Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Hearst Castle

Perched overlooking one of the most stunning coastlines in the United States is the private residence of one of the country’s most notable business moguls and millionaires.  William Randolph Hearst fell in love with a hilltop piece of property in San Simeon that his father owned and he camped on as a little boy.  His love for the property propelled him to construct a little house, or two, or three…Hearst called this property simply “the ranch.”  And while his ranch did have cattle, it was not the average western California farm.  This one has elaborate architecture, Spanish flair, and is adorned with European antiquities.



Hearst gained an appreciation for European style as a young boy when he spent a year and a half traveling throughout Europe with his mother.  While most children would not develop an appreciation for European architecture, culture, and style, Hearst did.

Hearst approached the talented Californian architect Julia Morgan with a “project” to build a bungalow.  He told Morgan, “I would like to build something upon the hill at San Simeon. I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I'm getting a little too old for that. I'd like to get something that would be a little more comfortable."

Not your typical "ranch" front door - this one is a work of art from Europe that was
disassembled, shipped to the building site, and reconstructed.
Hearst’s intention of a modest dwelling swelled into a palatial estate.  Construction began in 1919 with a guest cottage that Hearst lived in until the main building (called “Casa Grande” by Hearst or the “Hearst Castle” by others) was completed.  Work on the property continued non-stop until 1949 when Hearst left the property due to failing health.  
Casa del Sol is just one of  three guest cottages.  It contains 8 bedrooms and bathrooms
and is just over 3,600 square feet.  Not too shabby for a "guest" cottage.
The Hearst Castle was four stories and featured 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and a private zoo.

The lavish dining room was called the "Refectory" because its high windows, colorful silk banners, and polished silver
conveyed the atmosphere of a church from the middle ages.
Despite the ornate decorations in the dinning room, guests enjoyed a ranch-style dinner of steak and potatoes
while listening to Roy Rogers.  Mustard and ketchup were always on the table - a reminder that Hearst liked
to keep things informal at the ranch.
One of the highlights of the estate is the large outdoor Neptune Pool.  The pool sits on the hilltop and offers an excellent view of the main house, the mountains, and Pacific ocean.  The patio is adorned with an ancient Roman Temple front that was imported from Europe.  Hearst was always "tinkering" with the design and finished products and as a result the Neptune Pool was built and rebuilt three times before he was satisfied.



Hearst was a prolific buyer of antiques and art and built his houses around them instead of using them for mere decoration.   He collected over 250,000 pieces of art from statues to Belgian tapestries.



Being invited to the the Hearst Castle was a big deal and the Hollywood set was ever present.  Most guests were flown in on Hearst's private jet and landed on the property air strip.  Guests were summoned  to the "assembly room" at seven where they enjoyed each others company and cocktails (but no more than two) for an hour.  The ornately decorated room featured 16th century tapestries and marble statues.




Then Hearst would enter and seat everyone for dinner.  After dinner the billiards room was the center of activity until movies were shown in the theater at 11 p.m.


The Hearst Castle was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and is administered by the California State Park System.  One stipulation of the Hearst Corporation's donation of the property to the state is that the Hearst family is allowed to use it when they wish which is primarily to use the Neptune pool for family events during the summer.  Otherwise, the property is open for tours but you may want to check online for availability and prices if you are coming during a busy time of year.  We agreed that it is certainly worth the visit.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

RV Park Review – Flying Flags RV Park (Buellton, California)

Flying Flags RV Resort website

Overall, there were things we liked about this park and some things we did not so it gets a 7/10.  The park has full hookup (with cable and wifi) or you can opt for dry camping.  Full hook-up sites have concrete patios and crushed gravel pads.  Sites are fairly close together.  Each site has a picnic table and sites on the end of each row (that cost more) have gas grills and fire pits.  The park has lots of amenities like guest cottages, spas, pool, laundry, clubhouse, game room, fitness room, horseshoe pits, rental movies, etc. 

What we liked about this park was the location because we were in wine country (the Santa Ynez Valley) and nearby the town of Solvang where we found an endless supply of danishes that warmed our bellies and expanded our waistbands.  There is a grocery store/gas station/shopping within a half mile and restaurants within walking distance.  The park allowed us to drive around and pick our own site (143) which we really appreciated.  Other campers were friendly and we met some really nice women who gave us great winery and restaurant recommendations.  There was a dog park but after two days it was torn up so the kids play area could be enlarged.  We made our own dog park in the dry camping area (that was essentially a big field) and played “chuck-it” with Spirit there since there were just a few campers.   

The not so good about this park was how they placed campers in sites right next to each other.  The park was not very crowded but the office put campers right next to us.  Ugh!  The dog park was destroyed in the middle of our stay.  The wifi was not very good.   

Spirit’s two cents centers on the dog park, of course.  While there was a dog park, it was very small and not great for big dogs to run in and is no longer in existence.  She liked breaking the rules (just like her mom) and running off leash once the dog park was destroyed.  Good girl!

typical sites
game room
pool behind office
more sites
Spirit running in the dry camping section (motorhome storage in the background)




Sunday, February 24, 2013

Paso Robles – California Wine Country (Part II)

Justin Winery cave and wine barrels.

I told you there would be more posts coming from California wine country!  The town of Paso Robles was not too be missed by us and you should not overlook it as well; especially, you red wine drinkers.

Napa and Sonoma are names synonymous with California wines, but the nearly 200 wineries around Paso Robles have put this area on the map and is the fastest growing American Viticulture Area in California.  Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this area has the climate, soil, and topography (which is described as terroir in French)  that are the perfect environment for growing over 40 different wine grapes.  Many of the grape varietals are from the Rhône Valley of France and are very happy here in the California limestone soils.  I’m glad the grapes are so happy – maybe that is why they taste so good! (Remember the happy cows commercial where happy cows make good cheese?) 

El Paso de Robles (Spanish for “The Pass of the Oaks) has a vineyard history that goes way back to 1797 when Franciscan missionaries planted the first wine grapes.  Wine making in the region went through spurts in the 1920’s and again in the 1960’s and 70’s when the science of winemaking came into play.  Fast forward to the 1990’s when international investment took place and the success of Rhône and Bordeaux varieties influenced small boutique and family-owned vineyards and wineries.  Up until 1990, there were fewer than 20 wineries in and around Paso Robles which was just a sleepy little farming community.  Critics had always labeled Paso wines as rustic, highly tannic and with little finesse.  But things were changing and the refined Paso wines were in high demand.  Soon, the agricultural fields were replanted with the distinguishing rows of wine grapes and the wine bottles were adorned with  ribbons and points in the 90’s. 


Zinfandel grapes have always held a strong influence in the area and persisted during the wine making ups and downs.  Some credit the invention of white zinfandel with the survivorship of the red zinfandel as the demand for white zinfandel paid the bills until its red cousin became popular.  I am especially fond of zinfandel so I'm glad some of my relatives and friends kept it afloat by drinking the pink stuff.

The list of regional wineries is a mix of those you have probably heard of (like J. Lohr, Eberle, Robert Hall, and Justin) and those that you have not.  I really enjoyed the tastings at the small boutique wineries that were unfamiliar to me – like our first stop at Whalebone Winery.  I admit we pulled in because the sign out front said “free barbeque” and our hard right turn had nothing to do with their wines.  This small family-owned and run business started as a hobby and has grown into an award-winning winery.  You are greeted at the quaint, cottage-like wood tasting room by cats and a dog lounging in the sun overlooking the grape vines.  Enter inside and the family matriarch will pour you their finest while her son served up the best tri-tip sandwich around.  Don't be fooled by small wineries thinking these are cheap and boring wines.  Many of them are in the $20-$45 range and will blow you away.  

The official greeter at the Whalebone tasting room.


















We bought two bottles at Whalebone and were off to Justin Winery (can’t go wrong there). We particularly love the Justin cabernet sauvignon but it was wonderful to try their other varieties and blends - like the 2010 Isosceles which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (85%), cabernet franc (8%) and merlot (7%) at $62/bottle.





The tasting room in the Justin cellar.
While Paso is known for its zinfandel, the largest percentage of grapes grown in the region are cabernet sauvignon at approximately 38% followed by merlot (15%), syrah (10%), and zinfandel (9%).  And an estimated 58% of Paso wine grapes are sold to wineries outside the area so don't be surprised to find them in many other California wines.  

We had a great weekend wandering around the wineries and meeting people and talking to the representatives at the wineries.  Calli at J. Lohr was a blast to talk to and a wealth of knowledge about their wines.  And the family-owned and run Cass Winery was equally delightful as we sipped delicious wine while chatting with the owner (Steve) and his son (Brian).  It is these experiences that make us not only remember the wine but how wine can bring people together to enjoy the afternoon.  I guess milk could do that too?  Ha!

J. Lohr tasting room
Sculpterra Winery has some of the most impressive sculptures on their grounds.
Eberle Winery mascot "Porcellino" - Eberle is the German word for small, wild boar.  Rubbing his nose is supposed to be good luck.
There are over 26,000 vineyard acres in the Paso Robles region.
A mobile bottling truck at Sculpterra.  
Inside the bottling truck where the entire process of filling, corking, and labeling wine bottles is done in seconds.
On Friday and Saturday night at the RV park there were free tastings.  





Friday, February 22, 2013

Butterflies and Bubblegum

Just south of Santa Barbara is the small beach town of Pismo Beach – ah, perfect for our next stop along the Golden States’ gorgeous coastline.  After four days inland exploring the beautiful sleepy wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley and gorging on delectable danishes in Solvang, it was time to smell the salt air and hear the roar of the pounding surf.


Pismo Beach is a throwback beach town that hasn’t changed since the sixties where the boardwalk and pier are the lively heartbeat of the town.  If you stay in this town too long you will be heading to the nearest surf shop to purchase a long board as you are humming a contagious Beach Boys tune. 

The RV park we stayed at (Pismo Coast Village RV Resort) was located behind a large sand dune and sandwiched between downtown and a state park.  It is nice (and somewhat of a rarity) when an RV park is located within walking distance of stores, restaurants and attractions.  We had a wonderful Valentine's Day dinner in town at the Cracked Crab where when you order the special seafood bucket, they pour the entire thing on your table and you crack away.  Oh yum! 

One morning we ventured over to the nearby Pismo Beach State Park to check out the massive monarch migration that happens every year.  What a marvel for such a delicate creature to fly nearly 100 miles a day to reach a winter destination that they find every year.  The monarch migrations are legendary in the realm of that natural world.  The grove of eucalyptus and cypress with a nearby fresh water creek provide just the environment that suits the monarchs.  Once the sun warms the earth the butterflies leave their clustered roosting spot and begin to dance in the warm air.  The butterflies come every year but in varying numbers.  Like so many sensitive species their numbers have declined since biologists have been counting.  While there are natural fluctuations the decline from 230,000 individuals in 1991-92 to just over 23,000 in 2011-12 is quite drastic.

What appears to be dead leaves and branches is actually clusters of
butterflies.  Clustering protects them from strong storms and lessens
the chance of being blown around in a storm.


Butterflies arrive in Pismo starting in October from as far away as Canada.  They come for the warmth
and the food that is found in flower nectar.
Always ones to be interested in the obscure sights, we decided to drive to San Luis Obispo to see Bubblegum Alley.  The origins are in question but essentially this is a 70-foot long narrow city alley with bubblegum stuck on the wall.  (Yes, mom this is one of those places where you would be thoroughly grossed out.)

The masterpiece started sometime after WWII but after business owners complained the wall was
"unsanitary and disgusting"  it was cleaned twice in the 1970's.  Alas, the tradition prevailed and is now
a popular tourist landmark.
Yes, the black stuff is grime growing
on old, used bubble gum (a.k.a ABC gum).
I had every intention of contributing to this fruity masterpiece but upon closer inspection decided there was no way I was going to put my fingers anywhere near this sticky canvas.  I would leave that to the professional artists.


By the way, downtown San Luis Obispo is a really cool area and we strolled around, had lunch, and took in a little window shopping.  Great day!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cincinnati Chili


Cold weather and waking up to frost on the ground brings out the desire for warm comfort food.  And, yes, we consider chili comfort food.  Betsy grew up in Cincinnati on the famous local chili made by home-grown institutions like Skyline and Gold Star Chili.  Sorry to all you Texans who love your chunky meaty bold chili but this is a whole different breed made with cocoa powder, cinnamon, allspice and other chili goodies.  Cincinnati style chili is no longer confined to the Queen City as you can get it through the mail in many different forms like canned, in a microwaveable bowl, or as a spice packet (thanks to Bruce and Mary for our packet) and all you do is add ground meat.  No Cincinnati chili dinner is complete without being served hot sauce and oyster crackers on the side.

My desire to chop, stir, and taste led me to make my own version.  Here is the recipe that works for me and pleases the taste buds of the Cincinnati girl. 

Ingredients

1              pound ground beef
1              cup onion, chopped
3              cloves garlic, minced
1              can (29 oz.) tomato sauce
1              cup water (use less for thicker consistency)
1 ½          tablespoons Worchester sauce
3              tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½             tablespoon instant bouillon granules
1              tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 ½          teaspoon chili powder
1              tablespoon ground cumin
1              bay leaf
½             teaspoon salt
¼             teaspoon ground allspice
⅛             teaspoon ground cloves

Directions

In a large heavy saucepan (or Dutch oven) cook ground beef until done.  Drain fat.  In the same pan, add onion and cook for 5 minutes until soft.  Add garlic and cook for another two minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce heat and simmer for one hour.  (Tip: for thicker chili remove the lid and simmer uncovered to desired consistency.)

Serve the chili over cooked spaghetti and topped with a mound of grated cheddar cheese and red kidney beans.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

“California’s Little Denmark” in California Wine Country (Part I)


Well you knew there had to be more than one post about drinking wine in California, didn’t you?  Come on this is a big state and there are lots of grape varietals that need sampling.  Besides, we like to support the local economy where ever we are.

The town of Solvang caught our eye because of its unique charm and quaint character that is all things Danish.  In fact it is called the “Little Denmark.”  So what does that really mean…danishes…those sweet, flaky, guilt-ridden tasty pleasures that we were going to indulge in.  We woke up early in the morning and headed out for sweets and we found some.  There is no need to sleep in when there is good food to be eaten.

        

Even Spirit wanted danishes.
The town is lively with its European flair and symbolism.  Windmills of all sizes catch your eye and the smell of sweet baked goods tugs at your taste buds.  But don’t forget to look up because on top of many buildings are storks which according to Danish tradition brings good luck and wards off lightning.  The town was founded by Danish-Americans in 1911 and continues to offer warm hospitality in a beautiful setting.



Note the stork and nest on
top of the building.

















Solvang and its sister towns of Buellton, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez sit in what is known as the Santa Ynez valley.  Next time you are drinking an American Chardonnay, Viogner, Pinot Noir, or Syrah, check the label to see if it came from this region as they are known for these grapes.  The grapes are a result of the regions unique terroir (which is a fancy French term for describing the unique combination of how geography, geology and climate affect plant characteristics).  The Santa Rita Hills that flank this area run east to west instead of the typical north-south orientation and create distinctive micro-climates that some grape varietals thrive in.  Remember the movie “Sideways” and the pinot noir loving character Miles?  That was filmed in this area and highlighted some of over 80 wineries that dot the hills. 

Yea, a wine tasting.  Some women we met at the campground steered us to Bridlewood Winery and it was a great recommendation.  
Bridlewood Winery
Downtown Los Olivos
We quickly discovered that this town is mostly wine tasting rooms.  
The town of Los Olivos blends Old California with modern-day charm.
I don’t want you to think that we just ate fattening danishes the whole time.  At one point we went for a bowl of pea soup (I guess that is healthy) at the famed Pea Soup Anderson’s.  The restaurant has been in business since 1924 and its quirky mascots “Hap-pea” and “Pea-wee” have been promoting split pea soup for years.  One look at the place and you will know how successful it is with a restaurant, banquet hall, hotel, gift shop, and much more.

A bowl of pea soup served in a toasted sourdough bowl with sides of cheese, ham, onions, bacon bits, and croutons.
The restaurants mascots "Hap-pea" (left) and "Pea-wee"
I would recommend to anyone that they should stop in this area - and if you don't have an RV you can stay at one of the many inns and hotels.  Solvang  is located about 30 miles from Santa Barbara and offers a slow-paced atmosphere with wonderful charm.  We stayed for 3 days but easily could have stayed longer.