Travel specialist Russell Mein spent most of his thirties and forties travelling off the beaten track to remote & adventurous destinations. This Christchurch travel agent continues to explore all corners of the world and write about them for the World Travellers Riccarton blog. In this article, he tells us about his trip to Northern California.

From NZ to the US

My trip begins with a standard domestic flight from Christchurch to Auckland. You really can’t go past our national carrier. On time and efficient.

In Auckland I boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles. I had side aisle seating. The aircraft appeared very full and space between rows seemed tight.

General service was ok, but the entertainment system apparently overheated and stopped working 30 minutes into the flight. It was unavailable for approximately one hour (not ideal), but at least it wasn’t down for the whole flight! As with many carriers these days, the economy headsets are very basic small earplugs, which are both uncomfortable and don’t give great sound quality. I recommend taking your own and investing in good quality noise cancelling head phones if budget permits.

Touchdown in LA

We arrived in Los Angeles slightly ahead of time at 5.30am and had to wait on the tarmac as US customs apparently doesn’t open until 6am and they wouldn’t allow anyone off the plane, which seemed strange for such a big hub. We lined up and were marshalled through various barriers to entry screens to input personal details (basically asking for the same as the pre-arranged ESTA!) along with full fingerprints and face scan. Then we were marshalled further to a customs desk for more of the same. It seemed very unnecessary to do all the online and screening processes only to be seen by a real person anyway. Not convinced their processing is very time efficient at all – so be prepared!

A slight delay

I grabbed my luggage off the conveyor and then headed through to Terminal 4 to find that the flight to SFO had been cancelled and we had been re-accommodated onto United …

5 hours later. As it turned out the rest of the group had all been re-accommodated on different flights throughout the day, so quite a messy start.

Our California Tourism representative took control and arranged for us all to take taxis to Santa Monica (cost between USD35-50 each way depending on taxi) where we had a nice lunch. Then we walked around Santa Monica Pier toward Venice Beach. It felt like a nice safe area with lots of walkers, runners and cyclists. We taxied back to LAX airport only to find our re-scheduled flight was further delayed until 5pm – so a VERY long day after a relatively long flight.

(Finally) the trip begins

In the end we had a nice flight to San Francisco flying United. On arrival, the airport seemed very nice and modern, it was easy to get around and luggage was easy to find. A taxi into the city cost around USD50 and took 30-40mins (off peak).

We stayed at the Clift Hotel (294 Geary St, Union Square). It featured old-world elegance with distinctly modern touches including an amazing foyer with very eclectic furniture. Check-in was suitably proficient and friendly. We had a very spacious twin room with two queen beds, a surprisingly small bathroom, nice street views and an excellent breakfast. 

San Francisco is a beautiful city with a great feel. It’s easily possible to spend 4-5 days here, as the city is so easy to walk around. The Union Square area is quite compact, but also a hive of activity. Hop-on/hop-off buses all go from here and are very popular. There are many hotels in the region including Clift, The Handlery, St Regis, Chancellor, and so on.

Top sights in San Francisco 

We walked from Union Square to the Ferry Building (20mins) and did a very informative Edible Excursions Tour including samples of local cheeses, pastries, macaroons and chocolate. A great place to just wander around and try some organic and specialty foods.

We then continued along the Pier to the Alcatraz dock. This is an extremely busy attraction and should be booked well in advance. It’s almost impossible to get this on arrival and can sometimes be booked out four months in advance! Alcatraz itself is a very interesting and well-run attraction. Based on an audio tour within the walls of the prison, it takes approximately two hours and is very interesting, without ever seeming too congested. There is a large gift shop at the end of the tour and you can come back every half hour. 

After Alcatraz we continued walking on the Pier toward Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch (famous for Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bun). Food is not that cheap and you can expect to pay around $10-15.

We walked on to Bay City Bikes and hired bicycles for a 4-hour bike ride along the shore and up to Golden Gate Bridge (it was guided, but you can do it yourself). It’s an excellent way to see San Francisco and a great way to go over the bridge. Unfortunately we had typically heavy ‘Bay Fog’ so the view of the bridge was limited, but still impressive. We headed back into town and took a taxi back to the hotel over the famous San Fran Hills (USD12).

The next morning we went to Park Central Hotel in the business district, which is also a great place to stay, as it’s close to many museums and the convention centre (being renovated until 2018). It’s a nice hotel with great views and spacious rooms. We also visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) which is 7 floors of a great variety of modern art (USD25).  

We hired large SUVs for the drive from San Francisco to Napa Valley. I don’t recommend driving within the city unless you’re very comfortable with US driving rules and the speed of city traffic. But once out of city it’s a very different story – the roads are good and it’s easy to navigate with GPS. It took about two hours to get out to Napa including a stop at “In & Out” similar to MacDonalds. 

Wining and dining in the Napa Valley

Once in the Napa Valley we made our way to the Embassy Suites by Hilton Napa Valley. This is a very nice property, only three stories high surrounding a small outdoor swimming pool. There’s a great foyer area and large carpark, as most guests have vehicles. Rooms are spacious with a lounge area and nice bathroom.

We visited the Welcome Centre and then enjoyed wine tasting at Riverhouse -Bespoke Collection. A beautiful setting near a river and magnificent venue with fine art and antiquities. We sampled a fabulous wine selection from Blackbird Vineyards & Resolute Wines.

That evening we dined at Kitchen Door Dinery at Oxbow Public Market. Again an excellent selection and variety of food and wines in an open and active market environment.

A highlight of the trip and a ‘must do’ if in this area is the extremely well executed operation on outskirts of Napa – Napa Valley Aloft Hot Air Ballooning. Our first flight was cancelled due to – you guessed it – fog! But the next day they took us to the secondary take off area about 30 minutes drive away where fog was avoided. The ballooning experience itself was fantastic. A very gentle lift-off, and about an hour floating above the beautiful vineyards and stunning scenery of the area. A truly wonderful experience – highly recommend it!

We spent a good six hours with Napa Valley Bike Tours leisurely cycling to a few wineries. This is a really nice way to get around and not have to drive, whilst still able to experience the delicious local wines. A very low level of fitness is required and as long as you can ride a bike, this is a very easy tour sampling wine and food along the way. 

Like most areas, Napa has an outlet shopping area which includes many well known brands – Nike, Adidas, GAP, Sketchers, Levi’s etc. Prices are okay but when converted back to NZD may not always be as cheap as expected (check the exchange rate before you go and you may like to set up a very basic pocket conversion table you can refer to when out and about if you don’t want to use your phone data).

We walked from the hotel to dinner in central Napa at Norman Rose Tavern located in a very nice township with beautiful, large houses. Next morning we also visited ANDAZ Hotel in Napa which looked very impressive and is ideally located in the heart of Napa. Here you’ll find beautiful rooms an extensive foyer and plentiful eating areas.

Spa, ski and stunning scenery at Lake Tahoe

About a four hour drive from Napa is the equally famous Tahoe. Enjoy stunning scenery especially as you near Lake Tahoe. The roads again are excellent roads, but they do narrow substantially once you reach the mountainous areas (very similar roads to the South Island here in NZ).

In Tahoe we stayed at The Landing Tahoe Resort & Spa offering a wonderful location right on the lake with beautiful views, especially from the restaurant. Rooms were very spacious and beds incredibly comfortable. Bathrooms, stunning! The property is clearly very well set up for both summer and winter travellers. Aside from the views, the restaurant was fabulous with excellent menus and service. Breakfast was also fantastic (and reasonably priced!).

It’s an easy walk to Tahoe Village which sits underneath Heavenly Skifield. During our time there the Gondola was closed for maintenance and there was only a handful of travellers around. Apparently Tahoe gets four times as many travellers in summer as it does in winter – even though it is a well-known ski resort area. The lake and surrounding areas are postcard-worthy. The picturesque half of Tahoe is in California and the concrete jungle casinos are the Nevada half. It’s an odd mix, but apparently necessary to cater for the influx of tourists in high seasons.

A great activity which allows you to get out onto the lake is Tahoe Sport Fishing. The cost for a four hour fishing trip is approximately USD120 and includes all the necessary gear for fishing, and guides to take you where your chances of a catch are quite high. The main fish species are brown and rainbow trout, and they are a decent size. Our excursion was very well run and the staff were extremely helpful, even those with no experience. If nothing else, it is a great way to see Tahoe from the water and get a different perspective. You even get the opportunity to have your fish taken to one of three restaurants where they will prepare it for your evening meal.

If hiking’s your thing, there are many great hiking trails around Tahoe, from a mere 15 minutes to several days. Wonderful scenery and well-worn paths make the area a haven for lovers of the outdoors. One great hike is down to the Vikingsholm Castle, built by an eccentric Scandinavian in the late 1860s and sitting on the edge of the lake – it’s a great spot for a picnic (perhaps with your favourite bottle of vino from Napa!)

Heading home via Reno

We then drove on to the airport in Reno, which took approximately 1-2 hours. Along the way we had some fun finding places to fill up the rental car and then locating the rental drop-off depot, but we eventually made it with plenty of time. Reno Airport is quite simple and efficient, and our luggage was checked right thought to Auckland – too easy.

Our flight from Reno to Los Angeles on American Airlines was reasonable given the smaller aircraft size. It was then into the maze of LAX airport. We took the walk to the Tom Bradley terminal, and although it is very modern, it was extremely busy. Food lines were ridiculous and somewhat unorganised, plus the food there is also very expensive – $17 for a salad! It’s best to eat in the other terminals where pricing is more subdued.  

No surprises, our flight was delayed two hours due to the pilot not having arrived from Phoenix – a little disconcerting before a 13-hour flight. By luck, I was seated in the extra legroom area, which was certainly better than the outbound flight. 

Our delayed departure from Los Angeles meant I missed the booked connection back to Christchurch on Air New Zealand. But luckily I was on a ‘Flexitime’ ticket, so could change on the same day without cost. So worth the extra money paid and an important investment to make when booking seperate domestic tickets. 

So all-in-all this was an excellent trip. California certainly has some beautiful areas to explore and getting out of the main cities and into the outdoors is a fantastic way to see the ‘real’ USA.

Rusell travelled to Northern California in May 2017 courtesy of Visit California, Adventure World & American Airlines.