Idyllwild

Of Southern California’s major mountain towns, the smallest and most isolated is Idyllwild. Other notable mountain destinations like Wrightwood, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, and their various neighboring localities all have much to offer, from skiing and snowboarding to lakeside activities and boating, but what sets Idyllwild apart is that is doesn’t have much of any of these to offer. There’s so much less to do in Idyllwild, in the best possible way.

Straddling Highway 243 in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild has been popular travel destination since the 1890s, but it was once the summer time home for native bands of Cahuilla Indians who migrated to the area to escape the summer heat of the desert valleys below. With summertime temperatures peaking in the mid 90s, the cooler mountain air is a welcome relief.

The locality that most visitors would call Idyllwild is actually several neighboring communities, each with its own personality and charm, though the largest and most central of them all is Idyllwild. The others include Pine Cove, Fern Valley, Mountain Center, and Garner Valley. The majority of these “Hill Communities” are mostly residential, but they have their destinations and their charm. But in general, it’s acceptable to group them into one destination which, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call Idyllwild.

There’s not a lot to do in Idyllwild. There’s no skiing, unless you enjoy cross-country skiing on dozens of miles of marked trails. And there’s no boating, unless you enjoy the 470 acres of pristine alpine lake and 12 miles of shoreline on Lake Hemet, stocked with rainbow trout and catfish. And there’s not much for entertainment, unless you enjoy world-renowned jazz artists appearing annually at the Jazz in the Pines Festival, or the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. And the rock climbing really isn’t great, unless you love massive big-wall climbs on Suicide Rock and legendary Lily Rock (also known as Tahquitz Rock), second only to Yosemite in the west. And the hiking, well there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. Just one. At 10,834 feet, the view from San Jacinto Peak was described  by John Muir as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” Its north escarpment rises over 10,000 vertical feet in elevation in over just 7 horizontal miles, and is one of the sharpest elevation gains in the contiguous US. But still, there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. So I guess the question is, why even bother going to Idyllwild?

Lily Rock above Idyllwild

There’s shopping at countless quaint boutiques and shops, offering everything from antiques and home-made arts and crafts, to fine works of local art. And speaking of art, the arts community in Idyllwild is one of the finest in the region, bolstered by the Idyllwild Arts Academy, a world-recognized college-preparatory institute for education in the arts. Dozens of fine art galleries and studios featuring works in a variety of media to suite any taste color the community with a cultural richness and an artistic sophistication rarely seen in a town of this size.

The lodging choices are surprisingly diverse. Choose from any of the 20 or more local properties, with options ranging from bed and breakfasts, cabin rentals, and lodges, to sophisticated hotel properties with a full suite of services and luxury amenities. Most offer excellent rates, especially for non-peak weekends. Favorite spots include the Grand Idyllwild Lodge for luxury accommodations including private decks and in-house spa facilities, the Silver Pines Lodge for secluded cabins and a comfortable, homey feel, the Idyllwild Inn for themed rooms and a variety of studio, 1-room, 2-room, and 3-room cabins for any party size, just steps away from the most popular shopping and dining areas in town, and the Fern Valley Inn to get away from it all and relax in any of the 10 comfortable cottages. Most properties offer in-room fireplaces, and many of the lodges and cabin rentals welcome pets.

For those with simpler tastes in lodging, there are a dozen or so public and private campgrounds offering everything from primitive camping to RV resorts with pull-through sites and full hookups. Idyllwild County Park has a large number of wilderness and developed campsites which are open to the public, and private resorts like Thousand Trails offer a larger selection of amenities, and membership is not required to make a reservation.

Strawberry Creek through Idyllwild in Winter

The dining options are nearly as diverse as the lodging choices. Cafe Aroma is an Italian focused bistro on North Circle Drive. La Casita also on North Circle has excellent Mexican food. The Red Kettle in the center of town offers hearty breakfast classics and sandwiches, but isn’t open for dinner, and Mile High Cafe on Highway 243 at Saunders Meadow Road has many of those same classics, in a slightly less rustic, slightly more polished setting, and has a dinner menu as well.

The Gastrognome in the center of town is an Idyllwild standard for more sophisticated dining, and offers well-prepared American fare with a focus on fresh seafood, chops, and steaks. And the bread is legendary. The setting is refined but comfortable, and the service is without reproach. Fratello’s Ristorante offers authentic interpretations of traditional Italian pasta and meat dishes, along with wood-fired pizzas. The selection of red wines is ample, and includes a notable range of Italian and California wines.

Of course for many visitors, the best places to eat are more casual. I’ve been eating at Idyllwild Pizza Company for as long as I can remember. They make a great pie, and they’ve got a respectable selection of Southern California craft beers on tap. And speaking of local craft beer, in the same parking lot is the Idyllwild Brew Pub, a delightfully current food and drink place, with a large selection of beers made in-house, along and the most well-stocked bar in town. The menu is elevated pub food, excellent salads, and some surprising desserts. Standouts include the calamari sandwich on a hoagie roll with shaved cucumber and ponzu mayonnaise, and the bread pudding smothered in bourbon caramel sauce. It’s an easy walk back from the Brew Pub to your cozy cabin at the Idyllwild Inn.

One of Idyllwild’s biggest attractions– literally– is the trees. Most of the massive Jeffrey Pines that once covered the mountains were felled in logging operations in the early 1900s. There are still a few remaining Jeffreys dating from the pre-logging era, mostly those specimens which were not suitable for lumber due to their twisting, spiral trunks. Many of those survivors are now absolutely massive. You can tell them by their bright orange bark and staggering size. Smell the trunks and you’ll find a sweet, alluring vanilla scent.

The mountainsides have all but been reforested in the intervening years by dense stands of Ponderosa pines, which soar to slightly less lofty heights, but are majestic and fragrant nonetheless. The Ponderosas are however, slightly less hearty, less drought-tolerant than their colossal cousins, and have been stricken across the west in recent years by bark beetle infestation due to the lingering drought.

The only remaining questions one might be tempted to ask is, “Why Idyllwild?” For those of us who have been going there for our entire lives, it’s an easy answer.  It’s a small town take on mountain destinations. And let’s be honest, when you’re visiting the mountains, a small town feel is right. If you want alpine skiing, go somewhere else. You come to Idyllwild for the stunning natural beauty of the mountains and the trees, uncluttered by urban encroachments.  If you want quiet, tranquil beauty– which is what mountain destinations are all about– then Idyllwild may be the place for you.

Defunct Disney Attractions

At Across the West, we are big proponents of the Road Less Traveled. There’s irony in that; if you tell everyone about the less-traveled road, you run the risk of it no longer being less-traveled. It’s a calculated risk; there are sufficient less-traveled roads for all of us to be together in our isolation, so I think the risk is low.

But as much as we love to see and do new things, we also occasionally appreciate the well-trodden path. We like unique, out of the way, and lesser-known locations, but sometimes a well-known spot can hold a little magic of its own. And we also fully embrace nostalgia, looking back on the simpler times of youth, the small joys of childhood, the innocence of inexperience, and so many of life’s firsts. We love to think back on times when our cares were smaller, and our burdens were lighter.

A great source of nostalgia for those of us who grew up in Southern California is looking back on our childhood trips to Disneyland. It was a once-a-year event for my family, and I still remember the excitement, the anticipation, and the thrill of it all. It still retains its magic for many people who grew up loving Disneyland–including me–, and as I look back, it’s fun to reminisce about the Disney attractions that no longer exist. Here’s a few favorites.

Videopolis

Videopolis opened in 1985, riding the wave of enthusiasm for all things music and video in the early 80s. By day, the location was the Fantasyland Theater, but by night, it transformed into dance club video show extravaganza. With dozens of video displays showing music videos and live feeds of the crowd, a dazzling light show, and a throbbing sound system, teens would flock to this Disney hot spot and dance to the sounds of the biggest 80s bands. The dance club scene was ditched in 1989 after gang violence marred the fun, but while it lasted, Videopolis was the site of the first “night club” experience for many a young Southern California teen. I still think about Videopolis every time I hear ABC’s Be Near Me.

PeopleMover

The PeopleMover was a Tomorrowland attraction that opened in 1967, and took riders on a plodding, 7 mph “Grand Circle Tour” of Tomorrowland. For as slow and uneventful as the 16-minute ride was, it was a must-see attraction for every Disneyland visit. Not only did it afford riders a birds-eye view of Tomorrowland and its environs, it gave tired guests a chance to rest their feet and relax. The ride closed in 1995, but a version of the ride still exists at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. The track remains in place, and in 1998, became the home of…

Rocket Rods

This short-lived ride took the existing pathway of the PeopleMover, and hit the virtual accelerator. The same track that took the PeopleMover 16 minutes to traverse was covered by Rocket Rods in just 3 minutes. The unusual 5-seater cars rode on a redesigned propulsion system, and would perform a simulated “wheelie” in straightaway sections. The ride was notorious for malfunctions and shut-downs, with the final closure occurring in 2000, owing to deficiencies in the track support structure, which was designed for the much lazier PeopleMover, and was not engineered for the high speeds and constant speed changes of the Rocket Rods.

Adventure Thru Inner Space

Another Tomorrowland Staple of youth was officially called Adventure Thru Inner Space, but no one ever called it that. We always called it the Incredible Shrinking Machine. I don’t know where we got that name, but we always included the “incredible” part, as if it were the official other name. The idea of the attraction was to simulate the experience of being shrunk down smaller than the size of an atom, and was actually sponsored by Monsanto. While “shrinking” down to subatomic size, riders were taken through and into the water molecules of a snowflake, ultimately penetrating an oxygen atom itself. There was actually some sound chemistry in the ride. The ride cars were called Atommobiles, and were actually the same kind of cars as the Haunted Mansion Doom Buggies. The ride was notably narrated by Paul Frees, the legendary voice actor whose voice still appears as the “Ghost Host” on the Haunted Mansion, voiced many of the Pirates on the Pirates of the Caribbean, and for years was the voice of the Disneyland Railroad.

Mission to Mars

Tomorrowland was the scene of many of the now-defunct Disney attractions, due to ever-shifting visions of the future. Mission to Mars actually started out as Rocket to the Moon, which changed to Flight to the Moon, but then was updated to Mission to Mars because humans had already flown to the Moon, and Mars still seemed exotic. The attraction was mostly a show, and featured a number of animatronic characters working in a mission control center, which led to a circular theater with multiple video screens displaying “views” outside the rocket. The theater seats would move and vibrate to simulate the motion of the spacecraft. A related ride was opened in 2003 at Disney’s Epcot in Florida called Mission: Space, and features a fairly intense centrifuge system to simulate a fraction of the G-forces experienced in actual space flight. Two people have died after experiencing the ride, though both had pre-existing conditions. Many Disney attractions include warnings about the nausea, dizziness, headaches, and other motion-sickness symptoms, and cautioning people with pre-existing conditions to avoid the ride, and in this case, they’re serious.

Skyway

Opening in 1956, the Skyway, which we only ever called the “Sky Buckets,” was an aerial ropeway gondola tram carrying riders between stations in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, cruising over portions of Autopia, the Submarine Voyage, through the Matterhorn, and across Fantasyland to a station perched above the Casey Jr. Circus Train. The ride actually predated the Matterhorn, and when the latter was built, it served the added function of disguising the 60-foot central pylon for the Skyway. In a moment of youthful exuberance, I was once almost ejected from the park for repeatedly rocking the bucket and causing the ride to stop.

Honorable mention:

Main Street Electrical Parade

The only Disney parade that I ever cared about was the Main Street Electrical Parade, and it has made several reappearances over the years. The currently-running “Paint the Night” parade blends a heavily revised version of the “Baroque Hoedown” music from the Electrical Parade with contemporary dance music, but it’s a far cry from the iconic “electro-syntho-magnetic musical sounds” of the original.

Circle Vision

The ground-breaking filming technique Circle-Vision 360° used 9 film cameras arranged in a circle to capture 360° views of a scene, which were then projected onto nine film screens, also arranged in a circle. The theater was incorporated into the line of Rocket Rods, but ultimately closed to be replaced by Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters.

How to Spot Mt. Whitney

When traveling north or south along the eastern edge of California, between locations in Southern California and destinations around Lake Tahoe, or to Reno or Mammoth, or for those rare travelers heading north beyond Reno, perhaps to Gerlach, Nevada to see the Fly Geyser, or even to the nearby Black Rock Desert to go to Burning Man, or maybe just to visit Sierra Army Depot outside of Herlong, California, the road for most travelers is US Highway 395. One question often comes up, while traveling through the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra between the towns of Ridgecrest and Bishop: which one is Mt. Whitney?

California’s tallest mountain, and the tallest in the contiguous US, stands at 14,505 feet tall, some 66 feet taller than the tallest mountain in the Colorado Rockies, Mt. Elbert, at 14,439. In fact, Colorado has some 53 “Fourteeners,” mountain peaks over 14,000 feet tall, while California has only 12 Fourteeners. But Mt. Whitney stands above them all, a fact that provokes the consternation of many a Colorado hiker.

Of course if you venture outside of the contiguous US, the stakes change drastically. Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491 feet, and Canada’s Mt. Logan reaches 19,551 feet high. Mexico has a round half-dozen mountain peaks taller than Mt. Whitney, and Canada has an even 10, but none of them are taller than Alaska’s Denali, at 20,310, the only mountain in North America above 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. Interestingly, the second tallest mountain in Canada and the United States is the same mountain, Mt. Saint Elias, at 18,009, along the US/Canadian border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

So compared to those giants, Mt. Whitney is relatively modest, but it’s what we have, and we’re proud of it. So when you’re traveling along the Eastern Sierra, and want to locate California’s tallest mountain, look to the west around the town of Lone Pine.

The location of Mt. Whitney

There’s a large mountain peak in the foreground slightly to the left, with two jagged ridges that transverse diagonally, downward and to the north, reaching the very base of the mountain just above the valley floor. Scan to the right from there, down along a saddle ridge, past a smaller secondary summit, and you’ll see a series of jagged, rocky, sawtooth peaks. The largest and tallest of those is Mt. Whitney, rising nearly 11,000 feet above the valley floor. The summit elevation is calculated at 14,505 feet, although the USGS brass benchmark anchored into the summit reads 14,494. It has been reputed that Mt. Whitney is visible from Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America’s lowest point, but that assertion appears to be apocryphal.

San Diego Craft Beer

We’re living in a Golden Age of beer.

Craft beer has exploded across the country and around the world, growing far beyond its counter-culture roots. It has established itself as a new paradigm of quality American beer, and developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. New breweries open every week, and the area with the greatest concentration of breweries is the region around the city and county of San Diego, California.

Brew Kettle

San Diego County has over 150 breweries, and one of the hottest brands on the scene is a rapidly-growing brewery called Second Chance Beer Company (www.SecondChanceBeer.com) located in the Carmel Mountain Ranch area of San Diego. While this brewery may only be celebrating their third anniversary in 2018, the people running it are certainly not new. Partners Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes worked together for nearly a decade at a favorite San Diego brewpub, Rock Bottom Brewery near the UCSD campus, and, along with co-founder Virginia Morrison, the trio are now living their dreams of operating their own label.

Mendiola is a veteran brewmaster, past president of the San Diego Brewer’s Guild, and one of San Diego’s most well-respected brewers. The San Diego-native has nearly twenty years of experience making some of the region’s finest beers, bringing home 13 Great American Beer Festival medals and 6 World Beer Cup awards during his tenure. Noted for his English-style browns and Irish-style reds, Mendiola is also well-versed in San Diego’s signature beer, the West Coast-style IPA.

Second Chance Beer Company’s Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes

Hawes, the business manager, is a consummate professional, and life-long craft beer enthusiast. His business card actually reads “Chief Tasting Officer.” He’s a numbers guy, with an MBA, and 20 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. “It’s a perfect partnership,” says Hawes. “Marty is one of the best brewers in the region, and it’s my passion to help bring our beer to the world. I feel pretty lucky to get to work with him every day.”

Last year the company opened its first satellite taproom called the Second Chance Beer Lounge in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, the heart of the craft brew social scene. “The neighbors are pretty happy we’ve moved in,” says Hawes. “The whole neighborhood is like a beer lover’s dream.”

The Second Chance Beer Lounge in North Park San Diego

Their work isn’t all hype, though. Second Chance posted back-to-back Gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival for its Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter in 2016 and 2017 (only the second time in history a beer has been awarded consecutive Golds), and grabbed a Silver for their Legally Red American Red Ale as well. The rest of their line-up features a range of seasonal and specialty beers, and an expanding core line of IPAs, Red and Brown ales, and even a notable Lager, brewed in partnership with the World Over the Line Championships, hosted annually by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

San Diego has become an important destination for beer tourism in California, and Second Chance’s location close to the I-15 corridor puts them right on the map for the many of the beer tours that travel up and down that vital thoroughfare. “People come from all over the country to visit breweries and tasting rooms in San Diego,” says Hawes. With Mendiola’s record for award-winning beer, there’s little doubt that this growing trend will continue to bring beer lovers to the region.

Beer tourism is nothing new to Societe Brewing Company (http://societebrewing.com). Founding partners Doug Constantiner and Travis Smith were both life-long craft beer enthusiasts and home brewers before meeting in 2009 at, of all places, a brewery.

Troy Ashburn, Pintsman at Societe Brewing Company

Constantiner moved to California from Texas specifically to work in the craft beer industry, choosing San Diego because of the number of breweries in the region. Smith began his career at the highly-acclaimed Russian River Brewing in Northern California, and came to San Diego for the same reasons. The two became fast friends, and after a year or so of conspiring, decided to set out on their own.

The pair began production in 2012, focusing on making the best beer they possibly could. “From the beginning we’ve focused on quality, rather than quantity,” says Constantiner. “We don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Smith admits that demand for their beer is constantly growing. “No one can make enough beer,” he says. Remarking on the importance of quality, he says, “Every day, there are people trying craft beer for the first time, so it has to be good every time.”

Constantiner has a refreshing take on the relationships he and Smith have developed with other brewers in the region, who consider themselves colleagues, rather than competitors. “We owe a huge debt to breweries like Stone, AleSmith, Pizza Port—everyone that came before us,” he says. “They blazed the trail for us, and opened the world to craft beer. But they’ve also set a great example about being open and honest, keeping craft beer fun, and doing good things in the community.”

The barrel aging room at Societe Brewing Company

The partners identify four categories of beer they produce. Their “Old World” line features European-style beers, their “Stygian” line features a number of dark, heavy stouts, their “Out West” line heavily favors big, hoppy, West Coast-style ales, and a newer collection, the “Feral” line includes a selection of rich, interesting sour beers and other wild, unpredictable flavors.

“We’re making the beer we love, and the craft beer lovers in the region are loving it with us,” says Constantiner. And it seems that the rest of the world is enjoying it, too. Their Ferel beer dubbed “The Thief” took home a Gold Medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup in the Mixed-Culture Brett Beer category.

One of Societe’s noted influences is AleSmith Brewing Company (http://alesmith.com). Opening in 1995, AleSmith is the oldest stand-alone craft brewery in San Diego not connected with a restaurant (the only older brewery is the Karl Strauss brewpub in Downtown San Diego).

Like many of San Diego’s native brewmasters, owner Peter Zien began as a home-brewer, and a member of the local brewer’s club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity). Fellow QUAFF member and close friend of Zien, Skip Virgilio, founded AleSmith based on the strength of a now-legendary Belgian Strong Ale, the first San Diego beer to bring home a Gold Medal from the Great American Beer Festival. Zien worked with Virgilio early in the process, working for no pay, but enjoying being part of something that hadn’t been done before.

“It was like Tom Sawyer painting his fence,” says Zien. “We helped wherever we were needed, corking bottles, cleaning up, doing whatever we could do on a shoestring.”

Mash Tun at AleSmith Brewing Company

When AleSmith came up for sale in 2002, Zien took a hiatus from his legal career to make his hobby and passion for beer into his profession. At the time, AleSmith was producing around 400 barrels per year. In 2015, AleSmith produced 22,000 barrels, but after completing their 2015 expansion posted 65,000 barrels in 2016, with continued growth to 80,000 barrels in 2017, and is on track to produce 100,000 barrels in 2018.

“For 20 years now, we haven’t been able to produce enough beer to fill all the orders,” says Zien. “We’ve gone through 3 expansions now, and after every one, I think ‘this will be my last,’ but I’ve always been wrong about that. I can’t imagine needing to expand beyond our current capacity, but in this industry, never say never.”

That 2015 expansion and increased capacity ten-fold, while maintaining exacting standards for quality. The brewery (on AleSmith Court in San Diego, named for the brewery) services the largest taproom in San Diego, and is also home to the Tony Gwynn Museum, which opened in 2016.

Zien values the friendships he has developed with the region’s other brewers. “None of us feels like we’re in competition with each other,” he says. “We’re all trying to brew the best beer we possibly can, and make a few more barrels than we did the year before.” He also acknowledges the influence of Stone, both in the quality of their beer, and in their distribution network. “Without Stone, there probably wouldn’t be an AleSmith. They’re that important. I probably learned everything I know about this business from (Stone Brewing founder) Greg Koch.”

AleSmith’s line focuses on world-accepted beer styles, with Zien’s own unique spin, and a good measure of West Coast influence. “We maintain a regular line-up of classics,” says Zien. “I like beers that stand the test if time. We brew a huge variety of specialty beers, and people love to try new things, but in the end, they usually come back to the classics.”

With regard to the newer breweries which continue open every year, Zien is supportive and encouraging. “More breweries are good for the industry,” says Zien, “and what’s good for the industry is good for us all.”

Craft beer has become the modern standard for excellence and innovation in beer making, and nowhere is that revolution more prevalent than in San Diego and the region. The culture that has developed around craft beer in San Diego is a powerful, creative force that fosters and supports new breweries and new ideas, and enables veteran and new brewers alike to experiment with novel techniques, and rediscover traditional methods lost to time, creating a better beer drinking experience for us all.

The Last Sunset: Kauaʻi’s Keʻe Beach

There’s a place in Hawaii on the Island of Kauaʻi that I like to think of has having the last sunset in the United States. The place is called Keʻe Beach, and it forms the northern terminus of Highway 560, the Kuhio Highway, part of the hodgepodge of highways and roads which partially circumnavigates the island. Partially.

First, a point on pronunciation. To pronounce words in Hawaiian, you pronounce all of the letters, including the [ ʻ ], called the ʻokina, which is a little pause or technically a phonemic glottal stop. If I call the place Kee Beach, most readers would incorrectly think of it as a monosyllabic word homophonetic with the English work “key.” This is wrong. The correct pronunciation is closer to kay-eh, as two syllables. The ʻokina also informs the pronunciation of the Hawaiian dress the muʻu muʻu, which most non-islanders would call a “moo-moo,” but which is more accurately pronounced moo-oo moo-oo, with four syllables.

Keʻe Beach is not the last sunset in the United States. First of all, it’s not as far west as the Aleutian Islands, and it’s not even the furthest west spot on the island of Kauaʻi (did you notice the ʻokina? Yes, you pronounce and spell Kauaʻi with an ʻokina). And it’s not even the western-most of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, with the “Forbidden” island of Niʻihau, home to some 200 or so native Hawaiians, lying 18 miles off Kauaʻi’s western shore. But when you’re at Keʻe Beach, knowing you’re at the end of the highway, watching the sunset over the beautiful but poorly named Pacific Ocean, knowing that this is no mere channel between islands, the sunset feels like one of the last ones in the world.

Kauaʻi is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, and stands apart from the others in many ways. The Hawaiian Channels are the waterways that separate the various islands, and they are all named. The Kaiwi channel separates the islands of Oʻahu and Molokaʻi, and is about 26 miles wide. On a clear day, you can see Molokaʻi from eastern stretches of Oʻahu. Likewise, the Alenuihaha channel separates the islands of Maui and Hawaiʻi Island, and is some 30 miles wide and a few thousand feet deep, frequently with treacherous currents and heavy seas. From many places in Northern Hawaiʻi Island, you can see the towering peaks of Maui’s massive Haleakala, the great shield volcano that rises in the east of the island. But even this great channel pales in comparison to the Kaʻieʻie Channel, separating Kauaʻi from Oʻahu. At 72 miles wide and over 11,000 feet deep, this channel, sometimes called simply the Kauaʻi channel, is essentially wide open ocean.

Kauaʻi’s moniker as the “Garden Island” stands in tribute to the strong agricultural influence on the island, and importance of the rugged natural beauty of the island in its history and today. Visitors can see countless taro fields forming a patchwork across the island, growing the plant known in Hawaiian as kalo, from which is made the traditional Hawaiian dish poi, among other foods. There is great tradition and symbolism to the kalo and the poi, linked to the Hawaiian concept of ʻohana or family, which comes from the word oha, the young green stalk that grows from a kalo root.

Taro farm on Kauaʻi

Kauaʻi is separated from the other Hawaiian Islands by vast stretches of open ocean, and by rugged, diverse ecology. Kauaʻi is so rugged that there is no encircling highway as there are on the three larger islands. There is a 16-mile stretch of shoreline on the northwest coast of Kauaʻi that is utterly inaccessible by car, and can only be seen on foot, from a boat, or from the air. This place is called Na Pali, and it is one of the most spectacular, dramatic coastlines in the world. No road can or ever should mar this beautiful coastline, so visitors by car can only travel as far as Keʻe Beach in the north, or Polihale Beach in the south (though road access to Polihale is questionable at times). Beyond there is a vast wilderness of jagged, steep canyons and wild open ocean. You have traveled as far as the roads in Kauaʻi will take you, lending the location a remoteness, a feeling of isolation, of distance. That’s why Keʻe Beach feels like the last sunset, the last place that will see the sun until tomorrow.

Na Pali by helicopter

There is much more that can be said about the island of Kauaʻi. I’ve spent a great deal of time on Kauaʻi (though not as much as others), and there are many more stories to share about the beautiful, remarkable locations on the island.

Paso Robles: California’s Most Sincere Wine Region

Rows of grape vines in the Central California town of Paso Robles, with rolling hills in the background.

If you remember the Peanuts Halloween classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the titular Great Pumpkin was reputed (by Linus) to rise out of the most sincere pumpkin patch around. It always struck me as humorous that the relevant trait for the pumpkin patch was sincerity. How can a pumpkin patch be sincere? The question is perhaps answered in the statement that Paso Robles in Central California is California’s most sincere wine making region.

I’ll contrast this with California’s other premier wine making region, Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, which one could argued are somewhat insincere, this based on being overrun with tourists, and coated in heavy layers of pretense. The wine in Napa is excellent, to be sure, but much of the scene is quite firmly wrapped up in a sense of self-importance– one might even say it is fairly well lodged up it’s own backside. Enter Paso Robles. The wine is on par with much of Napa’s or Sonoma’s production, but with none of the pretense or pompous patronizing one can often experience in Napa. That’s why I’m comfortable calling Paso Robles California’s most sincere wine region.

The town is not on the Central Coast of California, nor is it in the Central Valley, but it is in Central California. It’s about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, and about 30 miles inland by car from the Central Coast town of Cambria near Hearst Castle. It straddles the Salinas River, and its rolling, oak-covered hills are home to some 40,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 200 individual wineries.

The commercial wine industry in Paso Robles began in 1882, though the Franciscan Friars of nearby Mission San Miguel planted the first wine grapes in the region around 1797. Much of the early wine produced in the region was Zinfandel, but today, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up the largest percentage of wines produced.

The dining options in Paso Robles are as varied as the wine choices, and a few notable spots include Berry Hill Bistro for salads, sandwiches, and comfort food, Buona Travola for excellent traditional Northern Italian fare, Paso Terra for traditional French preparations of fresh seafood, Cello for upscale modern Italian, and Margie’s Diner for huge portions of classic American diner fare and great breakfasts. Nearly every restaurant in town has an excellent selection of fine local wines.

Paso Robles is not just about wine and food. Firestone-Walker Brewing Company produces dozens of excellent beers, including the now-legendary 805, a refreshing blonde ale named for the local telephone area code. Brewery and barrel room tours are available, and every year on August 5 (8/05), the brewery celebrates the date with special offers, exclusive merchandise, and live music.

The biggest event every year in Paso Robles is the California Mid-State fair in late July, which includes the annual Central Coast Wine Competition. A panel of experts blind-tests hundreds of local wines, recognizing the best Red, White, Rosé, Sparkling, and Dessert wines from the region. Other traditional fair activities include live music, livestock shows, and plenty of great fair food.

With so much to see and do in Paso Robles, one hopes that this gem of Central California will remain modest and relaxed, sincere, in a way that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would appreciate. It never feels like a tourist destination, the crowds are moderate, the traffic is reasonable, and the locals are friendly and inviting. Here’s hoping it stays that way.