Josh Merlot 2011

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Plum, violets, spices. Supple tannins, rounded, velvety, OK aftertaste. 91+/100. 15 USD.

Saw it had to buy it ;-) I taste really good. I may be biased though.

Drive to San Diego

The drive wasn't as bad as we thought - must have been looking at the route during rush hour, and the GPS calculated accordingly. Stopped for a nice lunch and rest at Santa Clarita. We were even in time to go shopping to the mall in San Diego. Got the kids a few much-needed clothes. Nothing for the adults though :-( by the time we had done the kids the shops were closing (it is Sunday today).

Another lazy day

Tomorrow we have a long drive to San Diego, and yesterday we got to see most of the park, so we made today 100% car-free. More swimming pool, TV (while the adults did some booking for Canada) and indoor playground.

Sequoia National Park

The heart of the park was closer than expected, but still an hour and a half away. In that time we reached Moro Rock, a huge... rock with 400 steps leading up to the top. Lucas made it all the way, but Aisha needed a bit of carrying after about 300 steps. The views from the top are worth the hike, though by the time we got there it was a bit hazy.

Clambered back down to the car. I got briefly sidetracked to see (and photograph) a tree (Roosevelt Tree I think, they all seem to be named after generals and presidents) - only 100m from the road but uphill, so nobody joined me in my quest.

Then we reached Crescent Meadow for a quick picnic an a walk. This place is full of bears so we hoped to see one. So far only I had seen one near the lodge at Yosemite. We had walked all the way round the meadow and were just coming up to the carpark when Esther spotted a juvenile looking for insects in a log. Briefly panicked as the kids were out of sight a few metres away and I didn't know if there were more bears about, but soon the family was gathered together and we watched the bear for a few magical minutes. It is so much more rewarding to see animals in the wild than at a zoo.

After all the excitement Aisha fell asleep so we skipped General Sherman Tree (the biggest tree in the world). We have seen so many huge trees that to see one a few thousand tonnes bigger than the others hardly makes a difference, except to to say We Woz 'Ere. So we just called a day and drove back to the hotel, with a couple of beside-the-road viewpoint stops along the way.

We have seen pretty much all we wanted in Sequoia, so we probably will take the day off tomorrow and continue booking our Canadian route - hotels are quickly getting booked up and prices are going up.

Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin 2012

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Balsamic, spicy, red berries, earth. Smooth but unstructured and a bit bitter, shame about the taste after such a nice nose. 87/100. 8 USD.

Moving down the road

Our next hotel is less than an hour South, as Sequoia National Park is right next to Kings Canyon (in fact they are both run as one). From here we are a bit closer to the next road down to access the park faster. We arrived quite early, but there was a clean room for us so we unloaded the car. Instead of running off to see big trees we decided just to laze about the hotel swimming pool. We actually managed to spend the whole rest of the day without getting into the car at all, quite a feat in the US. We have a diner within walking distance, and another indoor play area (Burger King this time - I heartily don't recommend their iced coffee). I even walked to the supermarket. It is quite a walk though; everything is really far from each other as the parking lots are so huge on account of everybody going everywhere by car - a bit of a vicious circle.

Hashed out our complete route for Canada, and started on the bookings (it will be high season, so we can't afford to just book a couple of days before). Started with the most important one (as it gets fully booked): ferry and accommodation for Illes de la Madeleine.

Kings Canyon

Long drive today. Too long - the kids were complaining so much we had to stop halfway into Kings Canyon at Boyden Cave. We didn't visit the cave, just stopped there for lunch and to climb on a big rock in the river. Kings Canyon is very pretty (though nowhere near as impressive as Yosemite Valley) but all this driving is a pain. It's not like in Europe where you have various villages inside the National Park, or at least just a few minutes drive away. The solution for us might have been to go camping, but then we would have encountered a different set of problems.

The plan was to reach the end of the road and then do a couple of short walks: Zumwalt Meadow and Cedar Grove. But Aisha fell asleep so, after all that driving all we managed was to stop a bit by the river while she snored away in the car.

To avoid completely wasting the day we went to Grant Grove (on the way even Lucas fell asleep). The kids woke up and we could at least enjoy a short walk round the amazingly huge redwoods. There is a fallen trunk that has been hollowed out which you can walk through, it felt more like a cave than a tree. It gives you a good perspective of the sheer size of these silent giants.

Ended the day in a more mundane fashion: McDonald's. Not for their delicious and healthy cuisine of course, but for their indoor play area. The kids discharged some pent-up energy while we sipped on a milkshake (because we hadn't seen the coffee menu).

Hume Lake

We stopped a few miles before the main visitor centre at Grant Grove for lunch at the Big Stump picnic site, and then stretched our legs down the path a bit to see the big stump, which must have been a huge tree before they cut it down. Then, at the visitor centre we got some pointers for what we should see in the park. Decided that today we would go down to Hume Lake for a splash around.

Arrived on the West shore and, as the grass is always greener on the other side (we saw a nice beach on the other shore), got in the car to the East shore which looked more accessible for splashing around. There was quite a large group of hippy-looking young parents which turned out to be Hare Krishnas hanging around for a week after their annual conference (Gurukula?). We had forgotten our swimming trunks but the kids just ran around in their underwear and the adults managed to wade around the shallow parts of the shore.

The man who had given us indications to the other side of the lake foolishly mentioned an ice cream shop in earsight of Lucas. So, change of religion and we converged towards the Christian summer camp next door for ice creams. Even I fell into temptation and had one - lately the kids eat all their ice cream and never leave me any.

No time to stop at General Grant Tree on the way back, we just headed straight to the hotel for dinner. It takes about an hour to get there from the park entrance, which is a pain but expected.

Yosemite: Wawona

Wanted to write this in the cottage guestbook, but Esther and the kids didn't leave me any space:

There once was a family from the land of Don
Quixote, Pelayo and Juan (or John)
They went on  trip
And wrote about it

Felt pretty happy with the result, and after all that hard work I had to put it somewhere, but I won't be giving up my day job...

Took the long route to our next destination, Reedly (for Kings Canyon National Park) via Yosemite. Specifically the Wawona area, which we hadn't visited yet. On the way we passed the entrance to the valley; it looks like Monday's it gets just as crowded, maybe 10% less, but 90% of to many people is still to many people. Quite scandalised to find a golf course at Wawona (I think it was just a 9-hole) - surely golfers can kick the habit for a few days while they visit a National Park.

There is a free shuttle bus up to Mariposa Grove, where there are a few giant sequoias. Ditched the "tram" which takes you round the whole grove (expensive, no walking, half an hour's wait) and just walked up to the California Tunnel Tree, which has a hole in it big enough for a car to pass through (cut out in 1895, before humans realised hacking a massive hole through a 1000-year-old tree was not such a good idea).

Couldn't walk much more as we were still 2h from the next model. Back to bland, soulless accommodation after 4 days of fun lodgings. All in the name of balancing the budget, oh well.

Steelhead Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Citrus, kiwi, slightly tropical (passionfruit, mango), peach. Crisp and smooth, but could do with a bit more character. 90/100. 13 USD.


So here we are, barely over 30 minutes drive from one of the most amazing National Parks in the USA and what do we do? We visit Coulterville, population 200, and we are happy as Larry.

It is actually not quite off the beaten track. This is not only "49ers" country (part of the old mining towns of the 1849 gold rush) but also John Muir territory (naturalist, author and conservationist).

After popping into the visitor centre and the saloon of the old hotel we spent some time at the park waiting for the swimming pool to open. After a quick dip (not much to do: no paddling pool and, like Palo Alto, no toys or flotation devices allowed -  though nice and cool and much appreciated in this heat) we visited the history museum and Whistling Billy, a steam train used by the miners. We also popped in to the local cafe for a coffee and some ice cream, visited some shops and showed our faces at the John Muir Centre. But the real highlight of the day was just talking to the locals, telling them about our adventures and finding out how people really live out here. In most senses this is what tourism is really about, rather than visiting famous landmarks.

Yosemite: the valley

Got up at 5am because I wanted to reach Glacier Point by sunrise. Stopped on the way to get some nice shots of a promising pink sky, but by the time I got back in the car the pink had gone and it looked like a pretty bland sunrise. Sure enough at Glacier Point there was a grey-blue start to the day which was not very photogenic. If there hadn't been some deer walking about I would have been looking for someone to give me my money back. Eventually the sun broke through the clouds but the shots I had come for didn't materialise. If there is no pinks sky most of Yosemite actually looks better in the evening. Some you win, some you loose.

When the rest of the family got up and we finished packing we went on to the highlight: the valley itself. What a disappointment! Not quite unexpected really, but it was absolutely packed. It is a high-season Saturday after all.

Stopped for the classic valley view at Tunnel View before heading for a short walk to Bridalveil Fall. There we had a great time (amongst the crowds) sliding down the slippery rocks. From there things got pretty bad: we were unable to park at Curry Village (all we wanted to really do there was grab some chips and have a picnic) and then we found ourselves in a massive traffic jam. We decided to skip Yosemite Village and the visitor centre completely as it would probably take an hour to park. Finally we got out of the crowds at an unmarked parking place somewhere between Camp 4 and El Capitan where we could walk next to the river for a bit and grab a bite to eat. Yosemite valley is a magical place, but obviously that magic doesn't go unnoticed. I guess if you have to visit it in high season with kids the best thing to do is rent a bike and cycle down the paths laughing at the dumb tourists in the traffic jam.

Had another short walk round El Capitan. Saw a few people climbing it, though we expected more this time of year. If we ever get good at climbing we are definitely coming back here again.

On the way to our cottage we saw a huge section of burnt forest. I remember seeing it on the news last year: fires had decimated parts of Yosemite (and next door's Stanislaus National Forest). In fact they had been stopped just 4 miles from out cottage. The cottage is great, and for the first time in 5 months we have two bedrooms. The area round here is great too, I think tomorrow we will explore round here instead of facing the weekend crowds at Yosemite.

Yosemite: Glacier Point

It took a lot of willpower not to jump out of the car with the camera yesterday, and the trend continued today. Since we were quite close to the road to Glacier Point we resisted the temptation to head straight to Yosemite Valley (which is on the way to our other accommodation tomorrow). Drove nearly to the end of the road before stopping at one of the short walks we had planned: just over a mile to the top of Sentinel Dome.

We got to the foot of Sentinel Dome when Aisha looked up and declared there was no way she was climbing up that. So Lucas and I forged on ahead and made it with no carrying. The views are spectacular: Half Dome to the North, El Capitan to the South, and the valley in between. Yosemite epitomises two of my greatest hobbies: El Capitan is probably the most famous rock climb in the world, and Ansel Adams is probably the most famous landscape photographer in the world. It's great to finally be in this place.

After waiting for Esther to go up and return we headed on to Glacier Point. From here the views are even more impressive, though not as rewarding as you only walk about 200m. It is also pretty packed with tourists, though as you are on the edge of a precipice they can't get in between you and the view.

Another magical moment awaited me back at the lodge. Our neighbour is the caretaker and we have been chatting a bit from porch to porch. Suddenly he drove up asking if we wanted to see a bear. Sadly the kids were in the bath, so as the family's official photographer I hopped into the car and followed him. No sign of bears at first but then I saw one cross the road just in front of us. Hopped back into the car and drove a few metres to get a ringside view of a brown juvenile foraging for food in the forest.

Layer Cake Pinot Noir 2012

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Cherry, blackcurrant, vanilla. Smooth, easy to drink, soft tannins, good acidity. 92+/100. 15 USD.

Yosemite via Mono Lake

After 30 days car rental we have to show up at one of the offices to have the car inspected and extend the contract. 30 days into our rental we will be at Sequoya National Park; offices are few and far between and there is nothing near there. In our original plan we would have been here and could have done the paperwork at Reno. So we phoned up the car rental company to see what could be done and in the end there is no problem turning up at Reno a few days early, so that is what we did.

From there we took the Nevada route to Yosemite, via Mono Lake. It's quite a drive and because of the car rental (and lunch at the airport) we couldn't split up the trip, so we had to drive non-stop which was a shame because the desert landscape round Mono Lake was something else. We also had to see the whole Tioga Pass road in Yosemite from the car. Maybe we will come back here one of the next few days, there are some lovely meadows and hikes.

Our lodge is lovely, if a bit dated (which doesn't bother us). We have a sofa bed and another bed that folds up into the wall, and a great little porch with a barbecue where we can spend the evenings.

Tahoe rim trail and Sand Harbour Beach

Felt a bit more active today. There is a trail that goes over the mountains right round the lake. Round the corner from the hotel is a road which crosses the Rim Trail and has a place to park the car. Obviously we weren't going to do the whole trail (probably a few days of solid walking) but we saw on the map there was a viewpoint about a mile and a half uphill so up we went. In the end we didn't quite make it but had a nice ramble through pine trees and dusty trails and enjoyed a picnic on a log, flicking off giant ants every now and then.

Headed back down and drove to a minigolf place we had seen yesterday. There are three "courses" but we did only one. Well, the kids did - at these prices the adults gave it a miss.

Then, as there was still time, we headed to a nice beach we had been recommended. Left California for the first time since we arrived in the USA and crossed the border into Nevada. Sand Harbour Beach is lovely: crystal clear waters, white sand, and a view of snow-capped mountains on the other shore. Had a great time making sandcastles and playfighting on the sand generally making a spectacle of ourselves.

Tahoe Village and Eagle Rock

Tahoe Village is pretty close by, so we drove there to have a look around and visit the information office. Got quite a few good pointers for things to do and then went down to the public beach by the lake. As well as a sandy beach it had a nice grassy area and a playground, great for a picnic lunch. Then we had a walk round town before heading a few miles down the road in search of Eagle Rock, a short walk up a rock face with great views of the lake and surrounding area.

Alamos Malbec 2013

Cherry, earth, balsamic. Good acidity, meaty, good complexity and aftertaste for such a young wine. 91+/100. 11 USD.

Tried an Argentinian wine for a change, and because Californian wines are pretty expensive if you want decent quality. Brought the wine tasting forward a day to celebrate we had decent wine glasses.

Driving to Lake Tahoe

Long day's drive down to Lake Tahoe. Not much to report. Nice scenery, especially through the Tahoe Forest. Our hotel is also nice, probably the best so far (which doesn't mean it's amazing as we tend to pay less than 100 bucks a night): it has a swimming pool, hot pool, nice new rooms, is right by the lake, and most importantly of all, it has decent wine glasses.

Kunde Chardonnay 2013

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Apple, pear, vanilla. Fruity in a subtle way, rounded, good acidity. 90/100. 11 USD.

Lake Shasta

Happy father's day (in the US at least)!

Felt a bit lazy and, since we have seen (and walked) a fair bit of the park, decided to go somewhere a bit closer. Went to Lake Shasta, a reservoir and dam about half an hour North. The area is nice, but not a patch on Lassen. There is a free tour of the dam, but we didn't fancy an hour with potentially bored kids. The dam's visitor centre was, ironically, closed due to a power outage so we just walked around for a bit. Got back early for a bit of pool time at the hotel.

Lately we have fallen in the trap of allowing cartoons after dinner as we are always too late to see them before. This makes bedtime a complete nightmare, so today we reinstated the No Cartoons After Dinner rule. Bedtime was still a nightmare (since Esther got back Aisha as been pulling wobblies before bed) but less so. We are sure tomorrow will be nearly back to normal.

Mercados de granjeros

La primera vez premeditada y la segunda por casualidad, ya nos hemos encontrado con dos mercados de granjeros en California de lo más divertido.

El primero fue en San Luis Obispo, una pequeña ciudad al norte de Santa Bárbara. Todos los jueves cierran la calle principal y despliegan lo que parece más una pequeña feria que un mercado al uso, donde además de los puestos de fruta y verdura hay también puestos de comida y de artesania, música en vivo, castillos hinchables, pintacaras y una pared de escalada para los peques. Los bomberos tambié estaban por allí haciendo una doble labor de prevenciónn y educación infantil.

Lucas y Aisha disfrutaron como locos, con su trozo de pizza y sus palomitas. Saltaron en el castillo, Lucas escaló, se pintaron la cara y a los dos les regalaron unos globos al cierre del mercado.

Parecía que toda la ciudad había salido a la calle, y probablemente los vecinos de los pueblos más cercanos también se habían acercado a pasar la tarde.

El segundo fue en Sonoma, al norte de San Francisco. La zona de Sonoma es famosa por sus viñedos y para allá que fuimos a comprar vino y saciar las ganas de parque en la plaza principal. Una plaza llena de zonas verdes, con dos parques, un lago y varias familias de patos, tan empachados de pan que ya no responden al bombardeo de migas y curruscos de los niños y las abuelas que pasean por allí.

A las 17.30 en punto, como cada martes, el "cowboy" se paseó tocando la campana e inaugurando oficialmente el mercado. Fuimos directos al puesto de juegos infantiles a probar suerte en la rueda de la fortuna. Y después de bailar al ritmo de la banda, volvimos al parque donde establecimos campamento base para ir a comprar la cena y cerezas, albaricoques y ciruelas. La fruta en California está de rechupete!

Lassen Volcanic: Manzanita Lake

Driving into the park we passed by a horseshoe-throwing competition at one of the small hamlets. This promised to be a slice of real America so we turned round and parked. As well as the main event there were all sorts of games for the kids, barbecues, and an engine for mixing margaritas. We bought 10 tickets for kiddie events (total cost: 1 dollar) and got a cool face painting and played a few of the games. A big favourite was the water balloon catapult. With the games the kids picked up points which they could later exchange for prizes.

After a while there we got back into the car and headed for the park. We stopped for a picnic at Manzanita Lake, a pretty place with loads of people fishing (today being Saturday). We didn't bother renting a kayak and instead walked around the lake for a bit. Enthusiasm for becoming a Junior Ranger seems to have died down, there is too much important work to do finding sticks and pine cones.

Driving backwards and forwards for nearly an hour each way is a pain. Lake Tahoe, our next stop, has plenty of accommodation next to the lake. But after that we visit Yosemite. Spent quite a lot of time looking for decent places to stay close by. In the end we found an OK lodge in the park (though not in the valley) for two nights and a lovely cottage about half an hour away for another two (our first Airbnb booking).

Lassen Volcanic: Bumpass Hell

Got to Red Bluff with plenty of time. Finding cheap (or any) accommodation in or near a national park at such short notice is impossible, they are normally booked out months in advance. Our options were either here or in Redding, both big towns about 45 mins from the park. In the end we decided Redding as there were more options for stuff to do in the town as well as nearby.

As we had plenty of time we decided to go into the park and take the long route to Redding. We stopped at the visitor centre where Lucas picked up a booklet to become a Junior Ranger. He has 5 missions to complete before he can take the pledge. The first was easy: to watch the 20 mins film about the park.

After a quick picnic we headed off to Sulphur Works, a small geothermal area where they used to mine for sulphur. There wasn't much to do so we continued on to Bumpass Hell, a 2h walk from the carpark to see the largest geothermal area in the park.

The kids did great and managed to walk all the way there on their own. It was a bit cold, there were even patches of snow on the trail (not great in sandals). The trail was lovely, with great views of Lassen Peak and the valley below. And then Bumpass Hell makes a stark contrast to all the greenery around it. We didn't stay long as it was getting cold and the kids were tired so we quickly turned back; for us the focus of the expedition was really  walk. Had to carry both kids a bit of the way.

Got back and sped through the rest of the park to get to Redding. We will be visiting again tomorrow so we didn't feel the urge to stop anywhere as it was pretty late.

Charles & Charles Post #35 Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah 2012

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Red fruits, spices, oak, plum. Fruity with OK acidity, slight bitterness. 92/100. 19 USD.

On the road again

To accommodate these last few days we have replanned our route for the westside experience. It was quite simple really, we have skipped anything North of California, and pencilled in a new spot in the South: San Diego. We also have a few more days in some parks where we felt we needed them. So today was a driving day, to break up the trip North towards Lassen Volcanic National Park. Had a picnic lunch with the Palo Altans to say thank you and goodbye and then drove off into the sunset.

Driving in the US is pretty different to any other place we have been. They have the same rule as in NZ where, after turning, you can skip the red light if nobody is crossing the road. But also you can skip the first red light (before you turn) if turning right (and there is no traffic coming from the left). Traffic lights tend to be on the other side of the crossing. In towns there are stop signs everywhere, in most cases for all 4 directions at a crossing: you are supposed to take turns for right of way. In most freeways there is no such thing as fast and slow lanes, everybody overtakes on either side. That they drive slow is a myth, at least in California. Many freeways have a 65 mph limit, but today we were on a few with a 70 (113 km/h) limit, just 5 mph under the Spanish limit. Plus everybody speeds (not us, we don't have the instinct for seeing the highway patrol and don't know what the speed cameras look like). In some small roads the limit is also 65 mph, which is more than what they would be in Spain. What is really annoying is that there is no generic rules for the speed limits, so you have to look out for the signposts: freeways can be 65 or 70, roads 40 anything between 40 and 65, built up areas between 35 and 55 and towns 25 or 35. Anything in increments of 5 mph. It must cost them a bomb to put up so many signs. And this is just California, there's bound to be all other sorts of rules and speed limits in other states.

Our motel looks a bit scary from the outside, it hasn't changed since the 60s and is full of "Jesus is coming" signs. I home we don't get abducted tonight.

Half Moon Bay

Arranged to meet Carlos, Tana & co down on the beach at Half Moon Bay, just over half an hour's drive from Mountain View. We got there first and though the sun was shining there was a nasty cold wind blowing pretty hard, so I kept the kids in the car while we waited. Knowing them I reckoned it was best not to go outside until really necessary as they might not last for long before the complaints got unbearable. However the Palo Altans were running late and these were getting hungry so we bit the bullet, dressed up, and ventured out onto the beach to find a secluded area out of the wind. I was pessimistic and gave us half an hour tops.

Found an OK place for a quick picnic lunch and were just finishing up when the rest of the gang turned up. No complaints from the kids and in fact it got steadily warmer as the afternoon progressed. Had a great time climbing up the cliff and playing pirates in a big hole on the beach. The sea was out of the question - big waves and freezing cold.

Later in the afternoon we went into the town to see the old (1911) jail and grab a quick drink. Then we hurried back home to do some shopping and baths and homework and wash the clothes before heading out to the airport to pick up Esther. Aisha fell asleep so we didn't manage to do the shopping, but we completed all the other missions.

San Francisco airport is a bit confusing, and we got one cryptic message from Esther before her battery died out. But finally we saw her, and rushed together for a big family hug. Then we all drove back for the welcome party back at the hotel.

Aisha has been doing really well with her nighttime nappy so Esther has brought over some insulating/absorbing sheets to put between the mattress and the big girl. Tonight she officially is completely out of nappies.

Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Cherry, earth, sweet spices, oak, flowers. Good tannins and acidity, creamy and meaty though without too much body, decent aftertaste. 93+/100. 17 USD.


Promised the kids an indoor playground, which are few and far between round here. Finally found one about 15 minutes drive away, in the vicinity (vicinity meaning 10 minutes drive) of a fish & chip and Chinese (!?) restaurant. After lunch we went to the playground but it was too early, so we wiled away an hour and a half at a nearby (another 5 minutes drive) park. It was an especially good one, with a fountain splash area and a skater park.

The indoor playground wasn't particularly good, just 3 bouncy castles in a big room (with an interesting smell of feet). Apparently there was another room but there weren't enough kids (unsurprising, with the lovely day outside) to warrant it's opening.

Esther returns tomorrow evening. We are all very excited, and there has only been a bit of mummy pining. On the way back from dinner we were just in time to pop into a party shop to stock up on sweets and balloons to welcome her back.

Swimming pool

Super hot today, like yesterday. Met Carlos, Tana, Taro and Hana at the Palo Alto swimming pool. By the time they arrived we had been told off various times for breaking virtually every rule in the book. Aisha's armbands were not US coastguard approved. I argued better that than nothing at all but apparently nothing at all is better - otherwise some other parents might complain (though I do see their point of avoiding the "thin end of the wedge", plus it forced me to pay more attention to Aisha). Then Aisha decided she wanted to go "au naturel", which also wasn't allowed. Plus we ran (to avoid burning our feet), which could cause a fall (you'd think architects would have figured a way to put white non-slip floors round a pool by now, this isn't the first time we've encountered this problem). But this is pretty muck par for the course, except for the armbands - the lifeguards were as petty as those at the water park in Vietnam, or another water park we were at in Cadiz.

So, once we got all the rules under our belt we were fine and the kids had a great time. Rounded off the afternoon with an ice cream. Here Aisha found it hard - there is no such thing as a normal ice lolly here, they all seem to have all sorts of coatings and fillings. She didn't like the cup ice cream so she had to settle for a bit of a moan instead. Finally bought her off with the promise of a couple of sweeties from the hotel reception.

La Crema Chardonnay 2012

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Apple, peach, oak. Smokey and creamy, complex, fruity, lacks acidity. 92/100. 17 USD.

Science day

Met up with Carlos and Tana & co at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. The museum is full of interactive exhibits explaining the concept of energy, especially renewables. There are also plenty of bugs on display.

After a bit of playing inside for a while we all went out, where there is a small zoo. There was also a big sun, so after just a few minutes we all ran back inside, where we had another hour playing in nice aircon.

After we left the Palo Altans we headed for a quick stop to the NASA Ames Research Centre. It is actually a bit pants, so we only spent about half an hour there, though it is free, so you can't look a gift horse in the mouth. Most of the interactive displays weren't working, but at least there were some cool spacesuits.

As a reaction against US car culture I decided to take the kids for a walk from the hotel to the shopping centre, about 3 blocks away. Never again. Even with scooters it was way to far (and hot, even though it was nearly evening) - each block went on for miles. It got me thinking of the conundrum faced by the lifestyle out here: living in low-rise villas with lots of space is a good thing compared to pent up in high-rise flats, but it also means that the low population density forces shops and facilities further apart, especially large shops that offer more choice. This means car culture is almost inevitable, although bicycles would really be the way to go if they had carts attached to them to carry the shopping (and then what do you do with the kids?) Either you cut down on choice or you accept higher priced (and more inconvenient) specialist shops.

Esther leaves for Madrid

Spent last night at a hotel by the airport as Esther has an early flight. Typically, no sooner were we alone, Lucas had an enormous nosebleed. Luckily it was nothing, just over-enthusiastic booger-hunting.

Me and the kids then drove down to Palo Alto, where we has a great day with Carlos, Tana, Taro and Hana. We didn't do much, just hung around together round the 'hood. Had ice cream, visited the playground and just walked around. Lucas is fine without mummy (in fact he really loves the idea of presents when she gets back) but Aisha is more impressionable. Last times without mummy (some trips to Central America for work) she was to little to notice, but today she threw a wobbly and just broke down and cried in the middle of playing with Hana's toy kitchen. A short cuddle later she was right as rain, though later in the evening there were a few more mummy moments.

Rockus Bockus 2010

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Dark, jammy fruits, balsamic, plum, earth. Smooth but bold, strong tannins. 92/100. 15 USD.

Sonoma again

Second stop in Sonoma. This time round we made it to the Mission and the barracks, lovely old whitewashed adobe-brick buildings. This was the last of the Missions which started in Guatemala in the 1500's and reached Sonoma 150 years ago. 8 years after being built it ran into the Mexican government's secularisation and soon after that, after a short-lived Californian Republic, became part of the USA.

Turning round

This is as far as we will go this trip. The plan was to continue to Redwood National Park but a friend of ours is really ill and Esther will be travelling to Madrid from San Francisco in a couple of days on a lightning visit. Me and the kids will hang out for a few days near Palo Alto and hang out with Carlos and Tana and their kids. There is plenty of child-friendly fun in the area so we will be fine for a few days.

We drove back to Santa Rosa on the more civilised 101 Freeway. This route is very pretty as well, especially the small road from the coast to the 101. Stopped for lunch at Ukiah. The waitress seemed surprised to see us there - apparently nobody stops in Ukiah. Unsurprising as there isn't much to see (even tried Lake Mendocino, which is a dump - all dry and smelling of rotten fish) so after filling our bellies we continued to Healdsburg where we walked around the main plaza ("Spanish style" the guidebook said, though I have never seen a grassy plaza in Spain). Found a playground where we hanged out until it was time to head off to our hotel.

Beringer Knight's Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

Not tasted in a proper wine glass.

Plum, flowery, blackcurrant, vanilla, touch of smoke. Creamy, rounded tannins, good acidity, slight jammy sweetness. 93/100. 27 USD.

North Californian coast

Bodega is a small town a few miles from the coast where Hitchcock shot The Birds. In the plain light of day it is much more pretty than ominous, but blink and you miss it. Which we did. We were just admiring the lovely church when we passed a Hitchcock poster and too late we realised what we had passed. Since there wasn't much opportunity to turn round we carried on. What was very ominous was the cloud we could see straight up ahead. The microclimate here is amazing: Bodega Bay on the coast was cold and foggy, but only a mile inland it was sunny and hot.

Even with the bad visibility we could see the coast was amazing, as pretty as the Big Sur. Passed through Salt Point State Park without managing to stop either. All over the place you see "no parking" signs. Too late we realised you are supposed to park in the campsites - there is a special price for day-only use.

At least we managed to stop in Gualala for lunch and to do a short walk down to the beach. After an hour there, just as we were halfway back, the skies opened and let in the most amazing light. I nearly ran back to the beach with the camera but we had to press on.

Did one last short stop at Mendoccino just before sunset. Lucas was asleep (he got up really early after hearing this morning's breakfast finished at 9) so that limited our movements a little. Then we drove on for the last few miles to Fort Bragg, a pretty large town compared to what we've seen today.

It's weird but feeding the kids in California seems more of a challenge than feeding them in, say, Cambodia. They like pretty plain fare, like a simple chicken breast or plain pasta, but everything here seems to have some sort of sauce, many times so integral to the dish you can't ask for it separate. And even dishes on the children's menus are spicy or hot. Supermarket delis seem to be the way forward, but the choice is limited.

Wine country: Sonoma

Kiddie's day today. Spent the morning at a playground in San Rafael (where we had spent the night) and then headed to Sonoma... to another playground.

Sonoma is next to Napa and both valleys are prime wine growing locations in California. I went into the information office to enquire about wine shops where they told me I had two options: I could spend a fortune in any of the specialised shops or just go to the local supermarkets where they would have a wide selection of the local tipple. Armed with my trusty tablet and subscription to the Wine Advocate I chose the latter.

When I got back I wanted to drag the rest of the family to the old barracks and Mission (the oldest of the California missions) but it turned out it was farmers market day, so it was too late. The stalls were up, the band ready to play, and the kids wanted to spin the wheel to try their luck for a fluffy toy. Had loads of fun walking around and trying the local delicacies. It was a shame we were still half an hours drive from our hotel or we would have joined in with everyone else and opened a bottle of wine.

If you are going to San Francisco

Spent the whole day with that wretched Scott McKenzie song in my head. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

We've been away from big cities for too long. San Francisco proved too much for us. It all felt too hectic driving round the centre trying to find a place to park. We were also woefully unprepared and hadn't even read the guide to know which places to visit. Drove through Mission district and then towards Chinatown and the financial district, where we turned tail and fled. Ended up, more by luck than by design, by Russian Hill (a crazy road where cars have to zig-zag down through gardened sidewalks), from where we got a glimpse of Alcatraz. To get there we had passed through some of the crazy hills San Francisco is famous for, and the kids had a great time pretending we were on a roller coaster.

Got a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge and then walked (in the freezing cold - due to a bizarre microclimate it is colder here in summer than in autumn) to the Palace of Fine Arts, which was designed and built in 1915 as a sort of fictional Roman ruin. We wanted to visit the Exploratorium museum, but sadly it was closed on Mondays. That was the final straw, so we booked a hotel just North of town and fled over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stanford University picnic

Driving through Palo Alto it takes all your willpower not to jump out of the car and set up a startup. This is where the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, PayPal, Logitech and Sun started out, and where HP, Skype and VMware still have their corporate headquarters. The catalyst that fertilises the area to attract and produce brilliant, restless minds is Stanford University.

Carlos and Tana, some friends from Madrid, came over here on a scholarship last year. They have 2 kids nearly the same age as Lucas and Aisha, and we had arranged to meet up for a picnic in the Oval, a park just on the way in to the campus. The kids didn't remember each other but in no time were running together all over the field.

Had a short tour of the campus which is actually a mini-town. Most students here hardly leave the place. Got back to find not one but two traffic fines: parking in permit-only space (enforced even on Sundays) and taking 2 spaces because we had crossed a white line. I hope that by the time we leave the US we will have got this parking business sussed.

Steinbeck country: Monterey

Completely ran out of time today. We had great plans of going back to Carmel to see the mission and Point Lobos, and maybe even squeezing in a visit to Steinbeck's home town and museum in Salinas. Alas, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. In our case a combination of late morning and too much time at the aquarium meant nothing else was achieved today.

We had completely underestimated the amount of time needed for the aquarium - it is huge and has plenty to see. At least it is next to Cannery Row, so we did get to see "something Steinbeck". The road nowadays looks a bit like a cross between London's redeveloped Southbank and the back streets of Covent Garden, with slightly more touristy shops and minus any of the local population.

We had a great time at the aquarium, and only left when our stomachs clamoured for food. TripAdvisor came to the rescue to navigate us away from the shoals of overpriced eateries. By the time we were back in the car it was 4pm, which is when we realised the futility of visiting the mission at Carmel, half an hour away and which closed at 5.