Northern California: Our Favorite Places

I took my first trip to Northern California in the summer of 1986, traveling from DC with my parents and older brother. San Francisco was exciting, Monterey dramatic, the Napa Valley a dream. A few years later, when it became clear that my math scores would never merit entrance to Stanford, I mourned the loss of a golden life I could have spent frolicking across the magnificent quad in Palo Alto.

But there was good news ahead — turns out that even if you have to live in Los Angeles as an adult, you can marry into Northern California.

Adam is from Oakland, and his mom and stepdad live in a cozy Victorian just blocks from Emeryville. His dad and stepmom are up in Elk, a funky, windswept town a half-hour south of Mendocino on Highway 1. Fourteen years together, at least two Northern California trips a year, and still we’re discovering new places and things up in this half of the state

We tend to drive a lot, especially with Adam’s mom, Judy. She’s a big fan of a fun, illustrated book called Earl Thollander’s Back Roads of California, and I’d swear she and her husband have been on all of them.

We’ve explored Napa, the Russian River Valley, and Sonoma several times, but have never stayed overnight. With hotel rooms in the area generally starting at $400 a night, you might choose to head back to your free lodgings in Oakland, too.

We’ve fallen in love with a lot of Marin County, knowing we’re not the first or the last; just take a look at the average home price in this part of California, and you’ll see what I mean.  Come here for wide, gorgeous beaches, golden fields, quiet, winding roads, peaceful marshes, gently weathered wood houses, and a real sense of history.

Devaki introduced us to the wineries near Sacramento, in Amador and El Dorado Counties.  Not only is a beautiful area to go for a drive through thick woods, but we were absolutely floored to discover that the wines and food here are really good.

Growing up over a long bridge in the East Bay, Adam never explored San Francisco much, a fact which never fails to make the East Coast girl in me chuckle. (After all, if you live in DC, Philly’s only two hours, and New York’s only three more from there.)  Little by little, we’ve learned (and shopped, and eaten) our way around this jewel-toned labyrinth of a city. Enough to get lost the next time, anyway.

Joel, my father-in-law, lives three hours north of San Francisco — and that’s not even the top of the state. The views in Elk, a town built right onto a cliff-top overlooking the Pacific, would have made Ansel Adams weep.   Heck, they probably did.  Come see them from some stellar B & B’s, and enjoy the local characters, hearty breakfasts, jungly back roads and nearby Anderson Valley wineries.   Tool up to Mendocino for a drive comprised mostly of hairpin turns, crossing over the wide, muddy Novato River on the way.  Hang out near the coast long enough and who knows, you might see a whale…or a neighbor’s pot farm.

We’re planning a trip to Monterey and Carmel, some of our favorite Northern California haunts, in late September. We’ll be bringing our corgi, Toby, since Carmel is one of the most dog-friendly towns in America. Dogs can run leash-free on the beach and even dine with you by a fireplace hearth. We’ll visit the Monterey Aquarium, watch for otters in the Bay, explore the wine country there, and not for the first time, cruise the 17-Mile Drive.

More on all of it, to come.

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