California and Texas – September 2020

And now we’re getting into Covid times…

This trip was supposed to be to Japan.  I had held out hope we would be able to make the trip, but it was pretty clear that wasn’t happening not too long after the pandemic started.  We also had to cancel a trip to Napa in March with friends for a wedding.  That was a big bummer on many accounts.

Mid to late summer, things were looking up on the Covid front.  Some travel had started back up.  Our vacation time is use it or lose it, so we’d be taking time off either way.  I was interested in finding something for Alyce and I to do that was more outdoor focused and preferably not in a big city.  We had about two weeks to work with.  Just the two of us had not gone on a vacation since our 2017 South America trip, so we were due.

My first plan was Hawaii.  They were set to reopen to American tourism on September 1, and it seemed like a good Covid option.  Not to mention, they have some nice Hyatts at which I’d be able to put my globalist status and points stash to use.

But mid-August, it became apparent that they were unlikely to re-open for September.  [They did not.]

Back to the drawing board.  I looked at Alaska, but it would be late in the year for that trip.  I considered some combination of Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, and Glacier National Park.  Those too were later than ideal in the year (though less so than Alaska) and had some Covid closures.  Plus they were an easier trip that we may want to bring James to one day.

California seemed like the answer.  We could do Big Sur, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.  They were good options in consideration of Covid, and again we could stay in nice Hyatt resorts.

Next…bring on the wildfires!  Let me clarify, rescheduling a vacation is nothing compared to the devastation caused to Californians by the fires.  I absolutely do not intend to give even the slightest indication otherwise.  Still, rescheduling the vacation yet again was getting old by this point.  We weren’t sure which – if any – of the destinations would be available or worthwhile to go to.  Additionally, it could vary greatly week to week.  So all we could do was monitor closely.

A week or so out, it became obvious that Yosemite was not happening – and Lake Tahoe too.  We were holding out hope to still do Big Sur with something else but had back up plans as well.

Things worked in our favor, and it looked like Big Sur would be ok to travel to.  It was, and smoke was a complete non issue.  

On top of that, the Miraval in Austin had a sale that made it incredibly cheaper than usual on points (buy one get one and a 25% rebate).  If we would ever go to this type of resort, now was the time.

So the trip was set. And while it was much different than the initially planned Japan trip and all the iterations since then.  It was a much needed relaxing trip for just Alyce and I.  We’d spend 4 nights at the Ventana Alila Big Sur (also taking advantage of the points rebate) and 4 nights at the Miraval Austin.

Day 1 (Big Sur)

Big Sur is a national park to the south of San Francisco (and south of the closer cities of Monterey and Carmel by the Sea).  Sur is Spanish for south, so they were extra creative when the area was named Big Sur.

We had been to this area before in 2015 and really enjoyed it.  That time we stayed closer to Carmel than in the actual park (they’re about a 45 minute drive apart).  This time we were staying in Big Sur.

Our flight there was to Monterey on United through Denver.  Flying into Monterey saved us an hour or two of driving compared to the bay area.  With the time zone change, we were scheduled to arrive a little before lunch. 

The flight went off without issue.  If anything, flying and the airports were much calmer and more pleasant than in normal times.  You have to wear a mask, but it’s really not bad.

I rented a car through Avis and getting it took no time at MRY.  I wanted to stop at a wine tasting in Carmel Valley “on the way” – though it was really a 20 minute or so detour.  Still, it was much less out of the way than it would be to get to later.  And who doesn’t want to kick off a trip with a wine tasting?

We went to Joyce, and it had table spaced out in a courtyard.  A server would come out and pour the different wines.  As with most things on the trip (and life at this point), it was different and little weird with all the Covid stuff.  That said, I don’t recall anything on the trip being overly burdensome because of Covid.

We bought some bottles to bring to the hotel, and set off for the Ventana.

The Ventana is set up off HWY 1 more in the mountains.  You have great views of the ocean and are surrounded by mountainous forests.  It is all inclusive (meals).  We used points which was an incredible value – even without the 25% rebate promotion.  To put it bluntly, there was no way I’d pay the cash rates for our room here.  Our room (which was a nice suite) would have costs something like $13,000 for the 4 nights.  Crazy!  But there are plenty of people with lots of money within a reasonable drive of the area…So I guess someone is paying it.  [I just checked, and the rates are a little more reasonable looking in the near future…4 nights in our room would only be $9000 now.]

That said, the hotel was in an incredible spot and a fantastic place to stay.  With the rates they charge, I figured the food would be good.  It exceeded our expectations.  My only complaint was that the menu could have used a little variety.  You could also get whatever room service you wanted.  We had a couple meat and cheese boards delivered to our room, which we enjoyed on our porch.

Speaking of the room, it was a good size and a nice layout.  It also had a porch with a hot tub.  The room was fine, but you come here for the location, scenery, and overall resort.

We checked in and made our way to the room.  It was still lunch service time, and we had gotten a bit hungry by this point.  We made the call to walk to the pool and have a late lunch.  As would be the case with most of the food, lunch was surprisingly good.  Fantastic setting too.

After lunch, we unpacked, hung out, and drank some wine while relaxing and waiting to go eat dinner. 

Dinner is at the main restaurant a 10 minute or so walk down a trail through the woods.  It’s a well-lit, easy path – but a walk nonetheless.  If you don’t want to walk, they can bring you in a golf cart, but the walk is pleasant.  We made the walk every time and most other people seemed to as well.  Breakfast is in the restaurant as well.

All the dining tables were outside.  In normal times, you can dine inside as well (and I think they take non-hotel diners).  Once at your table, you could remove your mask.  I had read it was very cold a month earlier, but for our trip it was mostly fine with maybe a cool night or two.

It was a cool setting at night (though you miss the views if you get there after dark).  The food was really well executed and creative.  There were only 3 protein entrees to choose from.  They were all good, but I think some additional variety or rotations would be good.  We were fine with our 4 nights, but it might get old on longer stays.

The walk back after dinner was pleasant, and we called an end to our first day.

Day 2 (Big Sur)

We were sure to not miss breakfast any day we were here – though, honestly, that is the case just about anytime we have restaurant breakfast included.  The food was consistently good, but more importantly the setting was awesome (in the true sense of the word).  Just about everyday, we had a table looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

The plans for our first full day were to hit some favorites from our previous trip – Point Lobos and Carmel by the Sea.

First up was Point Lobos, which had reopened a month or so before our trip following a Covid closure.  The park is obviously 100% outside.  You really didn’t pass people too often either.  The rule was to wear a mask if you were going to be within 6 feet of someone.  I put it on occasionally, but not too much.

We spent a good bit more time in the park on this go and did a lot of the trails.  It has some elevation changes but is nothing too difficult.  I’d say on the scenery vs difficulty scale, i.e. you get some great scenery for not an overly difficult hike.

After a couple hours, it was time to return to our car and head to Carmel.  Parking in Carmel was easy with a good sized free lot.  It could be more crowded on the weekend, but I don’t remember having trouble on our last trip either.

We walked one of the main streets and then made our way down to the beach.  Getting to the beach was pretty easy, but you’re a fool if you don’t note the obviously downhill walk.  I knew coming back up was going to be a beast.

We walked most of the beach and hung out for little bit.  It must be nice to have such a pretty beach right next to your town.  California has its issues, but every time we go out there I get the appeal.

The walk up was as strenuous as expected.  We had each broke a bit of a sweat by the time we made it up.  Having to do at least one tasting while in Carmel, we set off for Silvestri.

Silvestri is a winery owned by notable film composer Alan Silvestri.  We had been previously and enjoyed the wine/experience.

With Covid restrictions, all tastings were outside.  Two other couples were at the two available tables and were really taking their precious time.  We set off to look at souvenirs.  Alyce went in one shop and did her normal can’t decide routine.  Eventually, she settled on a shirt.

The other couples were still at Silvestri when we got back.  The lady doing the tastings apologized and said they would not leave.  She eventually had to shoo them off.  This is a situation where a little self awareness goes a long way.  Other people were waiting as well.

The tasting was enjoyable again.  We bought a couple bottles and were pretty stocked up.  I figured we’d have some left to check in our luggage and bring to Austin with us, which ended up being the case.

We got back to the hotel and ordered a charcuterie plate to enjoy on our porch.  The meats and cheeses were good quality; we really enjoyed having this snack with some wine at our room.

After some relaxation, we had another good dinner at the restaurant and called it a day.

Day 3 (Big Sur)

After another great breakfast, we hung around and decided to catch the guided tour of the property offered every day.  It was us and another couple on the tour.  The guide actually was from New Orleans, so that was an unique connection on a trip with mostly Californians.

The tour was interesting.  We learned about the redwoods, other plants, mushrooms, and the property.  Definitely worthwhile if it fits in your schedule, but I would not plan a day around it.

Following the tour, we set off for Pfiefer Big Sur State Park.  Some of the hotel workers had recommended a hike, and we were going to give it a shot.

The trail was called Buzzard’s Lookout (or something like that) trail.  It was listed as moderate difficulty.  Finding the entrance took a second, but we eventually located it and set off.

While I agree that it was probably “moderate” in terms of difficulty – there was no climbing or anything legitimately difficult, the trail was way more strenuous than expected.  It had something like 1200 feet of elevation gain, which doesn’t really mean much to people from New Orleans where the highest point is 43’ above sea level.  Really, that’s it.

Turns out, climbing 1200’ up the side of a mountain will wear your butt out.  It brought back memories of the cave hike in New Zealand.  We made it without stopping but were pretty exhausted by the top, as most other people looked to be too.

After that, we were set for the day with hikes.  I would have liked to go to Pfiefer Beach, but it was still closed for fire concerns.

The rest of our day ended pretty similarly to the previous one: wine/meat/cheese on our porch, relaxing at the room (we even tried the hot tub), and enjoying dinner.

Day 4 (Big Sur)

Breakfast was enjoyable again.  Following that, we spent some time catching up on things in the room – a little work for me, Miraval Austin activities for both of us, etc.

It was also the opening day of SEC football.  LSU was playing at 12:30 (with the time change).  We were coming off one of the best seasons in history and playing perennial door mat, Mississippi State.  I figured we wouldn’t even have to watch the whole game.  Oops…

Oh well, the team earned some hiccups with the accomplishments of the previous year.  They used every bit of them.  After the game, I walked around the property some more and took pictures. 

Dinner was earlier this night (6:30) in an effort to catch the sunset.  We did, and it was worth the effort for a night.  Afterwards, we went back to the room and started to pack up.

Day 5 (Texas)

In what was a bit of a bummer, we had to leave before breakfast was served.  The drive to Oakland airport was about 2.5 hours.  It wasn’t bad, and flying out of Oakland allowed us to catch a direct flight to Austin on Southwest.

Returning the rental, checking in, and the flight were all without issue.  Arrival and getting the car in Austin (also from Avis) were the same.

The drive to the Miraval from Austin was only 30 minutes, but it seemed much farther as you went from busy city to quiet lake and hills.  At checkin, they printed out our schedule and gave us a tour.  The property was impressive, though not as much so as the Ventana – but that is an unfair bar for almost everywhere.  Still, it did not feel like you were in Texas to me with the green hills, mild weather, and lake views.

This stop would be all about the activities…It’s basically an away summer camp for adults.  You get an allotment of funds as part of your reservation to spend on activities.  Many of the simpler ones are free; some aren’t.  Alyce probably would have spent it all at the spa, but she wanted to do some stuff with me – and I’m not really a spa guy.

Food here was good too, though not as good as Ventana.  One thing it definitely had in its favor was a rotating menu.  There were a bunch of things to try and most of it was relatively healthy.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all included with the room and at the site restaurant.  The had a mix of inside and outside tables.  We ate outside for just about every meal.

After making it to the room, Alyce had to set off for a yoga class.  I walked the property to get my bearings on where everything was and got a coffee at the café.

As mentioned previously, all the meals were good.  I won’t talk too much about them.  One interesting thing about the meals and activities was scoping out the other people.  Most were from Texas (Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth).  The majority of people were friendly and normal, but there were some interesting birds mixed in.

After dinner, we went back to the room and caught most of the Saints Sunday night game.

Day (6) Texas

The day started somewhat early with breakfast.  Following that we had two tours at “the farm.”  First was the mushroom experience.  Despite how that may sound, we were in fact not transported to another dimension courtesy of mushrooms.  Instead, we learned about cultivating mushrooms and some of their many interesting uses.  Sidebar: there has been some really interesting research in regards to mushrooms…count me in as someone who believes they have potent uses that we have not yet come close to maximizing.  That said, our tour guide was super in to mushrooms.  She was very knowledgeable, and her enthusiasm for fungus was undeniable.  Overall, the tour was interesting and we learned some new things. 

The rest of our group headed back to the hotel grounds, but we stayed at for the horse class.  The hose experience involved meeting the horses, grooming them, and leading them around an obstacle course.  I think the point was to teach self awareness and relationship building…Ehh, I don’t know.  Whatever, we got to hang with horses, which was fun.  Alyce and I did well with the horses, then we switched horses… the same crew that struggled, struggled again – vice versa for the successful ones.   I know enough to know I’m not a horse whisperer, but I think confidence and command were a big thing to getting the horses to do what you want.  If they think there is an option, they’ll do what they feel like.   Again, I don’t know that I gained any new perspective (or that I needed to based on the success in the class), but horses are impressive animals…and I’ll gladly spend time with them.

Following the horses, we ate lunch and had a quick class scheduled of…slackline?

My knowledge of slackline consisted of when it was covered in an episode of the office.  But really, how hard could walking across a semi-taught flat line be?  Yeahhh…harder than you’d expect. 

It’s all about balance and core strength.  I’m decent with that; Alyce is very good.  Our class was full of pretty fit people.  We had one line and you took turns getting up and trying it out.  Felt like we were back in middle school.  I was ok at this activity, and Alyce was one of the better ones in the class.  It was fun and challenging.  You want to keep getting back on and going at it. 

To close out the afternoon, I wanted to try a Texas winery.  Why not?  We were there, and I always ask who doesn’t want to do a wine tasting.  We drove to Spicewine Vineyards, which took about 45 minutes. 

They seated us right away and had a glass of wine for us shortly thereafter.  This experience was reminiscent of our first trip to Napa – plenty of different wines, heavy pours, and a reasonable fee.  I wish Napa was still like that.  The wines…were good, but not as good as the prices being charged.  They were competing against some pretty good wine options in the $40 – $80 range.

We drove back then caught dinner and watched TV before going to bed.

Day 7 (Texas)

Breakfast was early, as Alyce had a morning full of classes – yoga, drumming by the pool, etc.  Me…not so much.  I caught up with some lingering work issues.

But the afternoon plans were something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: Franklin BBQ.  It’s probably the most famous BBQ joint in the country.  Usually, there is an excessive wait to eat, but orders were only available via a well organized takeout system – i.e., no waiting.  I also have learned many of my BBQ techniques from Franklin’s books and videos.

The downside (arguably upside?) was that there was a 3 lb minimum order.  That’s a lot of BBQ for two people.  We got the brisket, pulled pork, and sausage.  It was very good.  It was better than what I can work up at home, but not impossibly so.  The main thing is how consistently good they are day after day by all accounts.  I’ll have a good brisket, then an ok one, then a fantastic one, and on and on.  They’ve narrowed it down to a science. 

After devouring nearly all of our 3lbs of smoked meat, it was time to take it easy.  I lounged around the room, and Alyce cashed in her spa day.  About an hour before she was set to finish, I filled up my coffee mug full of rose wine (a specialty of mine) and went and sat out by the pool overlooking the lake next to the spa waiting for Alyce to finish.

She wrapped up and seemed to very much enjoy it.  We ate dinner and called it an evening.

Day 8 (Texas)

Still somewhat full from our BBQ lunch for 8, we decided to skip breakfast. Our first class of the day was chicken keeping.

Following the chickens, we had archery – and it was a favorite of mine.  Alyce enjoyed it too.  It was right up my alley.  While I didn’t set the curve on the slackline, I don’t think it’s bragging to say I was the most accurate with the bow in our class.  I still would like to get one for home.

Following archery, we had a preserve hike, which was guided by the archery instructor.  They walked us around the property and pointed a bunch of stuff out.  Overall, it was worth the effort…but maybe struggled a bit compared to Big Sur.  Again, a tough comparison for most places.

After the hike, we ate lunch and the went to our hatchet throwing class.  It was fun – who doesn’t like hurling sharp objects at a wood board.  Our class group had some people who were obviously there to get out some frustrations of life, which was…quite entertaining.

That was the end of our scheduled activities.  The rest of the day consisted of an early dinner, relaxing in the room, and catching a couple episodes of Succession – which was our show of the trip and is fantastic.

Day 9 (Texas and home)

The only non-stop flight to New Orleans from Austin did not leave until late in the day, so we had some time to kill.  Fortunately, we could check out at 4:00 from my Globalist status.  That also gave us plenty of time to do morning classes. 

We started the day with a lazy morning and the “Hive mind” bee-keeping class at the farm.  I’m glad we did it, as we both enjoyed it and now want to get some bees.  Still evaluating the logistics of our neighborhood bees along with the archery range…

We had ample time to pack and eat lunch, along with sneaking in one more class – rock climbing with our same instructor from archery and the hike.  We were on the fence about doing it but were glad we did.  It was just the two of us, and that was fine.  We both were successful on each climb, so that was a win for sure.  But make no mistake, it wore you out.  And I highly doubt this was an overly difficult setup.

With the late flight, we had some time left to shower and conclude any packing before checking out.

The ride to the airport, rental car return, and flight back were easy enough and without issue.

Concluding Thoughts

All the replanning aside, this was a great trip.  It had been nearly 3 years since Alyce and I traveled on our own.  We obviously love James, and he is the focus of our lives – but a trip alone is nice every now and then.  

California is awesome.  We always have great trips.  I’m not saying I want to move there, but we’ve yet to have a disappointing trip to California.  And this was #6 to various destinations in it.

Big Sur and the Ventana were fantastic as well.  Being that the main draw to the area is scenery and nature, we were worried about the effect of the fires.  It ended up being a complete non-event for us.  This was lucky as that was not always the case for travelers before and after us.

The Ventana was great as well.  We loved our stay, but I would not pay cash to stay there.  The Hyatt Highlands Inn is 20% of the cost and a fine hotel in its own right.  I guess it’s a personal call depending on your budget…but that’s a serious premium.

Austin Hill Country was not on the table until something like Rev. 5 of the trip, but it ended up working out just fine.  I was worried the Miraval would be a little too weird/self-helpy.  It was not.  I guess, you could find that if you were looking for it.  But, most of the people there were normal people looking for a break.

Miraval is another place I would not pay cash to stay at.  It comes in at the bargain price of $8500 for a 4 night trip.  We paid like 80,000 points after all promotions – a fantastic bargain.  That said, it was a nice stay, and I think most would enjoy it.

I’d like to make it back to the area and experience Austin proper at some point.  We didn’t venture into town much because of Covid.  Speaking of which, outside of wearing a mask, our trip was not negatively affected much by the novel coronavirus.  Of course, it was always present, but we did mostly what we wanted.

Weird times and all, we made the trip work.  That’s what counts.  We’ll remember it for the unique times and perseverance to make something happen.

2021?  Japan is back on the schedule.  Hawaii too.  Fingers crossed.

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