Travel like a VIP in northern California

Enjoy everything the Golden State has to offer – from incredible views to world-class food and drink and insider experiences – in stress-free luxury on a tour with Trafalgar

Originally posted on MSN UK, August 2014

Cali-LEAD

Throw in limited holiday days (recent reserarch suggests that two-week holidays are a thing of the past, with Brits now trying to squeeze everything into just nine days) and a destination where there’s just SO much to see and do – California, for example, with its pulsing cities, breath-taking scenery and world-class food and drink scene – and it’s hard not to feel stressed at the mere thought of organising your own trip.

If this all sounds far too familiar, then the prospect of experiencing all that the Golden State has to offer as a VIP withthe world’s leading guided holiday company, Trafalgar, is no doubt an appealing one, in no small part due to the promise of bed and breakfast accommodation and private airport transfers at the end of the 10-hour flight from the UK – and yet a Trafalgar trip offers so much more.

The VIP experience starts from the moment you arrive at the San Francisco’s impressive Hyatt Regency, the starting point for all of Trafalgar’s northern California itineraries. A warm welcome awaits from each tour group’s very own guide; on our trip we were greeted by Korie, who was as all-American as they come: cheerful, enthusiastic and always happy to help and answer questions – a quality that would be very much appreciated over the course of the tour.

Izu

After an evening getting to know your fellow tour group members over dinner, your tour guide is on hand to introduce you to the very best of San Francisco’s sights, tastes and experiences. From being transported back to the 1960s on a walking tour of legendary hippy hangout Haight-Ashbury with a local guide who personally saw and did it all back in the day (and has the stories to prove it) to wandering down art-covered Balmy Alley and poking your head inside a tiny fortune cookie factory, the surface of the city is well and truly scratched, allowing you to really get under its skin – and the only effort required from you is to extract yourself from the Hyatt’s super-comfy queen-size beds.

Good food is never far away (this being the US of A, after all) and if eating well is your thing then Trafalgar’s San Francisco Wine Country Delights itinerary comes recommended. The trip’s time in San Fran includes a tasting tour of the city’s infamous Ferry Building, home to over 30 independent food and drink outlets with a focus on organic, local produce; highlights include the delicious-aged cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery (try the Red Hawk), the artisan loaves at the Acme Bread Company, and Prather Ranch Meat Co’s deliciously spicy chilli. And if that doesn’t leave you clutching your sides in achingly-full glee, there’s also a walking tour of China Town – the oldest in the US – followed by a banquet meal.

Ferry-bulding-food

If this all sounds like tiring – not to mention thirsty – work, then the second leg of the Wine Country Delights tour is the perfect remedy. Just one hour north of the Golden Gate lies Sonoma County, one of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 10 best wine travel destinations for 2014, boasting more than 400 wineries in a setting that includes mountain ranges, sweeping valleys and redwood forests. After the bustle of the big city, it’s a welcome retreat that can’t fail to bring on a sense of happy contentment – helped along with the help of a glass of wine or three.

A visit to Ravenswood Winery even gives you the opportunity to create your very own bottle of red. They take their craft very seriously at Ravenswood – their motto is ‘no wimpy wines’ – and that passion really shows as one of their on-site experts explains the winery’s history before encouraging you to start mixing your own blend, trying different ratios of zinfandel (for flavour), carignan (for acidity) and petite sirah (for body) to find a combination that pleases your palate. It’s great fun, and a bottle of wine bearing your name is a fantastically original holiday souvenir.

Wine

The wine tasting continues over an incredible dinner at another of Trafalgar’s Insider Experiences: an exclusive Be My Guest dinner at Nicholson Ranch. Owner Deepak Gulrajani is on hand to talk guests through his wines at the tasting table and give a tour of his impressive estate, complete with stunning views from the terrace across the valley, before hosting a three-course meal with his personal wine pairing selections.

After sleeping off all that wine at the stunning Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, more food awaits – only this time it’s you doing the cooking. The San Francisco and Wine County Delights tour finishes with a cookery class at Ramekins Culinary School, where the school’s chefs will oversee as your group whips up a three-course feast; cripsy wontons, chicken with street farm vegetables and New York cheesecake were all on the menu when we visited, washed down with – yep, you’ve guessed it – expert wine pairings.

Deepak

Of course, it’s not just the world-class food and drink that draws people to California; the scenery’s pretty impressive too. This is a state that contains everything from incredible coastlines and towering forests to sweeping valleys and snow-capped mountains, and Trafalgar’s Northern California tour is a superb way to experience Cali’s great outdoors. Guests take in the majestic beauty of Lake Tahoe and the eerie awesomeness of Mono Lake before heading to the natural jewel in California’s crown: Yosemite National Park.

Prepare to have your breath well and truly taken away as you descend from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the beauty of Yosemite Valley. Look one way and you’ll spy Yosemite Falls, the world’s fifth highest waterfall; look the other and you’ll be in awe of the park’s most distinctive features, the magnificent Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations. There are hiking trails to be found everywhere. Mule Deer leap through open meadows, falcons, eagles and hawks soar overhead, whilst Black Bears lurk deeper in the woods (if you’re very lucky, you might just spy one).

Yosemite

After an informative and very entertaining trolley tour with a park ranger (keep your camera to hand for the perfect photo opportunity up at Tunnel View), the day ends with another VIP experience: dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel, a venue that is almost as impressive as the park itself. Having played host to the likes of John F. Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II, this grand hotel was also used as the inspiration for The Outlook Hotel in Stanley Kuberick’s film The Shining, and walking through the lobby into the cavernous dining room, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, is an overwhelming experience – even before sampling the delicious food (the Angus New York Steak and crème brûlée come highly recommended). With dinner over, a spot of star-gazing in the Ahwahnee’s garden is a magical finish to a perfect day.

Jellyfish

The natural wonders continue as the tour heads towards the coast, passing through the chocolate box town of Carmel-By-The-Sea and winding down the stunning shore-hugging, envy-inducing 17-Mile Drive (average house price: $10m) before arriving at Monterey. Here, not only does your Trafalgar Insider status get you exclusive early entry to the brilliant Monterey Aquarium, home to sharks, stingrays, octopus, hundreds of jellyfish and some incredibly cute otters, but also another Be My Guest dining experience, this time at Happy Girl Kitchen. Opening for dinner exclusively for Trafalgar groups, owners Todd and Jordan Champagne are on hand to serve up their mouth-watering vegetarian menu, featuring treats such as homemade pickles, local cheeses and pumpkin risotto. It’s yet another example of California’s strong farm-to-table ethos, and it’s delightfully delicious.

By now, you’ll probably have got the picture that there’s a lot to discover in northern California: a thriving foodie scene driven by local passion and pride, a rich cultural history, just about every type of natural landscape one could wish for and wine – lots of really good wine. And if you’ want to get the most out of your time there, you won’t go wrong with a Trafalgar tour – not only will you return home relaxed, content and full of Californian sunshine, but also without having looked at a guidebook.

Trafalgar’s 8-day San Francisco & Wine Country Delights itinerary costs from £2,725 per person, whilst theNorthern California itinerary costs from £2, 495 per person. Both trips including land and air, 7 nights’ accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, four evening meals, VIP door to door private airport transfers, specific sightseeing excursions and the services of a professional Travel Director throughout. For more information visit www.trafalgar.com/uk and or call 0800 533 5617. MSN travelled to California courtesy of Trafalgar and United Airlines.

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