California, 2006

[photopress:IMG_2113.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Having only ever been to the States once before 2006, it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself in California only a month after my trip to New York. To be fair, this one had been planned some time in advance. A good friend of my wife was getting married, so a good chunk of the week would be taken up with bridal activities. However we made sure that there would be enough time for some sight-seeing too, after all, this is where my wife grew up.

Knowing time was limited, we started pretty much as soon as the plane landed. We picked up the hire car and headed straight into San Francisco. Since we had to pass through on the way to Laffayette — where we were staying for most our time in California — it made sense to stop at a few sights.

[photopress:IMG_2117.jpg,thumb,alignleft]First stop was Baker Beach, which provided a great view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and my first glance of the Pacific Ocean. Later, when walking across the bridge we came across this sign encouraging people not to jump. Is it just me, or does that seem to be too little too late?

The day of the dress fitting, I spent some time hanging around downtown San Francisco. As an Apple and email junkie, it was necessary to spend some time in the Apple Store. (If you can’t go “high-tech” in the Bay Area where can you do it?) Later, away from the technology, we found the City Lights Bookstore, Fisherman’s Wharf, the seals on Pier 39 and many of the other things that The City is famous for.

[photopress:IMG_2144.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Although tragically touristy, I felt that I had to ride on one of the cable cars. One of the things that they don’t tell you about before-hand is that they pack you in almost as much as a London underground train. Unlike London Transport, however, the only thing stopping you falling into the street is your vice-like grip on poles on the tram. It’s not uncommon to breath in or clench buttocks in preparation for a collision with a car. The scrapes never actually happened but surely it must sometimes?

For the whole ride, from one end of San Francisco to the other, only takes twenty minutes or so. For the whole time the operator is pulling levers and tugging on a frayed string that rings a bell. It’s anyone’s guess what the levers actually do.

[photopress:IMG_2226.jpg,thumb,alignleft]After the wedding was over, we finally got some “us” time and headed north to the Napa Valley, the Californian wine region. We ended up spending most of the money we’d saved by staying in Lafayette the previous week by splashing out on a lovely spa-style hotel in Yountville and dining in a great French-style restaurant.

Only ninety minutes from the Bay Area, we got to the hotel fairly early, checked in and decided to take a look further down the valley. We headed further up the 29 and stopped off at the St Supery Winery for a quick drink. The staff were suitably enthusiastic — unimpressed with our choice of wine, he insisted we try a fifth variety — and the wine agreeable enough to warrant the purchase of a couple of bottles.

Lacking a “designated driver” we decided to steer clear of further wineries (as tempting as further tasting was). We turned off the main road and headed back in a lazy loop back to Yountville. The map we were using indicated a lake but had no suggestions how to actually get there. We guessed and were lucky. It was a nice, tranquil spot just metres from the main road.

The whole area clearly has pretensions to being Tuscany. The green and gently undulating country-side certainly helps in this and many buildings are built in the style. It’s quite surprising that it gets so close!

[photopress:IMG_2216.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Our last full day in California was busy. Starting in Yountville we had to head back to the Bay Area and then further south to San Jose at the centre of Silicon Valley. Our last evening would be spent in the company of Madonna.

But we had to get there first and it only takes a couple of hours to get back to Oakland. We decided to stay up in the wine region for as long as possible but wanted to nip over to the Sonoma Valley which runs parallel to the more famous Napa Valley but also has its fair share of wineries.

Knowing that we weren’t in a hurry, we took our time, stopping off a few times on the way. A few times just to take the odd picture, once in Sonoma itself and finally for lunch at one of the wineries.

[photopress:IMG_2185.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Sonoma had a nice, shady square bordered by shops. We wandered around, stopping at the Sonoma Mission, learning about all the Christian missions that were built and stretched all the way from Mexico.

We eat lunch and head straight down to Oakland (it was inexplicably late afternoon by this point). After all the green and space, even if it was only for twenty-four hours, the dense traffic somehow managed to come as a shock to the system. Perhaps in-keeping with the relative chaos of the freeway, our last few hours in the country would be hectic. There was the Madonna concert and then a last chance to meet up with family. The whole time has gone in a flash.

Back home we collapsed. We covered a lot of ground in California and could happily do with another few days off to recover. No such luck of course. Still, the good news is that we’ll be back.