I’ve visited Napa many times, but Sonoma had eluded until last my most recent trip. As soon as I landed at the San Francisco Airport, a friend working out in the Bay Area and I hit the road, but not the usually faster route of heading over the Bay Bridge to Napa. Instead we took the scenic road to Sonoma.
First stop was lunch at the famous Cliff House. Perched high on the cliff, it overlooks the north side of Ocean Beach. There are several options for dining and we opted for the Bistro Restaurant for classic California cuisine. We got lucky and snagged a table by one of their oversized windows to take in the view of the beach, surfers, and Seal Rocks.
Before I dive into lunch, let me give you a little history. Cliff House was started by real estate mogul Charles Butler in 1863. It would go through several reincarnations over the years, mainly because of multiple fires. In 1883, tobacco and mining entrepreneur Adolph Sutro purchased it. In 1887, a hundred-foot schooner loaded with dynamite crashed into the rocks at Point Lobos destroying the north wing. On Christmas Day 1894, the original Cliff House burned to the ground. In 1896, a new Cliff House opened along with Sutro Baths complete with trampolines, flying rings, slides and diving platforms. Sutro Baths were at the time the world’s largest swimming complex. In 1907, during a renovation, Cliff House, once again burned to the ground. A new one would open two years later. In 1925, it closed down during Prohibition. Another fire in 1966, would burn Cliff House and the Sutro Baths to the ground. In 1977 the National Park Service bought the Cliff House for $3.79 million and it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In 2003, an $18 million dollar reconstruction restored the historic Cliff House to its 1909 neoclassical style. Throughout the years, it been visited by multiple presidents, authors like Mark Twain, royalty, and celebrities.
So I figured I would start lunch with a fancy cocktail. Seemed fitting given the history and setting. My cocktail of choice was a French 75. Theirs is made with Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine, Bombay London dry gin and a lemon twist. A French 75 is one of my favorite classic cocktails, especially when you want something light and refreshing. I decided on a Cliff House classic dish for lunch and ordered the Dungeness Crab Cakes served with a roasted red pepper aioli for dipping and a small green salad. The crab cakes were chocked full of shredded crabmeat and were delightful….so were the garlic fries I ordered as a side.
It was such a wonderful afternoon, we headed out to explore one of the trails just above the Sutro Baths concrete ruins. Hiking along, I couldn’t help but to envision how grandiose the indoor bath complex must have been back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I could just imagine folks in vintage style bathing suits hootin’ and hollerin’ while slashing away in what would be a forerunner to a modern day waterpark.
The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks was just as mesmerizing as the scenery. I was hoping to see some seals, since the rocks are called Seal Rocks, but I didn’t get that lucky. I did, however, watch several shoreline birds soar and then dive bomb into the ocean for their lunch.
I also enjoyed the beauty of the rugged shoreline along with a great view of the Marin Headlands, a hilly peninsula just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It wasn’t long until I got a glimpse of the Golden Gate.
Walking back to the car, I stopped for a moment to watch a guy creating a giant labyrinth in the sand on Ocean Beach. A labyrinth is a sacred journey with a unicursal path. Knowing the hard work of the labyrinth creator would be washed away as the tide rolled, I had a magical metaphorical moment as I continue on a journey to an unencumbered life. You make take one path, thinking it’s the only way for you and for that moment it is. But, as life shifts, you may need to wash away memories of a past journey and start a new chapter. The ocean creates a new page with every high tide and the beauty of that rejuvenation is exposed with every low tide. While the journey of change can be as tumultuous as the sea, in the calm afterwards is a beauty revealed to you, just like the beauty of sea and sand revealed during low tide. Blame my deep thought on my lunch cocktail or the mesmerizing beauty of the rocky seascape, but it was such a revelation for me and usually those come at the most unexpected times. Ironically, while working on this blog I came across a quote by Rachel Wolchin, “Be brave enough to travel the unknown path, and learn what you are capable of.” Now that’s serendipitous!
From there we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. As long as traffic isn’t bad, that drive never gets old as you glimpse of Alcatraz and San Francisco. We decided to make a stop in Sausalito. It’s one of my favorite gems of the Bay Area. We stopped in at the Barrel House Tavern and were greeted by an incredibly friendly staff. With wine in hand, I headed out to their deck for relaxation with a view. Temps close to 70°, light breeze, and sunshine – yes, it was a perfect San Fran day weather-wise. Of course, I got caught posting a pic on social media!
I could have sat there for hours, but traffic was starting and we needed to hit the road to Sonoma. A long lunch at Barrel House Tavern on a beautiful California day will definitely be a must for me on a future trip to San Fran. On this trip, the start of rush hour traffic added about an extra 30 minutes to the drive, but I did get to enjoy a gorgeous pink sky at sunset as we sat in traffic.
We got to Sonoma just in time for last call for a wine tasting along the Sonoma Plaza. The history of the plaza itself is interesting as it has served as a Mexican military outpost, a Spanish mission village, and now a hub, albeit a slower paced hub, of restaurants, wine tasting rooms, cafes, boutiques, and galleries. We popped into Pangloss Cellars in a 116-year-old historic brick building on the town plaza. The winery is named after Dr. Pangloss, the eternal optimist in Voltaire’s novel Candide. I really like their philosophy of approaching life deeply rooted in the spirit of optimism. Pangloss is a small winery, only producing 420 cases a year. I decided on the wine named Tenacity, partly because I just liked the name. It was fabulous classic Rhône blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, but done with a Sonoma spin. This wine oozes an earthy elegance and richness that had me on the first sip. I thought to myself – what an introduction to Sonoma wines in one glass!
From there we were on a mission to find some nibbles or light bites for dinner. We stumbled upon Della Santina’s Trattoria. I was immediately drawn in by Old World ambiance with the gated entrance and brick walkway. It almost felt like we were walking into a secret hideaway in Tuscany. Right next door and part of Della Santina’s is Enoteca Wine Bar. We decided to belly up to the bar. In Italy an enoteca is a place to sample, drink, and purchase from local producers. It’s kind of like a veritable library of local wines. At Enoteca Wine Bar, they have over 30 wines you taste and order by the glass. I decided on a Split Rock Cab from Viluko Vineyards in the Mayacama Mountains in between Napa and Sonoma Valleys. I always love trying something new and this was a wonderful California Cab. For nibbles, I decided on the Pomdori e Mozzarella with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and served with olives. My friend went for the Antipasto Misto, an assortment of prosciutto, salami, pancetta, and coppa. Of course I started chatting up other folks in the bar including this delightful older woman who comes in there every night for a glass of wine and dinner before going to meet friends for a drink. She started raving about their gnocchi. Boy, was I glad I followed her recommendation. It was some of the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted…as you can tell by the after devouring it pic.
To cap off a great travel day, several folks said stop in the Sonoma Speakeasy. What a hoot! It’s nothing fancy, but if you enjoy live jazz music, dancing and sipping cocktails, this joint is for you. I love to dance and did my best swing dancing with a local who stops in there to dance several nights a week. I was having a great time and snap a picture at 8:06pm to text my best friend Christy the cocktail napkins. “Save Water, Drink Water” – that was a pretty good motto for the night!