California Dreamin': 34 days, 4 Vineyards, 2 House Sits and a Wedding

Being huge Dr Who fans we love travelling back through time. This is one of those occasions as we zoom back to the beginning of October 2015.  We spent a few weeks in Northern California as part of our great American experience. In no particular order, here’s what we go up to. 


If you have read Bear, Bison, Beauty you will know that we met Paul at The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. We stayed in touch, meeting up with him and his partner, Rick, at the start of our US road trip. These guys have been together for 18 years and with the recent change in same-sex marriage legislation, they finally got the legal right to tie the knot. We were honoured to be invited.

When filling our backpacks, we had no idea that we would need wedding attire. So a little retail therapy was needed to make sure we didn’t look like a couple of hobos that had just wandered in off the street in search of free vol-au-vents.

The ceremony was held at their gorgeous home with impressive views over Oakland and San Francisco. The house that they had, in fact, sold two weeks prior and were renting back from the new owners just for the weekend. 

Million dollar view

The night prior was a get together for some of the guests. Clearly a few people had heard about us already as we had several “oh you're guys Paul and Rick told us about”.  Good friends of the grooms, Liz and Mike, heard our story that many times that they could answer virtually every question for us, including countries visited, favourite places and tastiest food.

The wedding was a blast. An afternoon full of emotion, laughter and damn good cake. A moving celebration of the love these guys share for each other and their friends and family. It was a privilege to be invited and witness their special occasion.

To round off our Oakland experience we house sat for a week in the upmarket suburb of Orinda. A very cute and cuddly labrador called Maddie who loved nothing more than hauling a huge garden hose into the pool and out again, much to our amusement. We filled our days with neighbourhood walks and hikes through the local state park. It was here that we saw our first coyotes. 

Another first for Julie was a football game. American Football that is. We watched Cal State Bears play USC Trojans. We had great seats behind one of the end zones and saw plenty of action. Each of the colleges marching bands competed loudly trying to out do each other. The crowd was almost a 50-50 spilt which is unusual, making for a crazy loud atmosphere.

Football, college style

Football, college style

Oakland appears a little bit sparse on things to do compared to its trendier cousin across the bay. We visited The Cathedral of Christ the Light. Finished in 2008 this contemporary cathedral is every bit as spectacular as more traditional ones. Jack London Square has the appearance of somewhere that should be closed from Monday to Friday. I’m sure it comes alive at the weekends but mid week it’s a pretty desolate place.

We had a great night catching up with Liz and Mike. They took us to a trendy new restaurant called Penrose. A lively place with delicious food.


Another house-sit, this one for two weeks, saw us based in the wine capital of California, Napa. Our charge this time a gorgeous basenji mix by the name of Rudy. The house, just a 10-minute walk into the city centre, had a mature inviting garden full of tasty fruit and veg. There’s nothing like stepping outside and picking a ripe melon for breakfast.

We took a drive around the neighbouring wine valley of Sonoma stopping at the awfully pretentious Ledson’s Vineyard complete with a Disney-esque castle. Despite the aura of snottiness they served their wine in cheap plastic glasses, go figure. The town of Sonoma reminded us of South America towns with a main plaza and cute shops hugging the sides.

Disney wine castle

Angela, a good friend of Sharon and Ken (the couple we were sitting for) invited us over for wine and nibbles. Angela, a talented artist, had just taken delivery of a case of wine from Hawkes Bay, NZ.  She had designed the stylish wine labels. We shared wine and stories with some of her creative friends, including Julie, a fellow down-sizer.

Check out that gorgeous label

Julie kindly gave us a tour of the Napa Valley and some of it’s more impressive vineyards. A shock was the price the vineyards charged for a tasting. One location had a charge of US$60, that’s $92 in Kiwi money!  The price of several bottles of good pinot noir. We stopped in at Stag’s Leap and the guy running the tasting took pity on us poor Kiwi’s and slipped us wine from the higher priced tasting list. Julie was a fantastic guide proving heaps of local knowledge about the region and its rich history. Julie also gave us a bed for our last night in Napa.

I made the short trip over to the quaint town of Petaluma to watch one of my favourite podcasts MacBreak Weekly, part of the TWIT network, being produced. Great to meet host Leo Laporte in person after many years of listening. I also managed to catch a couple of Napa High School football games. At this time of year, the weekends are wall to wall football.

Whilst in Napa Julie and I got new tattoos. We had been thinking about this for a while and when we saw a young lady with a great looking tattoo at the local farmers’ market, she recommended the Golden Owl Tattoo. Donavan, our tattoo artist, designed Julie’s tattoo, a trash polka dot design with elements of time, travel, personal growth and freedom. I went with some lyrics from Joy Division, together with their label logo. Even at our ripe old age our mothers were none too impressed.

Telling your mum

Pumpkins were in vogue as Halloween approached. Great to wander the streets seeing how the locals celebrated this very American tradition. Spooks, ghouls and graveyards adorned many a front lawn.

Rick and Paul came over one afternoon for a long lazy lunch that involved several bottles of wine for the non-drivers. Rick drew the short straw so sat there looking longing as we opened another gorgeous red. Next time Paul drives.


A highlight of Burning Man was meeting young Peter Davies. Peter and his wife Dyane own a loft apartment in an old lithograph printing factory in a trendy part of town. They generously offered their place as a base for a few days whilst we explored San Francisco. The apartment itself is full of Dyane’s stunning bronze sculptures and glazed crockery. And the walls full of Peter’s striking travel photography.

They took us to the very buzzy Cockscomb restaurant, where despite Peter’s best efforts we were unable to rustle up the speciality, a tuna collar. The night ended with a slightly tipsy Peter tucked up under a blanket on the sofa doing his level best not to fall sleep. Youngsters today have no stamina. The following day we met for lunch at Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen. A small cafe that serves delicious ethnic food you eat with your hands wrapping the tasty morsels in injera bread, which looks a little like crepe bandages. 

Bandage anybody?

Tadu is surrounded by city missions and homeless shelters. A downside to the city on the bay, is the amount of homeless people and dope heads. The yawning chasm between the poor and the well-off is evident throughout the area, tugging on the heartstrings.

We headed out to the fabulous De Young Museum. As well as some stunning exhibits the view from the tower is awesome. From there we wandered down to Alamo Square Park to catch the sunset on the painted ladies. A row of super cute weatherboard painted houses.

We did our own walking tour of Russian Hill. It would have really helped if I had remembered to bring the guidebook. Taking in many of the staircases linking the steep streets and the small urban forest in Macondray Lane, we emerged at the tourist hell that is Fisherman’s Wharf. One saving grace for the wharf is the fantastic looking vintage trolley buses that rattle their way downtown.

For our final adventure, we walked across the Golden Gate bridge and then down into the seaside town of Sausalito. The five mile walk takes you from the welcome centre, across the bridge, passed Fort Baker and into Sausalito. Stopping on the bridge and looking down at the swirling murky waters below you wonder how bad life must be for someone to jump. Having worked up an appetite there is plenty of good looking cafes and restaurants eager to take your dollar. The ferry back to San Francisco takes 30 minutes and if you are lucky will slow as it passes Alcatraz.

So there you have it, 34 nights spent in Oakland, Napa and San Francisco. Thanks to two great house-sits and the generosity of wonderful friends we only paid for 5 nights accommodation. Oakland doesn’t appear to have the same soul as San Francisco. Or maybe it does and we just missed it. You can understand why Tony Bennett lost his heart in San Francisco. A wonderful city full of amazing neighbourhoods to explore. Napa a quiet town that comes alive at weekends and during harvest season.