This blog post is dedicated to Rina and Enzo for giving me the opportunity to have a very unique travel experience.
When I told friends that I was headed on a wine and bike tour of the California wine valleys over Christmas, they looked at me with much concern. ‘Careful not to drunk-bike!’ a number of them warned. I was a little concerned myself. Not because of the drunk-biking, I figured we’d be wine tasting, not guzzling. What worried me was the actual cycling. In the welcome package Dan and I received from the tour company, Backroads, we read that the ‘basic’ route options were around 30 to 50 miles of riding a day (50 to 80 km). I’m a commuter cyclist, not a spandex-clad speedster. I was worried I’d look pretty foolish alongside the others in our group. We prepared ourselves, at least superficially, by making an expensive trip to Mountain Equipment Co-op to get all the cycling gear, at least we would look the part.
When we arrived in Napa Valley and met our Backroads leaders, Kelly and Liz, I was immediately reassured. They loved the word ‘options’ and repeated this several times over the 6 day trip. If you didn’t want to ride one afternoon, there was always the option to hop on the backroads bus and get a ‘bump’ up a hill or back to the hotel-spa. That choice sounded especially good to me on Day 2 when we were completely drenched by a record-setting rainfall while cycling through what felt like interminable rolling pastures of farmland. I could have sworn the horses and cows looking on were sharing a quiet chuckle. I fell way behind Dan and his parents on the last 6 miles of that ride. I wasn’t even sure I was going the right way. I made up this little ditty to distract me from my sore, wet and aching body.
The weather improved after that. We didn’t get any more rain but the sun remained hidden behind thick clouds. Isn’t California supposed to be warm all year round? To distract us from our frozen toes and fingers, we were treated to lush rolling hills of vineyards, a sparkling Lake Hennessy (where we took a break from biking to walk the slack line for a while) and the sacred redwood forest.
Every few miles there was another winery to check out, more than our palates could handle. I thought I would become a wine expert by the end of the trip but instead I became more confused. What I liked, others didn’t and what they liked, I could barely swallow. What I did learn is that everyone’s taste for wine is different and even when a wine is very highly rated or expensive that may mean nothing to your particular palate. I found out that I don’t care much for peppery wines, or what I refer to as the ‘burning tongue’ wines. I like the smoother, mellower wines that have a caramel or vanilla flavour.
Beyond biking and wine-tasting, the Backroads trips are also about the fabulous hotels, gourmet food and spa treatments. I don’t think I have felt so pampered in one week in my life. I won’t go through them all but a highlight was definitely the Roman Bathing Ritual at the first hotel, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, which involved submersing our aching bodies in pools of different temperatures, a eucalyptus steam room and dry heat sauna, followed by peppermint tea and dehydrated veggie chips by the fireplace in the ‘relaxation room’. At the Mission’s Michelin starred restaurant Santé, I had my first taste of black truffle mushroom. A simple slice garnished my Grown-Up Mac and Cheese appetizer. However, I was mildly confused at all the hype as I could hardly taste the mushroom!
The Madrona Manor was another gem, this 1881 Victorian mansion was so heavily decorated for Christmas I thought it would collapse under the weight of so many baubles.
I also fell in love with the views of Bodega Bay from our balcony at the Bodega Bay Lodge. The ocean looked appealing but a group of Californians we met in the hot tub warned us that the area, known as the Red Triangle, plays host to 38% of great white shark attacks. (Those Californians went on to steal our bathrobes with our room keys tucked inside. This resulted in us making a shivering wet phone call to the front desk where we proceeded to mix up our room number and get new keys made for Dan’s parents’ room rather than our own!).
Overall, it was a fabulous trip. All the biking made the gorging on incredible food feel guiltless. After 50 km of ‘rollers’ as they liked to call the terrain, we could easily tell ourselves ‘we earned it’.