Saturday, 23 August 2014

California dreaming

Calming: The stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where these bewitching jellyfish reside.

Calming: The stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where these bewitching jellyfish reside.

There’s more to the 31st US state than being the ‘cause’ of ‘Californicating’ the world through Hollywood. San Francisco and central California draw visitors with their friendly people, culinary delights and natural beauty.

YOU could put it down to being in a “California State of Mind”. I didn’t get upset that my hotel reservations were booked under the “surname” of Ramanathan when that’s not my father’s name.

Stumbling upon an American Black bear in Yosemite National Park made me ponder: What if the bear had decided to make a meal out of me? The local papers might run headlines screaming: “Bear has Malaysian dish called Ramanathan for lunch”.

Bear necessities

Can you imagine Black bears – though the ones in Yosemite are generally brown – getting frustrated with being “wrongly” named? They rarely attack humans – unless provoked. We were informed that we were lucky to have seen one, as the bears generally avoid people and there are only 300 to 500 of them in the park.

That gave my small group – comprising media members – bragging rights in this California Uncovered tour organised by Trafalgar. We had opted to check out the world-famous Mirror Lake while the other media group had decided to hike up Columbia Point to take in views of the Yosemite Valley, including the impressive Half Dome.

We also saw a lot of squirrels and actually chanced upon a family of deer “snacking” along the road on our way back to the hotel. The stag was starting to sprout antlers which, the park naturalists told us, was most unusual for this time of the year.

The shrinking Mirror Lake is still quite a magical place.
The shrinking Mirror Lake is still quite a magical place.

At Mirror Lake, we witnessed a snow avalanche (there were still vestiges of snow on the slopes of the peaks before us) that thunderously entertained us – and it was over in minutes.

Mirror Lake has shrunk, though. The naturalists explained that previously they used to dredge the lake once a year because of the natural silting, but they have stopped doing that.

As naturalist Michael Elsohn Ross remarked: “We are not here to manage the scenery, we are here to manage the park.” (I wish other park authorities would take a page out of their management book.)

While we were there for two nights, we only had one full day to explore this wondrous park that has been on my bucket list. If you’re in a rush, like we were, an open-air tram ride around the main areas of the park should be enough to whet your appetite for a future visit!

This picture perfectly encapsulates the wonder, magic and peace of Yosemite.
This picture perfectly encapsulates the wonder and magic of Yosemite. Note the waterfall in the background.

Checking into The Awahnee Hotel and seeing Yosemite Falls from the window just left me gaping. It was apparently the best time to see the Falls as the waters were flowing at its peak.

The hotel is something of a “landmark”, being one of the prime examples of “parkitecture” in the United States, with its interiors being a mix of art deco, and inspired by Native American, Middle Eastern and artsy influences. Some parts of the interior were “uncannily” familiar – the lobby, lifts and Great Lounge were incorporated into sets for the 1980 horror movie The Shining.

I couldn’t resist yelling out in my humongous room (with no plug points): “Here’s Johnny!”

Flowers in your hair

Our tour proper started off in San Francisco (one of my favourite cities in the world) with our ever-smiling, accommodating and efficient travel director Korie Goff and our excellent and cheerful coach driver Willie. Appropriately an SF landmark, the San Francisco Ferry Building was our first stop – with an Edible Excursions ( tour in the 1898 building that was reopened after it was restored following the 1989 earthquake.

The city’s well-known farmers’ market is held there on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. There’s also the Ferry Plaza Market Place, where famous local and Californian agricultural produce is sold. Our local insider guide (that’s a Trafalgar trait) took us through some delicious samplings at places like Mariposa Bakery, Out of the Door, Cowgirl Creamery (not being a cheese person, I found it heavenly), Frog Hollow and Acme Bread. At US$65 (RM209) per person, you learn as you eat.

B Restaurant & Bar, at Yerba Buenna, offers an amazing spread.
B Restaurant & Bar, at Yerba Buenna, offers an amazing spread.

Big mistake, though, if you are getting a big lunch at B Restaurant & Bar, at Yerba Buenna, which had some confusing names – “Airline Chicken”, anyone? Still, it has an amazing spread.

The Mission district of the city (where the Hispanics first settled) also held a Hidden Treasure (another Trafalgar trait). Balmy Alley – which is filled to the brim with colourful, even poignant, street art – provides insight into the tickings of the community.

Other requisite stops in the city by the bay is Chinatown – the largest outside Asia – and the Golden Gate Cookie Factory. We were in and out in a jiffy because the place was very small and there was another tour group waiting outside.

San Francisco's famous Lombard Street where a car chase in Bullitt (starring actor Steve McQueen) was filmed.
San Francisco’s famous Lombard Street where a car chase in Bullitt (starring actor Steve McQueen) was filmed.

Our day ended with dinner at a Chinese restaurant – Empress of China, which had surprisingly good American variations of Chinese food.

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day’s flower power kookiness of Izu Interlandi’s insider look at Haight-Ashbury, ground zero of the Summer of Love that started in 1967. It’s all things hippie, and Izu (with Benny her dog-cum-sidekick) spins tales of the Grateful Dead (you get to see the house Jerry Garcia and bandmates lived in), their neighbours from the Hells Angels and the residence of Janis Joplin. Pass the salt!

This area is now gentrified but remains a great place for vintage shopping.

Another must-visit is supposedly the crookedest street in the world, Lombard Street (though there is evidence to suggest the honour goes to Vermont Street).

Locals and tourists like to take the ferry across the bay to Sausalito (inspiration for Otis Redding’s Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay) which is a pretty little town with good views of the Golden Gate and the SF skyline plus Alcatraz. Korie was very good in having songs like this playing in the coach throughout our journey.

We had the privilege of walking along the Golden Gate Bridge – which you can also cycle on – which proved to be an exhilarating experience.

This was matched by the sheer beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway on our way to Monterey. The town is very pretty, and John Steinbeck’s books made Cannery Row quite famous. But Cannery Row has since been transformed into rows of eateries and boutiques.

Amazing street art in Balmy Alley in the Mission district of San Francisco.
Amazing street art in Balmy Alley in the Mission district of San Francisco.

Most people stop here to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m not into aquariums much but I must say this one is quite exceptional. Space is not sacrificed to cram in more exhibits; they have huge glass tanks that show the exhibits in the best possible way. I found the schools of mackerel and jellyfish mesmerising.

The vegetarian dinner that night at Happy Girl Kitchen Co ( was, to me, the best meal in the whole tour. They also sell a wide range of artisanal organic preserves, conduct workshops and cater for events. I generally hate risotto with a passion but that night, I had three helpings of the carrot risotto.

The next best meal was simple home-cooked fare at River Rock Deli in Mariposa, just outside of Yosemite. And the bar next door, Prospectors Brewing Company Tap Room, served up some great artisanal beer.

I always wondered why there was so much fuss over Lone Cypress near Pebble Beach where we had headed to see its famous golf course. I still don’t get it but I loved travelling along the 17-Mile Drive to get there. It has a rugged coastline and is filled with stunning sights. We also saw some seals near Seal Point.

Nearby Carmel is a posh town filled with restaurants – one is run by actress Doris Day – that had its time in the limelight when Clint Eastwood was its mayor for two years from 1986. Good for a lunch stop.

Wine and dine

We capped our Californian adventure by making our own lunch at the Ramekins Culinary School, Events & Inn. Our rag-tag media group had to prepare four courses. Being culinarily-challenged, I was quite nervous. Thankfully, my team member Rebecca and I were given the easy task of preparing the broccolini and mashed potato.

Wine snobs used to turn their noses up at Californian wines but a 1976 blind tasting in Paris of Californian vs French wines by top French oenophiles turned the tables – it saw Cali wines winning on many of the head-to-heads.

Most Californian wines are well received, especially Zinfandel and Syrah. So it was a treat when, in Sonoma, one of the state’s wine regions, we were invited to attend a Be My Guest dinner at the Nicholson Ranch vineyard. We enjoyed great food and lots of wine sampling.

The ranch is run by the genial Mumbai-born Deepak Gulrajani who moved to California some decades back.

The icing on the cake was the chance to blend our own wines at Ravenswood Winery. We learnt the technicalities of blending wine and came up with our mix of Carignane, Peitie Sirah and Zinfandel.

Customised wine – bottled, corked and sealed. How cool is that?

For enquiries, call Holiday Tours (official retailer for Trafalgar) at 03-6286 6288 or visit

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Americas , Trafalgar , California , San Francisco , Monterey , 17th Mile , Sonoma , Carmel , Yosemite , bear , Golden Gate Bridge , Sausalito


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