California dreaming; From Napa to Big Sur and points in between.


Byline: Story and photography by Frank Magiera

"You ought to move here,'' she said.

She was a college professor who had lived in various places in the United States, including Cambridge and Manhattan.

On this September afternoon she was curled up on a beach in her new hometown, Santa Cruz, Calif., enjoying a picnic lunch and a book, along with the spectacular sun and surf that seemed de rigueur for this region. And she couldn't stop talking about life on Monterey Bay, listing her favorite restaurants, supermarkets, cafes, beaches and bars.

We heard this often during the two weeks last fall that we spent exploring this exquisite strip of Northern California stretching from Big Sur to the succulent Napa and Sonoma wine regions.

Our plan was pretty simple. Fly from Boston to San Francisco. Rent a car. Drive an hour or so to the Napa Valley, where we had reserved a lovely house on a mountainside through After a few days there, we would drive west through the rural country sandwiched between the vineyards and the sea to Point Reyes and then meander south to Santa Cruz, where we had rented another house on the beach.

If this renting a house stuff sounds wildly luxurious, believe me it isn't. The website has a range of well-appointed houses and apartments for short- and long-term rental that can match most budgets. They are often in prime locations and offer far better values than many hotels, especially in off seasons, with plenty of amenities and privacy. We splurged on the amenities -- great views and exceptional space -- and chose to eat in, which saved us a bundle and probably added a few weeks to our lives.

Flying cross-country might be a quotidian experience for many people but I still find it remarkable to board an airplane in sight of the Atlantic and in eight hours or so land at the edge of the Pacific, watching the entire country unfold in between. I'm terrified of heights and uncomfortable about flying, but all of that gets erased by my unabashed voyeurism.

There are plenty of vineyards in northern California, but the greatest concentration is in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which is a little farther west and north. This is America's equivalent of France's Bordeaux region or, more precisely perhaps, Italy's Chianti, because of the golden hills and Mediterranean atmosphere.

Our rental house was in Calistoga, a town ironically founded by teetotalling Mormons at the northern end of the valley. Called "the Hacienda'' it very much looked...

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