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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

FIELDS OF DREAMS: O.Co Coliseum, Oakland, California

It's almost a given that when you ask baseball fans what the worst stadium in Major League Baseball is, the answer is this park.  Built in the mid 60's to accommodate the Raiders of the American Football League, baseball was shoehorned in here. After a few years of contentious residence, the Raiders (now in the NFL) are back and baseball still takes a backseat to football.

Here are the stats:

Opened: 1966
Surface: Bluegrass
Construction cost: $25.5 million
Capacity: 35, 067 - expandable to 55,945
Field dimensions: Left field – 330 ft.; left center – 367 ft.; Center field – 400 ft.; right center – 376 ft.; Right field – 330 ft.
Home teams: Oakland Raiders (1966 – 1981 and 1995 - present), Oakland Athletics (1968 – present)
Events attended: Two.

Because of the dual purpose of the stadium, it isn't perfect for either sport. For baseball, the foul territory is the largest in the MLB. That also means the seats are the farthest away.

Site lines are poor. If you're sitting in accessible seats, you will have to figure out a way to look around the large, concrete supports...not the mention the see the game.

Concourses are extremely crowded. Lines are long and move slowly. Power outages and sewage spills have also occured here.

The Raiders have installed a very unsightly balcony over right-center field. Fans mockingly call it "Mt. Davis" in honor of the Raiders owner.

Ticket prices used to be known as cheap but our obstructed view seats at the top of the lower deck, between first base and the right field foul pole were dynamically priced at $43 for our recent game against Detroit. All ticket prices are dynamic, meaning they can change depending on the demand for the game.

Parking is $20, tailgating is vast, and at least ignored by the authorities.

Wheelchair seating is adequate and fairly easy to buy. Mostly around the top of the field section. 

BART opens up a bridge to the stadium from the nearest station, providing easy acessible transit access to games.

Food is adequate, nothing too special. Not nearly as good a variety or taste as their triple A team in nearby Sacramento.

But...and this is a big "but"...the team is spectacular. It is well managed and, in 2014 at least, on fire. At this moment, there is not a better playing team in baseball.

They are very exciting to watch and more than make up for the failures of Major League Baseball's most obsolete, uncomfortable, crowded, and worst stadium.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 28, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Monterey, California

Interstate 5 is generally acknowledged to be the quickest route from the southern half of California to the northern half. It’s a no-nonsense, straight arrow, 70 mile-per-hour stretch of freeway through the Central Valley. It’s also one of the more boring drives in the state.

I much prefer highway 99 through the valley or the 101 along the coast where scenery and small towns at least pique your interest now and again. But today, we’re trying to minimize our driving time so it’s up the 5 we go until we get to the pass over to Hollister and then along a busy country road to the coast. Our final destination is Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and our time to get there is 6 hours, including a gas stop and a Burger King stop in Kettleman City.

Home for the next two nights would be the Doubletree Hotel (now the Portola Hotel - Ed) adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey. This would cost us the advertised $89 per night, plus tax and parking...not a bad deal for the location.

It does take some effort to find the driveway to the hotel. The highway dips into a tunnel under it and then offers no place for a U-turn for a mile. Once we double back, the one-way streets that make up the downtown area keep us circling the block until we can arrive at the proper place to turn in. Since the valet only costs an extra two dollars a day, we opt to pull up to the door and let someone else worry about the parking.

I ask, but no accessible rooms are available when we arrive...I was also told this when I made the reservation, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. What we did get was a beautifully decorated room with two double beds, a view of the courtyard, with plenty of room for the chair but none of the usual accessible features such as grab bars. Since it was roomy, we compensated fine. Also, at check in we receive those delicious Doubletree chocolate chip cookies.

The next morning we head over to Cannery Row and have breakfast at the Culinary Center of Monterey, a combination cooking school, kitchen gourmet store, and restaurant. Their all-you-can-eat gourmet breakfast buffet is $12.95 per person with kids paying one dollar per year of their age. The restaurant is on the second floor but the main entrance (in back) is nicely ramped.

The tables here have a spectacular, if drafty, view of the bay and the food is very delicious. A very subtle chorizo and egg dish (the chef has a secret source in Salinas for the sausage), salmon crepes, cornbread french toast, and a fresh-fruit parfait are just a few of the delectable offerings today. We load up on this great food and head out for our day with tummies full.

It’s a forty minute drive north to the beaches of Santa Cruz. The last classic boardwalk amusement park sits on the sand here (Pacific Park in Santa Monica is a new version of these old beachfront parks but doesn’t count as a classic...yet). Admission is free and crowds of people are taking advantage of it this morning.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the Giant Dipper
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Larry Pieniazek under CC-BY-SA license

Our goal today is the 1924 vintage, Arthur Looff built Giant Dipper roller coaster. This classic woody is lovingly maintained and is on many coaster fans top ten lists. It’s also appeared in such diverse movies as The Sting and The Lost Boys.

We buy our tickets and check the access. Wheelchair riders enter through the exit where a button can be pushed to summon a ride operator to let you in. You get your choice of seats...we take the front. As usual, you must bring your own help for transferring out of your chair and into the seat, but the seat was just a bit roomier than most modern coasters and therefore just a bit easier to get into.

On Board the Dipper

Although the ride is exciting, the speed and elements seem quaint and tame compared to today’s monsters but it has one element that’s a doozy. When your train leaves the station, it immediately drops into a pitch-black tunnel featuring two very quick u-turns before coming out into the daylight and engaging the lift chain. No other coaster I’ve yet been on gives you such a quick scare and thrill before even starting up the lift.

The rest of the ride is medium fast (top speed 55 mph), with lots of curves integrated into it’s drops. The head-chopper effects are kind of minimal compared to such coasters as Ghostrider, Scandia Screamer, and the Cyclone. It’s a solid minute and a half ride, with one really all-star element...that tunnel drop out of the station.

Afterward, we munch on a mundane order of garlic fries. Not nearly as good as the garlic fries we got at the Date Festival in Indio or at Cajun Way restaurant in Monrovia, but better than nothing.

That’s it for us and the Boardwalk. Classic amusement park ride fans may also want to check out the circa 1911 Looff Carousel here too where you can still grab for the brass ring and get a free ride.

Next, we head over the hills, inland to the little town of San Juan Bautista.

For California history, you need to start with two things. The Gold Rush had a huge impact on the state (see our gold country and Yosemite reports for more), but before that, the Spanish set up a string of missions that every good Californian must visit at some time or another. Missions are special places for us and our family has visited several of them. Heck, my wife and I even got married in one.

The missions were churches, of course, but since the church and state were pretty cozy in those days, they were also forts with garrisons of Spanish soldiers stationed at each one. Each mission was built one day’s horse ride apart from each other in a string up the coastal side of the state. This mission road is El Camino Real. The padres were there to convert the heathens while the soldiers kept the peace and protected Spain’s interests in California.

History lesson over.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Robert A. Estremo under CC-BY-SA license

Here in San Juan Bautista, the mission still sits in a nice, rural setting across the lawn from the old stage coach stop, the livery, and of course the hotel. The hotel even boasts of such modern conveniences as a two story outhouse (what’s it like to be in the bottom one?).

The mission...still an active a beauty with wide aisles, an ornate altar, and a lovely garden. We wandered around the grounds and found some barn owls living in a palm tree and a young chicken attached itself to me and followed me around like a puppy until one of the nuns spotted us and put the bird away.  Apparently, it had escaped its coop and she wanted to put it back before it became a meal for the local wildlife.

One thing that always gets me when I visit these old missions is the Indian graveyards inside. Usually, a small plot of land will contain the remains of thousands of Native Americans. Here in San Juan Bautista, a plot about a hundred feet long by about fifty feet wide contains approximately 4,300 natives in the soil. It’s kind of a testament to the devastation wrought among the indigenous population via the European explorers and settlers.

Afterward, we have some ice cream over on the town’s main street while many Harley riders loudly start their machines as they leave town. On a side note, why do so many Harley riders take the mufflers off of their bikes? Why is it that they have to impose such a noisy thing upon everybody else? What is so cool about being so loud? Really, I want to know...if there is no reason, please do us all a favor and be quiet!
Back to Monterey...

Attached to the Doubletree Portola is Peter B’s, a brewpub and bar. It was four o’clock and the daily happy hour was starting. Peter B’s has a modern decor with a nice fireplace, a pool table, and many TV’s for the sports fan. We got a cozy table next to the fireplace and ordered some drinks.

The happy hour prices are just a nick lower than the regular prices. A 22 ounce beer was $4.50 compared to $5 regularly, so a screaming bargain this wasn’t. However, the popcorn was good and free and we could charge it to our room so we knocked back a few before dinner. For you whiskey drinkers, they specialize in the stuff along with the very good handcrafted brew.

It’s a very short walk to Fisherman’s Wharf from the hotel. In fact, you don’t have to even cross a street as the hotel sits on a viaduct connecting to the wharf while the highway goes under in a tunnel.

There are several restaurants here and all were gladly giving samples of their food. My wife chose tonight’s place, Rappa’s Seafood, I think mainly because it sat on the end of the wharf offering spectacular views.

Murphy’s rule on restaurants with a view: The better the view, the worse the food. In this case the seafood, at least, was very good with my wife ordering a seafood sampler with many kinds of ocean denizens on her plate. So Rappa’s breaks this rule

Murphy’s rule on seafood restaurants: Other than seafood, everything else will be less than par.

Unfortunately, Rappa’s keeps this rule with a New York steak that needed a healthy dose of A-1 to have any taste at all...a good steak should need nothing else to prop up its flavor. My son’s burger was also a bit less than overwhelming.

After our dinner, we come out to a wharf filled with fire trucks. It appears that the giant trash compactor that serves the wharf has a slow-burning fire deep within. I talk to one of Monterey’s firemen who tells me they will try to get it out but it’s looking doubtful. He’s not looking forward to what comes next: hauling the whole compactor off of the pier and dumping its foul-smelling contents in the parking lot to find the blaze.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the truck, the battalion chief has arrived and is handing out stickers to all the kids wandering by in a bit of impromptu PR.

We walk around the wharf a bit after dinner, checking out the sea lions on the buoys and rocks, a family of otters floating on their backs, and the usual tacky souvenirs on sale at the wharf’s general store.

All those tacky souvenirs makes my head spin!

We contemplate visiting the hotel’s pool and spa but nix that idea when we find it’s in a separate building and we’d have to do quite a bit of walking in the chilly outdoors in our swimsuits to get there. Instead, we visit a jewelry shop where my wife purchases some earrings as a souvenir.

The next morning, we head across the street to the Marriott to have breakfast in their cafe. Due to a quirk in the layout of the land, the Marriott’s coffee shop is actually closer to our room than the Doubletree’s Portola's. After a very nice last meal, we pack it back up and head home down the very scenic highway 101.

Funny, it only took us five hours to drive home on the scenic route when the quick route took longer...

Copyright 2003 - Darryl Musick

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lake Tahoe and the Motherlode, California & Nevada


On our third day, we ended up wasting a lot of time because some locals told us the best swimming lake in the area was Bear River Lake high up in the mountains above Jackson.  After a two-hour drive, we find out that there is no wheelchair access.  At all.
Back down we went.  Nice drive, but disappointed in not being able to do anything.

Watch the Video!

Yesterday was wine tasting day (part 2) where we ended up spending just about all day at Story Winery.  Not complaining at all because it’s one of my favorite places but we did miss one winery I had wanted to visit, Vino Nocetto.
Vino Nocetto is known for their sangiovese.  They make several varieties and vintages of the grape Italians make into Chianti.  It’s a nice little winery and I love the little hot dog stand statue they rescued and now display.
The wines themselves, however, are ok but not as spectacular as I’d expect someone who specializes in it to be.  The sangiovese we had yesterday at Drytown Cellars is definitely much better.  Still, nice people, good wine, and they press some outstanding olive oil.  We made sure to take some of that with us.

Back in Sutter Creek, we make it back to J&D’s Steakhouse.  This time I actually have some appetite so I split a rib eye with Tim.  What an excellent, succulent, tender, and moist piece of meat that was.  If you’re anywhere in the area, make sure you stop here for a meal or two.   After dinner, we head back to the hotel done with the day.
We’re getting an early start today.  Letty is skipping her morning run so we can go.  It’s just some fruit, coffee, and milk from the hotel’s tiny little breakfast bar, grabbed on the way to the car.
Why?  It’s a 90 mile, two hour drive to today’s destination, the jewel of the Sierras, Lake Tahoe.
I have some history with the lake.  Back in my earlier days, I was a competitive skier.  I’d hit the slopes 2 to 3 times a week during the winter (yes, an expensive habit that turned into an expensive sport).  My buddies and I would always celebrate the end of the season by spending our spring breaks getting a cheap hotel room by the casinos and skiing at a different Tahoe resort each day.
For a time, it was actually my goal to relocate to Truckee when I finished college and live the life of a ski bum.  Then I met my wife to be and got real.
As you can tell from above, most of my Tahoe travels have been in the winter.  Today is two days before Labor Day, the last blast of summer.
From our base in Sutter Creek, you have your choice of two routes.  Highway 88 has some spectacular scenery and goes over a high pass.  Highway 50 is a bit shorter and can handle near freeway speeds for much of the route.  Still a nice drive scenically but has a tight, hair-raising, cliffside descent into the Lake Tahoe area.  50 is the quicker route which is more important than scenery today.
A benefit from spending so much time here in my youth is that I know the local’s shortcut.  Coming into the lake from the south, you’ll hit all the tourist traffic if you keep following highway 50 all the way to the Nevada border.  You’ll skip a lot of that and save a ton of time if you turn east on Pioneer Trail before you get to the airport.  It’s an easy back road that skips all the lakeside traffic and rejoins highway 50 just before it hits the border.
We drive past the casinos and just beyond where the main part of civilization ends.  Our destination is up ahead on the left, Round Hill Pines Beach.
Down a little road through the forest, we reach the parking lot and pay our $8 parking fee (the fee changes periodically due to the expected crowds.  It can range from $7 to $10).  Two handicapped spots are available.
We arrive at 10:00am.  Our plan was to eat when we arrived but an employee tells me they don’t start serving food until 11:30.  The bathroom is tiny, barely accessible, with no privacy at all so I change Tim into his swim trunks in our van. 
Our first task is to take a walk around and scope out the area for things to do and wheelchair accessibility.  There is an accessible pier out into the water.  It is a bit narrow and has no railing or bumpers at all.  You need to exercise extreme caution if you are to roll your chair on it.  At least the water is crystal clear so the rescuers can find your body easily if you go off the side.
On this side, there is no way to get a wheelchair onto the sand but at the other end of the building that houses the bar and snack bar, it looks like there is a driveway onto the beach that would be suitable for a wheelchair.
On the other side of the parking lot from the beach is a heated pool.  At first glance, it does not seem to be wheelchair accessible with stairs leading up to the gate.  On closer inspection, we notice a side gate.  It’s unlocked, so we open it and there is a 3 inch step into the pool area.  Nearby is a wood shed and I find a thick piece of plywood that makes a great impromptu ramp so in we go.
There is no lift or ramp into the pool.  In situations like this, I take Tim in his chair to the edge of the shallow end of the pool and ease him over the side.  It’s a bit of a challenge, but I get his legs through the inner tube we’ve brought along that allows him just a bit of independence in the pool.  Don’t worry, I’m in there with him watching like a hawk.  Thank God I’m strong enough to lift him if need be.
We’ve got the pool to ourselves at this early hour.  It’s kind of dead but I also have room to work and time to do it.  An hour or so of swimming around and then we’ll head over to the beach.
Drying off, we leave the pool and head over to where we saw the driveway to the beach earlier.  Gingerly, Tim takes his chair down the packed dirt ramp to the sand.  On the sand, it is firm enough to drive on for a bit so we head towards the lake until the sand starts to soften.  We get about 15 yards out before we decide that the sand is getting too soft for the heavy power chair.  I think if we had his lightweight manual chair, we could have gotten very close to the water.  No worries, that’s why we went swimming in the pool first anyway.
Letty and I get our beach chairs and towels from the car and set up on the beach.  We’re in prime real estate in front of the grill and the bar.  Slathering on the sunscreen, we get some hot dogs, a sandwich, and some fish tacos & pina coladas from the bar.
It’s a bright, beautiful, and sunny day on this gorgeous stretch of sand on the edge of Lake Tahoe.  The mountains rimming the lake still have a few veins of snow and the water is crystal clear.  I decide to take a dip and get up to my knees before deciding that this glacially provided melt water is just too cold.  Another reason that visiting the heated pool first was a good idea.
Canadian geese mingle among the beach goers while we soak up the sun, watch the boats ply the waters, and gaze out among our fellow visitors to the sand.
If you’d like a bit more shade, large day tents are for rent for $25.  Want some more adventure?  You can rent jet skis and kayaks.  Parasailing is also available and for a more relaxed adventure, you can take a tour of the lake on one of the larger vessels.
To sum up, you can relax on a beautiful semi-private beach…cold adult drink in your hand, swim in some of the purest crystal clear water you’ll ever see, take some laps in a heated pool, and enjoy some outstanding mountain views, all for the price of parking.  At the state park down the road, where you’ll only get half of this, you’ll pay $5 for parking so the three extra dollars are certainly worth it.
Yes, it could be just a little more accessible but if you’re with friends or family, you’ll manage.
We leave after a late lunch and head back down to the Motherlode.  Going back up the grade on Highway 50, we notice that traffic is backed up for miles.  Lucky we started early or we’d never have made it to the beach.
Back in Sutter Creek, we make our way over to the Sutter Creek Gold Mine, about a quarter mile from our hotel.  It’s a still working gold mine here in the Gold Country.  The tours into the mine are generally not accessible but if you call ahead, they can arrange a tour where you’d transfer into a seat in the mine vehicle and stay there for the entire tour.
We’re not here to do that today.  Instead, we buy a couple of bags of dirt from the gift shop and head outside.  A flume of water is rushing by and some pans are lying about.  We grab one and…following the directions in the bag…dump our little baggie of dirt in and fill it with water from the trough.  It takes time but after much swishing in the rushing water, we find a few tiny little nuggets of gold left behind when all the dirt is washed away.  With our second bag, we find a few more and put the 9 or 10 little nuggets into the little test tube full of water that was provided.  With that, our career as gold miners is over.
Since the hotel’s close by, we head back to rest up for our last dinner.
After a rest and showers, we head back to Plymouth to the Dancing Bear for dinner.  In part 2 of this trip, you might remember that the owner invited us back on Saturday to hear the great guitarist he had playing there.  We enter through a back side gate into their lovely patio.  The hostess says no tables are available.  Luckily, the owner remembered he’d invited us and he felt obliged to live up to his word.  Tables were re-arranged and enough room was found so that we could sit and have dinner.
The guitarist was good and the setting sun also set the mood.  A bottle of local wine was brought out and we ordered some samples of their barbecue, smoked for hours on the adjacent smoker.  Brisket, chicken, and wings were all brought out.  Only problem was that they ran out of the delicious, bacon wrapped smoked jalapeno poppers we had the night before.  More were in the smoker but it would be another hour before they’d be ready.
No problem, we said, it would make a great dessert!  Bring ‘em out when they’re ready.
As the food came out and the music played on, we dined on the very good chicken.  The brisket was good, especially in the fatty ends, but a little bland in the middle.  The smoked wings were incredibly delicious.
A nearby couple had order a bottle of local barbera but only drank one glass and donated the rest to our table.  We traded some tastes of our zin with them and waited for the main event…the smoked poppers.
Finally, after we’d just finished the rest of the food, out they came.  Just as incredibly good as it was a couple of days ago.  Hot, smoky, spicy, and creamy.  We had some outstanding food this week but we crown this item the best we had.
Finishing up the trip, we recount the times we’ve had.  Great baseball in Sacramento; steak and wine at J&D’s in Sutter Creek; wine tasting across Amador County; smoked bacon wrapped jalapenos in Plymouth; a great day at the beach in Lake Tahoe; and finishing up trading tastes with locals at the Dancing Bear. 

(NOTE: The Dancing Bear has since closed)
On the way home, I have a couple of more things I want to take care of.
First, I head out via highway 12 out of Jackson.  After stopping by a local fruit stand, we end up in the little town of Lockeford.  This town is known throughout the state for its little meat market…Lockeford Meats…and their vast array of sausages.  It’s not uncommon for lines to form down the block as people wait to get to the butcher counter.

Not too bad today, I only have six people in front of me.  We get some of their famous Dakota smoked bratwursts, some Bavarian sausage, Italian sausage, jalapeno sausage, and some jerky for the ride home.  The meat goes into our cooler while we head across the street to have big cowboy lunch at the Country CafĂ©.

Leaving Lockeford, we gas up and head south to Bakersfield for our last stop.  Whenever we come this way and head home, it’s time to clean up so I have to always stop off at the best car wash in the state, Cruz Thru on Coffee Road.  It’s like having my own pit crew as I pay my $5, the attendant takes my trash and gives us coffee and lollipops, the crews scrubs down our car, and we head home shiny and sparkly.
Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 14, 2014

Amador County Wine Country, California

In Part 1 of this trip, we have a very enjoyable day of baseball and candy in Sacramento before heading up to the Motherlode country for a mediocre hotel, a great little steakhouse, a nice kitchen shop, and a slightly depressing Gold Rush era downtown.

Watch the Video!

Today, we’re heading for wine country.  My pick for the best wine country experience has always been Amador Country.  It’s one of the oldest grape growing areas of the state and is home to California’s oldest continuous operating winery.

Between our hotel in Sutter Creek and the highway lies the tiny town of Amador City, population 213…the smallest incorporated city in California.  It does have a downtown and the five cars that make up the rush hour are parked at Andrae’s Bakery.  Inside, fresh coffee, cooked to order breakfasts, bakery treats, artisan cheeses, fine wines, and Belgian beers await.  We pick up a baguette and a couple of hunks of cheese for later and some coffee for now.

We start off at Drytown Cellars.  Winemaker Allen Kreutzer is pouring tastes at the counter to spell the usual woman who works there while she’s on a little break.  We start with the whites, which are crisp and refreshing and are on sale…today all whites are $10 a bottle.  The lady returns and Allen steps a few feet away and continues to fill the oak barrels from the fermenting tanks.  We start on the reds.  Zinfandel, barbera, and sangiovese.  All are very good and the sangiovese will be the best we have on this trip. 

A couple of dogs wander around and one goads us into a game of fetch.  The other, a Jack Russell terrier, takes exception and steals the ball, growling at anyone who might want to take it away.
A half case purchased and put into the car and we’re off to the next stop.
In Plymouth, we make the right turn to head east into the Shenandoah Valley, the county’s main grape growing and wine making area.  Over two dozen wineries dot the back roads here.

Our next stop takes us off the main highway, then off of the secondary road leading to the bulk of the wineries here, off of a spur at the edge of the Consumnes River canyon, and down a one lane road to the dirt and gravel parking lot of Story Winery.
This is just about my favorite winery anywhere.  In an old miner’s shack…past the sign reminding you to beware of rattlesnakes…is the tiny little tasting room.  That sign is not in jest…last year, Letty and I spent time here when I helped the ladies in the tasting room look for a rattler that was wandering around the entrance.  The serpent slithered under the shack, never to be seen…by me at least…again.
We see none today.  One thing I really like about Story.  It’s frequently hot and dry here in the Sierra foothills.  Whenever you walk into to the tasting room, the first thing they offer…before the complimentary tasting…is a free glass of chilled champagne.  Not only does it really hit the spot on a hot day, it gets you in the mood quickly for tasting.

While we all start off with our sips, Letty quickly gets sidetracked talking with the lady behind the counter.  It all goes back to last year, they used to sell some of the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever tasted here.  My wife asked who made them and the lady that did wasn’t in that day.  Today, she’s manning the tasting counter.  When Letty finds out it’s her, she immediately sets in to grill her and compare recipes and completely forgets about the wine.
Oh well, Tim and I continue on.  Another aside is that Tim is not a fan of wine tasting, at least until today.  I think that had to do with the fact that in the past when he was a child, he’d have to wait while the adults would have their fun.  Now that he’s an adult, he can join in. 

He starts off a bit bummed but then something happens…this wine stuff actually doesn’t suck!  Soon, he is in a much happier mood and we’re all having fun together.

We make our purchase and take a chilled bottle of their chenin blanc out back to the picnic area with some borrowed glasses.  Just downhill a bit from the tasting shack is a shaded area with picnic tables right on the edge of the vineyard that rolls down the hill into the canyon.  It’s a spectacular sight and my favorite picnic area.

Some bread, cheese, and a couple of those Jelly Belly packets from the ball game are our light meal to go with this great bottle of wine.  We just snack, talk, and generally have a good time just hanging out together in this wonderful place for a couple of hours.

Batteries recharged, we head down the road as the time is slipping away.  Most of the wineries are now closed for the day but we have 30 minutes before Villa Toscano closes so we pull in. 

With Andrea Bocelli wafting over the speakers, this recreation of a Tuscan villa holds the tasting room here.  There’s also a bistro next door, but it is already closed for the day.  The gentleman behind the counter is jovial and helps us with our tastings.  Another group at the end of the counter belongs to the wine club here, so the guy behind the counter quickly introduces us.  Now, he says, we can qualify for the member’s prices on the wines because they extend it to their friends.  Since we were introduced, we’re now their friends.  I get a case of their great zinfandel…usually over $200…for $99.  About $8.25 a bottle.

That’s how it goes here in Amador County.  The winemakers are laid back.  They still offer free tastes of their wines.  Nobody has any pretentiousness and it is no sin if you haven’t the slightest clue about the wines.  Exceptionally good red wines with most wineries willing to cut you a deal if you’re serious about buying.
Next, it’s over to downtown Plymouth where we will spend the rest of our evening.

In the town’s little central park, there’s a farmers market going on.  Actually, there are only 3 stands selling produce, all vegetables with the exception of a few clusters of grapes at one of them.  Another stand sells a buffet dinner for $10 and Sobon Estate winery offers five samples of their wines for $5.

A singer accompanies himself with a CD player and we browse through local honeys, cookbooks, and see if the singer knows any of the songs we request.

Afterward, we walk across the street to the Dancing Bear Bar in the old Plymouth Hotel (1883) and have a Margherita pizza from their wood-fired oven.  It is delicious but we’re still hungry.  We get an order of their jalapeno poppers.

(NOTE - Since our visit, the Dancing Bear has closed. Shame, it was a great restaurant. - Ed)

The server brings our order.  The peppers are just about black, actually not too appetizing, but we give them a try anyway.  Oh my…what great poppers these are.  It turns out that the jalapenos are stuffed with chile infused cream cheese, then wrapped with bacon, and smoked out back for two hours.  Incredibly smoky with that creamy heat coming from each pepper.  I’ve never had a popper taste like this before.
Soon, a tall man comes over and asks how we liked them.  After waxing on about how great they were, he tells me he’s the owner and he takes me out back to see the smoker.  It’s a large, industrial metal oven that he’s feeding oak logs into the bottom.  He opens the door and there’s briskets and chickens rotating on trays over the low heat smoke.
“I’ve got a great guitarist that plays on Saturday night,” he says and invites us back to see that and to have some more of their barbecue.  Whatever we’re doing, we’re going to be sure to be back here at 6:30 Saturday night.
Keep an eye out for the finale of this trip, coming soon!
Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sacramento and the Gold Country, California


When traveling, the question is “fly or drive?”  Today, we are traveling to Sacramento from the Pasadena, California area…a distance of 407 miles.  Flying time would be an hour.  Arriving at the airport, an hour before takeoff.  Being with a wheelchair, add another hour to that to make sure airline and airport staff can get you on the plane and seated together.  Another 40 minutes to an hour to drive to the airport, then a half hour to collect your baggage and another to get to the hotel…if it is nearby.  You might also need to rent a car if public transit options are not suitable (but in Sacramento, they are pretty good).

Watch the Video of This Trip!

So, we’re talking about an investment of five hours…at least…and around $350 for three people flying.  The drive is six hours…not counting food, fuel, and bathroom stops…plus you can easily take your power chair and have your car with you when you get there.  Gas would be about $150.  Road trip it is!

Today’s drive is uneventful with stops in Bakersfield for the delectable tacos at Los Tacos de Huicho and then again at the Love’s gas station in Ripon for fuel, bathroom, and snacks.  I have credit for a free night at Marriott, so we cash them in at the Springhill Suites just north of downtown Sacramento.
We have an accessible room, which here means a bathtub with shower bench.  Roll-in showers are available but you give up the living room of the suite to get one.  With the bench, I can easily transfer Tim, give him a shower, keep the living room space, and save the roll-in for someone who needs it more.  A roll-in would be a little more convenient, but…for me…I give up too much for the trade off here.

But…there’s no bench in the shower.  I bring this up to the front desk’s attention.  There is another room with a shower bench and they want to move us there.  I ask, “why don’t you just bring to bench to our room?”  The manager says it has to go into an accessible room only.  I tell her that we are in an accessible room but she still insists we need to move.  Some back and forth, including taking her up to our accessible room to prove it, and she finally relents.  It turns out our room had a bench but whoever had the room before us took it with them.

Please, people…leave the stuff in the room.  Someone, maybe you someday, is going to be in a situation where you need it and it won’t be there because you were selfish.

Once that’s settled, we have a nice room and have dinner before bedding down for the night.

The next day, we head over to West Sacramento and Raley Field, home of the River Cats.  The River Cats are the AAA minor league team affiliated with the Oakland A’s that play here.  Being baseball fans, we take in games at new stadiums a lot on our travels (see our Fields of Dreams page for reviews).

We park the van behind the home plate entrance and the happy parking attendant gives us several little packages of Jelly Bellies to take in with us.  We get here early because we don’t have tickets yet and want to get the best seats we can.  Unfortunately, there are not too many wheelchair accessible seats left so we have to settle for seats on the first base side but out a bit in right field.

Since we’re early, we walk over the nearby Tower Bridge.  This shimmering, golden bridge has an accessible walkway on its south side.  Just as we start to cross, a siren erupts and lights flash.  The drawbridge is about to be raised.

We get as close as we can get and watch the deck go up.  No boats are in view, so I guess that they just raise the bridge every morning at 10:00.  I’ve seen other drawbridges where this is the case…if you’re in a boat, you just want to make sure you’re there at that time.

Just a few minutes later, the deck comes down and we complete the crossing. 

On the other side is Old Sacramento State Park, a preserved neighborhood of historic buildings on the edge of the Sacramento River.  We spend some time eating the free samples at Candy Heaven, a large candy store on the edge of the area that has just about any candy you can think of.  Letty buys some candy to take with us and we take just a quick walk through this end of the park before walking back.

The game is a lot of fun and our seats are next to a lemonade and churro stand.  I make use of it to get Tim a drink and a bag of their kettle corn without having to leave our seats.  Letty and I later go to get some regular food and beer.

The food here is among the best we’ve had at a baseball game and the beer selection is incredible but the prices are pretty high for a minor league game.  Tim and I split the ½ pound Dinger Dog you see above.  It was very good.  Letty had a chef’s salad that was also delicious.  That Blue Moon I’m holding costs $11 though.   That’s more expensive than the same beer I bought at Angel Stadium earlier this month.

Prices aside, it’s a great game in a great park.  We even got to see a true baseball legend, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, coaching first base.  He was also very nice…especially to the ladies who wanted to take pictures with him between innings.

After the game, we were done with this very quick trip to our state’s capitol.  Now, we’re heading up to the Motherlode. 

It’s not a long drive up highway 50 where we turn off on highway 49 in Placerville and head south.  Highway 49 is the ribbon of road that connects all of the Gold Rush towns of the Motherlode.  Highway 49…forty-niner…get it? 

About 40 miles south of Placerville, we pull past Amador City and then into the small town of Sutter Creek, which will be our base of operations for the next few days.  Our hotel will be the Days Inn at the north end of town.  We get a suite, which was probably a waste of extra money, because the layout has the living room way off to the side, with no TV, and is not really conducive to using for anything other than an extra sleeping area for Tim.

The sofabed is lumpy…Tim says it’s comfortable, which is fortunate because it sure didn’t look or feel that way when I sat on the edge.  No sheets were provided for it and when I asked the front desk for a set, they brought it but didn’t want to provide a pillow for it.   When I insisted, the manager borrowed a couple of pillows from a vacant room.  We only needed one, they didn’t want to provide it, and when I complained, they brought two?

There’s a slight mildew smell to the room but other than that, the room is adequate and will give us a reason to not be there more than we have to.

After settling in, we head to downtown for dinner.  It’s about a 4 block walk from the hotel, but the sidewalks look iffy for wheelchair access, so we drive.  Upon further inspection, it was accessible for a wheelchair, if a bit bumpy, but there are many sections in the Gold Rush era downtown that are not and would require wheelers to detour into the street.  A good place to start would be to park by City Hall at the north end and walk from there…it’s the most accessible of the routes.

Looking on before the trip, I made up a list of restaurants that looked interesting to try.  Tonight, we’re going to J&D’s Steakhouse, right in the middle of downtown Sutter Creek.  It’s happy hour when we arrive so we order some of the delicious red wine they’re pouring tonight for just $3.  Next, it’s on to an appetizer of jalapeno chips that remind us a bit of fried pickles.  The peppers are sliced up, battered, and deep fried.  They’re served on a heaping plate with ranch dressing and are very good.    Tim has a burger and Letty has the pasta primavera.  I’m not really hungry, so I just subsist on the jalapenos, wine, bread, and Tim’s leftovers.  It’s all very good and we want to come back here again if we have time.
NOTE: J and D's has closed since this 2010 visit

The next morning, we head over to nearby Jackson, the county seat.  Breakfast is a delicious spread of waffles, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and sausage at the Waffle Shop on the south end of town on highway 49.

After breakfast, we take a stroll around downtown.  One of Letty’s favorite kitchen shops is located here, the Home and Farm Supply store.  Don’t let the name fool you, it’s just a really nice kitchen shop, no farm implements are to be seen.

After years in a tiny building with almost no parking by the fire station, the owners bought this vintage building up the block and have turned it into something worthy of Williams Sonoma.  Well worth a stop if you’re into cooking and the gadgets that go with it.

Walking around town afterward though reveals an old town getting ravaged by the recession.  Many storefronts are empty with “For Lease” signs on them.  Even the old Jackson Hotel, built in 1862, has a for sale sign on it.  Closer inspection reveals that the ABC has revoked their liquor license for an infraction, so that could have something to do with it as well.

The two busy businesses here today are the pawn shop and the liquor store.  Hardly a great scene.  It’s a bit depressing but luckily things will pick up once we leave Jackson behind.

Stay tuned for that part of the trip.

Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved