June 11 2013 by Jason Fogelson
There's a myth that California is one state. It's really many more than that. Southern California, where I live, is dominated by the urban megalopolis, Los Angeles. Northern California has its own dominant city, San Francisco. But there are vast stretches of California that live outside the urban influence. There are the deserts, the mountains and the coastlines. There is farmland, there are forests. And there are great motorcycle roads crisscrossing all of them. I'm exploring the northern half of the state on this week's ride, and I'll just have time to hit some highlights.
I fly in to Oakland International Airport. Oakland is just across the bay from San Francisco, and is home to about 400,000 people. San Francisco gets most of the attention, but Oakland is a great town, really on the upswing as tech companies search for more affordable spaces. Oakland is also home to a wonderful Harley dealership, Oakland Harley-Davidson, just a two-minute cab ride from the airport. I arrive with my gear as the dealership opens at 10:00 am, and rentals manager Raul has my bike all ready for me. I'm riding a beautiful 2013 FLTRX Road Glide Custom this week. The Road Glide Custom comes with a lowered suspension, chopped windshield and sleek styling. It doesn't come with a TourPak, so I called ahead and asked Raul to add one to use during my rental. No problem. My black Road Glide now has the luggage capacity that I need for a week's ride, with all of my photo and computer equipment. I travel light, but not light enough.
By 10:45, I've completed all of the rental paperwork, loaded the Glide, and I'm ready to ride. I thank Raul for all his help, and ride away onto the spaghetti of freeways that connect the Bay Area. I promptly make a wrong turn, and wind up crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. It's a cool ride, but definitely a bridge too far. I circle around, and finally find my way north on I-80. I can't wait to get off of the Interstate and back onto some real roads.
I depart the superslab at CA-29, which will take me through Vallejo all the way up to Napa. Vallejo is named for its founder, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807 - 1890), who at one time owned much of California north of San Francisco thanks to a land grant. Vallejo was instrumental in California's statehood movement, and was directly or indirectly responsible for the foundation of several cities and towns.
I glide through Vallejo on CA-29, looking for the city's charm. It's a little hard to find, to be honest. It must be hiding on the backstreets.
A few uneventful miles along CA-29, and I arrive in Napa. With a population of about 75,000, Napa is the 100th largest city in California -- but the biggest one in Napa County. The Napa River runs through town, tamed in the late 20th century by flood walls and sluices that contain the floods that plagued the area since its founding in 1847. Napa County and the Napa Valley are known as the heart of California's Wine Country. This appellation is a relatively recent development. In 1975, the Napa Valley had 25 wineries. Today, the total is approaching 350. Thanks to some very forward-thinking zoning laws that declared the region an agricultural preserve, there's very little urban sprawl, and vineyards have occupied the very valuable land that might have been consumed by tract homes. Score one for smart planning. There's a very good chance that the Napa Valley will look the same in 50 years as it looks right now -- dominated by vineyards and wineries.
I detour from CA-29 onto the Silverado Trail, which runs up the eastern side of the Valley. The population of the Napa Valley is clustered along the center of the valley floor, strung out along CA-29. Once I get away from hustle and bustle, I discover some wonderful motorcycling roads, just the kind of undulating, curvy blacktop that every motorcyclist dreams about. I swoop through the cool hills beneath the cover of oak trees. I ride all the way to the top of the valley at Middletown, then rejoin CA-29 for the ride back to Napa.
I guide the Glide into the parking lot at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, located on the northern end of town. It's always cool when my trips take me to a BEST WESTERN PREMIER -- especially at the beginning of a week on the road. I'll be staying at this fashionable hotel for two nights, because tomorrow I'm taking a wine tasting tour, and I will be in no condition to ride my motorcycle afterwards. I get a very nice welcome at the front desk as I check in. My Ride Rewards Card identifies me as a Diamond Elite Best Western Rewards member (after all, I travel a lot!), and I am upgraded to the best available room in the house. My second-floor room is great, with high quality linens and furnishings, and -- best of all -- a big outdoor porch. I'm in heaven.
I have time to get settled in to my room before I ride off for dinner. A few weeks ago, I used the website Open Table to secure a reservation at JoLe, a very hot restaurant in nearby Calistoga. I unpack my things, change for dinner and ride off into the cool evening.
I'm heading north on CA-29. I pass through two towns on the way to Calistoga, Yountville and St. Helena. A friend explained to me that Yountville is all about the food; St. Helena is all about the shopping. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit.
Yountville has become the epicenter of California cuisine ever since Chef Thomas Keller took over the restaurant French Laundry in 1994. French Laundry is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the state, maybe the best restaurant in the country. If you plan to try it out, plan in advance. Like, exactly two months in advance, exactly. That's how they operate. Keller has a second restaurant in Yountville, Ad Hoc, and also owns Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery in New York City. Numerous other fine dining establishments have sprouted in the fertile field that Keller tilled in Yountville, and the culinary excellence has spread across Napa Valley.
St. Helena might be my favorite little town in Napa Valley, I decide as I ride through on the Glide. Perfectly kept examples of Victorian and Craftsman architecture line the residential streets, and downtown's stone buildings house upscale galleries, gift stores and clothing shops. It's like a relaxed country SoHo.
St. Helena is also home to a gustatory landmark, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the California branch of the famous cooking school. Housed in the former monastery for the Christian Brothers, the CIA has several student-run restaurants and cafes, and also hosts private events and food and wine classes for the public.
The road turns at Calistoga, and I find JoLe on Lincoln Boulevard, the main drag in the tiny town. Calistoga is famous for its mud baths and hot springs, and even has a local geyser, known as "Old Faithful of California." The four block-long downtown is a jumble of restaurants, galleries, gift shops and coffee stands.
JoLe shares a building with another restaurant and a small hotel. I enter the restaurant, and I'm immediately ushered to my table - a victory for Open Table reservations. JoLe is known for its "Farm to Table" philosophy -- local foods, locally grown and produced. The menu is ever-changing and eclectic. I elect to try a five-course tasting, allowing my waiter to guide me to selections that will show off the international nature of the chef's talents. I start with a green salad made from ingredients grown in the chef's garden, then move to lobster ceviche with popcorn (!) to kobe beef barbeque to pork belly to quail with chicken livers and an ancho reduction. Each dish is surprising, delightful and delicious. I choose not to try the chef's suggested wine pairings with my meal -- after all, I have to hop back on the Glide after I eat. But I would love to return to JoLe again some day. Maybe next time, I'll stay at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Stevenson Manor, which is walking distance from downtown Calistoga.
I ride back to the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, completely content with my choice of restaurant and hotel. This is the kind of luxury that travelers dream about, and to add a motorcycle into the mix pushes the premium experience over the top for me. Tomorrow, I'm taking part in a group wine tasting tour -- another new experience for me.
I'm going to sleep well tonight.
Miles Ridden: 163.7
NEXT: DAY TWO: WINE COUNTRY