Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Road trip: Monterey and Carmel

November 30, 2012
jellyfish monterey aquarium

Start from the beginning of our motorcycle road trip.

One of the crazy things about traveling at the end of November in the Northern Hemisphere is it gets dark early and light late. We were tucked into bed by 6:30 every night, and weren't awoken by the sun until around 7:30. That's about 12 hours of sleep, compared to our usual seven or eight, which was fortunate because we lacked adequate caffeine among our rations. If you remember our last trip, I lauded car camping for making it possible to bring luxuries, most notably our stovetop espresso maker.

This time, there was no doubt that the coffeemaker wouldn't fit and we didn't have time to stock up on instant coffee before leaving. We did, however, have chocolate-covered espresso beans and a stroke of genius: Heat the milk, crush up the beans, and voilà, a mocha latte (after all, we had succeeded in making iced coffee in a wine glass in Argentina). But this was not fated to be one of our better ideas. We ended up with slightly flavored milk and much less of a caffeine buzz than if we had just eaten the beans. It was our last attempt at home-brewed coffee for the rest of the trip.
Farmland near our campsite

Caffeine-deprived, but functioning nonetheless, we boarded the bike for a quick 40-mile sprint to Monterey. We followed the signs to the aquarium, the main attraction in Monterey, where I discovered one of the biggest benefits of motorcycle travel: parking is a breeze. We pulled up in front of the aquarium and scooted the bike between two cars. No need to pay for the $10 lot, or even for a meter. Then we refueled at a touristy, but surprisingly tasty, diner and paid up to see the sea life.

We started in the kelp forest, explored the secret world of seahorses (creepy), marveled at jellyfish tentacles and hung out with Zuri the penguin, while trying not to run over too many little children. I was disappointed there weren't bigger sea animals, like seals.

fish kelp forest monterey aquarium
penguins monterey aquarium penguin monterey aquarium
jellyfish monterey aquarium anchovies monterey aquarium

I also came to the realization that I can't trust the LCD screen on my camera. Everyone was snapping photos of the jellyfish, most with their iPhones (Android might have a good market share in the rest of the country, but the Bay Area is Appleland). Watching this, I couldn't help but envy the sharp colorful photos they were taking, especially compared with the muted colors of mine. I wondered how a phone camera could take better (or at least equally good) photos as a digital SLR, until I remembered that I wasn't seeing the photos, just their representation on the screen. iPhone 5s have a retina display; my camera decidedly does not. iPhone users get instantaneous, gorgeous feedback when they take a photo; I just had to trust my camera (though I'm still impressed that the iPhones could handle the low light of the aquarium). I had fallen into this trap before. I love this photo I took in Argentina, but when I originally saw it on my camera, I couldn't understand why the colors were so washed out. It was only when I uploaded it on my computer that I could appreciate it. A good reminder to trust my camera, but not its screen.

Because there weren't any campsites nearby, we sprung for a motel in Monterey, which turned out to have a surprisingly nice bathroom and comfortable bed (for only $80!). We checked in and drove over to Carmel for some real coffee (finally!) and to see the town, which my grandmother called "a little piece of paradise."

ocean ave carmel california
carmel by the sea california

We watched our second sunset of the trip on the beach. The dogs seemed to be having the most fun.

pebble beach carmel ocean
surfing carmel beach
sunset beach carmel

We trusted Yelp for a dinner recommendation, which led us to Dametra Cafe. A small restaurant serving Mediterranean food and run by Jordanian and Syrian owners, it was a cute and delicious dinner spot. The other restaurants in town sounded pricey and mediocre, so we were thrilled to claim one of the last available tables. We even got free baklava at the end of our meal and enjoyed an unusual rosé made from Spanish Rioja grapes (accustomed to ordering rosés in Argentina, I translated rosé to rosado when ordering, without realizing it).

- Steph

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Road trip: San Francisco to Monterey Bay

sunset beach state park california

We're back from five glorious days of California cruising.

Our new Triumph America was calling to us — we had been enjoying weekend jaunts, but we were itching to get out for longer. Luckily, Thanksgiving (and a four-day weekend) came around.

Our itinerary:
Day 1: San Francisco to Monterey Bay
Day 2: Monterey and Carmel
Day 3: Big Sur
Day 4: Pinnacles National Monument
Day 5: Pinnacles to San Francisco

Traveling by motorcycle limits how much stuff we can bring. We have a pannier on each side of the bike, as well as a luggage rack on the back. We needed to fit: two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, a tent, the motorcycle cover, and five days of food and clothing. But we somehow managed, and at 10am on Thanksgiving morning, we hit the road.

We planned to go only 90 miles the first day figuring it would be slow-going. But the fabled San Francisco traffic never materialized and we reached Sunset Beach State Park by early afternoon.

Our lunch spot, along the way

triumph america motorcycle
Our bike, minus most of the luggage

With plenty of time to kill before dinner (even with the sun setting at 5pm this time of year), we headed down to the beach to read and enjoy the view.
birds beach state park route 1

The campground was full of families celebrating Thanksgiving, all with more elaborate set-ups than us. Most had giant, multi-room tents and/or RVs, as well as lawn chairs, charcoal grills and plenty of food. It seemed like a fun way to spend a holiday.

We had planned a Thanksgiving dinner of pasta and sausage (a meal we invented at a windy Patagonia campground) and after unpacking, made a trip to Safeway to supplement our meal with a bottle of white California wine. We watched the sun set as we ate, and were happily snuggled into our tent by 6pm.

sunset pacific highway california

- Steph

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An afternoon at the San Francisco Vintners Market

November 20, 2012

In Argentina, no one drinks anything but Argentine wine. When an American visitor once expressed surprised that we didn't drink any Chilean wines, we pointed out that no store stocks foreign wines. Now that we have relocated to California, the whole world of wine is available to us — all the way from nearby Napa to New Zealand, with varietals as common as Chardonnay to upstarts like Californian Tempranillo.

We have continued our tradition of recording and ranking all the wines we try. Since we are on a budget, we aim to spend about $10/bottle on average, about the equivalent of what we were spending in Argentina toward the end of our stay. Unfortunately 45-60 pesos is a much higher price point in Argentina than it is here. In Argentina we could enjoy good-quality Malbecs from top vineyards at that price; here we have mostly been drinking a fairly generic selection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

(Side note: I find it disappointing how few wines from Argentina we've found here, even at upscale stores. Most carry the same couple of Malbecs from the big vineyards, and nothing else, which is a shame because Argentina makes a lot of great wines.)

But we're trying to explore California wines, not find our favorites from Argentina, so we took two steps lately to expand our palates. First, we signed up for the WSJ wine club. For $90 we received 15 bottles of wine (it was supposed to be half white and half red, but an order mixup left us with 15 reds). Second, we attended a showcase of local wineries at the San Francisco Vintners Market.

Our $40 tickets gave us unlimited pours from the nearly 100 wineries in the main hall (for more money, you could buy a ticket to the reserve selection, but we weren't in the market for $100 bottles of wine). Knowing nothing about any of the wineries, we simply made our way in a circle around the perimeter of the room, trying two or three wines at each booth.

For the first hour, we progressed slowly, trying a fairly standard sampling of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. After a break for lunch, we decided to focus our efforts on wines that were either a) unusual or b) a good value. We had tried plenty of wines we liked, but at $25/bottle, we weren't going to take most of them home.

A few of our discoveries:

Gewurztraminer: The winery Aubin Cellars introduced us to this varietal, which is a typical wine of Alsace. The Verve Janka Gewürztraminer 2010 is a sweet floral wine. In contrast, we also tried a dry Gewurztraminer from Londer Vineyards in Anderson Valley, perfect for pairing for Thai food. We enjoyed both and are excited to go up to Anderson Valley in February for their Alsace Varietals Festival.

Vermentino: We bought a bottle of this traditionally Italian varietal from Bailiwick in Sonoma. Bailiwick says this about their 2011 Vermentino: "Lively and appetizing. A crisp bouquet of citrus and herbs is complemented by a lush mouthfeel of ideally ripe fruit, followed by brisk acidity at the finish." We're excited to try it with pesto.

Cabernet Franc: Bailiwick also made a Cabernet Franc that we enjoyed — it reminded us of the Gran Pulenta Cabernet Franc at Pulenta Estates in Mendoza. Cabernet Franc is common in blends, but isn't usually used as a single varietal, so we like to try it when we run into it.

Barbera: We purchased our second and final bottle from BellaGrace — a 2010 Barbera. According to Wikipedia, Barbera is the third most-planted red grape variety in Italy, known for its deep color, low tannins and high levels of acid. A workhorse table wine, perhaps, we liked the contrast to the reds we've been drinking and it stood out for us when considering what we wanted to take home.

Zinfandel: Though Zinfandel is one of the most common and famous varietals in California, we never drink it, perhaps put off by the scorn directed toward white Zinfandels. We greatly enjoyed the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel by BellaGrace, though we couldn't spring for a bottle.

Sparkling: Other than on Christmas Eve, I don't drink much champagne, but we both enjoyed the Prosecco-style sparkling Ca' Rosa and Ca' Secco wines from Ca'Momi Winery, which were less yeasty than traditional champagne.

Red blends: We were both surprised and impressed by the Troubadour red by Tayerle Wine, a blend of Grenache and Petite Sirah. But the winery wasn't listed on the official program, so we forgot to consider buying a bottle when we made our rounds at the end.

And talk about good marketing: The Clif Family Winery was selling their Zinfandel blend (63% Zinfandel, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 2% Merlot, 2% Petite Sirah) for $6, which made it stand out for us among the more expensive competition. We would happily buy a case of that wine for the price.

Cameron Hughes Winery: Another good value proposition, Cameron Hughes buys excess wine from producers and resells it for bargain prices. We were surprised to see a bottle of Torrontes, an almost exclusively Argentine grape with little international recognition, for $12. We also enjoyed a Napa Valley Meritage and a California Field Blend, though a rosé was nothing special.

A few final notes: We thought Calstar Cellars made an interesting Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir with a nice finish, we appreciated the earthy Pinot Noir from Bennet Valley by Cowan Cellars, as well as the Contessa de Carneros Pinot and the 2009 Pinot from Desmond Wines (much more than their newer bottles). We liked the Zinfandels from Dutcher Crossing Winery and Navarro Vineyards (though I have no specific tasting notes), as well as the Chardonnays from Dutcher Crossing and Tayerle. I have yet to warm up to Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, though Ben enjoyed a Riesling by Cutruzzola Vineyards (and I appreciated the smokiness of their Pinot Noir).

We rounded out our purchases with a bottle of freshly pressed olive oil from Cloud 9 Olivery.

In the end, we only visited about 25 of the 100 or so booths, which leaves us plenty to try at future events and on our upcoming weekend trips to wine country.

- Steph

Next trip: Heading south

November 15, 2012
We're foregoing a big turkey dinner for Thanksgiving this year and packing up our motorcycle instead for a five-day trip down the coast. We already went north in September (though we definitely want to revisit those roads on our motorcycle, rather than in a sedan) and it's too close to winter to tackle any mountain roads, so we're headed to Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur and Pinnacles National Monument.

We had to book our campsites in advance since it's a holiday weekend, so we tried to plan our route conservatively. The first day we'll drive three-fourths of the way to Monterey, figuring traffic will be heavy on Thanksgiving getting out of the city. The second day we're going to the aquarium in Monterey, visiting Carmel and splurging on a hotel room (there aren't many campsites around Monterey). Then we drive through Big Sur down to Limeklin State Park and start heading northeast the next day with some hiking at Pinnacles National Monument. Our longest day is 130 miles so we're hoping to have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

Ben did part of the drive on his '06 cross-country trip. Here are some of his photos:

monterey aquarium jellyfish
carmel beach sunset
carmel beach sunset birds
pacific highway big sur

- Steph

We bought a motorcycle!

November 11, 2012
My favorite mode of ground transportation is the motorcycle. I got my first bike (a '92 Honda Nighthawk 750) in 2005, rode around the US on that bike in 2006, then sold it (when it needed more repairs than it was worth) in 2009, and went bike-less for several years. Last year in Argentina, we rented a Harley Davidson Street Glide for an amazing eight-day trip across Argentina. Steph, who previously had no particular interest in motorcycles, got hooked at that point.

So naturally, moving to San Francisco - with endless roads and mountains to explore in the area, and weather that should allow almost year-round riding - it made sense to buy a motorcycle. Our apartment is also not particularly close to grocery stores, so a vehicle serves functional purposes. (And we didn't want to get a car.)

The basic requirements were: Big enough for two to comfortably ride with luggage, but not too big (like the Street Glide) to ride in the city; with an engine powerful enough for cruising (so thinking 900-1300cc's); and used, but not older than 2005.

We started the search at SF Moto in the city. Their staff was friendly, and they had a few bikes that fit the profile. But they didn't allow any test rides (“no one does test rides, it's impossible to get insurance”), and I wasn't going to buy a bike I had never ridden before.

I went in there thinking of getting a Japanese bike (Honda, Yamaha, or Kawasaki), but they had a Triumph Bonneville that piqued my interest, and the Japanese models I sat on seemed a little too big. So I left their store not with a bike, but with my search horizon broadened.

Triumph is a British manufacturer that started in 1886 and was a motorcycle trend-setter for decades. The 1959 Bonneville inspired a lot of motorcycle design, including the HD Sportster. In the early 80s, around the same time that Harley Davidson was struggling to compete with Japanese bikes and was saved by import tariffs, Triumph went into bankruptcy. The name and designs were bought, however, and the new company built a new Bonneville in 2001, looking like the original but completely re-engineered.

That first shop was wrong about no one allowing test rides, of course. Our next stop was a Harley Davidson dealer in Oakland that let us ride several models. Harleys are bikes with strong personalities. Their V-Twin engines are built to produce more vibration than necessary, producing their distinctive "potato-potato" sound. We tried a Sportster Custom 1200 that was "souped up" somehow by the previous owner, and it shook too much for comfort. (And it turned me off a little that the salesman didn't know what modifications had been made to it.) The smaller Sportster 883 is a nice one-person bike, but didn't seem right for two-up cruising. They didn't have other 1200s to try, and the bigger models were too big and/or too expensive, so we didn't buy a Harley.

Craigslist has tons of motorcycles in the area, and a 2010 Triumph America caught our eye. The America is sort of a spin-off from the Bonneville, with the same engine but a more American-style cruiser look. (The Speedmaster is another model in the family and looks almost identical.) This bike was north in Marin, so we took a bus there one evening, and rode it on some nice curvy roads. We liked the bike, but wanted to shop around a little more before committing for sure.

Next were two shops in Concord that had listed good models on Craigslist. We ended up only going to one, Ace Motorsports. They had a 2005 Triumph America there that we liked a lot. On paper it wasn't as nice as the 2010 model - it was carbureted instead of fuel-injected, and its engine was 790cc instead of 865cc. But the previous owner had modified it so the engine felt more powerful (the stock engine is a little "lethargic" and he had it jetted). Also, for whatever reason, the handling on the 2010 had felt a little slippery, but on the '05 felt really smooth.

2005 triumph america motorcycle

We rode the '05 America, and just to be sure we were on the right track, compared it to a 1300cc model from Honda, which had uncomfortably heavy handling. The Triumph just felt right. We negotiated a price that made it worth the difference with the 2010 model, and bought it!

That was last Saturday. I bought insurance the next day, and went after work on Tuesday (their next day open) to pick it up. Riding home on the freeway felt great. It doesn't have a ton of power - over 90 MPH it doesn't have much more to give - but it feels great at 75, and for our purposes (weekend rides and occasional multi-day trips) that should be fine.

We're waiting on a passenger backrest, luggage rack, and pannier rails to be shipped, to make it more comfortable for touring. Steph also bought a new helmet and gloves and ordered a jacket. (We're planning to take a four-day road trip for Thanksgiving, maybe to Big Sur, so hopefully we'll have all our gear by then.)

We rode yesterday evening a little south. Getting lost on the way back gave us an opportunity to have dinner in a new neighborhood, and we had a great Peruvian meal. Today we rode south on Skyline Blvd, to Route 1 (the coastal highway), down to Half Moon Bay (where we stopped for lunch), then back up route 92 to 280. It's great to be riding again!
half moon bay pacific highway
Still true to its original style - side by side with a 1938 Triumph Speed Twin:
old Triumph Speed Twin motorcycle2005 triumph america motorcycle

- Ben