Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wine Tasting in the Guadalupe Valley

Tuesday, May 23, Guadalupe Valley Wine Tasting and Border Crossing at Tecate.

A family style breakfast is served at 7:30 A.M. in the large dining hall. The self serve coffee is weak but the omelet’s are loaded with bacon, vegetables and ample cheese. When I’m in the U.S.A. I avoid red meat and pork, but am not a fussy traveler and I enjoy the hearty morning fare. A serving bowl of cubed watermelon and plates of toast are passed around the table. 

Marty on the Porch of the Original Meling Ranch Farmhouse

Horned Lizard, Meling Ranch
Closeup of Horned Lizard

While Art packs, I settle the very reasonable bill. Our room was $66 dollars, lunch $2 each, dinner $15 each and breakfast $8 each. The tequila shots were $3 each, the beer $1 and the half bottle of wine free. I leave a generous tip in the community tip can and Art takes photos of me on the front porch of the original Meling Ranch house. He calls attention to a horned lizard warming itself in the morning sun and I tiptoe close so as not to frighten it and take many photos, moving closer with each shot. As a young girl, camping and living with my parents in the California deserts, my father would frequently bring me a transient horned lizard as a pet. The rules that were we never kept these wild creatures more than a day or two but I could be entertained for hours with a horned toad lizard as my companion. I would sit in the dirt, cradle the lizard upside down in the palm of my small hand and stroke it’s belly.  There are not many things softer or plumper than a lizard belly and horned lizards are extremely docile and will fall asleep in this position. Feeding time was another favorite activity of mine, although, the ants certainly did not feel the same way. I would crouch in the dirt near an ant hill, lizard in one hand and tweezers in the other and snatch ants from the army and offer the wiggling insect to the lizard. The lizards would chow down greedily and consume dozens of ants at each feeding. 

The drive back down the mountain to the main highway takes an hour. We pass a snake in the road and stop to investigate. It is not injured but warming itself on the pavement and we encourage it to move to a safer basking ground. We pass several other snakes, also basking on the pavement and I want to rescue them all but Art is anxious to get mileage traction and there is virtually no traffic on this mountain road. We presume that just as we see the snakes far in advance and swerve to avoid them, others will do so too. When we reach Highway 1, we drive North towards Ensenada. In the sprawling outskirts of Ensenada, we look for the turn off to Highway 3 North towards Tecate but get confused and mistakingly follow signs for Highway 3 South. After much confusion and some disharmony, we get back on route, pass through the heart of the Ensenada tourist district and find the correct Highway 3 turn junction on the Northern side of Ensenada. 

Within a few minutes we are in the heart of the Guadalupe Valley. At almost every dirt road and intersection there are uniform blue signs pointing to the wineries along the road. We do not have a wine guide or map and are clueless about which ones to visit. After our unplanned Ensenada detour we are both feeling annoyed and  frustrated but before we blow past all of the wineries, I insist that Art pull over. He turns off onto a dirt road with several blue signs and “suggests” that I drive. I head back along the highway about a mile and randomly choose a road with an abundance of blue signs pointing to various wineries. We park in the vacant parking lot of one and stroll from the parking lot along the edge of a picturesque vineyard and into their upscale tasting room. It is nearly 3:00 P.M. and we want lunch as well as wine tastings but their restaurant is closed during the week. The woman directs us to the Finca Altozano winery and restaurant a mile back on Highway 3 and gives me, what will prove to be a rare wine guide and map.  We retrace our route and spot the blue sign at the dirt road where Art pulled off earlier. A mile down the dirt road we arrive at the restaurant. 

Finca Altozano Restaurant and Vineyard
Finca Altozano Restaurant

The moment we walk into the stylish open air restaurant overlooking acres of vineyards, our aggravations over missed turns and with each other, abate. It is after 3:00 P.M. and there are a dozen patrons enjoying good food and the ambience of this casual open air restaurant.

Finca Altozano Kitchen

We are handed weighty menus and an extensive wine list and peruse our options carefully. The caramelized brussels sprouts, field green salad with local goat cheese and the house made sausage call to us. Art adds a fresh pasta dish to our order and I choose a glass of Torres Alegre French Colombard- Chenin Blanc. Since Art is designated driver, i am designated wine drinker, but he shares sips of the Colombard and my subsequent glass of Guadalupe Valley Pinot Noir. The meal is extraordinary and the wine paring perfect and our afternoon blissful. 

Field Greens and Goat Cheese

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts 

Although we can buy the Torres Alegre wine here, we set out in search of the vineyard, stopping at two other tasting rooms along the way.  At Torres Alegre, we share in a wine tasting and purchase two  bottles of the Colombard to take home. The Vintner seems only slightly disappointed that he doesn't sell us higher end bottles but we are both smitten with this crisp sweet wine and there is a 1000 ml. limit on Alcohol brought from Mexico into the U.S.A. 

Torres Alegre Vineyard
Torres Alegre Wine Tasting Room

We pass through Tecate shortly after 6:00 P.M. The border crossing is a breeze and we wait less than 10 minutes to pass. We declare our two bottles of wine and are waved through. An hour later we reach San Diego and check into a budget hotel along the Hotel Circle Drive. 

We take two more days to drive between San Diego and Santa Cruz. We spend one afternoon visiting a friend in Tustin and an evening with friends in Victorville. Our final day driving between Victorville and up interstate 5 is long and tedious and in spite of the wide highway, I find sharing the road with endless rushing semi-trucks stressful. We  arrive home safely, Thursday evening at 7:00 P.M. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Meling Ranch - A Trip Back in Time

Monday, May 22nd, San Quintin to the Meling Ranch

I take advantage of the hotel’s wi-fi and in spite of Art’s quiet grumbling, I make a reservation for tonight at the Meling Ranch at the foot of the San Pedro Martir National Park. In 1932 my father, who was not quite 15 years old, went with his father, a professor of romance languages at Pomona College, on a trip to the Meling Ranch in Northern Baja. My grandfather was needed as translator for Professor A.O.”Woody,” a geologist who was doing field work in the rugged ranges above the ranch. My father’s extended stay there and the field trips he went on from there were what inspired him to become a geologist. Having heard numerous stories about his experiences at the ranch and his continued connection to the area over decades, I want to visit it first hand and continue the family tradition.

Turn off to the Meling Ranch Founded in 1910
Road Down to the Meling Ranch

After packing up, Art and I drive an hour north from San Quintin; stop for breakfast and fill up with gas before we turn off at San Telemo to drive to the Meling Ranch. It takes us an hour and a half to drive 50 kilometers along the ascending winding road but we arrive at the ranch before noon. The Meling Ranch was founded in 1910 and is a 10,000 acre working cattle ranch with few yuppy amenities. It is a step back in time guest ranch that has been passed down through generations.

Meling Ranch Dining Room
Meling Ranch Hearth

We park and walk towards the one sign that indicate “office;” a large communal dining room with an immense copper hooded hearth and long wood hewn tables that can accommodate many guests. A cheerful, Spanish speaking only cook is in the kitchen when we arrive and I struggle to communicate. Ten minutes later, she points us to room number 5, a short walk from the main dining hall. Our room is quaint, simple and comfortable with a king size bed and a private bathroom.  Art retires to the room to rest while I explore the grounds. Nowadays there is a pool, an expansive lawn and with advanced reservations, one can arrange for early morning activities. Horse back riding trips are only $15 an hour and there are guided trips into the national park and up to the observatory.

Meling Ranch Guest Rooms
Hot Dog on the Meling Ranch Porch

Communication is difficult since minimal English is spoken but I arrange for a 1:30 lunch in the picturesque dining room. My tostada and Art’s burrito are delicious but I have no idea how much these will cost? (when I pay the bill the following morning, I am charged $2.00 each for our meals:) 

Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park

The afternoon is hot but I insist on driving up to the San Pedro Martir National Park, another 50 kilometer ascent up the winding, cliff hanging road. Gratefully, we do not pass any other vehicles on this precarious road and we arrive at the national park an hour later. We sign the register and pay our 64 pesos each to continue into the arid pine forest park. The park pamphlet informs us that condors and big horned sheep reside here. I wish to visit the observatory at 10,157 feet which is the second most important observatory in Latin America but we find that the gates are padlocked and that visiting hours ended at 1:00 P.M. Disappointed, we drive back slowly, taking a few dirt road bypasses in hopes of catching a breathtaking view of the valley below. At the visitors center, I stop to ask about hiking trails and find myself out of breath and this door padlocked as well. It takes a few synapses for me to understand why I feel so light headed; sea level to 10,000 feet in just a few hours. 

View of the Valley Below
Detail of a Pine Tree

Back at the Meling Ranch, Art rests before dinner. I wander into the vacant dining room, hoping to buy a glass of wine with intentions of relaxing outside on the grassy lawn, sipping wine and writing this blog. In broken English, I am informed that there is just 1/2 bottle of already open wine available. Last night, eight Swiss guests purchased the only three available bottles. Somewhat desperate, I ask to buy the half open bottle and it is handed to me free of charge. It’s not awful and Art and I share the meager allotment before dinner.

At 6:30 p.m. a dinner gong sounds and the few ranch guests gravitate towards the communal dining room. I envy the party of 8 Swiss travelers who have brought a large box of red table wine to share. (I eye the volume label on the box which lists 32 glasses.) The previous night this group of Swiss travelers depleted the Meling Ranch of it’s meager stash of 3 bottles of wine but they were wise enough to bring a back up. We are all sitting together at a long dining table but unfortunately, they don’t offer us a glass of their boxed wine in spite of my flippant mention that they consumed all of the ranch’s available wine the previous night. The night is warm and I am more or less satiated with a beer. The ranch has a finger or two of tequila on it’s shelf and Art and I order after dinner shots of tequila. Had we known that the ample shots of tequila were only $3.00 each, we might have indulged until the bottle was empty. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

San Ignacio to San Quintin

Sunday, May 21st, San Ignacio to Catavina to San Quintin

Baja Cactus

Baja Cactus

White Knuckling Drive - Sharing the Highway with Big Rig Trucks

Today is another long haul along a white knuckle two lane highway with big rigs coming straight towards us with just inches to pass. The scenery however is jaw dropping and Art and I laugh at the quirky and diverse ‘Dr.Seuss’ cactus that scroll by our window. We stop several times to immerse and inspect the unusual vegetation along this route. Fields of a pinkish red ground cover blanket hillsides and on a closer inspection, this ground cover consists of millions of flower buds, each with many corpulent pustules bursting with liquid and beauty. How on earth does the desert capture this much liquid to supply these fields of succulent blossoms? 

Pink Succulent Ground Cover
Detail of Succulent Blossom

Catavina is a dot on the Baja map in a breathtakingly beautiful rocky valley of immense boulders and rock piled hillsides. Hotel Mission Catavina, the only hotel, is a comfortable modern oasis in the middle of nowhere. Although not particularly charming it offers air conditioned comfort; a pool, bar and restaurant. We are a bit road weary and would like to call it a day but we have a tentative date to meet with Fred and Cheryl in San Quintin tonight. After a 30 minute break for the bathroom at the hotel and snacks at a local market, we power on.

Catavina Boulders and Cactus
Baja Cactus

We arrive on the Pacific side of Baja in San Quintin by 6:00 P.M. I spot the sign for the El Jardine Hotel and Art turns off and drives the mile long dirt road, fringed with nopale cactus farms.

Nopale Cactus Farm, San Quintin

We stayed here in January of 2016 and it was lovely; manicured grounds, secure parking, comfortable rooms, nice restaurant and bar and reasonable prices. Unfortunately they are fully booked tonight but I ask the desk attendant how to get to the Wagon Wheel Hotel? He looks confused and suggests that I might be inquiring about the Old Mill Hotel? I quickly agree, realizing that I have incorrectly pictured a wheel rather than a wind mill. He directs us to the Old Mill, several miles away and when we arrive, we see Fred and Cheryl unloading their truck and settling into their simple room. The manager welcomes us with gusto, offers us free beers as a welcome drink but I boldly ask for margaritas instead. We settle into a worn but clean $50 room and are soon sitting outside our respective doors drinking our welcome Margaritas with Fred and Cheryl. The Old Mill sits directly on the inlet bay and Art and I wander down to the waterfront; embrace the touristy and tattered shark sculpture and an hour later, join Fred and Cheryl for dinner at the Old Mill Hotel. The gregarious and now quite drunk manager is also the cook but he has a gourmet flare and he prepares the four of us surprisingly good dinners!

Tattered and Tacky Shark Sculpture
The Manager and Cook, The Old Mill

Fishermen Enjoying drinks, Old Mill

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bay of Conception to San Ignacio

Saturday, May 20th. Loretto, the Bay of Conception and onto San Ignacio.

After sharing an omelet in a cafe across from the Loreto Cathedral, Art and I begin our drive to San Ignacio. 

Loreto Town Square
Green Archway, Loreto

There is a military check point a few miles outside of Loreto and as we approach, we watch a couple, two cars ahead during their inspection. They are asked to step out of the car and Art comments that the man looks like Fred, a Zacatitos neighbor of ours. When it is our turn, we are also asked to get out of the car and our vehicle is carefully inspected. The two police go through our glove box, console, tap on door panels and rummage through bags of snacks. They are most interested in the cooler and a partial bottle of wine and in retrospect, perhaps we should have just offered the wine to them? One soldier questions me outside the right front of of our vehicle and the other questions Art at the left rear of the vehicle. Do I have any drugs or guns? Where are we going and where have we been? I do not feel particularly anxious but it is the most through inspection we’ve encountered. They do not inspect my purse or either Art’s or my luggage but we watch soldiers take a screw driver and prod the panels of the car adjacent to ours. As we drive away from the checkpoint we see Fred’s and Cheryl’s truck stopped at a turn out and Art pulls over. We all laugh at the coincidence of meeting and decide to connect two night hence at the El Jardine Hotel in San Quintin. Fred mentions that should the El Jardine be fully booked, their back up hotel is the Old Mill. 

Dirt Road down to a deserted beach, Conception Bay
Conception Bay Beach

Art and I drive on and enjoy a fabulous morning stopping at deserted beaches along the Bay of Conception. The water is the color of Paraiba Tourmaline, each cove more beautiful and intoxicating than the last. We choose one beach with a dirt access road dropping down to a white pristine sand beach. We park on the hard packed sand of this crescent bay, alone and amazed at the isolated beauty. It is truly paradise and we wade into the crystal clear and bathwater warm water. 

Conception Bay Beach

We stop again a few miles further along to explore a secluded mangrove forest. This beach is pebbly and we walk carefully along a shallow breakwater out to a mangrove island. The water is ankle deep and the submerged rocks are slippery and our footsteps startle small rays buried in sandy spots in the shallow water. The pristine, pebbly shoreline is littered with bleached and broken shells. One could spend days along the Conception Bay, camping, kayaking and beach walking.

Art walking a natural beach breakwater
Startled Ray in the shallow water.

Mangrove Beach, Conception Bay
Rocky Mangrove Beach

We tear ourselves away from the magic of the Conception Bay beaches and drive onto Mulege at the north end of the bay and detour into Mulege for lunch. We spent the night here on our road trip down a year and a half ago and return to the same “Gringo” restaurant and share a Thai vegetable and chicken stir fry. Although tasty enough, it’s more like an iItalian stir fry and the vegetables are  seriously lacking. From Mulege we wind inland and arrive in the Oasis town of San Ignacio by 3:00 P.M. 

We are seriously tempted to push on to San Quintin but San Ignacio is preparing for a fiesta tonight. A sound stage, tables and chairs are being set up in the Zocalo and we inquire and learn that the festivities will start at 10:00 P.M. and the party will continue until early morning. We decide that we will stay the night if we can find a hotel? Just a block away from the Zocalo is a brand new hotel with a $39 rate for a king sized bed in a spacious and immaculate room. We relax in our air-conditioned room, check e-mail and F.B. and take late afternoon naps in preparation for tonight’s fiesta. Caged peacocks are a dubious feature of this hotel and their blood curdling cry pierce out afternoon naps. 

We wake about 8:00 P.M., shower and dress for the fiesta and walk into town to find dinner. There are just two restaurants choices and we opt for ‘Victors’, to the left of the Cathedral. We sit at one of their three  outdoor white plastic tables and I order a glass of red wine and Art a margarita. Regretfully, we do not take the waiters suggestion of the freshly caught fish but choose to share fish and shrimp tacos. Although the food is disappointing we are in good spirits and move across the street to a bench in the Zocalo and watch the unfolding of the fiesta. 

Fiesta Time, San Ignacio
Dancing at the San Ignacio Fiesta

San Ignacio Fiesta
This event is a family affair and packs of children cavort and couples walk arm in arm, most of the women wearing unbearably high heels and many of the men sporting cowboy hats and boots. Young men lean nonchalantly against their trucks watching the girls and drinking beer. Groups of shy teens at the beginning of the evening pair off as the night progresses and there is love and promise in the warm night air. Initially, there are speeches, presumably tedious, but perhaps I should not surmise this since my Spanish is minimal. Eventually the dancing begins and most of the couples are well versed in dancing to what i would describe as “Mexican Polka music.” Art and I dance some but even in my flat sandals, I seem to have two left feet when it comes to keeping step with this music. It is 1:30 A.M. before we tire and walk back to our hotel to drift off to the distant music from the Zocalo and the occasional screams of the caged hotel peacocks. We are told that the fiesta will continue until 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

La Paz to Loreto

Friday, May 19th - La Paz to Loreto

Morning along the La Paz Malecon
Pearl Monument, La Paz

In spite of our ‘alarming’ and interrupted night’s sleep, I feel rested and look forward to our long drive to Loreto. We are showered, dressed and walking the malecon by 7:30 A.M. but the cafes won’t open until 8:00 A.M. At 8:00 a.m. we choose the only open cafe and are soon sipping on our respective cappuccino and espresso and sharing a vegetable omelet.  Although both La Paz and Loreto are on the Sea of Cortez, the only highway connecting the two winds inland and north through Ciudad Constitution and Ciudad Insurgents. It’s a long haul and we make a lunch stop in Ciudad insurgents, fill up with gas and continue onward. Having heard that there is considerable military and police presence there, Art is happy to be through these two cities without incident. The two lane highway winds back through the high desert and pops out on the dramatic coastline just below Loreto. The view is stunning with Islands floating offshore in the brilliant blue Sea of Cortez. 

View Point - Sea of Cortez

It is not quite 3:00 p.m. when we near Loreto and we have time to visit the San Xavier Mission, 35 kilometers into the rugged mountains above Loreto. We stop at view points along the winding mountain road and an hour later, arrive at the picturesque oasis village of San Xavier and visit the beautiful stone mission, founded in 1699. 

San Xavier Mission

Alter, San Xavier Mission
Marty, San Xavier Mission

The single street of the village is paved with cobblestones; there are two or three restaurants, a simple guest house and flowers bloom in every garden.  After visiting the mission, we drive a few back roads behind the village, ford a trickle of a creek and get a sense of the place. 

Back Roads behind San Xavier Mission

Because our return road trip is off season and our schedule is flexible so we have not made advanced hotel reservations along the way. I drive us into the heart of Loreto; Art pops out and inquires about rates and availability at a hotel a block from the Loreto mission; $40 for the night. Before committing we decide to see if La Damiana Inn has availability, which they do, and we pay the ‘exorbitant’  price of $50 for a darling two room guest cottage in their courtyard garden. There are inviting hammocks, wrought iron tables, and an outdoor kitchen with coffee and a jug of hibiscus tea for the guests. We made reservations here for January of 2017 and stayed in a two bedroom upstairs room on our road trip down with John and Will. The Inn was full then but tonight, only one other couple is booked here. 

Our La Damiana Casita
Our La Damiana Casita

Shared Kitchen, La Damiana Inn, Loreto

After checking e-mail, Art and I wander out to the Zocalo, just steps away from La Damiana Inn and begin our search for dinner. We wander the three blocks down to the water and stroll along the quiet waterfront. The early evening light casts a golden glow on the street and the Sea of Cortez reflects a steely blue. We choose a corner restaurant and have a quiet but decent dinner. Our margaritas are a far cry from the strong ones at Zac's that are made with fresh lime and Controy, (the Mexican version of the French liquor, Cointreau,) and in my case jalapeños, but my fresh fish and sautéed vegetables and Art’s seafood pasta are both good.