Rock, and after an hour or so, having nothing to show for our play time, we casino-hopped -- first to Harvey's next door, then across the street to Harrah's. Mind you, there aren't a lot of casinos in Stateline -- just four medium-sized ones, and one very small one that stands inconspicuously between a tattoo parlor and a sports bar -- Dotty's. We spent a few dollars playing at that tiny, narrow, smoke-filled casino. Though it was run down and dated, it had a few important things going for it: the staff was friendly, food prices were super cheap and the slots were slightly more forgiving. Our little crew was so occupied with casino fun that we lost track of the time. When we all decided to stop and eat, it was just after nine and nothing was open -- not even the casino restaurants. I was so hungry I would have settled for eating out of a vending machine. We found a cafe at Harvey's that was still making pizzas, so that's what we had for dinner. As for the gambling, none of us came out ahead that night.
Wednesday, March 23, 2022
Still smarting from the beating we took in the casinos the night before, we decided to do something away from town that morning. We found a destination that was the perfect combination of being both a short drive away and replete with breathtaking natural beauty -- Emerald Bay. Located on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, on the California side, about a 30-minute drive away up SR 89, Emerald Bay is the crown jewel of the twisting and scenic highway that rings the lake. It is a protected cove of crystal clear, shimmering aquamarine water surrounded by forested hillsides and rocky outcroppings. The highway approach is high along the bluffs and ascending slopes of the surrounding mountains where vehicular turnouts and wayside parking areas offer opportunities to pause and appreciate the stunning views down into the bay.
The four of us stopped at the larger parking area on the northern slope facing the bay and scrambled up over the exposed, bare rock where we captured some truly spectacular photos of the bay, and the distant lake and mountain range along the eastern shore. We also got some great photos of the mountains just behind us.
About Lake Tahoe
Most people know Lake Tahoe as the sparkling blue aquatic gem that sits high up in the Sierra Nevada range, home to fantastic ski resorts, popular with tourists, and blessed with abundant natural beauty. There are some surprising facts about Lake Tahoe that I think are worth sharing:
It is the deepest lake in the United States, after Crater Lake, Oregon, at a depth of 1,645 feet.
It is 22 miles long from north to south and 12 miles at its widest point. Its shoreline is 75 miles in length.
At 6,225 feet, it is more than a mile high, with the surrounding peaks topping out at 11,000 feet.
Unlike Crater Lake, Lake Tahoe was not formed by filling in the caldera of a volcano -- it was instead created over millions of years through the movement of tectonic plates.
Lake Tahoe has just one river to drain its accumulation of rainwater and snow-melt -- the Truckee River. It flows north and east into Nevada, through the city of Reno, and empties into Pyramid Lake. The Truckee River only drains about a third of Tahoe’s water; the rest escapes due to surface evaporation. That evaporation accounts for 330 million gallons of water each day, which is enough to supply 3,900,000 households.
According to The Tahoe Fund, the lake's water is 99.994% pure, nearly as pure as commercially distilled water. In fact, the water's purity contributes to its lovely blue appearance. On clear days, the lake water absorbs the red from the sunlight, leaving a clear, deep-blue color. The shallower water at the edges of the lake reveals a pleasing emerald shade when the sky is clear.
There is a lot of water in Lake Tahoe -- approximately 39 trillion gallons. According to Keep Tahoe Blue, that’s enough volume to cover a flat area the size of California with 14 inches of water.
The lake water is so clear that you can see to a maximum depth of 67 feet.
Meanwhile, Back in South Lake Tahoe
By the time we drove back from Emerald Bay, lunchtime had arrived. Craving a breakfast menu instead, we stopped at Denny's along US 50 and took a break from the $20+/plate eateries inside the casinos and clustered around the Heavenly Ski Resort Village on the California side. When we returned to our hotel, we were looking for our next source of entertainment, and found it quickly. A sign outside the Vinyl Room advertised a magic show and the next night was the magician's final performance on the tour. Promoters of the show invited potential guests to enter a drawing for two free tickets. Shirley and Matthew both entered the drawing. We wouldn't find out until the next day if any of us were winners ...
For the remainder of that day, we napped, played a little more in the casinos and cobbled together a nutritionally questionable meal of popcorn and baked potato chips purchased from the nearly bare snack shelves at the CVS across the street. We were all ready for a few hours of low-key, unstructured downtime after four straight days of sightseeing and being constantly on the move. Those important hours of downtime were enough to recharge our batteries for the excitement in store for us over the remainder of our vacation.
In the Next Installment ...
I'll reveal how the drawing for the free tickets to the magic show turned out, I'll share the unexpectedly fun adventure we had up in snow country, and I'll conclude with the highlights of our visit to Carson City and Reno. Until then, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!