What a ‘post-COVID’ trip to California wine country looks like now
In early June, my wife and I decided to venture out of our “COVID cave” and go on a short vacation, our first in a year. We had originally booked to visit the Hawaiian island of Kauai but had to cancel. Among other reasons, the only rental car we were able to find a Tesla for $ 550 a day.
So, like most Americans, we have readjusted our expectations. Instead of a tropical trip on a bucket list, we set our sights on a “fully vaccinated” driving vacation two hours from our Los Angeles home. (We didn’t take our vaccination cards, and no one asked to see the copies we had on our phones.)
We decided to take a 120 mile road trip through the Santa Ynez wine country, California the first week of June. We went there mid-week which reassuringly always has the best deals. I found a rate of $ 89 per night at Side hostel in Buellton, California on Zoo trip (I’m going out for $ 99 for the king-size bed).
We love the movie NEXT TO, about the comedic misadventures of a pair of mismatched friends on a last bachelor’s trip to wine country, so it sounded like fun. We added one night to the Lavender Inn By The Sea at Santa Barbara for just over $ 200.
Luckily this was a one-time tank trip as I paid LA $ 4.50 per gallon ($ 63) prior to departure. Gas prices are at a 7 years high nationwide, the highest of all in California. As we would soon find out, restaurant prices were on the rise, while hotels were cutting costs by skimping on cleaning.
Santa Barbara was always so cool and beautiful. Cycling (included at Lavender) around the beach and harbor was a highlight. Have lunch watching the waves from Longboard grill on the dock was a close second.
But longboarding has also illustrated the uneven state of the tourist economy. I hovered over a young waitress telling the bartender that she and another waiter had 15 on their last shift; 15 people between them, not 15 tables.
Our hotel clerk said there were long waits in town for dinner as service workers like cooks and waiters were scarce. A waiter at a seaside fish restaurant said Memorial Day broke all sales records. But on “mild” (slow) nights, they closed before 9pm to save money on wages. Of course, this would leave tourists arriving late in the embarrassment.
We had a different service issue at the popular AJ Spurs Steakhouse in Buellton, a funky cowboy-style place with mounted game and a stuffed buffalo. We waited on the hostess podium for about 20 minutes. It was run by the owner, who told us about his problems getting servers or even Heinz ketchup. This spring, in the face of inflation, he had no choice but to start charging $ 40 per steak, which he had tried to avoid. Fortunately, our delicious steak was big enough to split. Better yet, they had held the line on the drinks. A stiff martini was $ 10 and my Cadillac Margarita was $ 12.
Likewise, when we visited the neighboring Danish tourist village of Solvang there were long lines at shops and restaurants. Many had signs on the windows saying “Hep wanted”.
Nonetheless, we were able to benefit from friendly and knowledgeable service at lunch and dinner, as well as during wine tastings. Breakfast, included at both hotels, was another matter.
Thanks to COVID, there was no large breakfast in a shared dining room, or people grabbing food from warmer platters up close. At Sideways, we were given a few (cold) breakfast choices on an order we placed the day before. In the morning, a white bag with an apple, a banana, yogurt, a croissant, a bagel and fresh cheese was delivered to us “contactless” to our room.
Breakfast was ok and the room, right in front of the pool, was nice. You had to book to swim in the pool which was not a problem as the hotel was empty mid week. There was a sign warning you not to move pool chairs because they were “socially distanced”.
What has been irritating was the hotel’s inability to make up or clean the room during our two night stay due to the ‘COVID protocol’. Hopefully this unwanted trend will go away as the “reopening” continues. I ended up throwing out our pizza boxes myself rather than living with them while we were there.
We enjoyed wine tastings in urban (Santa Barbara) and wine-growing (Buellton, Solvang) environments. But other than an urban vineyard in Santa Barbara where we walked from our hotel, we never really solved the drinking and driving problem. For example, we had heard this brick barn, on the outskirts of Buellton, hosted an evening of live music and tastings. We thought we would walk there from Sideways and pick up a Lyft or an Uber. It turned out that the walk on a freeway was longer and warmer than we expected.
As we finished our tasting, I tried to summon an Uber or a Lyft. Both said: “No car available.” The availability and pricing issue of the COVID era is one that Dara Khosrowshah, CEO of Uber himself unfortunately noted, blaming a slow return from drivers.
So we went home. Better than a $ 20,000 DUI (after lawyers, fines, insurance etc) but still boring. Unless someone is willing to serve as a designated driver, I would recommend checking local carpooling availability or going on a wine tour first.
Perhaps our most enjoyable visit to the winery was Blackjack Ranch and Vineyards. We traded stories with the sommelier, herself a former Brooklynite, and saw photos and stories from the Ranch on SIDEWAYS. My wife enjoyed the tasting and I took a sip. We bought an excellent Maximus Syrah to take home.
Overall our vacation was fun and not too stressful. But when you go on your own “post-COVID” getaway, be sure to exercise patience.