Korbel Champagne Cellars

by Bob Hoelscher 7. June 2013 01:05

To my knowledge, every state now offers wineries, some great, some good, others not so much, a few of them just plain awful. But champagne production facilities worth visiting are few and far between, which is all the more reason to plan a visit to the renowned Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, Calif. This commercial attraction produces some of America’s best bubbly, readily available at stores nationwide. 

Nestled on beautiful grounds in a picturesque, out of the way setting in Sonoma County, Korbel offers a film and tours to show guests firsthand they create quality champagne. You’ll also taste the finished product without having to pay the $20 a head that other Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries regularly charge groups for a tour and tastings. 

Also free, when you’re in the neighborhood: You’ll find Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, one of California’s great parks, right up the road. The park preserves pristine forests of towering coastal redwood trees. Just park the coach and walk the Pioneer Trail to such massive specimens as the 310-foot high, 1300-year old “Parson Jones,” and the 308-foot-high, 1400-year old “Colonel Armstrong” trees.

Beautiful grounds and facilities at Korbel

Korbel's Champagne Tasting Bar

In the Neighborhood: Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

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Three favorite and free commercial attractions

The balancing act of travel

by Eliza Myers 19. July 2012 23:11

You never know how people are going to travel together until you hit the road with them, which is why I felt nervous about my husband’s first family vacation with my mom and brother to Yosemite National Park this spring. Although I had traveled with them individually, I was unsure if everyone’s travel styles would mesh well.

On the Mist Trail hike up to Vernal and Nevada falls, it became clear how their traveling preferences differed. Jeremiah is focused when hiking and likely to choose 12-mile trails going uphill the whole way. My mom and brother like to amble along shorter trails so they can stop to rest and examine less noticeable things like rock lichen.

One clue the hike felt overly taxing to my mother was when she nicknamed the 300 steps up to Vernal Falls as “the stone stairs of death.” After hearing this, I moved ahead and matched Jeremiah’s quick pace to check on him.

“We’re making good time. I think we can make it to the top of the Nevada Falls,” said Jeremiah, although we had previously agreed to only hike to the falls’ base.

“OK. How high of an elevation gain is that?,” I asked.

“Another 1,900 feet.”

“Right, so twice as high as we just walked?”

“Yeah, but we can walk up it quickly.”

Worried about how my mother would feel about this change in plans, I slowed down to see how she felt.

“I can’t feel my feet. It’s weird,” said Mom. “I can feel my legs, but they are really mad at me, so I wish I couldn’t.”

After these two varying accounts, I wasn’t sure what to suggest. How do you keep everyone happy when traveling? It is a trick group leaders have had to learn through years of experience. Group leaders have to master the art of meeting everyone’s travel expectations even though those can differ among people.

Fortunately for me, when Jeremiah learned my mom was tiring, he volunteered to only go to the base of the falls as agreed. He compromised as my mom and brother compromised to hike farther than they might have on their own. But once we got to the base of the magnificent Nevada Falls, everyone was satisfied. That’s the power of travel: Even when both sides concede things, one impressive view can make everyone 100 percent happy.

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Travel Thoughts

On the way to Yosemite: Coulterville, Calif.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:29

I know that the excitement of approaching Yosemite National Park can tend to block out thoughts of stops along the way, no matter how attractive they might be. But the small town of Coulterville is such a picturesque, interesting and unspoiled reminder of California’s famed Gold Rush that it surely merits your consideration if you are traveling to the park from Manteca or Modesto on CA 120 or 132, or from Merced on CA 140.  Located 10 miles south of Moccasin, Coulterville has somehow managed to elude the commercialism that now characterizes such other (but still very interesting) Gold Rush towns as Jamestown, Sonora and Angels Camp.

Coulterville (population 200) is the real thing; so don’t expect everything here to be neat and freshly painted. The historic Hotel Jeffery is pretty much the center of town, and is about as close of a throwback to the “Old West” that one is likely to encounter in 2012.  The Hotel Jeffery has a large, quite charming dining room, which is the place in town for a group lunch. However, don’t miss the opportunity to also at least see the hotel’s adjacent and highly traditional Magnolia Saloon, if you don’t also decide to “belly up to the bar” for a cold one. Using the hotel as a base, everything else worth seeing in Coulterville is within easy walking distance.

Right across the highway (surely not a heavily traveled route) is the Northern Mariposa County History Center. Although I have explored more than my share of dusty old museums with little to spark my interest, this facility, contained in two adjoining historic buildings, definitely does not fall into that category. The museum contains quite a few fascinating (and largely dust-free) exhibits on the Gold Rush and area pioneers, including a detailed scale model of the original Coulterville Hotel. 

Adjacent to the History Center is the small, narrow-gauge steam engine “Whistling Billy,” dating from 1897, as well as a properly weathered sign explaining the origins and history of the town, originally called Banderita in 1850 when George W. Coulter opened his store here. On the opposite side of the highway, and down the street from the Hotel Jeffery, are several interesting shops, a couple of general stores, a “Bed & Breakfast” and varied other enterprises offering selections of obviously well-worn items.  Be assured that you are not likely to mistake any of these establishments for emporiums that could be found in Beverly Hills, but you are not likely to find me in Beverly Hills, either!

 Magnolia Saloon in the historic Hotel Jeffery

Model of the original Coulterville Hotel in the Northern Mariposa County History Center

Unique shopping opportunities

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On the way to the park

Wineries of Mendocino County

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:51

This spring I was fortunate to spend a week in Mendocino County, roughly a two-hour drive north of the San Francisco Bay area. If this is not the single most beautiful county in the U.S., it is certainly high on the list.

Although an area frequently overlooked on California tours simply because the Golden State has so many well-known attractions, Mendocino is well worth a multi-night stay. The area is not only sure to reward group travelers with an exceptional vacation experience, but one that is much more “laid back” than found amidst the bustle of the big cities.

As one arrives in Mendocino, one immediately notices that the highway traffic is now substantially reduced, the passing vineyards and wineries appear to be less overtly commercial and the scenic vistas surrounding them have grown substantially more impressive. With 95 winemakers and grape growers, the county bills itself as “America’s Greenest Wine Region.”

The winemakers I met in Mendocino stressed that their industry has now reached the point where Napa and Sonoma were about 25 or 30 years ago with mostly family-owned facilities and recent discovery by wine connoisseurs worldwide. Even though tours and tastings are just as readily available here, the atmosphere greeting the visitor is demonstrably more friendly and less rushed (as well as less expensive) than one finds frequently to the south. In fact, I found that employees at several vineyards, evidently quite proud of Mendocino’s unhurried pace and genuine hospitality, even referred to Napa Valley as the “Disneyland of the Wine Industry” in comparison. Whether or not that is an accurate description, the wineries of Mendocino are without question as attractive and picturesque, if not more so, than any I have seen anywhere in the world.

Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery

Handley Cellars

Navarro Vineyards & Winery

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Marvelous Mendocino County

Visiting Mendocino’s redwoods

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:48

I have found that one of life’s most humbling and least expensive pleasures is simply a walk under the canopy of majestic trees in a great forest, enhanced by the sounds of native birds and rushing streams. And while forests of the skyscraping firs and cedars of the Pacific Northwest run a close second, nothing equals a stroll through the towering coastal redwoods or massive giant sequoias found in California.

Although not as well known as Del Norte County’s redwoods, Mendocino County also offers a number of spectacular redwood groves for the visitor to explore. Among these are Hendy Woods and Mendocino Woodlands State Parks, as well as Montgomery Woods, Maillard Redwoods and Smithe Redwoods State Reserves. Unfortunately, some of these sites are a bit difficult for a full-sized motorcoach to access, plus California is currently in the process of closing quite a few of its lesser-utilized state parks due to budget woes.    

The good news is that there are two outstanding redwood forest areas in Mendocino County that are ideal for group visits. The first is free and definitely cannot be closed, since CA 128 runs right smack through the middle of Navarro River Redwoods State Park for almost 12 miles. This incredible, awe-inspiring scenic drive is every bit the equal of the famed “Avenue of the Giants” further north. 

Visitors will certainly want to pause at several of the many turnouts available along the way in order to delve even deeper into the forest on foot. Continuing east, past the park on 128, also leads to the lush Anderson Valley wine and fruit-producing region. Don’t miss it, if your tour is in the neighborhood! 

The second ideal opportunity for a redwood experience is into Jackson State Forest via the renowned “Skunk Train,” which departs both from Fort Bragg (drawn by a historic steam engine) from the west, and Willits (aboard classic diesel motorcars) from the east. Narration on these daily summer excursions is provided en route with a stop for lunch and exploring in the heart of the redwoods. Incidentally, the bad-smelling fuel that earned the train its unusual name back in the 1920s, happily, is no longer utilized.

Navarro River Redwoods State Park

CA Highway 128 in Navarro River Redwoods State Park

Skunk Train in Jackson State Forest

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Marvelous Mendocino County

The magnificent Mendocino Coast

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:44

Two hours north of the San Francisco Bay area lies the Mendocino Coast in Mendocino County. Although there are splendid coastal views further south in Sonoma and Marin Counties, the truly memorable scenic drive that stretches from Gualala to Rockport offers unsurpassed views of the blue Pacific Ocean as it meets the rocky shoreline and cliffs of the California Coast. 

Along the way are many state parks, beaches and reserves, picturesque communities like Mendocino, Point Arena, Manchester, Little River, Fort Bragg and Westport. Two historic lighthouses can be visited at Point Arena and Point Cabrillo, which is a State Historical Park with free entry. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, including at the formal floral displays of lovely Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. 

Architecture in such towns as Little River, Mendocino and Fort Bragg reflects that of Coastal New England, which was the origin of many of the area’s early settlers. In Fort Bragg, the Guest House Museum boasts an impressive Victorian mansion, built in 1892 by a lumber king who became the city’s first mayor.

In addition to numerous inns and interesting shops all along the coast, first-class lodging is readily available at group-friendly properties convenient to the “Skunk Train” depot in Fort Bragg, as well as in Ukiah for those preferring to make a day trip “loop” from inland. Regardless of how the trip is planned, however, I’d suggest at least a three-night stay in order to take advantage of the major attractions that Mendocino County has to offer. With the addition of two or three nights in the San Francisco Bay area, group leaders can construct a wonderfully varied trip that their travelers are certain to recall fondly for many years to come.

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”.  

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.

Village of Mendocino

Wildflowers and Rocky Coastline

The Pounding Pacific Surf

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Marvelous Mendocino County

From Morro Bay to Monterey on Big Sur

by Eliza Myers 31. May 2012 23:33

I looked and looked, but the view at McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer State Park did not feel real. The impossible beauty I beheld had to be part of some highly imaginative dream. Or I had been suddenly whisked up to heaven. Since neither of those seemed true, I had to accept the most likely scenario: I had fallen into a screen saver picture.

The little cove’s rocky cliffs, hills blanked with colorful flowers and 80-foot waterfall that flows into bright turquoise waters is unbelievably gorgeous. I knew I had found my new mental happy place. This breathtaking view stood out among numerous other immaculate vistas along the Big Sur route that goes up the coastal Highway One from Morro Bay to Monterey.

The elephant seals agree that this coast is pretty close to paradise. For April and May, the Piedras Blancas beach is covered with hundreds of female and juvenile elephant seals.

For a second, I entertained the horrifying idea that the elephant seals laying along the beach may all be dead from their absolute lack of movement. However, I soon learned that these seals were only very, very tired. Apparently months of hunting and giving birth in the ocean really tires you out. They hardly budged except to nestle further in the sand and the occasional sparring (play fighting). Some seals seeking an ocean swim would move a couple of feet toward the water before having to stop and take a short nap before moving again.

Along with elephant seals, I spotted harbor seals, sea lions, incredibly cute sea otters and two humpback whales on a whale watching trip in Monterey. The whales became an immediate trip highlight for me, since I had always wanted to see a whale in the wild after watching hours of National Geographic shows on these giant creatures. Watching them play next to the boat and occasionally look at us with curiosity was more than I ever hoped for.

Saying goodbye to the coast was difficult, but I took with me the ability to close my eyes and picture McWay Cove any time of day.

All photos by Jeremiah Myers

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Yosemite, Big Sur and Whale Watching

Yosemite National Park

by Eliza Myers 31. May 2012 22:26

While stopping a minute to look up the endless stone steps cut into the cliff’s side, I felt certain the upcoming Vernal and Nevada waterfalls would be worth the climb. I knew this not just because of the occasional glimpses of the powerful Vernal Falls, but also because I was standing in a rainbow.

Wind blasts Vernal Falls’ spray far down the mountain, giving the Yosemite hike the name Mist Trail. It felt like a sideways downpour, although looking up revealed only blue skies. The wind-blown water produced vibrant rainbows that appeared to follow me up the trail.

The sublime waterfall views that followed are typical of Yosemite. Everywhere you turn is larger-than-life scenery too magnificent to believe. You might spend twenty minutes soaking up the majesty of a waterfall before turning around and spying a towering dome filling the skies.

My favorite view, Glacier Point, allowed me to look at the landscape seemingly from the top of the world. Many of the domes, waterfalls and valleys of Yosemite lay before me in a dazzling vista waiting to be explored.

After four days of hiking every trail I could, I had already made plans to return some day. I can’t feel totally satisfied I’ve seen it all in Yosemite till I’ve climbed every mountain and looked up every waterfall.

All photos by Jeremiah Myers

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Yosemite, Big Sur and Whale Watching

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