My first trip to Northern California, Bay Area, was in 2010, for a work trip. While there, the group I was with ventured to San Francisco for a night. I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of the city and I think it's because we went late one night, struggled to find parking so I had to walk the hills in heels, I found marijuana in the restaurant bathroom, and we went to eat sushi which, at the time I wasn't a fan. Let me be clear, that now, sushi is a favorite food of mine! I digress... but because I didn't have an excellent first experience in San Francisco I'm now a believer that every city should get a second chance except maybe New York City, been there, done that (sorry, Mamaw I know it's your favorite city).
In the past five years I've discovered that I love Northern California! Therefore, I've compiled a list of my favorite "Nor Cal" towns, in no particular order and I'll tell you why I love each of them.
Sausalito: This community is the closest to the city, only about five miles outside of San Francisco. This little town has the best views of the city! It has largely protected spaces because of the Golden Gate National Recreation area. I loved driving through the neighborhoods and looking at all of the cool houses on the hillside. The city's central street, Bridgeway, runs right along the shoreline. Sausalito started out as a shipping and fishing hub but has now become very artistic and a picturesque residential community. I loved exploring the shops on the main street, drinking coffee overlooking the water, and getting to admire the city from a distance in a slower paced area.
Wine Country: I grouped Napa, Yountville, and Sonoma into one bullet point mainly because I couldn't pick just one town to highlight! I love them all for different reasons but the the main reason is the wine! Duh! After you get past the wine, each town offers a little something different.
The town of Napa is a bit more commercialized and the least expensive of the three places to stay. There are more chain hotels int he city which means better rates and more shuttle options. I love the night life of the downtown Napa area.
Yountville is a bit more "boujie." The hotels are very much boutique style and the town has multiple Michelin Star Restaurants. Yountville is extremely small so if you stay downtown then you'll be able to stroll to restaurants, art galleries, and wine tastings.
I would say Sonoma falls right in the middle of the Napa and Yountville feel. It's less populated than Napa but not quite as upscale as Yountville. It's a historic city and known for its art galleries and the colonial-era Sonoma Plaza. Sonoma also has great options for a spa day if you get tired of wine tasting.
You can't go wrong with any of these three small towns in wine country. If you decide to visit, maybe you could spend time in all three places during one trip but I'd recommend going back multiple times for the different experiences.
Stinson Beach: I've already done an entire post on Stinson Beach and why I love it. You can find that post here so I won't spend much time on this town. I believe it's one of Northern California's best kept secrets, it's located about 20 miles NW of San Francisco. You can hike in the Mt Tamalpais State Park, enjoy time by the water, or visit one of their cute, quaint cafes.
Bodega Bay: I've never actually stayed in Bodega Bay but I plan to someday! I have done two day trips here though and love this little town. Bodega Bay has the best views around off of Highway One. If you're ever in the area I'd recommend stopping at the Pelican Plaza Grocery & Deli to pick up items for a picnic. They make the best cold deli sandwiches, you can also grab a side (try the olive salad, if you like that), and a drink while there. After you've got your picnic ready to go you should venture down to the beach and enjoy!
Petaluma: Petaluma is another town that I've only day tripped to but I've been here twice and loved the atmosphere each time. The historic downtown area is one of a kind, you won't find the shops that are located here anywhere else! My personal favorite thing to do in Petaluma and the main reason for my visit each time is the Lagunitas Brewing Company. The brewery has an amazing outdoor space that can be covered when it's raining and heated when it's cold or on beautiful days you can enjoy the space just the same. They have excellent brew tours every day, great food on its menu, and you can even bring your dog! This is such a cool tap room and one of the main attractions for Petaluma.
With so many cool and quaint Northern California towns to choose from, I obviously haven't been to them all! I can't wait to get back out there and explore! Do you have a fave?!
I'm sure many of you at least know what Alcatraz Island is and where it is located. However, just in case you don't, it was a 1800s military fort located about 1.25 miles from San Francisco Bay where it served as a military prison. The most notorious role that it held was a federal prison, and the latest role was for the Native American occupation. For me, Alcatraz Island is somewhere I've always wanted to visit. I'm fascinated by real life crime stories, gangster history, and the very idea of this eerie federal prison. Thus, it was on my "must visit" list while in San Francisco earlier this year (2017). If you're going to visit Alcatraz Island, there are a few things you should know before you go: wear comfortable shoes, buy your tickets in advance, be sure to check the weather, and get to the marina early.
We chose to visit the island with Alcatraz Cruises. This was the most affordable and easiest route I found and it was nice because although you have a certain departure time from San Francisco you can come back on any ferry of your choice. I'd advise you to arrive at the marina at least an hour before your scheduled departure time; this way, you'll have time to park and walk to the marina, use the facilities before getting on the boat, and get a good place in line. We were picky about our seats because we wanted a good view but also wanted to be indoors for the ride over. We visited in early spring so it was a chilly outing. Because the island isn't surrounded by tall buildings, it's usually cooler than the city. My best advice is to be prepared with layers. On the day that I went, everyone in my group took light jackets and they were pleased to have them! I repeat, you'll want to wear a good pair of walking shoes! The island and prison are both a lot bigger than you'd think and the majority of it is uphill. Someone once said, "The coolest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco." This phrase is widely repeated because you really never know what the weather is going to be like there. Most people think Mark Twain said this quote when in fact, he did not. That's another story for another time but if you're interested you should look up the history behind this famous saying.
Today, the island is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. If you visit today you'd get to see the abandoned prison, the oldest operating light house on the west coast, early signs of the military fort, and beautiful scenery. I was taken back by how pretty the view of San Francisco is from the island. If you're interested in more history on Alcatraz there are loads of great books and documents about the island. I've read Escape from Alcatraz and Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years. There have also been several Hollywood movies produced about the island. It's obviously most famous for the years as a federal penitentiary and that's what I was most interested in learning about during my time on the island. Given its high security and location of the prison the operators believed Alcatraz to be escape-proof. It housed some of America's most ruthless criminals such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud ("Birdman"), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis just to name a few. There were a total of 36 prisoners who made 14 known escape attempts. There is one escape though that is the most intricate escapes ever devised. Prisoners Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin might have pulled off the only successful escape from Alcatraz. I say might because no one knows if they actually made it. They broke out of the main building via an unused utility corridor after making a tunnel from their cells. It's thought that they departed on an inflatable raft which had to have been highly improvised. No one knows if they ever made it to the other side alive. There are numerous theories and leads that have been pursued by the FBI. During your visit, you'll get to see the cell they escaped from and the hole they climbed through is truly unbelievable. It looks like a toddler couldn't fit through it. I've added some of my favorite photos from the day. If you ever get a chance to visit Alcatraz Island it is definitely worth your time! This is a tour that's good for all ages. Tell me, have you ever been there? What were some of your favorite or most surprising facts?
Stinson, California is a beach town just north of San Francisco. Andrew and I recently stayed there with friends for a weekend get-a-way. We stayed step away from the beach and really enjoyed ourselves. The town itself is very small and only offers a handful of things to do and places to eat but I think we found all of the best it has to offer!
Matt Davis Loop Trail: Hiking Muir Woods was on the top of my to-do list for our stay in the Stinson Beach area. Muir Woods is the world's most-visited redwood park. The day we planned on hiking it was raining so instead of driving to The Muir Woods Visitor Center we decided to hike a trail right off of the main highway in town. I didn't realize it until I got home and Googled the trail we hiked (Matt Davis Loop) that we were actually in Mt. Tamalpais State Park which is what surrounds Muir Woods. We saw plenty of redwoods, waterfalls, and lush forest. The loop is about seven miles in its entirety. It wasn't the best day for a hike so we walked far enough to get an excellent view and turned around to go back down. We did about a two mile hike. You can access this trail behind the Stinson Beach fire station.
Sand Dollar Cafe: Since 1921, this eatery has been a popular place with locals. The Sand Dollar Cafe is right off of the highway so you can't miss it! We ate there twice: once for a quick appetizer and drinks and the second time we went for dinner. The restaurant is family owned and Stinson beach's oldest establishment. You could tell the staff were a very tight knit group of people and they knew most folks by name as they walked in the door. When we went for appetizer and drinks (around four pm) I asked the bar tender if they had happy hour menu. He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Ma'am when you're the only bar in town, you don't do happy hour."
Parkside Cafe: On the side of the highway, closest to the ocean, is a string of small businesses that assemble The Parkside Cafe. The Snack Bar opened in 1949 and is best known for its burgers, smoothies, ice cream, and fries. I bet this place is hopping in the summer with beach goers! The Parkside Cafe Restaurant serves food all day long with a full menu. They have a quaint outdoor area with a fireplace, patio, and garden. We weren't able to enjoy this space as it was cold and rainy but let me tell you what we did enjoy: food and drinks! The food was amazing and overall, a very healthy menu. Because we did eat well and were happy, we found their motto of "eat well, be happy" to be very appropriate and right on target. We all ordered a morning coffee and enjoyed that very much until we saw the table next to us get orange juice. This wasn't your average looking orange juice, you could tell that it was fresh squeezed! Therefore, we all ordered and enjoyed the orange juice, some of us enjoyed it in a champagne glass (mimosa style), others enjoyed it with vodka, and my pregnant friend enjoyed the OJ just how it was! Parkside Cafe is an integral part of the community and available at all times to satisfy your hunger ad don't forget to order OJ.
Whether you visit Stinson for a day at the beach, go with a group of friends for a weekend stay, or go to explore, you are guaranteed a good time. The people in this quiet beach town were friendly, everyone smiled, and local businesses are thriving.
It would be fun they said. It would be pretty they said.
Our trip to the Point Reyes lighthouse was neither of those things but looking back on it now it's quite hilarious. Recently, while visiting the Bay area with good friends, the group stayed in Stinson Beach which is about an hour from Point Reyes National Seashore which I had to see. I wanted to visit the lighthouse because I've heard it is absolutely beautiful, it has a lot of history, and as luck would have it, our visit was during the peak whale watching season! I talked everyone into going to the lighthouse for an afternoon. We loaded up in our rental van and were on the way! If you've been watching the news at all or keeping up with the weather you know that California has had record breaking rainfall. It was drizzling rain the day we decided to go to the lighthouse... in fact, it rained basically our entire trip. It was also over cast so we knew we wouldn't have the best views of the lighthouse but the weather wasn't going to hold us back. The drive from Stinson Beach to Point Reyes is amazing! You go through several small beach towns, get to see lots of pretty farmland, and you get occasional glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.
Driving for about an hour, we knew we were getting close to the lighthouse based on our trusty GPS. Again, it was drizzling outside but nothing we couldn't handle until we got about two miles from our destination. At that point, the rain started coming down harder and the fog set in like nothing I've ever seen. I was driving the van and visibility was terrible. We had already come so far so we figured why not, let's keep going! When we pulled up to the parking lot we noticed people walking sideways... yes, sideways!!! We had been in the car and been driving inland so we didn't realize that the wind had picked up. We parked and we all decided we were going to see that lighthouse regardless but first we needed a bathroom break. They had a small shack with porta potties for use. My friend Abby went in first and said it was bad and to hold your breath! I went in second and held my breath the entire time and of course hovered over the seat (TMI?). My friend Sarah, who was three months pregnant at the time, went in last. She walked in and immediately started gagging as pregnancy makes you more sensitive to smells (so I've been told).
Here's what happened next:
Ragan: Sarah, it's fine just hold your breath and go
Sarah: Gag, I don't think i can do it (as she's already hovering, sorry Sarah)
Ragan: You're fine, just go!
Sarah: Gag, I can't do it!
Que Sarah running out of the stall with her pants barely pulled up.
Ragan: uh, are you going to be okay?
Sarah: gag, puke, gag
Sarah then proceeded to death glare me and get teary eyed all at the same time. I was in shock I mean who knew?!
After that fiasco, we had to hide Sarah behind the porta potty so she could go tinkle outside because you know, when a pregnant women has to pee, they have to pee!
Now here we are, ready to go to the lighthouse. Andrew only had on freshly cleaned tennis shoes and he said he didn't want to get them dirty so he'd just go barefoot. I mean, why?! I think everyone around us thought he was crazy, I know we all did! Here we are just six friends on a half mile hike to a lighthouse, one of us a sick pregnant lady, and one of us not wearing shoes. The "drizzle" had turned into rain, the wind was blowing 55 mph, and the fog was dense! We walked up to the stairs to the light house but we couldn't see the actual lighthouse, that's how foggy it was and the winds were blowing so hard it wasn't safe for people to walk down the stairs to the lighthouse. For sure, we weren't seeing any whales! Basically, we drove over an hour, almost got blown off the side of a cliff, and never saw the lighthouse just to have this hilarious story.
Have you ever been to Point Reyes?! If so, send me a photo, I'd love to hear how beautiful it is!
I've decided every Christmas must be a vacation! Andrew and I met our families in Key Largo on Christmas day this past year (2016) and it was wonderful! Our families are spread out across the United States which makes it hard to see everyone and spend equal quality time with them. It's crazy when you're trying to get from place to place and the added stresses the holidays bring so a destination Christmas was the solution and I might add totally worth it!
Our first night in Key Largo we ate at the Lazy Lobster. It was one of the only places on the island open on Christmas. The food was excellent and the back yard atmosphere was very nice. It felt great to sit outside in December with short sleeves on. The next day we ventured to John Pennekamp State Park. Everywhere I read and everyone I spoke with said that JP State Park was a must do in Key Largo. I'm sure the park is beautiful and there seems to be a ton to do there but the day we went it was over cast and wasn't warm. We explored the park a bit and decided to go into the visitor's center and see the aquarium which was nice but not worth the money we paid to enter the park. We ended up calling this idea a wash and explored other options for this day. Andrew, his dad, and his brother went fly fishing in some of the mid-keys. Those of us who didn't go fly fishing drove down a few keys to see the pretty water and did some exploring. This day didn't go as planned but it was nice to be with family and not in cold Nebraska!
My favorite activity we did while in Key Largo was rent a boat from Sunshine Watersports. We had eight people in our group so we rented a 19 foot boat. The boat was a great size for us and it was very nice. At first we thought we'd go snorkeling so we headed to the coral reef about five miles off shore. We got half way there when we had to turn back, the waves were bigger than our boat and we were all soaked! It was scary being in the open ocean with swells that large. I was beginning to think this day wasn't going to go as planned either but then we went to Nest Key. Nest Key is absolutely beautiful! It's an island nature reserve right off of the Florida Everglades. When we pulled up to the island, we saw several boats and knew immediately that we found the place! I wish I could describe Nest Key with another word but I think beautiful is perfect! You'll have to go see for yourself! We stayed there all afternoon and waded in the water, laid out on the beach, had a picnic on the boat, swam, played with beach toys, fished, and explored. It was the perfect afternoon! I wish boat rentals weren't so expensive because we would have gone back there every day. We also found a ton of starfish in the water which was really neat! We picked them up for a photo op an promptly put them back in their natural habitat. on our way to Nest Key we saw manatees swimming in the mangroves and while we were on Nest Key a man caught a three foot hammerhead shark. When he let it go, it swam right by my foot! Yikes! While fly fishing this location, Andrew and his dad caught barracudas. This tiny island made for the perfect day!
On our last full day in Key Largo, we enjoyed beach time at the private beach within the community we rented in. We ate dinner at Hobo Cafe which was great (seafood pasta, yum). After dinner we ventured to the Caribbean Club which is a famous hole in the wall bar that's been featured in the movie Key Largo and the Netflix original series Bloodline. We didn't end up spending time at the club, just took a picture and then drove to Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill Sports Bar. We enjoyed the drinks, live music, and great views from this place.
I wish our trip to the Keys with family could have been longer but it was nice to spend a few days together, relax, rest, and unwind! I can't wait to get back to the Florida Keys and explore more!
If you're visiting Key West, you've got to visit these four places (in no particular order): the Harry S. Truman Little White House, the southernmost point, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Park, and the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
The Little White House: The house itself sits in a beautiful gated community with other lovely homes. Initially, it served as the naval station's command headquarters during the Spanish-American War. Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president of the United States and during his early years as president he got very sick from the over-whelming stress. His physician ordered him to take a vacation in the sun to rejuvenate and get some Vitamin D. Because the Naval Station's headquarters was in Key West and a safe place to visit, he decided to go there. Truman loved this place so much he joked that maybe we should move the capitol to Key West! The house was a place of relaxation for him but he always worked there as well, the President never gets to truly go on vacation. Although multiple presidents visited before Truman and several visited after him, he ended up visiting ten times after his initial visit so that is why the house is now known as the "Harry S. Truman Little White House." The house is now a museum and it's been restored to its original state. If you visit, I would recommend taking one of the guided tours.
The southernmost point: This is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Key West. The southernmost point is a concrete buoy at the corner of Whitehead and South Street. I think it's comical because people line up to get a photo in front of the marker but it's not actually the southernmost point in the United States, just look at a map of Key West and you'll see! Regardless, it is 90 miles to Cuba from this point and I feel like you have to at least see it if you're in Key West. I'm going to give you a tip, don't stand in the line! There is a retaining wall around the marker; Andrew and I jumped up on the wall and snapped a quick selfie (see proof below)! It's not the best quality photo and some people weren't too happy with us but we didn't want to wait in at least an hour line! We ran away quickly but still got to see the marker so we were happy!
Fort Zachary: The fort was one of a series built in the mid-1800s to defend the nation's coastline but now it's Key West's favorite beach located at the southern end of the park. Fort Tours are given daily; however, we went to Fort Zachary for the beach! The park provides opportunities for picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. I did one out of four of these and Andrew participated in all four. The water was way too cold for me so I chose to just picnic on the beach. Andrew was much braver than me and he actually got in the water! You do have to pay to enter the park but it is totally worth it as Key West doesn't have very many beaches. I know that's surprising since it's an island but it's true! I'm going to let you in on a little secret, there are two beaches in the park. One of the beaches is the most popular beach and it's very crowded and the other is what the locals call "the secret beach." Of course, Andrew found the secret beach and we spent our entire afternoon there. There were only two other couples at our secret beach so it was absolutely amazing! One of the couples were locals and the other had an adventurous side to them like us! It's a bit of a walk to this beach but it's worth it. I'm not going to tell you where it is because then, it wouldn't be a secret anymore but, I bet you could look on a map and find it!
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum: We visited this house on Christmas which was a really neat way to spend the day! The home is absolutely beautiful. There are so many architectural details that went into building this place. The gardens are stunning and there are cats that roam the property and the house freely. The home was originally built in 1851 and became Ernest Hemingway's home in 1931. All of the cats around the house are descendants of the cats he kept while he lived there, including many extra-toed cats. Hemingway purchased this property for $8,000 which seems absolutely crazy to me! The house now operates as a museum and it remains the single largest residential property on the island of Key West. The house is open to tour year round and costs $14 per adult. I'd recommend taking one of the free guided tours as you learn many personal Hemingway stories and so many interesting facts about the house. When we visited it was so crowded I wasn't able to get a good photo of the actual house so, here's a picture of a cat in Hemingway's master bedroom.
If you ever visit Key West I think these are four must visit places. Comment below or shoot me an email if you have any questions or want to know more information about one of the places listed!
A southern girl trying to make my dreams come true. My husband and I love to travel and go on new adventures--We love Jesus and the blessings He provides!