By Julie Harrington Giffin
FOR THE OUTDOOR ENTHUSIAST, California unapologetically delivers. An alfresco utopia from its northern border to the edge of Mexico, the Golden State claims fame to some of the most picturesque landscapes in the country. Imposing cliffs keep watch over the rugged Pacific coast of the north, while vast sandy beaches blanket the south.
I started my adventure in this alluring state with the top down, my hair windblown, sunglasses on and classic rock filling the air. I drove due east from the coast until I spotted the rolling vineyards of Napa.
Turning off Old Sonoma Highway, I arrived at my destination: the Carneros Resort and Spa. The epitome of understated elegance, Carneros is a slice of heaven on earth, beginning at guest registration, where I was given a complimentary glass of wine. Welcome letter and room key in hand, I am whisked away to a craftsman style cottage, complete with front porch, rocking chairs, and a mailbox to catch my morning paper. The chic interior is well appointed, with soft neutral colors enhanced with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling, white French doors that open to my own private outdoor oasis. Yielding lush trees and crawling vines, the alfresco living space featured a fountain, gas fire pit, chaise lounges, an outdoor rain shower and a deep tub for my nightly midnight soak under the stars. With detailed furnishings, including a Nespresso maker, signature orange flip flops and an umbrella for the occasional soft Napa rain, I feel certain I have simply died and gone to heaven in my cottage d’ elegance.
A visual wonderment, the grounds of Carneros Resort and Spa compliment the surrounding beauty of the valley. Silver-sage colored cottages graced with meandering pathways and fountains lead to the hilltop pool and infinity-edged hot tub, which feature valley and vineyard views as far as the eye can see. Dining at Carneros is a farm to table experience, with produce freshly gathered from the resort’s half-acre garden.
The colorful Boon Fly Café overflows with rustic chic fashion. Characterized by its red farmhouse exterior, the café (named after a local pioneer from the mid-1800’s) is home to a few signature must haves: the Spicy Bacon Bloody Mary, Boon Fly Donuts, and Green Eggs and Ham. (Yes, they really are green, like in Sam I Am, and you will absolutely love these green eggs and ham.)
For relaxing in the outdoor lounge by the fire, FARM Restaurant is the ultimate in casual elegance. After perusing through the 38-page cocktail, wine and spirit menu (a serious libation list), I chose a local flavor in the Merryvale Pinot Noir, along with avocado toast, a culinary creation artfully assembled and too beautiful to devour—but you must!
And finally, the finale of wicked pleasure under the full Napa moon was a pour of 15-year-old Pappy, paired with a Montecristo Taj-Mahal Habana 2000. I tease you not. The last page of the Menu du Farm offers an impressive cigar selection from Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican With a fitness center complete with vineyard runs and meditation, to the spa’s beauty and body treatments with eucalyptus steam room, Carneros Resort and Spa is not short on activities.
I took to exploring the surrounding valley on one of the resort’s signature orange beach cruisers, and stopped at a few local wineries for a tasting or two. On my last day, I thought I’d really treat myself, so I inquired about the ultimate Napa experience.
Carneros delivered in straight-up fashion as the gracious concierge arranged a behind-the-scenes winemaking tour. An exceptional privilege I won’t soon forget, my private tour of Benziger, Napa’s first certified biodynamic winery, was nothing short of amazing. I could have easily stayed another week or two. After all, if it is good enough for Condoleezza Rice (arriving upon my departure) then, well, let’s just say my next visit can’t come soon enough.
The Isle of Catalina
From Nor Cal to So Cal, I road tripped it 420 miles to the port of Long Beach, where I hopped aboard a high-speed catamaran that took me 22 miles across the open ocean to California’s very own island in the Pacific, Catalina. The island was once part of the Spanish Empire until it became part of Mexico and eventually the United States. In 1919, it came under the sole ownership chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.
Wrigley’s vision for the 76-square mile island was that of a resort destination, and once again, California unapologetically delivered. With the establishment of Avalon and the iconic Catalina Casino in the early 1920’s, Wrigley strategically attracted attention to the island by making it the site of spring training for his own Chicago Cubs. The island soon became the preferred rendezvous for movie stars of Hollywood’s bygone golden era.
Stories of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne ignite the magical nostalgia of Avalon on the island’s east side, while the mysterious and tragic drowning of Natalie Wood in the waters near the rustically beautiful westerly seaside village of Two Harbors remains etched in the town’s memory. A colorful art deco enclave of beach shanties amidst grand estates, Avalon’s charm is undeniable.
Approaching the island with the landmark casino and famed green pleasure pier in view, I suddenly felt a world away from mainland metropolis. Melodious clanking sails ringing through the harbor, quaint boutiques adorned with colorful tile, the sound of golf carts (the island’s preferred means of transportation) whizzing around town, and without fail, the sweet bronze statue of Old Ben greeting you upon arrival. Old Ben was a sea lion who appeared on the island around 1900, and took to the oceanfront drag of Crescent Avenue begging for food. He had a cameo in the 1914 movie The Sea Nymphs, and remained everyone’s favorite Avalon icon for over 20 years before heading back to sea.
With blue skies and mountain peaks framing the distant backdrop, Avalon’s Pavilion Hotel. in soft yellow with white trim was fresh and inviting. The building surrounds an expansive waterfront courtyard that is trimmed with a lush tropical landscape that screams mai tais and margaritas.
It felt like my own little slice of Tahitian paradise as I took in a pink hued sunset while being warmed by the fire. I gazed at the ocean view while enjoying my complimentary wine and cheese. By morning, I was in the hotel library of soft blue, white and rattan, taking in the sunrise while dining on freshly baked quiche, smoked applewood bacon, and fresh orange juice from the complimentary breakfast bar.
Catalina warrants more than just a day trip. The list of fun and adventure available on the island can easily fill a long weekend. For instance, at 600-feet above sea level, a zip line traverses through the canyon and hits speeds upwards of 30 mph. As your list of island to-do’s grows, you’ll want to include the rock wall, Descanso Beach Club, the Island Spa, the Catalina Island Golf Course, the Wrigley Memorial, a day trip to Two Harbors, a feature film at the casino theater, and without question, the Mini Golf Garden, the most lovely yet challenging mini golf course I’ve had the pleasure of playing.