Kat and Alex’s Big Wine Adventure


Predicting the success of our honeymoon this summer we decided that it would be a good idea to burn some more miles and a 2-for-1 voucher and have a second honeymoon.

The criteria for the destination were as follows: somewhere vaguely warm, good value for miles, good redemption availability and some interesting things to do. It was while watching Oz and James’ Wine Adventure that inspiration struck and we soon had two first class return tickets to San Francisco.

The plan was to explore the city for a few days before heading up over the Golden Gate Bridge and into wine country.

London Heathrow to San Francisco in British Airways First Class

BA 285 departs at around 11am and so we didn’t have too early a start. Andrew from Platinum Cars was waiting outside for us at 8am and the journey over to terminal 5 was pretty straightforward.

We entered the terminal at the South end and made our way to the FIRST check in area. Where we were greeted with a lovely warm welcome and a polite enquiry into our eligibility for FIRST check in a gruff “FIRST or Gold?”, “Desk 7”. Once again a lacklustre start to our trip courtesy of BAA.

We soon passed through security and the ‘secret door’ into the Concorde Room and I made for Travelex to pick up our currency. I’d been watching the rates the week before and got enough dollars for the trip at 1.67 before they plummeted to 1.52. We then stopped for a Concorde room breakfast, full English for me and scrambled eggs for the Mrs. We then went to seek out a copy of Business Traveller to check out Schofs’ numerous feature articles.

The flight departed from gate 18, just under the South Galleries and so it was just a short walk down the escalators, through the priority boarding queue before we were escorted to our seats (5E/F). I knew from ExpertFlyer that the flight was going to be busy and every seat was filled so we here happy to be sat next to each other.

The flight took around 11 hours, the in-flight service was attentive despite the heavy load, AVOD worked perfectly and we were soon on the ground in San Francisco.

San Francisco

With no luggage to collect we were soon queuing for a taxi when we discovered our first mistake. We expected the weather to be brisk but standing in the California sun in our overcoats we were baking. Once in the cab we resolved to make a trip to the WestField Shopping Centre our first excursion.

I’d booked us into the new Intercontinental Hotel Howard Street firstly because of its location close to the SFMOMA and partly because I figured that our chances of an upgrade to a suite were better than at the older IC Mark Hopkins.

On arrival at the hotel I hovered around the unmanned Ambassador desk just long enough for a queue to build at the main desks. I joined the back and fortunately didn’t have to wait too long. Before we departed I’d emailed the hotel to request confirmation of the Royal Ambassador upgrade and to request a room on a high floor. I wasn’t disappointed to see we’d been allocated a corner junior suite on the 29th floor.

The room was a good size with windows on two sides overlooking the SFMOMA and the Westlands Shopping centre. Not hugely inspiring but you could see the bay bridge in the distance.

We headed out almost immediately to procure a warm-weather wardrobe. Westlands is about 5 mins away and includes pretty much all of the shops you could need along with some funky curved escalators that I hadn’t experienced outside Las Vegas. On the way back we stopped at the Yerba Buena Gardens which are next to the hotel and are well worth a look around.

Feeling tired we made a trip to the 6th floor club lounge (included as a Royal Ambassador benefit). It’s a nice lounge with a good selection on snacks and drinks and 2 computers. What lets it down is the location on the 6th floor, the views can only be described as car-parks. You’re not high enough to see anything more interesting. I have no idea why they didn’t site the lounge on one of the higher floors.

The next day we got up late and made our way over to the SFMOMA and I was amused to see that I’d already seen a number of the lobby pieces in the NYMOMA. The rest of the exhibition was pretty good, including the “Double Down” exhibition showing two visions of Las Vegas. We then explored the area, ending up at Union Square where we secured a seat on the last bus tour of the day. For $20 this was well worth it as it helped us to get our bearings. I think this bus was at the lower end of the tour market but it covered the basics and was pretty amusing.

The next day we wanted to get to Golden Gate park, we asked the concierge how best to get there and he advised the number 21 bus from Market Street. On the plus side the bus was only $3 a head, on the downside it took aaaaages as it stopped every 10 yards.

After what seemed like days we arrived at Golden Gate park, I was keen to get in quickly as we were heading for the newly relocated California Academy of the Sciences. Fortunately we were still quite early and the queues were short. We were advised to pick up tickets for a seat at the planetarium straight away and once we’d done that we started to explore. The academy is divided into several sections including a swamp, a rain forest, an aquarium and of course the planetarium.

The planetarium show (narrated by Sigourney Weaver no less) was great and with half of a dome used for the screen it was very immersing. We were wise to get tickets when we did as towards the end of our visit they were announcing that all of the shows were full. The aquarium was another highlight being very varied and well stocked.

After a hot dog lunch we headed to the nearby Japanese Tea garden, we didn’t have any tea but it was a very nice garden. Lastly we headed towards Strawberry hill for a wander. We would have liked to have visited the impressive looking Young Museum but it was closed.

Whilst trying to work out how to get back I spotted a Culture Bus which although relatively steep at $7 a head goes directly from Golden Gate park to Yerba Buena Gardens with only a couple of stops. This was infinitely better than the earlier bus and is much recommended as the $7 covers you for a whole day!

Our last full day began relatively early as we had a booking for the 09:30 Alcatraz tour. Fortunately as we hadn’t yet adjusted to the timezone early starts were not a problem and so after a quick breakfast overlooking the car parks we hopped into a taxi down to pier 33.

The tour begins with a cheesy photograph against a faux backdrop of the islands before you board the boat. The water was very calm but I can imagine it getting pretty choppy on a windy day. The fog was beginning to clear and so we could make out the island as we approached.

We were the first tour of the day and if you’re thinking of going then I’d recommend doing the same as we had the island to ourselves as we made our way up the hill. Once at the top we picked up the excellent audio tour and made our way around the cells. The tour includes everything you’d expect from the attempted escapes, to the riots and the lives of the officer’s families on the island.

We spent some time exploring the island as it became increasingly busy (they have something like 2700 visitors per day) before catching the boat back to the city.

Once back on the mainland we made our way up to Fisherman’s Wharf. The area is pretty touristy but not unpleasant and we soon found somewhere nice for an alfresco lunch. We then made our way along the wharf until the sound of distant barking caught my ear and I remembered something from the guide book. The wharf is home to an ever increasing number of sea lions!

This was pretty much the highlight of my day, there were hundreds of them basking on pontoons, fighting for space. If you get the chance I highly recommend going to visit them!

As we moved on we passed the World Famous Bush-Man who was on top form (I didn’t notice him until Kat pointed him out). In case you’re not familiar with him he’s a street performer who earns money by scaring passers-by who mistake him for a bush. Apparently he makes over $60,000 a year doing this!

Eventually we reached the cable car turning point and took a car up the hill to near Market street and there ended another top day in San Francisco.

Wine Country

The next day I went to pick up our transport for the rest of the trip. For around ¬£90 I’d booked a ‘luxury’ car for 3 days which seemed like a bit of a bargain. Once at the Avis office I was offered a choice between something that sounded like a tent (Marquee something?) or a Dodge Charger, and as a fan of The Dukes of Hazard it was an easy choice. The Dodge it was.

When the car arrived I was disappointed to see that it was blue/grey rather than orange but it looked comfortable enough so I hopped in, secured the rented TomTom (rented in the UK complete with US maps for about ¬£25 from http://www.cheapsatnavhire.co.uk) and headed back to the hotel. I was a bit confused by the lane system in the city and the car’s rear-right indicator wasn’t working which didn’t help. However I got there okay, picked up Kat and we were soon on our way.

Our first destination was the Golden Gate bridge lookout point on the North-side. However as we approached the bridge we spotted a problem. Fog. Visibility was about 20 metres which meant that there wasn’t much to see, when we made it to the lookout point our pictures of the bridge didn’t show too much!

Our next stop was Muir Woods firstly to get a chance to see some great redwood trees and secondly to test Kat’s theory that the ‘soft’ bark means that you can bang your head on them with confidence. Getting there was an experience in itself and the narrow winding roads got increasingly narrow and winding. The experience was amplified by the Charger’s ability to be both wallowy and jarring over bumps, this car was worse than the Mustang we rented in a previous Schofs.com adventure!

Once at the woods we parted with $5 each and made our way into the reserve. There we had three choices of route, a 1/2 hour, 1 hour and 1 1/2 hour. We opted for the 1 hour route but after about 10 mins we found ourselves half way around. Since the national park service assume a sub 1mph walking speed we assumed it was safe to continue on the ‘long’ route. It was a very pleasant walk and we soon noticed that the other people enjoying it fell into two categories: women with infants in ‘off-road’ pushchairs and Germans. Fortunately these groups seemed to get on well and around 30 mins later we’d made it back to the obligatory cafe and gift shop.

The next stop was the Pelican Inn. which claims to be an authentic imitation 16th century English pub. Indeed it was, I was pleased to see classics such as Fish and Chips, Cottage Pie and even a Ploughman’s Lunch on the menu! I was surprised that the staff didn’t even acknowledge that we were English but I suppose Brits end up there all of the time.

We then headed to Muir beach which was very pleasant but it was a bit too windy to stay for long so we made our way back onto the Charger.

The next destination was Sonoma, about 40 miles North-East where we were due to meet up with our local wine contact who is an ex-colleague of Schofs.

It was a really nice drive as the landscape became undeniably wine-country and Sonoma seems to be a really nice town. After making arrangements for the following Friday we made our way over to our base hotel in Yountville – The Napa Valley Lodge.

I’d reserved a suite and I wasn’t disappointed when we were allocated a large ground floor room with an open fire, Jacuzzi bathroom and a terrace near to the pool. We hadn’t made any plans for dinner and so reception recommended Hurley’s just a 5 minute walk into the town. It was a sound recommendation and I enjoyed finally getting a chance to try some local wine.

The next day we were pretty tired, also it was pretty cloudy so we had a late breakfast at the Bouchon Bakery and then took a drive up to Lake Hennessey which was nice enough but didn’t seem to have any obvious walking paths. We stayed for a while before taking a random drive around the area. We arrived back in Yountville and headed to the Napa Valley Museum which featured some local art and an exhibition on the history of the area. It had started to rain at this point and so we went back to the Bouchon bakery again to pick up some lunch and some Halloween themed treats which we enjoyed back in our suite in front of the fire.

That evening was to be our third Bouchon experience of the day as I had a reservation at the Bouchon Bistro. This was a recommendation from andyflyer and it was excellent, the atmosphere, service and food were all superb. This is the sister restaurant to The French Laundry (also in Yountville) and if you can’t get reservations there then I’d strongly recommend the Bistro as an alternative.

We’d arranged to meet with our local contact along with some of his friends on the Friday and so at 10am we found ourselves directing the Charger up to the Pride Mountain Winery. It had been raining the night before and so this gave the Challenger a chance to further demonstrate just how hopeless it was by breaking traction randomly and for no apparent reason. We eventually made it to the top in one piece and we were soon welcomed inside the winery by Jason and given a glass of their delicious Viognier. Jason then answered our questions before we began a tour of the winery and it’s caves. We had the opportunity to try a number of wines and I soon got the hang of the spit-bucket system!

On the way down the hill the Charger once again embarrassed itself by exposing its lack of ABS. We came to a stop at a traffic light and while braking gently from around 20mph the wheels locked into a skid. Fortunately I had plenty of room to stop but it did knock my confidence in the car even further.

The next stop was a rich man’s folly, the Castello di Amorosa Winery – a $70m replica of an Italian castle built from scratch using imported materials and skills. We had an enjoyable tour from Olaf and whilst some parts of the castle were unconvincing some areas (such as the underground cellars) were truly impressive. This time we tried about a dozen wines in their underground cellar, the highlight for me being their Muscat dessert wine.

We had a lovely picnic lunch at the castle as the weather slowly deteriorated.

Or last stop of the day was across the valley to Sterling Vineyards. This vineyard is right at the top of the valley and to get there you have to take a short but enjoyable ride in a gondola. The tour was self-lead and not as personal as the others we’d done that day but the views across the valley were certainly impressive. At the end of the tour we sat by the fire in the tasting room for a few minutes before our ‘trade’ status saw us upgraded to a private tasting in the member’s lounge. At this point I must have tried about 20 wines without swallowing a drop and so I settled for water. I was amused to find myself swirling the glass and taking a sniff before each sip!

After we’d made our way back down the mountain we made our way to St Helena where we had reservations at The Martini House restaurant. This was another gem, a lovely setting with excellent service and great food. I went with the intention of just having a main course but was soon tempted into all three! Highly recommended!

At this point the jet lag was catching up with us and so we parted company with our new friends and made our way back to Yountville.

Overnight it rained a lot and things weren’t much better in the morning. We had planned to head to the coast to make our way back to the airport but decided it might be best to get closer to the airport and find something to do around there.

We set the TomTom for Berkley University Campus as the guide book suggested it was worth walking around. However when we arrived there were two problems with this plan. a) It was raining very heavily and b) there was some kind of football game on and so there was nowhere to park.

Our plan B was to head Pacifica near the coast and to find somewhere to eat. We eventually found a nice looking beach with people surfing but the weather was pretty poor. We considered a nearby restaurant called “Taco Bell” but it didn’t seem very appealing.

In the end we went to Starbucks before deciding that the SFO airport F lounge was a better/dryer bet.

San Francisco to London Heathrow in British Airways First Class

Check in at the FIRST desk was very swift and we were soon through security. The BA galleries lounge is around gate 4 and you can board straight from the lounge.

The FIRST lounge was deserted and so we had the place to ourselves. After an hour or so our plane arrived and parked just a few feet outside the lounge. Seeing a 747 coming right towards you is a pretty awesome sight! After a while a few more people arrived and eventually there was a shortage of seats. Once the people count rose above 14 I could see that not everyone was going to be in FIRST that day. I think that given the small size of the lounge they should probably restrict access to those in FIRST on the busier days.

Boarding straight from the lounge, through the double air bridge and into the pointy end was very swift and easy. The flight was very full that day with every seat taken. We had 2A/3A and soon settled down to a glass of Champagne while we waited to push back.

We planned to both watch The Dark Knight over dinner before heading to sleep. This worked well as not only was the film great we also had a great night’s sleep waking up about 45 mins outside London.

I had a bacon sandwich and Kat had the pancakes. The sandwich was okay, I think next time I think I’ll take the pancakes…

T5 again worked perfectly and we were through to arrivals in just minutes. Andrew was there to meet us and within an hour or so we were back at home.

In summary it was great trip, we travelled a long way and did everything I’d hoped in just one week. If you have the time and the miles I strongly recommend a trip to San Francisco!