Happy Corona-versary: The 2020 Road Trip

Safe travels during a getaway in the age of COVID-19

Jules celebrates The 2020 Road Trip at Coppola Winery in Sonoma.
Wedding day: July 31, 2016, at our Italian restaurant.

My wife and I grab facemasks and pack extra coronavirus cleansing accouterments. With responsibility and safety front of mind, we’re setting out on The 2020 Road Trip. The goal is to recharge our batteries by treating our quarantine-weary hearts and souls with a dose of vacation therapy.

Eschewing airplanes, we’ve planned a California trek. Renting an RV was tempting. Instead, we opt to drive my burgundy Prius up and down the coast. We’ll adhere to the state-mandated rules being administered by hotel properties.    

The 2020 Road Trip isn’t just about getting out of the house. We’re also celebrating our wedding anniversary. Like Brenda and Eddy from Billy Joel’s, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” four years ago, we “decided the marriage should be at the end of July.”

FYI, Jules and my marriage is going a lot better than Brenda and Eddy’s wound up.

Jules and I got hitched in our Italian restaurant, Davanti Enoteca in San Diego’s Little Italy. I gave her the engagement ring during a Billy Joel concert at Petco Park. Yes, during “Italian Restaurant.”

The song starts off: “A bottle of white, a bottle of red. Perhaps a bottle of rose instead…”

To that end, we decide we’ll drive north to Sonoma wine country.

Sings Billy Joel: “…We’ll get a table near the street…”

Well, yeah. Outdoor tables are all that’s available in the age of corona.

San Diego to Santa Barbara

A room with a view at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara.

My 10-hour music play list includes several Billy Joel chart toppers. Mixed in is a healthy slate of country and ’80s hits, per preference of my navigator. The drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara burns three and a half hours of Spotify fuel.

A perfunctory hat tip to the pandemic for providing gridlock-free roads. Even though the freeway is clear, we offramp to Orange County Toll Road 73. Mainly because I’d just affixed my FasTrak sticker (for non-touch, electronic billing) to the front windshield.

In Santa Barbara, the State Street main drag has become a pedestrian promenade due to COVID-19. Restaurants and bars partnering with eateries have expanded seating onto sidewalks and streets.

State Street actually looks festive—detailed attention went into sprucing up the outdoor dining areas with leafy plants and string lighting.

Outdoor dining “parklets” are also buzzing in Santa Barbara’s cool Funk Zone. In particular, the converted parking lot between Lucky Penny and The Lark restaurants is pulling a fair share of family diners.

We’re booked for the night at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara. The resort is built on a beautiful, coastal stretch of Goleta, about 12 miles from downtown Santa Barbara. You don’t normally do much self-parking at a Ritz-Carlton, but welcome to the age of COVID.

Masks on, we check in at a plastic-shielded front desk. Nearly every traveler and hotel staffer we encounter is also masked and conscientiously practicing social distancing. The gorgeous pool area is cleared and disinfected twice a day.

Our one-bedroom suite at Bacara comes with a living room area, two full bathrooms, fireplace and a sizeable patio offering a romantic ocean view. The sound of waves caressing the beach below makes it easy to drift off in a four-post bed with a mind cleared from the edgy reality of pandemic.  

Santa Barbara to Big Sur

The view from Cafe Kevah at Napenthe in Big Sur.

On the fly, we decide to stop for lunch in Big Sur before powering on to wine country.

Accessing Big Sur means traversing the winding S-curves of coastal Highway 1. It’s a slow-go, but filled with gorgeous views of ocean-hewn rock formations and majestic groves of trees growing up the sides of steep mountains.

Nepenthe is the result of our eenie-meenie-miny-moe search for “Big Sur restaurants.” Google and good karma deliver a great pit stop.

This immense eatery is more than 800 feet above sea level. Nepenthe commands a stunning southern view of the coastline and of the lush Santa Lucia Mountains.

This iconic spot was: Once owned by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. A setting for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the movie, The Sandpiper. Temporary quarters to novelist Henry Miller.

The waiting list at Nepenthe is longer than we care to endure. We take advantage of immediate seating at Café Kevah, a sister eatery on an outdoor terrace just below Nepenthe.

Lunch is surrounded by bougainvillea and jasmine, under a cloudless sky dotted by red-tail hawks. We celebrated life, love and good health over a chicken Caesar salad and a caprese baguette.

Big Sur to Sonoma

Jules greets Rosé the robot at Hotel Trio Healdsburg.

Exiting rugged Highway 1 for the freeways that circle east around San Francisco, we get excited for the marquee portion of the 2020 Road Trip: Sonoma wine country.

Well accustomed now to self-parking and plastic shields at check-in, we carry our bags to a studio room at the pristine, two-year-old Hotel Trio Healdsburg. The property is a couple miles from a quaint town square and minutes from dozens of wineries.

While we unpack, the phone rings to notify us there’s a delivery at the door. Ah, it’s Rosé—the hotel’s “social distancing robot ambassador.”

When Jules opens the door, a compartment on Rosé’s “head” slowly opens to reveal an anniversary gift—a bottle of 2014 Comstock Zinfandel. The opening lines to “Italian Restaurant” play inside my head, accompanied by a brief flashback to an episode of The Jetsons.

After some one-sided small talk from two human guests, Rosé flashes a note on her screen that she has other business to carry out. We watch as Rosé the robot methodically rolls down the hall toward the elevator bank.

We’re booked the next day at three very different wineries. It’s reservation-only due to COVID, and all tastings are done in outdoor settings.

First, wine-and-food pairings at Jordan Winery on an oak tree-shaded patio that overlooks an elegant, Old World, French-influenced vineyard. At contemporary J Vineyards & Winery, we sample a flight of bubbles, paired with cheeses. Francis Ford Coppola Winery, somewhat akin to a wine amusement park, is a fun way to end the day.

Pro tip: Don’t drink and drive, natch. There are various car services in Sonoma, but I found Valet of the Moon, which has the best price for drivers who are legally insured to chaueffeur you from winery to winery in your car. 

Dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen is served on a grassy space outside the restaurant and accompanied by live music. The sax-playing front man of the three-piece jazz band effuses about how wonderful it is to be back playing for a live audience—even one spaced six feet apart from one another.

Sonoma to Pismo Beach

2020 Pelican Fest in Pismo Beach.

I’d originally planned to power home to San Diego (10-plus hours) after the sights, sips and sounds of Sonoma. Jules wisely suggests we break up the driving. Smack in the middle of our trail on the California Central Coast is our new destination: Pismo Beach.

Jules browses hotel listings while the 2020 Road Trip rolls south on Highway 101. The Shore Cliff Hotel has a price point that fits our remaining budget, and allegedly has the biggest pool in this small, coastal town.

There’s an ironic allure to Pismo Beach, former Clam Capital of the World. Cartoon legend Bugs Bunny once emerged from a rabbit hole and proclaimed he was in Pismo Beach, for “all the clams we can eat.” This small strip of sandy shoreline also got dated, pop culture shout outs in episodes of The Monkees and I Love Lucy, and in the film The Big Lebowski.

Jules and I feel like karma did us another dining solid by placing Shore Cliff Hotel adjacent to the Ventana Grill. We’re social-distantly seated for dinner on the restaurant’s outdoor balcony. Just hoping to get some grub that’ll stick to our ribs, we’re overwhelmingly delighted by the sautéed vegetable enchiladas and a rich, savory Arrachera steak and shrimp molcajete.

As the sun sets, we watch spellbound from the balcony as, seemingly, every pelican in the state hold conference on the rocky outcropping between the restaurant and our hotel. The quantity of birds is an unnatural sum—but it brings smiles to our faces.

For at least one more night, my bubble within pandemia is wonderfully unfettered. And the most essential person in the world is sitting across the table.

With obligatory apology to Billy Joel, I tell Jules, “I’ll meet you anytime you want, at our Pismo Beach, wall-to-wall-bird, enchilada-and-molcajete restaurant.”  J&J

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