My wife and I try to get to the beach at least once a year. In the past, most of our coastal visits have been to the Atlantic side of Florida; however, we have occasionally made it to other surfside destinations in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and California. For the summer of 2022, we decided to spend a few nights at Laguna Beach as part of a trip to San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park. We booked two nights at Surf and Sand Resort because it looked like a really nice place where we could get an oceanfront room with a balcony, something that has become an absolute must for us.
We have learned the hard way the difference between oceanfront and ocean “view” when it comes to beach accommodations. Ocean view only means that some fragment of sand and water will be in your field of vision when you are looking out from a window or balcony. If we want to sit outside our room and gaze at the beach, waves, and water (and we do), we book an oceanfront room. When Surf and Sand Resort promises you this type of room, they really come through in a big way. Our room was on the fourth floor, and it was so close to the ocean that when we were looking out the sliding-glass door from inside, we couldn’t even see the resort’s namesake: surf and sand. The view was more like looking out of the cabin of a cruise ship on the high seas!
On our first night, we ate dinner at the resort’s restaurant at a table located on a terrace within a few yards of the breakers. The sounds, smells, and feel of the breeze on our skin all combined to make dinner something more than just a meal. The next morning we walked a few blocks to a charming breakfast spot that served the regular fare, along with some specialty dishes and incredibly delicious fresh fruit. For lunch we dined outside at a nearby Mexican restaurant that specialized in providing way more food than we could eat, but it was fantastic. Later that day we took a walk on the beach, which is bordered north and south by massive rocky ledges that jet out into the ocean, both of which were visible from our balcony. That evening we walked again a few blocks to a dinner spot that was on a deck right at the beach, offering stunning views of the sun sinking toward the flat line of the horizon.
Yes, we did spend a lot of time eating, but we also relished hours relaxing with books and magazines on our balcony. We took naps in the room. We sat for long stretches on the balcony just watching the magnificent Pacific Ocean and the various ships, boats, jet skis, and surfers that crossed our field of vision. The room was comfortable even though it was not equipped with air conditioning. We really didn’t need it. We kept our sliding glass door open the entire time we were there, day and night, listening to the crashing surf. I never saw an insect – not one. That would never happen on the Atlantic coast. Laguna Beach is truly a gem and worth the splurge. I hope we can go back sometime.
There is a bizarre and surreal place at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California that was several million years in the making. It was worth the wait. With massive rock formations rising up from the flat desert floor, Joshua Tree National Park is like a geological museum that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is hard to imagine that these stone towers, created from magma rising from deep below the surface and eventually hardening as it cooled, are what is left behind from millions of years of soil erosion. Boulders the size of boxcars are miraculously balanced on top of each other, like rock piles left behind by the children of gods.
There are also large masses of rounded granite that have been altered and even sculpted by rain, wind, ice, chemical reactions, plant roots, and other forces to form fantastic shapes and configurations. Set against the backdrop of nearby mountain ranges and surrounded by the desert floor, these structures are truly impressive. Throw in a developing thunderstorm billowing above (yes, it does rain in the desert) and you have all the makings of a classic Thomas Cole masterpiece.
Then there is the namesake of the park, the Joshua Tree, which would fit perfectly into the backdrop of almost any picture book by Dr. Seuss or on the cover of a paperback book about planets on the other side of the galaxy. Belonging to the same family of Agave plants native to tropical South America, Joshua Trees are a type of Yucca, which we often associate with the short, dark green spiky plants of the tropics and deserts. Joshua Trees have an almost whimsical character, proving yet again that nature has a sense of humor. The plant takes on many different shapes and sizes, as if taking its cue from the rocks around it. Joshua Trees have a rather limited range within the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
There are several places in this wonderful park where visitors can get breathtaking panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys that stretch out for miles. At just the right position and vantage point, the scene is reminiscent of something out of a science fiction movie. At the very least, these vistas could serve as inspiration for visual art depicting imaginary worlds. Joshua Tree National Park is one of those natural wonders of the United States that is somehow liminal, neither here nor there, but somewhere between.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.
We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.
On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.
When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.
To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.
People travel for a variety of reasons. Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda. We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different. Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives. We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time. And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location. It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them. It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.
Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco. We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay. It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel. It was fabulous. On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city. He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay. We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay. We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening. We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.
We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours. As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach. We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears. We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough. We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there. We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way. There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all. Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate. I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel. I have taken a journey.
I have seen and heard restaurant owners for years use the phrase “dining experience” to describe what it is like to have a meal at their establishment. For a long time I considered the phrase to be poor marketing at best and false advertising at worst. If I wanted an experience I would go see a good movie or play, not eat a plate of ravioli with a side Caesar salad. However, my attitude changed several years ago when my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco, which also included a drive down the coast on Highway 1 to spend a night at Carmel-by-the-Sea. We were only there for a short time, and we wanted to have a good meal before heading out the next day. We began searching for restaurants online and decided on a place called Casanova in the little village of Carmel. Nestled among the shops and galleries there, Casanova is a quaint, unassuming place with a simple façade that would be easy to walk past unnoticed. And that would be a mistake.
Casanova is a family owned and operated restaurant that serves rustic and classic cuisine, obviously with an Italian flavor. Ingredients come from local, small organic farms and fisheries. The world-class wine cellar is managed by a certified wine educator. The chef’s menu selections range from veal dishes to lamb, beef, and seafood. They have inside and outside seating. We were seated outside in a small courtyard area with plastic sheeting and heaters. It wasn’t closed off enough to keep small birds from flitting in and out looking for crumbs on the ground left by diners, which we decided was charming instead of a deterrent or distraction.
Our meal was exquisite, from appetizers all the way through the courses to dessert. We were there for almost two hours but never once felt like the evening was dragging. We were not in a secluded, dimly-lit corner of a dining room, but the setting was still completely romantic. We could easily forget that there were other diners around us, which was made possible by the most professional waiter I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I don’t recall his name. I do remember that he was a middle-aged man who was extremely well-spoken, impressively knowledgeable about the restaurant’s offerings and specialties, and very skilled at his profession. He was attentive without hovering, interesting but not intrusive. The food and our waiter turned that dinner into a true dining experience that I will not forget. I never had a meal in Rome, Italy, that was better than what we had at Casanova.
The restaurant’s website now announces that they have acquired the table at which Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed his meals at the Auberge Ravoux. The arrival of the table marks the beginning of a cultural exchange between these two artistic communities: Carmel-by-the-Sea and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where Van Gogh spent the last days of his life. Dining at Casanova involves much more than just enjoying a delicious meal. It is about being transported from the malaise to the magnificent! As they say in the book reviews: “highly recommended.”
About six years ago, my wife and I were on a business trip in Savannah, Georgia, with her boss. We decided to have dinner at one of the best restaurants in the historic section of the city, a place called the Olde Pink House on Abercorn Street. We didn’t have reservations but were fortunate enough to get a table in the basement bar, where there was a fire blazing in a large fireplace, and the light in the room was soft and low. It was a very relaxed setting, with an old world kind of atmosphere, which is exactly what one should expect in one of the South’s oldest cities. Our waiter was quite knowledgeable about their wine selection, so we asked him to decant a nice, dry wine to go with dinner. He brought the bottle to the table, poured half the contents through the filter into the large decanter, swirled the liquid to release the bouquet, and allowed us to smell the wine before he poured each of us a glass. I have now forgotten the variety (probably a merlot), but I do remember that it was just about the best glass of wine I had ever tasted. We asked him about the brand, and he told us it was a Hess. We had never heard of it, but we were determined to find out more about the winery.
The Hess Collection winery is in the Mount Veeder area of Napa Valley in California. Grapes have been cultivated on the property at least as far back as the 1870s. From 1900 to 1929, the property was owned by Colonel Theodore Gier, who built a three-story building that would eventually hold the Hess Collection’s historic barrel chai and art gallery. After a few more owners and continued development and expansion through the 20th century, a man named Donald Hess purchased 900 acres on Mount Veeder to begin the Hess Collection. Over 600 acres are set aside as undeveloped land to support wildlife corridors, fish-friendly farming practices, and biodiversity. The Hess Collection opened to the public in June, 1989, following a two-year renovation of the facility which includes 13,000 square feet of Donald Hess’s personal contemporary art collection.
In 2011, my wife and I took a fabulous vacation to San Francisco, which included several side trips. One of our excursions was a drive up to Napa to pay a visit to the Hess Collection winery. It was magnificent. In addition to tasting several varieties and buying a case to take home with us, we also visited the incredible art gallery and gardens. According to the website, “Donald Hess began collecting art in 1966. Today, the Hess Collection houses less than a quarter of a collection that is shown in museums worldwide. His collecting style is a personal endeavor driven by passion rather than monetary investment or current trends. He develops a close dialogue with an artist to better understand what drives him or her to create and he carefully limits his focus as a collector to 20 living artists whose work he faithfully supports long term. As is evident by the caliber of the collection, he collects with the uncanny ability to acquire works by lesser known artists who often go on to become well known and respected in their disciplines. His typical commitment to an artist spans decades and various stages of his career.”
My wife and I drink wine fairly often. We are nowhere close to being authorities, and we are certainly not wine snobs. Grocery store brands work fine for us most of the time. Our favorable impression of the wine we had that evening at the Olde Pink House may have had more to do with the company and the dining experience than the sophistication of our palates, but we liked it enough to search out where the grapes are grown, which gave us an even deeper appreciation for the brand. The story of Donald Hess and his enterprise, which he has now passed down to the next generations, is a fascinating one. Seeing the actual vineyards where a great bottle of wine originates presented us with a wonderful moment of connection that I’m sure we will remember for a long time.
There are still plenty of outdoor places in America you can visit that are protected enough to offer a glimpse at how the landscape on this continent may have appeared to early native inhabitants and explorers. A prime example are some of the national parks. I think the National Park Service is one of the best government programs of all, and I wish our federal leaders would find some other areas to cut funding and leave this division alone. We have some incredible treasures around the country, several of which I have visited. I have never been disappointed.
One of the best parks to visit to experience what I am describing is Yosemite National Park in the High Sierra region of California. First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. There are so many places in this park where you can stand, and for as far as the eye can see, there is no sign of civilization. The vistas are absolutely breathtaking, including perhaps the most photographed view of all from just beyond the tunnel on Wawona Road, where the valley opens up and welcomes you to what many people refer to as God’s Cathedral. Indeed, the scene is like a place of worship on a monumental scale, and for those who have any appreciation at all for the beauty of the natural world, it invokes a sense of reverence and awe.
My wife and I joined up with a good friend of ours there in July, 2013, staying several nights in a cabin and spending our days hiking along the valley floor and up to one of the high spots overlooking the valley. Yosemite is another one of those places that reminds me just how small I am and how magnificent this planet is. John Muir, the famous naturalist who helped draw up the proposed boundaries of the park in 1889, described Yosemite as being “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons of life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stone, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”
The ribbon of highway that traces the rugged coastline south from San Francisco toward Monterey, California offers the traveler some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. You can close your eyes, put your hands behind your back, hold the camera and snap, and you will still get a photo worthy of any landscape picture calendar. The Pacific is breathtakingly blue, punctuated by white foam around the rocks that break its surface near the coast. The contrast of the pastoral countryside and soaring ridges against the seemingly endless watery horizon is dramatic. If you need to be reminded how small you are, this is a good place to start. This is one of those places that, for lack of better expression, speaks to my soul — moves me. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of seeing it.