"It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter" John Muir, pioneer of the conservation movement, on Yosemite.
Followed by a few hedonistic days in California wine country.
We started early one morning to drive from Death Valley to Yosemite, stopping at Panamint Springs Resort on the western edge of Death Valley for breakfast - the Sunrise Special of eggs, bacon, and pancakes with maple syrup is highly recommended! There were some really nice flowering cacti here too.
We made a stop at Father Crowley Point, walking for about twenty minutes from the car park to the actual point for great views over the Panamint Valley. Father Crowley was Padre for a huge area here in the early twentieth century.
Quite a lot of tough looking plants here too, including many in flower.
We saw lots of Joshua trees a little further on - named by Mormon travellers who were reminded of the Biblical story of Joshua raising his hands to heaven in prayer.
Out of the Death Valley area we started to see snow-capped mountains then more salt flats. This is Owens Lake, evaporating in the intense heat, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
We followed the mountains south to Bakersfield before turning north through densely packed wind farms on the hill tops towards Fresno.
To visit Yosemite we stayed in Oakhurst at the Hounds Tooth Inn where we had the Summer House - a very comfortable cottage with loads of room and a jacuzzi - excellent after a hard day's exploring! It's a beautiful spot and a very relaxing place. Lots of birds and flowers around - including a beautiful California Bluebird and the ubiquitous California poppies!
We were so lucky at Yosemite - the weather was brilliant and the rivers and waterfalls were in massive flow.
We'd been postponed a month because of the eruption of the icelandic volcano but we must have been amongst the few who actually benefited from it - the weather was much better than it had been and the melt water was at peak flow.
We walked to Mirror Lake where I took, I think, one of my best shots - always trying to emulate Ansel Adams! Such a contrast to the rushing water everywhere else.
Ansel Adams first visited Yosemite as a boy and immediately fell in love with the beautiful valley and its mountains. He took a job as custodian of the Sierra Club when he was 17 - the Club was concerned with protecting wilderness places and the job gave Adams ample opportunity to take photographs. For many years he led mountaineering trips for the Club and became their official photographer when he was 26. He returned frequently to Yosemite and eventually moved there with his family in the late thirties.
Yosemite Falls are absolutely stunning. From top to bottom they are the sixth highest in the world at 2425 ft (739m), though they are in a triple drop. The Upper Falls themselves are amongst the twenty highest in the world at 1430ft (440m). The Lower Falls are easily accessible though there was so much water coming down when we were there we inevitably got wet!
Half Dome is a beautiful mountain, very photogenic. Interestingly, it was never a full dome - I'd always assumed it was and half had sheared off!
Unbelievably there was a half moon rising behind Half Dome. I desperately tried to get a good shot!
El Capitan was another of Ansel Adams' favourite subjects. A 3000ft (910m) high chunk of granite it is a favourite amongst climbers.
Bridalveil Falls, like all the waterfalls, was thundering over the cliff edge - we got absolutely drenched going up to the base. It gets its name from the wide area of spray caused by the breeze.
The shop is well worth a stop if you are interested in Ansel Adams. They have a wide range of prints and publications. I had thought his colour photography was restricted to commercial work, but here they have some colour landscape prints.
Tunnel View has the stupendous classic panorama of the valley, especially with Bridalveil Falls in full flow.
From Yosemite we drove into the wine country north east of San Francisco. Arriving at mid-day we ate at Don Giovanni's just north of Nappa, which we'd read about as doing great food. It was very busy and we just managed to get one of the bar tables. Very popular with the "in" crowd - it's obvious we're left behind the wilderness and are close to the city! The food was indeed excellent, we both had Margherita pizzas with a glass of the house Cabernet.
The area has a perfect temperate climate for growing grapes, many of the valleys experiencing cooling effects from the sea. The region was first planted in the 18th century, but most of the early plantings were destroyed by phylloxera in the 1890s, and prohibition also took its toll. Vineyards were grubbed up to be replaced by fruit and nut trees. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 it was a long slow road to producing good wines in decent quantities. Things took off when, in 1976 in a blind-tasting in Paris, a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon beat a number of high quality French Bordeaux.
In the afternoon our first winery was Mumm - I being the lucky one not driving so got to try the flight of three sparkling wines ($16.55 for the flight). Andrew tasted each one too, though. They were a blanc de blancs, brut and pink blanc de blancs. Blanc de blancs a clear favourite but all lost their bubbles and fizz very quickly so we decided not to buy. Free red grape cabernet juice for the driver is a nice touch. We'd heard they had an Ansel Adams exhibition here but it was temporarily in China which was a bit disappointing.
We noticed that, whereas in French wine areas such as the Alsace and Champagne every inch of ground is covered with vines, here there are large uncultivated tracts.
We stayed at the Honor Mansion in Healdsburg, a rather pricey but outstanding B&B of the kind this area specialises in. We happened to be there over a weekend and they have free wine-tasting sessions in the early evening of Friday and Saturday when a local producer comes in with a selection of wines. They also provide a very superior selection of "nibbles": cheese, dips, etc. including an irresistible chocolate dip for strawberries, pineapple and other fruit. On the Friday we weren't terrifically impressed by the Toad Hollow offerings so sloped off to eat at Cena Luna in Healdsburg where we had very good pasta. The breakfasts at the Honor Mansion are truly fantastic- an excellent version of Eggs Benedict. and French Toast (with Grand Marnier!) to die for, all accompanied by very inventive versions of the mimosa - I think our favourite was the blood orange. They are really more like a small luxury hotel without the dining facilities, the rooms are luxurious though perhaps a bit cramped, and the service is first class - out back is a large garden with swimming pool and a pond full of colourful carp. On the Saturday evening the featured winery was Kendall Jackson who included a $120 bottle in the tasting, though neither of us thought it was particularly special. However, that evening we ate at the Dry Creek Kitchen, having made a reservation before our trip. The meal was superb: I had Kobe beef and lobster tail followed by six ice cream and sorbet dessert - the pink lemonade was fantastic! Andrew had superb duck then Valrhona Chocolate Budino with Guinness ice cream - also fantastic.
Healdsburg is a nice spot and well-placed for visiting the wine regions, though Napa and Sonoma are in parallel valleys and routes between the two are limited. We visited the small farmers' market on the Saturday morning before heading off to Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma. These are a series of garden "installations", like a mini-Chelsea, ranging from soft cottage garden style to hard plastic with no plants! Many are very odd, some are just fun, and one or two are beautiful.
The gardens also host wine tasting from local vineyards which we sampled but there was nothing special.
It was also in this area of southern Sonoma that we saw swathes of beautiful, bright California poppies.
Sonoma itself is another pleasant town, especially around the large central plaza. There are some historic buildings close by, dating from the nineteenth century. We didn't visit these, but wandered a little in the public areas where you can see some of the buildings and exhibits from the barracks built in1836.
We did go to the famous Basque Boulangerie to pick up sandwiches for a picnic lunch. We took them to the Buena Vista Carneros winery, hoping we might be able to buy a glass of wine to go with our lunch, but no luck.
Buena Vista is the oldest winery in the region and they have tasting on the ground floor of the original winery with historical exhibits upstairs. I was the designated driver for this one so only sipped at the wines Andrew was tasting ($10 fee), but again nothing very exciting. You don't get to see much of the winery either.
Ferrari Carano, north of Healdsburg, is easily the best winery we visited in the region, both for the wine and its grounds. We tried four different wines each here ($15 tasting fee for four selections): two chardonnays, a merlot, a zinfandel, a fumé blanc, a Siena and two cabernet sauvignons. All were good and the merlot was excellent.
Near the entrance to Ferrari Carano they have a water garden, set apart from the lawned areas, which is very cool and peaceful
We passed the Dry Creek General Store on our travels and it looked so interesting we dropped in. It's at the side of the road with nothing else around but has lots of stuff inside and offers inventive sandwiches - perhaps a little pricey though nothing around here is really cheap! - and a bar and has a wide porch with tables.
Leaving Healdsburg heading for the northern California coast, we dropped in at the Roederer Estate for a final tasting. This is located in the northern end of the Anderson Valley and has been producing wines here since 1988. They grow only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to make classic Roederer wines. We were the first customers of the day for the two friendly servers in the elegant tasting room. We tasted Brut, Brut Prestige, Extra Dry, Rosé, Chardonnay and Pinot. We both thought the Extra Dry was the best and bought a bottle - curiously on her tasting notes for this wine our server noticed that it said "for England". A perfect way to finish our California wine tasting.