July 2 2009 by Jason Fogelson
I was lucky enough to be included on a motorcycle trip with a few other journalists last week. We explored the roads (and vineyards and restaurants) of Napa Valley on Harley-Davidson touring motorcycles. We also made our way through Marin County, Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
The trip began with a night in San Francisco. We stayed at the Best Western Tuscan Inn, a lovely hotel right across from the famous Fisherman's Wharf. A kickoff dinner at Firenze by Night, a fantastic Italian restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood, a short walk from the hotel. Firenze by Night is renowned for its gnocchi - with good reason. Every trip should begin with a great meal, and a relaxing stay in a good hotel.
In the morning, we took a short van ride to Bob Dron Harley-Davidson in Oakland, where we would be meeting our motorcycles. A lineup of eight Harley-Davidson touring machines awaited our arrival: Four Ultra Classic Electra Glides, two Road Kings, a Street Glide and a Road Glide, all low-mileage 2009 models from the Bob Dron rental fleet. The bikes were in great condition, clean and full of fuel. A bit of paperwork, and we were on our way.
I was trying out some new gear on this trip - a Harley-Davidson FXRG Perforated Leather Jacket, FXRG-3 Boots, and H-D Men's Denim Pant with Guardian Technology. More on that great gear in a future blog entry.
Our first day's ride was a relatively short one, from Oakland to Napa, just long enough to get acquainted with our bikes. We checked in to our hotel for the night, the Best Western Elm House Inn in Napa. The rider-friendly hotel has the air of a boutique inn, and reminded me (in a good way) of a bed and breakfast. I dropped my gear off in my room, and joined the group for lunch.
We descended on Market, an elegant eatery on the main street of Saint Helena. We would be splitting up into two groups after lunch - a few riders chose to continue exploring Napa Valley on their Harleys, while I decided to go on a winery tour with the main group.
Napa Valley, California produces some of the best wines in the world. The weather, the terrain and the social climate are all ideal for grape growing. The most famous names in American winemaking, including Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Charles Krug and Shramsburg, all produce wine in the region. Scores of boutique wineries abound on the valley floor and on the faces of its hills. Over 300 wineries currently operate in Napa Valley, and thanks to forward-looking zoning laws, the land will continue to be reserved for agricultural use for years into the future.
The same conditions that create great wine country also result in great motorcycling. Thin traffic, beautiful vistas, dry weather and twisty mountain roads abound in Napa Valley and surrounding areas.
We climbed into two vehicles (with designated drivers), and proceeded to drive up twisting mountain roads, quickly rising high off the valley floor. At 1700 feet or so, we came to the entrance of Cade Winery, a brand new establishment from proprietors Gavin Newsom, Gordon Getty and John Conover. Cade is located on Howell Mountain. They just opened their tasting rooms to the public this spring, and their first wines are just beginning to emerge to great reviews. Mr. Conover was on hand to conduct a tour of the very beautiful and impressive winery, which is on track to receive Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for its facilities. We tasted two of their wines during our tour, and though I am no wine connoisseur, I was very impressed. It was a tough decision to give up an afternoon's riding, but the views from Cade, and the beauty of the winery itself, made up for the lost seat time.
Dinner that evening was at Napa's Celadon restaurant, an award-winning restaurant in the Historic Napa Mill building. We sat in the courtyard, and enjoyed Chef Greg Cole's "global comfort food" while sharing road tales and excited talk about the next day's ride.
Morning came quickly, and we rode south, toward San Francisco. Our route took us across the Golden Gate Bridge (a great experience on a motorcycle), and along Route 1 along the Pacific Coast. We couldn't have asked for more beautiful weather or riding conditions. The biggest challenge was remaining focused on riding, and not staring off at the gorgeous scenery. Frequent photo stops helped.
Lunch (do you recognize a pattern here?) was at the Coast Cafe in the tiny town of Bolinas, a hippy throwback town populated with artists, craftspeople and unleashed dogs.
After a spectacular day of riding, we arrived at our final hotel, the Best Western Capitola By-the-Sea Inn & Suites, a rider-friendly hotel. Sean from Monterey County Harley-Davidson greeted us in the parking lot with some shade, and a few examples of accessorized bikes from the dealership's inventory. When we checked in to our rooms, the dealership had also thoughtfully left each journalist a gift bag of dealership souvenirs (you can never have too many coffee mugs or shot glasses, I always say). The rooms at the Best Western Capitola are fantastic, many with sitting areas, gas fireplaces and premium appointments. Each of our three Best Western Hotels excelled in service, and each had its own individual design, decor and ambiance. It's one of the things that I love about staying at Best Westerns - every location is unique, an innkeeper's personal expression of the brand.
We walked to our restaurant this evening for our final dinner together, at Shadowbrook in Capitola. A perfect contrast to the modernity of Napa's Celadon, Shadowbrook excels in "Old World charm and grace," as they proudly proclaim on their website. Shadowbrook sits beside Soquel Creek, far below street level. A cable car is available for descent and ascent, or you can take a pleasant stroll down and up six flights of stairs through a lush garden to the Craftsman-style manor that houses the restaurants many dining rooms. The service is great, the menu is classic and the experience is luxurious yet relaxed. Over after-dinner drinks, we had fun debating which dinner was the best of our three together. There was no consensus, and no one went away mad (or hungry).
The final morning ride arrived. We headed for the hills, skirting along the ridge above the Silicon Valley below, with the towns of Mountain View, Palo Alto and Atherton as beautiful visions. A lunch stop at the famous Alice's Restaurant, subject of the Arlo Guthrie song, gave us a chance to reflect on our trip before the final push back to Oakland and Bob Dron Harley-Davidson.
It was a great trip, marked by fantastic riding, delicious food, comfortable, welcoming lodging and spectacular scenery. Most of all, as with every motorcycle journey, it's the people I will remember most from this trip. Traveling by bike does something to people - after a few days on the road together, differences melt. The pressures of home evaporate into thin air. The journey becomes your world, and your riding partners become part of the experience. I've had very good luck with motorcycle travel, and I have had some fantastic conversations and encounters as a result of my travels.
I can't wait for my next motorcycle trip.