I’m sitting on the back patio at the Firehouse coffee shop in downtown Sausalito, just north across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It's Sunday afternoon in the middle of a two-week stay at my brother Rich’s house in Piedmont, on the east side of the bay. He and his wife Megan (and their two kids) flew off to Hawaii early yesterday morning. They're on a week-long trip to celebrate Megan's mom's retirement, so I took the opportunity to explore the greater Bay Area, and made my way to Sonoma and Marin for the weekend.
I've been working full-time the past week, and will work full-time next week, and have almost been keeping New York hours - starting around 6:30 each morning and working into the late afternoon. I'm set-up in the upstairs study that doubles as a guestroom, creating an almost studio apartment feel with the full-bath attached. It's been great.
I have meetings in the Bay Area this week, so while I was planning the trip weeks ago I decided to turn it into an extended stay, working remotely while spending quality time with my brother and his family. As an extended family we do a pretty good job of seeing each other through the year, particularly around the holidays, and I'm grateful for the amount of time we spend together, but it's not always the most relaxed of experiences. Holidays are stressful for just about every family, and especially for those with four children 6 years and younger - (they're adorable and I love them, but sometimes it's easier sledding when you're able to spend time together with no particular agenda and only one set of kids). Watching the NBA playoffs in the living room and chatting while the kids play on the floor in front of you is a nice way to visit for a few days.
Also when planning the trip weeks ago, because I knew about the Hawaii vacation, I decided to build-in a 24-hour weekend excursion up to Sonoma, and back through Marin. This post is basically a "24 hours in..." type of thing where I have a bit of fun playing travel blogger, documenting my eating, drinking and ramblings around Sonoma and Marin.
Leaving Piedmont, the route to Sonoma, 11 AM (photo 1)
I left Piedmont at 11 AM on Saturday, heading north up CA-13 and then cutting east through the Caldecott Tunnel, on past Orinda on the other side of the hills. Most of the drive is north from there, up I-680 before arcing west again into the city of Sonoma. All-in the drive takes a little over an hour, covering 58 miles.
There’s a decent flow of cars the whole way, but the traffic never backed-up too badly. Once you emerge out of the Caldecott Tunnel, on the east side of the Oakland Hills, the road north meanders through a beautiful stretch of rolling hills. The vegetation along the way feels Mediterranean, almost as if you’re in wine country already, and you almost might be if residential development had unfolded differently the past 100 years. The landscape is a mix of greens and a single shade of wheat, a striking almost two-tone terrain collectively in stark contrast to the bright blue above.
Lunch at La Salette, 12:15 PM (photos 2, 3 and 4)
I arrived in Sonoma and was out of the car by 12:15 PM, making my way straight over to La Salette for lunch, a well-reviewed Portuguese restaurant off the city square. The restaurant’s décor is simple, though it was fun eating at the bar, looking over a food prep station and wood-burning oven. It was a quiet afternoon, only about half the tables were full for lunch, but the energy still felt all right for a quick solo meal at the bar.
I ordered the octopus, fried salted cod and chips and two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. The service was solid, the food and drink were all delicious and before tip the total came to $52.
Wandering around the square, 1:30 PM (photos 5, 6 and 7)
I finished lunch around 1:30, leaving plenty of time to explore the city before a wine tasting at the Sixteen 600 tasting house at 3 o'clock.
Wandering around, I saw a bunch of middle-aged guys dressed in what appeared to be historical reenactment regalia - clothing that looked to be part Davy Crockett and part Interview with the Vampire - it was something. And while I have no reason to think one thing or another regarding that particular group's social or political beliefs, it's peculiar to think about the type of person who participates in that sort of thing. What type of person holds onto the nostalgia of a bygone era so much so that he or she not only thinks about that time period regularly, but also dresses-up and walks through the wardrobe to play in that world on weekend afternoons?
It's hard not to let your mind wander in that moment, to think about other people around America today who hold onto bygone ideas about race, sexuality, immigration, etc. And it all seems a bit absurd to consider what some people would call America's "Mexican problem," for example, when you're on a street named Napa, in a city named Sonoma, in a county named Sonoma, in a state named California. Those names have been around a long, long time, evidence of the region's Native American and Spanish-Mexican heritage.
Anyway, this isn't a political post, and I don't have a particularly clever point to make there, so I'll get back to the food and wine and stuff...
Sixteen 600 wine tasting, 3 PM (photos 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12)
Based on the recommendation of my good friend Beth, who’s a member of the winery’s frequent-buyers’ club, I arranged a wine tasting at the Sixteen 600 tasting house. And I agree it really should be thought of as a tasting house, not a tasting room (as is explained during the process). The set-up feels like you're having dinner at a friend's house, in a cozy dining room adjacent to a living room set-up almost like an Edwardian parlor. There's a very intimate vibe to the space.
The tasting was complimentary (though I bought a bunch of bottles at the end), and it should've lasted for only an hour but went on until 4:45, and then turned into an off-premise smoking session. A true testament to how life can be in California.
In that hour or two, aside from the details of the wine being tasted, we discussed the common connection of Beth and the rest of the Montauk crew, as I helped Sam through a bit of a name-game trying to remember who everyone was (and why I’d shown-up solo at his tasting house); we talked about the wild fires of 2017 and the earthquake of 1906, and the neighborhoods around the Bay Area whose respective architectural uniformity are effectively scars of those types of natural disasters; we talked about urban planning generally, and specifically the Bay Area’s notoriously regressive reluctance to build any kind of population density, which in turn drives-up property values and displaces some long-time residents; and we talked about Sam’s family history of farming in the area, and how in recent years they grow not just grapes but olives and marijuana too. It was a great conversation and overall experience - highly recommended.
During the tasting another of the winery’s team members mentioned a music festival being held that night at a vineyard about a mile outside of town, so I decided to make my way over there to buy a ticket at the door. First, though, I needed a little downtime at the cabin.
Downtime, settling into the cabin, 4:45 PM (photos 13, 14 and 15)
From 4:45 to 6, I walked back to the Airbnb cabin just about a mile down the road outside of the city center, and settled in to unpack a bit and rest. I rented the cabin for just one night, and it cost about $500 all-in with service and cleaning fees. The cabin is a three-room ranch nestled away, a lot back off East Napa Street, between 7th and 8th Streets. There's a nearly fully-windowed sitting room at the front, which has rustic décor and serves as a reading or study room; there's a clean and practical but unremarkable dine-in kitchen in the middle; and a master bedroom in the back with a door directly out to the back porch. I’d certainly go back, but the space really only works for a solo guest or a couple.
Huichica Musical Festival, 6 PM (photos 16, 17 and 18)
I got over to the music festival around 6 o'clock. When I arrived I considered turning back because they were charging $81 for general admission (midway through the day, on Day 2), but realized I didn’t have anything better to do. For the thirty bucks more than I actually wanted to pay I could listen to a couple hours of music and drink good wine along a hillside in a 320-acre vineyard, founded in 1858 by Bavarian-born winemakers. To save myself the time (while giving a general overview of the festival set-up) here are some words from the festival production company's website: Set amongst the stunning vineyards of Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Huichica West delivers two days of music, wine and food in a laid back atmosphere. There are four stages offering an ongoing exploration of music, the Hillside Amphitheater, the Cave Stage, the Giraffe Stage and the historic Old Redwood Barn. Food options are available from respected Bay Area restaurants, all paired with wines from Gundlach Bundschu.
It was an interesting scene. There were a few young families wandering about down by the food and wine tents, but most of the people in the crowd were in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s (or so), groups of friends and couples. There was a little whiff of weed in the air, and only a couple people smoking cigarettes, but lots of wine. The vibe was upscale, and an interesting mix of Hamptons-meets-Catskills, including lots of 30-something hipsters fully decked-out in 1970s gear, bell-bottoms, square glasses and all. Interestingly, there's an "East Coast" production of the same festival slated for August, up by Hudson, NY. If it didn't conflict with Travers weekend, I'd probably go.
Dinner at HopMonk Tavern, 7:30 PM (no photos)
Around 7:30 I left the festival and went over to HopMonk Tavern for dinner. I decided to eat there mostly to relax and watch some sports on the big screens above (and to stop taking photos), so there was no culinary adventure, but the bar food and beers were good.
The atmosphere was typical of a pub-style sports bar, nice and not too fratty, but not taking itself too seriously either. If every stop you make needs to be a fine-dining experience then this is definitely not the spot for you, but if you want a B+/A- burger and a Pilsner then it’s perfectly fine.
The crowd didn’t stand out as being “one thing” or another, i.e. not specifically hipster or anything like that, and there were several other solo patrons along the bar, including the guy to my left who I’m pretty sure was there specifically to chat-up one of the bartenders (another guy, if you're wondering). In any event, I kept to myself and passively watched some baseball on TV.
Drinks with live music at Murphy’s Irish Pub, 8:45 PM (photo 19)
By 8:45 I made my way over to Murphy’s Irish Pub where I sat for a little over an hour listening to live music at a little bar tucked-away, a lot behind the retailers on the square’s main streets; you had to walk down an alley to a center area that is the convergence of several restaurants’ backdoors. I didn’t stay long. I was home and asleep by 10 or 10:30 - by that point I had drank a lot of wine and it was time for bed.
Leaving Sonoma, the route to Sausalito, 10:30 AM (no photos)
I left Sonoma at 10:30 AM on Sunday, heading down south along the western coast of San Pablo Bay, on the way down 101 South into Sausalito. I’ll spare you the details of the drive, but suffice to say it was equally as nice as the drive from Piedmont to Sonoma, with similar landscape and affect. I went straight to Le Garage, a well-reviewed French restaurant in an upscale marina, just a mile outside downtown Sausalito.
Lunch at Le Garage & Sausalito, 11:30 AM (photos 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24)
I was parked and out of the car by 11:30, and was able to quickly find a seat (party of one) at the bar back by the kitchen and service station.
I ordered a chorizo omelet and a beer (pre-tip, $27) at the edge of the bar, near the kitchen service station. The restaurant was packed, on a beautifully sunny day, right off the marina boardwalk. A local regular showed-up while I was waiting for my food, and the service staff set-up a makeshift spot for him around the elbow of the bar, close enough to me that he mistakenly poured himself a glass from my bottle of water. An unintentional transgression, the mix-up sparked conversation after he realized his mistake and we both had a laugh.
The regular is a general contractor who keeps a boat at a marina a half-mile up from Le Garage, and he has a family ranch up in Mendocino County. He seemed to be about 60, but it’s hard to tell because he had a mid-summer tan and an obviously fresh shave, so he may have been hiding a few years. He told me he had been into the restaurant the night prior, and that he got into a bit of trouble with too much tequila. He was on the mend though and gearing-up for Sunday evening salsa dancing at the Seahorse. As he tells it, “lots of hot ladies come in from all over the Bay Area. It’s great man. Lots of hot ladies, all good at dancing.”
After an hour-long lunch, I was nearly about to accept an offer to check-out his yacht until he reminded me it was actually docked a couple marinas away (a half-mile up). That felt like too much of a commitment, so I respectfully declined, and made my way into downtown Sausalito for coffee and a place to write.
At the end of it...
I recognize Sonoma and Marin counties aren't exactly "flying under the radar" to those who get around a bit, so the fact they're both stunningly beautiful places to visit likely doesn't come as a huge surprise, but I'd still strongly recommend getting up that way if you're looking for good wine and beautiful natural surroundings. You can comfortably fit-in a lot of great stuff in a short period of time.