Molly and I had both been to California many times, but never together. One of our best friends from college, Leif, had lived in Los Angeles for a couple years and it was high time for a visit. To add to the celebration, it was Leif’s girlfriend Adrienne’s 30th birthday on December 4. Leif was working as a marine biologist for Shell in Alaska would be gone until just before we flew out, but he assured us that he was planning an epic adventure…
He did not disappoint. Upon arriving in LA, we went out to Leif’s favorite local hangout, Barney’s, where we downed pitchers of Sierra Nevada like there was no tomorrow before heading back to his apartment and partying until 6:30am. Awaking feeling terrible, we decided exercise was the best cure and headed out for Malibu Creek State Park where we hiked and scrambled to the top of a mountain. It was surreal going from the flat boringness of Chicago to another major city where you are within hours, if not minutes of all types of ecosystems: mountains, ocean, desert, forests, where would we start?
Our first real leg of the adventure started with a drive north. We stopped in San Ramon to crash at a Marriott and to visit one of Adrienne’s friends from high school. The next morning, we headed into San Francisco to hit up Tong Kiang Dim Sum which had been one of Adrienne’s favorite places when she visited the area growing up. The food was incredible and authentic. I had not eaten non-Americanized Chinese food since I had been to China decades ago and it was fantastic! After stuffing ourselves, we drove down to Fisherman’s Wharf and did the tourist thing.
It was a beautiful, clear day and we soaked in the sights of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. After doing a little shopping, we had to depart, wishing we had more time to explore this amazing city. There was cause for our haste, however. Leif had booked us two nights a Cinque Terre, a romantic hideaway tucked high in the mountains overlooking the Sonoma Valley.
When we arrived, we felt like we stepped into a Travel Channel show. With Leif in charge, we had no idea what to expect, but Cinque Terre was beyond anything we could have dreamed. It was a large, secluded property with several buildings, each decorated in hippy, artistic fashion. Both couples had their own bedroom and bathroom cottages, with a shared kitchen (cucina), living space, and hot tub.
It was raining and dreary, but that just made it feel that much cozier. We settled in, lit a fire in the wood burning stove, and busied ourselves preparing the delicious dinner we had purchased ingredients for at a local grocery store. Our dinner of fresh-caught red snapper fish tacos and local cheeses led to a late night of debauchery and too much alcohol consumption in the hot tub.
Everyone awoke early the next morning to prepare for wine tastings. Leif had booked a tour, and was told with any luck, we would be the only four in the group (December mid-week is pretty slow in Sonoma). After a harrowing drive down the mountain in a cab driven by an older woman who was less than confident in her driving abilities, we met up with our tour driver, Travis with Terrific Tours. He informed us that the group who was supposed to accompany us that day had partied too hard the night before and would not be joining. Thus, he made the executive decision to chauffeur us in a pimped-out Expedition instead of the standard tour bus. We liked him immediately. Travis had arranged for us to visit 5 wineries that day, each with its own flavor and style.
For lunch, Travis recommended the Sunflower Cafe in downtown Sonoma. It had terrific food including a life-changing duck sandwich and great local wines. Then it was off for more tastings! After going above and beyond by giving us a lift back to Cinque Terre, Travis dropped us off with some excellent bottles of wine, a nice buzz, and a great experience.
Since it was our last night at Cinque Terre and Adrienne’s birthday, we decided to make the most of it. We grilled barbecue chicken and instead of drinking our expensive, newly-acquired wine, Leif and I suffered through malt liquor 40-ounces while the girls drained a bottle of vodka. A dance party ensued which ended up moving to the hot tub with Leif and I staying up until the wee hours finishing off a bottle of Captain. Nothing like a classy day of wine tastings followed by a college night of crappy beer and cheap liquor!
None of us were looking forward to the drive the next day, and we rose slowly the next morning in time to cook brunch, clean up, and make plans for the rest of the trip. Leif had originally penciled in a night of car camping at Yosemite, but the weather report read highs in the 50s with heavy rain. No thanks. Instead, we decided to check out a redwood grove not far away before heading back to LA. The Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve was awesome. I had not been to the redwoods since I was a little kid and Molly had the massive trees on her bucket list. They did not disappoint. It was misty and foggy as we walked through the world of the redwoods feeling very small.
The trip back to LA was not short by any means and Molly and I thanked Leif profusely for driving before we hit the hay back at Adrienne’s apartment. Our consolation prize for getting rained out of Yosemite was that we now had time to check out Joshua Tree National Park, just a couple hours east. Unfortunately, Adrienne had to work so Leif reclaimed his legendary “vacation whore” status and rode solo with us the next day.
Joshua Tree was like nothing Molly or I had ever seen. The landscape was otherworldly and the campground was filled with a cool mix of earthy hippies and rock climbers. We set up camp and spent the remainder of the daylight scrambling up nearby rock formations and trying to wrap our heads around the geology.
We cooked a fabulous Marsala pasta dinner at dusk and enjoyed a couple drinks around the campfire before heading off to our tents for the night. To make the most out of the following day, we arose early, packed up camp, and began to explore the park in earnest. Leif remembered some of the highlights from his first visit a couple years ago, so we made a rough outline of the day and headed out.
Our first stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Here we found funny branching (and EXTREMELY prickly) cacti overlooking a Mojave desert basin. I of course, found a way to stick myself with a cactus while looking for lizards.
After the cactus gardens, we headed for Cap Rock. On the way, we stopped to do some scrambling and Molly took the opportunity to relax and get some desert sun.
Cap Rock was a unique and precarious geological formation, but difficult to get a good picture of because Eddie Bauer was doing a photo shoot for their new clothing line. We went around to the backside and climbed up into a section that had been cleaved out of the granite. It was cool to look down and see the enormous chunk of rock that had fallen from the place where we stood, and even cooler to wonder what it would have looked and sounded like when it fell.
Our last stop was Keys View. This vista looked out into the Yucca Valley, Palm Springs, and Mount Saint Jacinto. The view was incredible, but 40mph winds blowing at 40 degrees forced us into a quick retreat down into the park to cook a hot lunch before heading back to LA.
The traffic gods were smiling on us as we drove back to the city and we made great time. After showering up and getting ready, we met up with Adrienne to hit up B.A.D. (best and delicious) Sushi on Santa Monica Boulevard, a weekly favorite of theirs. The portions were huge, fresh, and delicious. Everything we tried was expertly prepared and had a unique flare. From there, we headed to Renee’s Courtyard Cafe to celebrate Adrienne’s 30th, LA-style.
Waking up our last day in California, we still had one last thing to check off our list: Irv’s Burgers. Irv’s was somewhat on the way to the airport so we packed up and headed that direction. Leif had been raving about this place since he moved to LA so we knew it had to be good. Miss Sonia did not disappoint, serving crispy fries, yummy greasy burgers, and funny charactertures drawn on our plates.
Irv’s was a perfect place to close out our trip: a divey burger joint with a definite LA flavor. We headed to the airport wishing we lived in a city that had more outdoor attractions within easy driving distance. Maybe someday…