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March 22, 2018

Day tripping in California

Drive an hour or two from San Francisco, and you can sip wine in a vineyard or bask in the sun on the beach

Suzanne Sng

THE allures of San Francisco are many, but let’s face it, the weather can often be gloomy.

To bask in the California sunshine and get away from the tourist hordes, take a day trip out of the city. Drive an hour or two and you can enjoy a slice of small-town America while taking in dramatic coastal views in Monterey or the rolling hills of Napa’s vineyards.

Ride one of the United States’ oldest wooden roller coasters in Santa Cruz or simply enjoy the drive down the scenic Highway 1.

The months from June to August have the best weather, as well as the most festivals and outdoor events. From vintage car showcases to beach movie screenings, from beer and wine festivals to those featuring bacon and artichoke, there is always something going on to celebrate summer.

More than just Monterey

No California summer is complete without a road trip down Highway 1, one of the classic driving routes in the country. We headed south on the scenic route, which hugs the coast and offers jaw-dropping ocean views. We turned off at Monterey, two to three hours away from San Francisco, to explore the area.

Skip the tourist-infested Cannery Row area, and head to the marina for a stroll. If you happen to be there on a Tuesday, don’t miss the farmers’ market at Old Monterey Marketplace. From 4pm to 8pm in summer, there are fresh produce stands, food booths and live music.

If you are a bacon or artichoke lover, the town holds a Monterey Baconfest (June 23; www.montereybaconfest.com and an Artichoke Festival (June 2 and 3; artichokefestival.org). The Baconfest serves concoctions such as bacon margaritas, while the Artichoke Festival features cooking demonstrations, food stalls, farm tours and artichoke-themed art.

A Wine Festival (June 9 and 10; montereywine.com) and Beer Festival (July 7; www.montereybeerfestival.com) take place every summer, but don’t worry if you miss them.

Head to the Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill (www.alvaradostreetbrewery.com) for its 20 house beers on draft and excellent brunch menu. A 15-minute drive takes you to Carmel-by-the-Sea, which has 10 wine-tasting rooms, art galleries, indie shops and fairy-tale cottages.

There are pleasant drives around the area, such as the 17-Mile Drive. You have to pay a toll of US$10.25 (S$13.50) per vehicle, but it is well worth the price to navigate the winding loop, which takes in Pebble Beach, championship golf courses, multimillion-dollar mansions and dramatic coastal cliffs.

Cruisin’ in Santa Cruz

Ice-cream cone in hand, we ambled along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com), the only major seaside amusement park on the US West Coast. Above us, candy-coloured gondolas glided along cables. The jaunty merry-go-round tune was frequently interrupted by piercing shrieks coming from the Giant Dipper, a hair-raising wooden roller-coaster ride that opened in 1924.

The carnival vibe of Santa Cruz, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco, makes for a carefree day trip, especially in summer. Pack your day with daredevil rides or simply people-watch on the beach. Stroll down the wharf and eat at the many seafood restaurants there. Listen out for the honks of sea lions sunning themselves on the jetty’s wooden joists.

The wharf comes alive especially in summer. Woodies On The Wharf (June 23; www.santacruzwoodies.com) is an annual car show that features more than 200 wood-bodied vehicles parked on the jetty. Or you can say “aloha” to an annual Polynesian festival (Aug 19; www.cityofsantacruz.com), which celebrates Santa Cruz’s ties to Hawaii. Cheer on an outrigger race while you hula to Polynesian music.

On Wednesday nights in summer, head to the beach for a free movie screening. With balmy sea breezes, twinkling lights from the theme park and a canopy of stars, there is no better way to end a midsummer night.

Wine and dine in Napa Valley

Napa Valley has over 400 wineries, but it has more to offer than its award-winning cabernets, merlots and chardonnays.

St Helena, 90 minutes by car from San Francisco and known as Napa Valley’s Main Street, possesses a small-town feel with historic buildings lining its narrow streets. We spent an enjoyable hour browsing shops such as Woodhouse Chocolate (www.woodhousechocolate.com), with the most delectable range of handmade chocolates, and Olivier Napa Valley (www.oliviernapavalley.com), which stocks a mind-boggling array of olive oil products.

Also in downtown St Helena are iconic wineries such as Merryvale Vineyards (www.merryvale.com) and Hall Wines (www.hallwines.com), which escaped the devastating wildfires that swept through the area last October and destroyed about 15 vineyards and 2,800 homes. Most unaffected wineries opened for business right after the fi res. Reservations for wine-tasting are highly recommended.

Not having a discerning wine palate, we decided to skip that and head to Oxbow Public Market (oxbowpublicmarket. com). The cavernous covered market houses food vendors selling anything from cheese to wood-fi red pizza and, of course, wine. We slurped up oysters at The Hog Island Oyster Bar, known for its hand-raised sustainable shellfish, but my favourite dish there was its rustic seafood stew, a version of the Italian-American cioppino originating from San Francisco.

In the summer, you can join in the festivities at the Festival Napa Valley (July 20 to 29; festivalnapavalley.org). The 10-day extravaganza involves 100 wineries and more than 60 events, which cover not just food and wine, but also music, theatre and the arts.

Also in summer is the annual grassroots music festival Napa Porchfest (July 29; napaporchfest.org), which showcases local musicians playing on the finest historical porches in town.

Wandering from porch to porch, admiring the beautiful architecture while swaying to live music in the sunshine, enjoying an ice-cream sandwich or an ice-cold lemonade — this is small-town America celebrating summer at its very best.

Getting there

I flew on United Airlines to San Francisco. From there, we rented a car for day trips. Drive times to Santa Cruz, Monterey and Napa Valley range from one to three hours, depending on traffic conditions.

Guidelines

■ Keep an eye out for speed limits and keep in mind that the speedometer shows the speed in miles, not kilometres.

■ GPS is essential for getting around, so make sure it is included when you book your rental car.

■ Daytime temperatures range from 22 to 25 deg C, but a hat and sunblock are essential. After the sun sets, temperatures dip to as low as 10 deg C, so do take along a jacket.

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