Friday, June 25, 2010

Yosemite National Park (June 7-9)

After leaving Lake Tahoe, we drove into complete barrenness… last, I could go to sleep without having to worry about missing any views! The drive was about 5-6 hours to get to Yosemite and we knew that we weren’t going to make it into the park having left Tahoe in the afternoon. We had no idea that the east side of the park which we chose to enter from was extremely remote and services/campsites were few and far between. ‘Where were we driving….into the abyss??’ We ended up in this dingy, tiny town called Lee Vining where our van became the main attraction. We were a tiny bit conspicuous driving around trying to find somewhere to park for the night – we saw the locals (mostly Mexicans) just standing on the side of the road staring at us as we drove past. We decided to grab some food and after parking, happened to run into the Pastor of the local Church. He happily allowed us to park our van next to the Church for the night and even offered us a shower in the morning! (We didn’t get a shower in the end because the Pastor must have forgotten and we couldn’t find him in the morning to have him open the building…ah well). The overnight stay wasn’t so flash, especially after eating rich barbeque food and not having any access to a toilet!! I will spare you the details! ;-) But at least we had a place to park!

The next day it took us 2 hours to drive into the heart of Yosemite Valley but an amazing one at that! We entered the park via Tioga Pass and couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw 2 foot of snow in some places and a lake that was completely frozen over! We didn’t expect that at all, especially when we had encountered temperatures into the high 30’s on the drive from Tahoe! The snow and ice just made the mountains, trees etc even more beautiful and it was a sunny day which meant that everything glistened. We were surrounded by rocky mountains and valleys that towered above us as we drove into the centre of Yosemite. We stopped at a few look out points on the way and were just in awe (again) of what we were seeing.

We arrived at the lowest point of the park which is called Yosemite Valley…the temperatures had risen and we were no longer surrounded by snow and ice however it was no less beautiful. The only downside was how over-crowded it was! This was obviously a very popular place! We did actually know that already after having searched online for campsites and finding out that the hundreds of Yosemite campsites are booked out as soon as they are made available about 7 months before!! But honestly, why wouldn’t you want to come here!? Simply stunning! For us, yes it was beautiful, but the amount of people made it a bit difficult to appreciate it in its entirety. Getting out of the centre of the park at 5:30pm was like driving in peak hour traffic!! Bumper to bumper! Ahh! It felt so wrong!

Although most of the hikes in Yosemite were extremely long and strenuous (which counted us out), there were 2 spots we visited which involved a bit of a walk. One was Bridalveil Falls…which due to the snow melting on top of the mountains, was rushing so hard and fast that we couldn’t get very close to it without feeling like someone was tipping a bucket of water on our head. We walked along the path toward the falls and didn’t manage to get to the end of it because with water up to the middle of our shins and water pouring on our heads, we really didn’t fancy getting swept away! Lol. Didn’t get any good photos of this experience for obvious reasons!

The other site we visited which is definitely worth mentioning was Mariposa Grove which is an area where the famous giant Sequoia Trees have grown. Otherwise known as the handsome beasts, some of these trees are hundreds or even thousands of years old. One in particular called the Grizzly Giant is approximately 2,700 years old, 64 metres high and 30 metres in circumference at the base. It is something else to see a tree this big!! Standing next to one made us feel and look (in our photos) as small as ants! It reminded me of the trees in Lord of The Rings and it almost felt like at any moment they were going to come alive! The unplanned hike we did ended up being about a 10km round trip and 1000ft in elevation. I say unplanned because we arrived at 3pm in the afternoon to check out a few trees and what we thought was going to be a short walk, ended up being quite a hike. The big mistake on Tim’s part was wearing his thongs (NOT g-string just to clarify for all of our English & American friends)! I kept telling him to change his shoes as we started the hike and all he said was: ‘Nah I’ll be alright, we’re not walking far!’ LOL. Needless to say he had a very injured and sore foot for about a week after that! I have to give him credit though because he hardly complained and he continued to tough out some more walking in the days ahead.

After spending 2 glorious days surrounded by the beauty of Yosemite, we decided to stay at a campsite in a small town just outside of the park called Oakhurst. Before looking for a place to camp we grabbed some dinner at a Sushi Bar in the main street and this is where one of our most special experiences began…..

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lake Tahoe – the view that knocked the wind right out of us (June 7-8)

The drive from Napa Valley to Lake Tahoe was beautiful. The terrain changed from vines and open plains to dense pine forests and mountains. We climbed several thousand feet and descended a few more which meant we both had to pop our ears every 20 seconds or so……and surprisingly there were pops coming from elsewhere too!! Never knew altitude changes could have that affect! Or was it the food from the night before? Lol We started to see ice capped mountains in the distance and evidence that it had snowed not too many days before getting there. It was strange to see large chunks of ice on the side of the road even though it was about 25 degrees (Celsius)!

We had reached 10,000 feet and on the other side of a corner was a view that left us breathless and brought me (sal) to tears. It was literally like I’d been hit in the face, but instead of a tonne of bricks it was picturesque, awe-inspiring beauty! How do you even describe it!? A panoramic view of mountains sweeping down into a valley and there was the lake that sits around 6000 feet above sea level. Being as high as what we were looking over the view was what made it so spectacular. The only feeling I have ever had that is similar is when I jumped out of a plane. Along with hundreds of others we signed our name on the guardrail to mark our moment.

Driving into the town, we noticed every few miles there was a ski resort…there was no snow at the lower altitude, but it was obviously a big part of the culture here. We arrived around dinner time and managed to find the best cheap eat since we’ve been on the road – authentic Mexican food at Los Mexicanos! For under 25 bucks we got the biggest shrimp burrito we’ve ever seen and chicken enchiladas with rice, beans, salsa, guacamole and corn chips on the side. Sooooo good! We even managed to get a massive tub of guacamole & corn chips to take away for US$1.49. We cannot believe how good the Mexican food is in this country… authentic, fresh, healthy and tasty!! We’ve always excluded the Mexican restaurants in Oz as good places to eat, but now we are thinking we should really try them! They definitely have a lot to live up to!

We hung out and watched the beautiful sunset over the lake and following that decided to find our parking spot for the night. The area is heavily Policed and ‘no overnight parking’ signs were everywhere, so it was just as well we had organised to park in the driveway of someone’s holiday house. The guy on reception in a Napa Valley hotel (restaurant where we ate) who we happened to get chatting to told us about it…..the odd thing was he couldn’t give us a specific address for the property. He just told us it was on the corner of 2 joining streets and that it was vacant. We really had no idea what property it was, but we found one that looked like the only vacant house on the corner and decided to park in the driveway. We quickly got off to sleep and next thing we knew there was a knock on the window (at 7am)…our first one since being on the road. Ahhh! “Tim, Tim wake up there’s someone knocking on the window”. There was an older guy standing at the side of the van asking if he could get to his garage (in other words, can we move)! OH!! It dawned on us…we had definitely got the wrong house!! We had just slept overnight at the front of some random dude’s home! Ooops! We apologised profusely and although we could tell the guy was annoyed, he didn’t yell or abuse us with obscene language, which we were thankful for. So….what was definitely an interesting way of waking up, now makes for a funny story. As we drove away, we definitely had a bit of a chuckle to ourselves.

After we’d spent some time having breakfast at the lakeside, we drove to check out some of the views over Lake Tahoe. One of the most popular areas to visit is called Emerald Bay, a small cove of water that joins to the larger lake. This was where we did our first hike albeit small, but we did get to see some beautiful mountainous scenery, a waterfall and some solid ice on a 28 degree beautiful day! We returned to the town to have some food at a cafĂ© called ‘Sprouts’ which had been recommended to us by locals in Napa Valley. WOW!! Really good, fresh organic food…mostly vegetarian with minimal dishes containing meat. You wouldn’t know it though! These guys definitely know how to prepare beans and make them taste soooo good! Yes, raving about food…..AGAIN!! Obsessesed much?? Uhuh!

That day, we were headed for Yosemite National Park….

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Napa Valley - Couch Surfing at it's Best!

We met Coco (Coral) & Josh through couchsurfing….if you’re not already aware of what this is, check out the website via this address: It’s such a brilliant way of connecting people across cultures and from around the world. We posted a message on the Napa group to catch up with some locals and got a reply within a few hours from Coco.

We hung out with Coco, her partner Josh and some of their friends at a local weekly event called ‘Cheers’ in Saint Helena celebrating local wine & food (a bit like a market). We meandered through the streets checking out the quirky and unique shops including one dedicated to the celebration of dogs – everything dog related including paper mache dog faces made into clocks. Brilliant! We discovered a free photo booth and managed to cram 7 people into it to have some very amusing pics taken. We finished off the night with some good food in a local Pizza bar. Tim tried root beer for the first time and describes it as being something from his Nanna’s medicine cupboard. Mmmm!

During the night, we mentioned to Coco that we were yet to find a place to park the van. She told us she lives in a studio flat attached to a friend’s house and would be really happy to ask him if we can park the van in the driveway. As it turned out, he wouldn’t allow us to park in the driveway, but he insisted we use his guest room! He hadn’t even met us!! ‘Whoah’ was all we could think to ourselves! Then, when we saw the room, our jaws were a little wider again! We were basically staying in a hotel room! It was so nicely decorated and the bed was like sleeping on a cloud! We felt so blessed yet again!

Unfortunately Rory & Christina, the owners of the house were out at the time although we did get to meet Rory briefly before bed. As a like-minded traveller we instantly connected and discovered he has hosted and been hosted through a travel network similar to couchsurfing. As Rory headed off to bed we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning chatting to Coco & Josh. We shared in some really good wine, stories and laughs. These guys oozed generosity, opening their lives and sharing anything and everything with us. Without even thinking twice about it, they handed us a bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to take with us (which we have since learned is amazing). They gave away a book they thought we would benefit from, cooked us a really good breakfast and have given heaps of handy tips and recommendations for our travelling. The whole time we were with them it felt like all they wanted to do was make sure we were enjoying ourselves and had everything we needed. We left Napa over a week ago now and Coco is still emailing us with handy info as well as trying to find accommodation for us on the other side of the country! It was also really nice to discover that we all have similar passions/ideas about life and we had the privilege of reading both of their bucket lists. I (Sal) was reminded how important it is to allow yourself to dream, to have aspirations and not to be afraid of having them just because of the possibility of not realising them. Because dreaming in itself is a valid activity and to aspire to something is better than aspiring to nothing.

The couch surfing project is about sharing, about exchange and creating experiences that inspire people to grow. Coral & Josh have caught this vision whole heartedly and we are so glad to have been able to spend time with them.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Napa Valley - Where we changed our name from Sutton to Glutton! (June 2-7)

Well…gluttons is certainly what we felt like while we were in the Napa Valley for 5 nights. Napa Valley, north of San Francisco is the largest wine region in the States with hundreds of wineries and wine tasting opportunities. For those of you who are thinking ‘haven’t these guys had enough of wine already?’, the answer is a firm ‘no’! The fact that the wineries here charge for tastings did mean that we were able to taste in moderation…hehe. The wineries we visited were stunning pieces of architecture in themselves and some with gorgeous views over the valley. Unfortunately we were turned off by some wineries that were quite commercial, impersonal and wine that was overpriced and underwhelming. South Aussies, think Jacob’s Creek (sorry if you’re a fan). We did find some treasures of course which we consumed with much satisfaction.

In addition to wine, Napa Valley is famous for it’s fine dining and culinary excellence. The area is home to a restaurant called ‘The French Laundry’ which in the last few years has won awards for the best restaurant in the world! Unfortunately we chose not to eat there due to the extraordinary price tag of $300+ per person!!! We did however have extremely good food whilst in Napa at a fraction of that price….

The first night in the area we stopped for dinner at Farmstead restaurant in Saint Helena - a very funky place set up in a barn type building with an outdoor bar. We have discovered that sitting at the bar to eat in a restaurant instead of a table is much more exciting and you may just make friends with the locals or even the restaurant staff. We chatted to the Bar Tender all night; met the owner who was so impressed with our van and invited us to stay overnight in the car park (which we did); and we also got to meet the Head Chef – Shamus who was obviously extremely passionate about food. Needless to say, we latched onto him for a while, chatted about cuisine and received new recommendations of where to eat. We have to mention that it was here Tim ate the most incredible gourmet burger ever!! Home made everything including the ketchup and bun!

Another restaurant that we have to mention is Piero in Yountville that serves ‘to die for’ Italian food – everything made from scratch on the premises and their products are top notch, right down to the wine list! We did become a bit of a distraction for our waiter – Colin who we ended up chatting to for a large portion of the night while his other customers were potentially neglected. The food was good enough to lure us back again within a couple of days, this time we sat at the bar where we were entertained by the staff. The Restaurant Manager (Paul) managed to convert us to dessert wine (we told him we didn’t like it, guess he was up for the challenge!). He poured us some local and Italian wine ‘on the house’ which we later learned were priced up to $135 per 500ml bottle. Hmmm, maybe the reason they were so good? Conversion successful nonetheless….we won’t be so quick to judge a bottle by it’s label in the future.

We stayed until close and much to our amusement were invited to go out with the staff for drinks. What a brilliant bunch of people! We talked like we were old friends and laughed so hard we couldn’t laugh anymore! We exchanged details and invited them all to Oz while they invited us to stay with them if we are ever in the Napa area again. We said our goodbyes and the next day couldn’t help ourselves….we returned to the same restaurant for dessert!! But, it wasn’t just any dessert…it was the best chocolate mousse topped with chocolate coated rock salt! If you haven’t tried salted chocolate yet, you must!! It’s what we call a ‘party in your mouth’ experience. Anyway, back from the slight tangent… When we walked into the restaurant we were greeted with handshakes and hugs just like old friends. This time we also met some of the staff’s partners (Natalie & Kelly) who were eating at the bar. We had the opportunity to share some of our journey with them and discovered we were very like-minded. We talked about seizing the day and not wasting a single minute being held back by fear or restricted by possessions. We also discussed maintaining faith in humanity and the value of reaching out to a stranger no matter where you are in the world. The conversation challenged us again to make the most of every moment during this incredible time in our lives.

Other highlights in the Napa…..

- Chocolate tasting at the Culinary Institute of America where we learned that the taste of chocolate is affected by terroir (French word for conditions ie. Climate, soil etc). We tasted some that had berry undertones and another citrus all because the cocoa beans were grown in different parts of the world and under different conditions. Interesting!!

- Food and wine pairing class where we learned how to tone down or amplify the dominant feature in wine ie. Fruit and/or tannins using food.

- Champagne tasting and cheese pairing at Domaine Carneros…a famous winery using French grapes and who has the reputation of making champagne equivalent to Dom Perignon at a fraction of the price.

- AND saving the best for last…..spending time with couch surfers Coco and Josh who enriched our experience so much. These guys need their own post (to come next).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

San Francisco - An experience out of the ordinary (May 27-June 2)

San Francisco….where do we start!!? Our time was a little out of the ordinary to say the least! We arrived in the Bay area around 5pm in the afternoon and of course because we are the non-workers right now, we neglected to consider peak hour traffic! Hmmm…I’m glad Tim was driving!! He handled it brilliantly! Surprisingly he was very calm! Lol.

In a previous post, you may remember reading that we were offered a place to stay in San Francisco (or at least a place to park our van) …..complete strangers who agreed to host us. As we made our way toward their house, we weren’t sure what to expect other than the fact that they were obviously really nice, trusting people because they were hosting us on the basis of knowing absolutely nothing about us!

As soon as we met Claudia and Edgar we were no longer strangers– they greeted us with such enthusiasm and cracked open a bottle of Napa champagne to toast to ‘new friends’! We instantly hit it off and spending time with them was our biggest highlight of being in San Francisco. More about this shortly…

Of course we did spend a couple of days doing the touristy things – Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, China Town, rode the cable car, Pier 39 etc and all of these were great! We can completely understand why San Fran is rated by so many as their favourite city in the world. So much culture, diversity, an endless amount of things to do and some incredible sights like the Golden Gate Bridge. And we can’t forget the food!! It is the American Mecca for foodies. Yes, we did fit in well! At one point we considered migration, but quickly realised how much trouble we would be in with all our family and friends in Oz! ;-)

So what was meant to be 3 nights staying with Claudia & Edgar ended up being 6 and if we didn’t have a lot of other places to visit before returning the camper, could well have been a lot longer. These guys felt like family moments after meeting them and after only a few days we felt like we’d been friends for years. We had so much fun hanging out, chatting into the wee hours of the morning, sharing stories and laughing until we cried….mostly over miscommunications due to differences in our accents. One example….I told them my Dad was a retired fisherman and they thought I said my Dad was a retarded fisherman. Another example – offering to make Claudia some breakfast (muesli from the purple box) and what she heard was ‘do you want some muslim from the purple box?’ These miscommunications became running jokes the whole time we were with them.

The night we arrived, Claudia cooked us ‘real’ Mexican Enchiladas and with both Claudia & Edgar being Chicanos (from Mexican descent) they definitely know how to do them extremely well! We were also spoilt with a traditional Mexican breakfast called chilaquiles – fried tortillas with eggs, salsa & cheese. Very very good!! We quickly discovered that Claudia & Edgar are foodies like us and we enjoyed sharing in good food and food stories. Through Claudia’s business (supplying gourmet produce and products to restaurants, wineries etc) she was so kind to put us in touch with some really good places to eat in SF and the wine regions.

We stayed in SF during the US Memorial Day long weekend and there were a whole lot of things going on around the city. One of the days we spent with Claudia & Edgar in the East Bay area where they live….we went to the Berkley Farmer’s market where we sampled some really good food – the meatless tacos and cardamom ice cream sandwich were particularly memorable. While Claudia & Edgar had a family gathering, they dropped us off to have a look around Berkley – particularly Telegraph street, where the hippie movement was birthed. We discovered some amazing thrift/2nd hand shops and other funky clothing stores. We had to make a decision there and then that we would stop going into clothing shops no matter how funky they looked because we were only torturing ourselves (none of the clothes would fit in our backpacks to take home and posting is expensive). We were all excited about going out that night to a salsa club in the city and we had planned to meet Claudia and Edgar back at their house to leave from there. By the time we got back we were all exhausted and decided to have a night in with wine, cheese & movies. We needed to preserve our energy for what was to come the next day. I (Sal) the lightweight, didn’t even make it through the first movie before venturing off to bed!

The following day we went with Claudia & Edgar to the SF Annual Carnavale which is a massive cultural festival held in the heart of SF’s cultural district (The Mission). It was an absolute blast! Incredible street parade with so much colour, cultural costumes, music, acrobats & dancers. The streets were packed with at least 30,000 people if not more originating from the four corners of the world. It literally felt like we were no longer in America! We really had to pinch ourselves at that point – we were so privileged to be hanging out with some local people at one of SF’s biggest event of the year! Another highlight of that day was eating at one of the Mission’s best restaurant’s called Limon who specialise in Peruvian food! OMG! So good! It was our first time eating Peruvian and what a treat – difficult to describe, but basically grilled meats & vegies with the most incredible spices!

After Carnavale, Claudia & Edgar drove us on a mini tour of the Golden Gate Park area of SF. We ate and drank at the famous ‘Cliffhouse’ on Ocean Beach and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping to take some pics before heading back to their house.

Leaving Claudia & Edgar was hard…..when you meet like-minded people who you instantly connect with and become life-long friends in such a short space of time, it’s not easy to say goodbye.

Claudia & Edgar, we hope you are reading this….we feel so blessed and privileged to have spent time with you in your beautiful home and city. You have enriched our experience so much and we want to thankyou for opening your lives to us. We have created amazing memories together that we will cherish for years to come! Looking forward to seeing you both in Oz soon! x

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pristine Coastline - Big Sur to San Francisco (May 25-27)

So it has been over a week since our last blog post and we have a lot of catching up to do!! We didn’t realise how hard it would be trying to keep this updated! Our days are full and it seems we have prioritised local activities and spending time with locals over blog writing!! Yeah that’s right, who wouldn’t!!? But we know how many of you anticipate our posts (without sounding big headed) and so we will keep plugging away at it!!

Big Sur to Sanfrancisco – nothing short of spectacular! Apart from the fact that it rained for 2 out of the 3 days of this journey, by the end of the 2nd day the clouds had dissipated and we were soaking up the rays once again. The drive along the coast was just stunning – it reminded of us of driving the Great Ocean Road, but beautiful in it’s own way, majestic scenes around every corner. We stayed in the Big Sur State Park, a gorgeous camping spot and it was our first opportunity we had to cook breakfast from the back of our van – French toast with ketchup! The bread containing sugar was not so flash. We have discovered that the Americans put sugar/high fructose corn syrup in almost everything – YUCK!! The squirrels seemed to enjoy the French toast though, having the courage to eat out of our hands!! lol

We visited the largest Sea Lion colony we have ever seen!! A kilometre long beach jam packed with elephant seals laying side by side….we were quite amused over some of the males fighting over the ladies while they happily basked in the sun (well that was our theory). Another amazing sight. The squirrels at the seal colony were even more tame than Big Sur, venturing onto your lap even though we didn’t have any food to give them.

We spent one night in Monterey where we ate really good seafood on the Fisherman’s Warf– the biggest scallops we have ever seen! We also tried clam chowder for the first time (this area is famous for it) which was incredible! We visited the Monterey Aquarium, one of the largest in the world. We were impressed with their efforts toward conserving our oceans/planet and the sea life we saw was just out of this world, especially the jelly fish! All we can say is wait until you see the pics! If you are in the California area the Aquarium definitely needs to be on your to-do-list.

We arrived in Santa Cruz in the afternoon and strolled the famous Boardwalk – not too exciting and we were surprised that everything was closing at 5pm! In the evening, we hadn’t yet found a place to park the van so we decided to head out of town and see if we could find a campground. On our way out of town, from a distance we saw what we thought was an RV park so we drove closer only to discover that it was an RV storage facility! DOH! We had a chuckle to ourselves and we were about to drive out of town when we discovered a deserted and unused parking lot in a secluded area….we were both so tired and just figured if we parked here for the night and left early we wouldn’t bother anyone. So that’s what we did! A funny story while we were parked here: there were very few cars that drove past us, but one that did made a point of pulling up right alongside our van!! We thought to ourselves “shit, what do they want!!”…then after about 30 secs of them parked there we saw a flash go off!! They then drove around to the other side of the van and we saw a flash go off again!! LOL all they wanted was to take pics of the van!

Before making our way to San Francisco we decided to take some time out at a small coastal town called Half Moon Bay. We finally got to put our feet in the sand and had some fun regressing to being kids again! It was the first time since my (sal) hip surgery that I’ve been able to jump and it was such an exhilarating feeling! There was a time not so long ago when I wondered if I was ever going to be free of pain and on this day I finally believed that I might actually be!

Taking time out was exactly what we needed…..we both felt more relaxed than we have in a very long time!