Friday, March 30, 2007


The snowcapped Sierra Nevadas as seen from the Chateau Routon Vineyard

Every rural intersection has signs to yet more wineries

This is getting to be far too much fun!!! We thought that the Santa Barbara wine region was unique and funky. The Shenandoah Valley wine region, east of Sacramento, makes the Santa Barbara area look like a corporate realm. This area is even smaller and includes the Amador, El Dorado and Fair Play wine regions. You could easily do a wine tasting on foot. The wineries are so small and so numerous that you could walk from one to another until you could no longer stand up. The winemakers are strongly individualistic, very accomplished, and specialize in Zinfandel, Syrah, and Rhone blends, with a bit of Tempranillo, late harvest and surprisingly, Port, thrown in for good measure. The oldest winery in California is here, having commenced production in 1856. This area was, after all, the centre of the 1848 California gold rush. Towns with names like El Dorado, Placerville and Carson City link back to the “old days”.

We spent the better part of the afternoon with a bio-chemist who, after retiring from hospital administration, opened a winery, Amador Cellars, which produces a grand total of 1800 cases a year. Do the math………this guy is not getting rich!! BUT…his wines are amazing. We tasted his bottled zins and syrahs from 2002, ’03 and ’04 and, were so blown away that he offered us barrel samples of ’05 and ’06. I have never tasted a barrel sample that I did not want to spit out………until today. It is sad that the only way to purchase these wines is to knock on the winery door. They sell themselves!!

Then to cap off the day, we were offered tickets to a winery “poker run” on Saturday. These tickets cost the princely sum of $49 each and include 5 wine tastings at 5 different wineries, our choice of a bottle of any of the tasted wines at each winery (total 10 bottles, each worth at least $20), a Riedel tasting glass each, a card at each winery to be played at the end as a poker hand for numerous prizes and………. DINNER. Winemakers must have serious problems with math!!!!

If we never return to Canada……… we have found a nice little winery for sale in a quaint valley in northern California!!

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Redbud Trees cover the mountain slopes

We thought we were doing this trip to avoid this stuff!!!

This one's a baby ....... not much more than 2,000 years old

We headed back into the Sierra Nevada Mountains in order to see Sequoia National Park. The drive commenced on a warm, sunny morning in the San Joaquin Valley farm lands, at about 17°C and ended 2 hours later at 6,500 feet, at -3°C and, in 7 inches of fresh snow. The road into the park, up to the giant trees was restricted to vehicles with 4 wheel drive and/or chains only. Altitude is latitude!!!!

Our first hour, heading west, continued through uninterrupted factory farm land, fertile and FLAT. The farms are imposing and highly automated; employing a scale of food production unlike anything we have seen except in southern California and Arizona. Once we started climbing, the mountain meadows exploded in colour, with the Redbud Trees and Mountain Lupin Bushes taking centre stage, turning some of the mountain slopes into amazing red and violet inclines. Then we hit the snow!! Visibility dropped to zero and, we worried that we might not be able to see the tree-tops. But, as we kept climbing it almost looked like we would break into sunshine.

The giant Sequoias must be seen to be appreciated. The “General Sherman” tree is the largest living thing on earth!!! It is a 2,300 – 2,700 year old Sequoia with a height of 275 feet and a trunk circumference of 103 feet. The volume of the wood in the tree is estimated to be 52,500 cubic feet. That’s a lot of firewood!!! Redwoods can grow taller but, they cannot equal the mass of the Sequoias. And, it takes the heat of forest fires to open the female cones in order to release the seeds. Forest fire repression almost doomed the giants until scientists figured it out. Now, our buddies at the National Park Service actually start fires in the Sequoia forests in order to ensure propagation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fruits and Nuts

Did we take a wrong turn in County Kerry???

Young fruit trees to the horizon

Lettuce to the horizon

Food grows where water flows

The Mojave Desert has to be the most inhospitable place in North America. We spent a couple of days in the desert after leaving Las Vegas and starting our move north. The US military loves the place. In addition to Edwards Air Force Base, there are numerous testing ranges, logistics bases and a few “who knows what they are” bases in the desert. Add in a few boron mines (A little test……who remembers Wagon Train and Twenty Mule Team Borax?) and a couple of the world’s largest junk yards and, that pretty much sums up the Mojave Desert. However, there are more Joshua Trees than in Joshua Tree National Park.

BUT…….start to climb into the Sierra Nevadas and, in the space of five miles, you could be in Ireland!!!! The hill and mountain sides are a lush green, with millions of wildflowers in the mountain meadows. Trees reappear. People and habitation become apparent. It’s a different world!

Across the Sierras, we entered the San Joaquin Valley, another of “America’s breadbaskets”. We drove for over 100 miles surrounded by factory farms and orchards, stretching to the Sierras to the east and the Coastal Range to the west. Some individual orchards were miles long by miles wide. Local fruit and nuts are available everywhere. Roadside billboards broadcast “Food Grows Where Water Flows”, highlighting the importance of that resource. The systems of dikes, levees, pumps and irrigation systems are a major engineering feat. Our RV Park is even in the middle of almond orchards. Free almonds after dark!!!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

More Vegas

And the beat goes on!! The bigger (better????) Las Vegas strip

Puttin' on the ol' feed bag..................AGAIN!!!!!

The Aureole wine tower - 4 stories of some of the best grape juice around!!!!

We bid adieu to the kids today at the Las Vegas airport, after far too short a visit. I think we all agreed that we are more “Santa Barbara Wine Country people” than “Las Vegas people”. But……..Las Vegas is certainly stimulation for the senses. One wonders how long can it continue. Vegas is the fastest growing community in the US with over 5,000 people moving in every month and, a new home completed every 20 minutes. There are currently 5 new casinos under construction on the strip. It is “Boomtown” USA. We were told that the water level in Lake Mead, from which Las Vegas obtains its water, is down 70 feet from its high water mark. I didn’t believe that and checked on the internet. The official number is 65 feet!!!! Who’s going to quibble over 5 feet? I’d say they have a problem!!!!

All that being said, there are wonderful experiences to be had in Vegas. Again, one of our most memorable occurred in a restaurant. (We are now back at the RV on a bread and water diet). Charlie Palmer’s Las Vegas “Aureole” is a huge departure from his New York “Aureole”. The Las Vegas version is slick, stark and modern, with its centerpiece being a 4 story, temperature and humidity controlled glass “wine tower”, around which the restaurant is built. The tower holds nearly 10,000 bottles. The wine list is so extensive that it is presented to you on a wireless, tablet computer, allowing searches by any variable imaginable. Once a wine is selected, a gymnastic “wine angel” ascends the tower to find your selection, employing a cable and pulley system. Very unique!!! The food, service and ambience made for a complete experience. Very, very good!

Seeing the kids made us think all the more about home so, tomorrow we will continue our northward trek. We have received lots of advice on what to see on the Oregon coast so, it’s 2 states to go and, we are back in Canada. I hope spring has arrived!!!!

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Walking down "the strip"

Another great Paso Robles Syrah before dinner - So much for that liver drying out thing!!

"Excalibur" at night- It's great when a night shot actually works with a pocket digital camera!!!

Brenda has not been to Las Vegas for a long time; Jonathan, never! It’s bigger; it’s brasher but, it hasn’t changed very much. The newer hotels keep trying to outdo the ones that came before and the clientele is still one of the most eclectic found anywhere. However, the days of the $9.99 buffet are long gone, replaced by every celebrity chef on the planet vying for recognition. The kids have become bigger “foodies” than us! Last night we were at Wolfgang Puck, tonight Bobby Flay, and Friday, Charlie Palmer. I remember when restaurants had names!!! Now the chef comes first, the name of the restaurant second!! Oh yes………I also understand that there is some gambling done here!!

Last night we had tickets to the Cirque de Soliel’s “Ka”. None of us knew what to expect! The show was a sensory smorgasbord, with each scene/act more unique than the one before. The staging and the physical acts were unlike anything any of us had ever seen, making us all want to see the other Cirque shows in town. Maybe next time.

The next few days will be spent exploring the town and taking in whatever comes at us. We all want to experience each of the new hotels. We are staying at the Luxor, wandered through Excalibur and New York, New York, had a drink at Bellagio and, ate at the MGM. And…….we only got here at 3:00 P.M. yesterday. We have neither lost nor won any money, except that which continually flows from one’s pockets in the normal course of events. I wonder if I could pay for this part of the trip at the tables?????? Hmmmmmmmm………..

Monday, March 19, 2007

Goodbye Wine

A "BIG" taste (the bottle!!!)

We drank so much wine........we were seeing Ostriches

Each day, we have been taking new routes through the Santa Barbara hill country (Santa Ynez Valley), finding wineries and small towns nestled in the many small valleys. As with most wine areas, there is lots of “plonk” to taste but, I think we all agree that the percentage of good wine is higher than in most wine regions. We tasted some wines of which there were only 45 cases produced (2 barrels). Very interesting!! The area excels in Rhone varietals and Syrahs. The late harvest wines are also excellent.

We explored the city of Santa Barbara today, having lunch at a wonderful shellfish restaurant on the city pier. There are even full fledged wineries in the middle of the city. The city center is one of the most well preserved historic downtowns we have yet seen. It is so well maintained, it looks new! The morning “maritime layer” (local euphemism for fog) is omnipresent in the morning but, burns off before noon to present a perfect sunny afternoon every day. I guess the grapes love it. Us too!

BUT, the livers must get a reprieve so, we are off in the morning, across the desert, on the way to Las Vegas. We’ll park our tin home in Barstow, spend the night and, then move on to the lights. Stay tuned!!

Sunday, March 18, 2007


A great picnic with Dawn and Bill at Curtis Winery

Overlooking LA from "the Getty"

Having been away so long, it is always wonderful to see people from “home”. We spent the past two days with Dawn and Bill, fellow wine lovers from Waterloo. They arrived on Wednesday and helped us tour yet more wineries. Great friends, great wines, and fun times. We even watched the movie “Sideways” in an effort to figure out why both couples thought it had been filmed in Napa. All the places we have been visiting were clearly there!

The visit seemed to pass in a heartbeat. We then drove back into LA to pick up Jonathan and Meghann who will be with us for a week. While in LA, we took in the Getty Museum, a spectacular hilltop complex, unlike most museums. Very modern, very busy but, very efficient. It is itself an architectural artwork.

Our wonderfully democratic group decided to buy a “star map” and tour the homes of the Hollywood elite. We saw some wonderful gates and hedges!!!! Then up the Pacific Coast highway for the 2 ½ hour drive back to the old “Pecan” in Buellton. Along the way, we passed through Malibu and the sea-side towns. 100’s of hearty surfers were in the surf all along the route. It is difficult to see the appeal of Malibu real-estate given that the beach houses are literally touching each other. Not our cup of tea!

We are very much looking forward to the next week of touring with the kids. After the wine region, we’ll be heading back across the desert to Las Vegas for a few days of “livin’ large” at the Luxor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


If I were a grape, I wouldn't mind living here.......

It ain't Chateau Souverain but, the wines are remarkable. Many ....... Robert Parker 90+

Our absolutely favourite sign from the entire far

One little fact that we overlooked when coming to the Santa Barbara wine region was that the movie “Sideways” was filmed here, not in Napa Valley as we thought. And……. has this area ever made a BIG deal of that. Our RV Park is next door to the hotel used in the movie. Darn near every winery we have been in was used in the movie. We had dinner across the street from a restaurant used in the movie, yadda, yadda………

Fess Parker (Davy Crockett to us old farts) has a winery here (yup...he's still alive); the Firestone Winery (of the “Bachelor” fame) is here; and our favourite so far, the Foxen Winery (“if you don’t know Foxen – you don’t know Dick……or Bill”) is here.

What a great region. The wineries are run by owner/operators who grow their own grapes and produce hand-crafted, limited production, estate-bottled wines, of which they are justifiably proud. There is none of the corporate nonsense and silliness associated with Napa………yet! These are real people and real honest wine production on a small scale. The entire valley is bursting with spring as the grape vines bud and the fruit trees blossom. You can just tell that in ten years it will all be Napa II but…….. for the moment it is a real treat. The winding, hilly roads between wineries have none of the Napa traffic…..yet. The prices for vertical or horizontal tastings are not high……yet. Walk-in customers are welcome at wineries and restaurants……….so far. A bit of advice………get here soon! The scenery is beautiful!! The little towns of Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos, etc are extremely scenic and, almost devoid of tourists.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Crunch Day

Looking out over Simi Valley from the Regan Library - Air Force One and a Presidential Chopper in the corners


They say that a bad day on vacation is better than a good day at the office. I had some great days at the office!!! I think a bad day is just a ……….BAD DAY. We saw a lot in LA, which was good because we were staying in one of the worst RV Parks we have seen on the entire trip. We only slept there. And to top off our stay, as we left, I misjudged a corner and scrunched one of the “basement doors” of the motor-home on a VERY immovable bollard alongside the roadway. That’ll cost!!

We have been in and out of some very tight spots on this trip and I guess I got too cocky for my own good as it relates to my ability to maneuver the RV in tight spaces. Reminiscent of another vacation a few years ago. (eh R&B)

On our way to Buellton (Santa Barbara) we stopped at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. After climbing a winding mountain road to the library and maneuvering around corners not meant for an RV, then parking in the back of a parking lot not meant for RV’s (remember I just crunched the side a few hours ago), we were told by a guard………… RV’s (A sign at the bottom of the hill would have been nice!!!). Simi Valley is beautiful and, the site for the Regan Library is breathtaking (there’s that word again), on a hilltop, overlooking miles of surrounding countryside.

We are now in the middle of the Santa Barbara wine country and, are looking forward to visits from Waterloo friends and Jonathan and Meghann. So…..we’ll be here for a while. Beats LA!!

Natalie, Dick and Wolfgang

Catalina could almost be the "Cinque Terre" in Italy

Brenda practising her "Presidential" departure at the Nixon Library

Rated #3 in the US - It lives up to its billing

Remember the bad, old joke….”What kind of wood does not float?” Answer…….Natalie! For those whose memories may be foggy, Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood drowned while swimming off the stern of a yacht, rented by she and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, while anchored in a bay on Catalina Island. VERY bad joke!! Sunday, we took the ferry to Catalina from Long Beach. The major town on Catalina, Avalon, is reminiscent of Mediterranean, Italian, sea-side hill towns. You wonder what is anchoring some of the houses to the hill. A very unique tourist destination and, very busy on an 85°F winter day. Glad we visited in off-season!

Saturday, we visited the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda. Another excellent history lesson and, in light of events surrounding the Nixon resignation, a very interesting tutorial in marketing!! The facility dealt at great length with the Watergate situation and presented what amounted to a balanced reporting of the events. The Spiro Agnew resignation got almost no mention. I guess Tricky Dick wasn’t responsible for that one!! John Dean was certainly made out to be the Watergate “Bad Guy”. We met Dean and his wife many years ago and……… he seemed pretty sleazy then.

After the library, we talked our way into a dinner reservation at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, in Beverley Hills. (We’re actually getting quite good at last minute tables in good eateries……the first maitre de said “no way” but, a sweet young blonde said……”sure…no problem” ). Our dining success rate has been about 50/50 at celebrity chef restaurants so, our expectations were muted. Often it’s a case of the “emperor has no clothes” but, not at Spago. The staff was the best, the service excellent and the food…….. unbelievable. Brenda was hoping for Puck’s signature smoked salmon pizza appetizer but, it was not on the day’s menu. No problem…..voila……one smoked salmon pizza. That’s service! The entire meal was memorable and excellent.

The air in LA is much more “chewy” than we remember from previous visits and, the razor wire surrounding highway signs suspended from I-10 freeway overpasses to prevent tampering tells a story. Not a happy one methinks. All in all…… LA is nowhere as “livable” as San Diego. Next!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Palm Desert, Springs, etc., etc.

A desert sun rise ........... unretouched......honest!!!

The sun sets on our stay in Palm Springs

We’re smitten!! We traveled all around Florida trying to fall in love with some spot to which we could return in future winters. No joy! So, imagine our surprise when we discovered that we love this place and, WILL be coming back here. The weather is as good as south Florida (likely better based upon historical averages….also….no humidity); it is not crowded in the winter; there is so much to do and, our new favourite city, San Diego, is less than 2 hours away. (LA – 1 ½ hours). Our selection criteria insisted that we MUST be on the water and………..the nearest water here is about 1 ½ hours away, on the coast. Do we know what we want OR WHAT???????

We are sad to be leaving after only 4 days in the area, with so much that we have not seen. But, we plan to return for the month of November in Chapter II of our little journey. Then, hopefully, we will see it all.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Salton Sea and Joshua Tree

[Hot as Hell but, fun to see!]

The "tree" for which they named a National Park.........white blooms just starting

I thought "Boulder" was in Colorado

I cannot tell a lie.......I did not take this picture but, it is the Salton Sea ...and white Pelicans

Joshua Tree National Park is located north-west of Palm Springs and, is so named for the abundance of Joshua Trees (go figure), which are unique to the Mojave Desert. The park encompasses part of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts (The Colorado being a sub-set of the Sonora…… it?) The Joshua Tree is actually not a tree at all but, a type of Yucca, which in turn is a type of lily (anyone confused?) We visited the park because this is the peak time of year for the blooming of all the desert wildflowers ………..except for this year!!!!! This winter has been so dry; the wildflower seeds have not had enough moisture to germinate. (“You shoulda been here last year!!!”) But……the Joshua Trees are just beginning to bloom. The south-western US has some of the most interesting geology we have ever seen and this park has its fair share…….granite boulders the size of houses all piled one upon another.

As one drives from the northern edge of the park and out the south end, you descent from a 3,000 foot elevation, until reaching the Salton Sea at 220 feet BELOW sea level. In the process the desert ecosystems continually change with the altitude. We’re getting quite good at identifying all the desert flora and fauna. The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, was formed from a massive two year flood of the Colorado River in 1905. It is highly saline and endorheic (my new word for the day……no outflow……only evaporation). In fact, in a few years only Tilapia will be able to survive in the high salt environment. Sonny Bono’s widow, Mary, is one of the lead proponents for cleaning up this waterway but, like the Imperial Valley to the south, the presence of water (after filtering and treating) has created a vast agricultural oasis in this area. Figs and dates anyone??

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Right turn

Wind generators......they're everywhere.......up, down, and all around!!!!

Not too shabby for an "RV Park" huh????

An oasis in the desert

We wrapped up in San Diego by attending an organ recital in Balboa Park, taking in the vista at Cabrillo National Monument, a few good waterfront restaurants and, lots more. There is so much to do in San Diego. But, we had to leave something for next time!

So now we have turned right and are heading north…..slowly. Based upon the weather we are seeing in Washington and Oregon (and Ontario), we may take our own sweet time making much northern progress. We thought we had seen big wind farms in south Texas. They are nothing compared to the mile after mile of wind generators around Palm Springs. They are in the valleys, on the hill-tops and, everywhere in between. But, how come only about 20% of them are spinning in a stiff breeze????

Yesterday we arrived at a beautiful RV Park in Cathedral City, between Palm Springs and Palm Desert. This place actually DOES have 8 pools and, with 85ยบ F and sunshine, we made good use of one of them. The RV Park is located around a 27 hole golf course, all of which is beautifully landscaped.

Palm Canyon is a 15 mile long canyon surrounded by hilly scrub desert. In the bottom of the canyon flows a small stream which is sufficient to keep thousands of indigenous California Fan Palms alive in this canyon oasis. We hiked down into the canyon and along part of its length, finding an abundance of wildlife and hundreds of hummingbirds of 5 different species. An amazing experience in the middle of the desert. Hiking down was easy…….coming back up in the heat, a bit of a workout.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

USA 34

This boat looks fast tied to its stable mate "Abracadabra". Not enough tourists today to race the two boats. Damn!! Gotta come back in the summer.

Great way to spend a sunny Saturday

My biggest sailing thrill has been racing for 18 years with a great group of guys (and a girl) on Jim and Michelle’s “Express Passage”. Until today!!! I have never followed Americas Cup racing very closely and, did not realize that, over the years, the Dennis Connor syndicate has commissioned 11 different “Stars and Stripes” boats in his numerous quests for the Americas Cup (he has skippered 3 winners). Today, we sailed on his 10’th (USA 34); the boat in which the Connor crew won their last cup challenge series. What a machine.

The winds were fluky, with 180° wind shifts being the order of the day but, “Stars and Stripes” made the best of it, posting an 11 knot top speed in light air. With a 114 foot (11 story), 5 spreader mast, the boat picks up any available wind and, has achieved speeds in excess of 18 knots in heavy downwind air. None of that around today. When newly built, for a current race boat, the high-tech, carbon-fibre main sails cost $115,000 each!! The present owners of USA 34 buy second hand sails, once they have been retired from racing. Makes good sense to me!

Sailing around the San Diego harbour triggers one to realize how militarily significant this port is. Warships are coming and going hourly. Small patrol craft with bow mounted machine guns are everywhere, with F-18’s or Blackhawk helicopters often overhead. An AWACS plane took off from the Navy Airbase as we re-entered the harbour, presumably to circle overhead to “spy”. I doubt they were looking down on the sailing!!!


If only you could pet these on your lap.........Brenda would get one!!!!!

Feeding a "Land Whale"

Brenda, who is the world’s biggest dog lover that DOES NOT own a dog, is diversifying. We took a photo safari through the San Diego Zoo’s 1800 acre Wild Animal Park where we had an opportunity to see African and Asian animals in an almost natural habitat. I think giraffes have displaced dogs as Brenda’s favourite four legged mammal. She took every possible opportunity to feed them. Both the San Diego Zoo in the city and, their rural Wild Animal Park are world famous with good cause. They are sooo well done and, there are major improvements in process at both locations.

Whales are not quite as cuddly as giraffes but it is always an awesome (one of the correct uses of this word) experience to see them in the wild. The California Grey Whales are in the middle of their northern, spring (you know…..sunny and warm!) migration and, a perfect day on the water was highlighted with “up close and personal” contact with them. Although the large, 400 passenger boat we were on is a less intimate viewing platform than the fishing boats we have been on in the Bay of Fundy, the offset is the extra height of the craft, enabling better distance viewing. We saw a young mother and calf, following them for over ½ hour. Their ability to blow, breathe and dive is faster than my ability to focus and click the shutter. I have many pictures of smooth water where a whale had been an instant before. Oh well….it was a great day.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


A fancy place for lunch. This was a "rainy" day. Works for us

A not so fancy place for lunch.....cuddly though

San Diego is rated as one of America’s most livable cities and…… we’re convinced! What a great place! After driving from Yuma through the most inhospitable desert we have seen yet, the lush landscape of San Diego was a remarkable sight. The Imperial Valley that we drove through is almost like the Sahara in places. In fact part of the valley is known as the Imperial Sand Dunes. However, wherever irrigation is present, the Valley morphs into a lush agricultural oasis, providing a major percentage of all US grown fruits and vegetables. If evidence of the importance of available water was ever needed, this place is the empirical proof.

But…….San Diego……livable doesn’t begin to cover it! The city is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, mountains, deserts, beaches, and beautiful, neighboring hillside towns and villages. All within 1 ½ hour’s drive. Year-round temperatures are temperate. One can golf in the morning, sail in the afternoon, head home in the evening and pack for skiing tomorrow. How cool is that? (The skiing isn’t so good in the summer months) We are already beginning to think that we might not be able to pack everything in to the one week we have allowed here. Today, we hit the zoo, had lunch at El Prado (Zagat actually knows about this place!! Likes it too). Our whale watching trip was cancelled due to high off-shore winds (No place is perfect!!) But, we rescheduled that for Friday and booked a sail on “Stars and Stripes”, the America’s Cup challenger, for Saturday (This IS February…right???). Tomorrow we will take in a safari trip at the San Diego Zoo’s satellite Wild Animal Park, a visit to the San Diego Museum of Art for an Annie Leibovitz exhibit and, dinner back at El Prado (we liked it!!) with old high school friends. AND, we haven’t even scratched the surface of our list yet!!! The sunset from “Sunset Cliffs” is even exactly like the Chamber of Commerce advertises! We’ll just have to return!