When our good friends Ellen and Brian moved to northern California last August, we knew that some changes were in store. Texts and emails and Facebook posts filtered in, painting a picture of their sunny new life spent lounging by the pool and taking long oceanfront drives and eating avocados.
By January, things had grown so dire that we feared they might start wearing Birkenstocks and meditating.
As it turns out, it was way worse than that.
They started hiking.
That's right: Two people who were known to jump in a cab rather than walk 10 blocks -- in other words, typical New Yorkers -- suddenly took up that most Californian of pursuits: Hiking. And they were determined to drag us down along with them.
They'd set for us a jam-packed itinerary of eating, drinking, sightseeing, and hiking (thankfully in that order), encompassing everything from the sea lions in Monterey to the surfer dudes in Santa Cruz to the redwood forest in Big Basin to the tech geeks in Silicon Valley.
Our adventure began on a sunny afternoon in San Jose with lunch at Village Bistro in Santana Row, an outdoor shopping area that would be just like one of the Hamptons, if everyone in the Hamptons wore hoodies and had invented some app that allows you to take sexy pictures of your cat, or whatever.
I got a little nervous when our waiter confirmed all my preconceived notions about Silicon Valley by showing up with this nerdy science beaker, but thankfully, it was full of rum punch. Whew.
Nothing says brunch like rum and fried squid, so we noshed on a huge plate of fried calamari to start, followed by an assortment of salads, seafood, eggs, and, later, a round of mojitos.
If you've already downed a few rum punches and mojitos for brunch, you'll need something to soak it all up . . . like a pina colada cake.
After lunch we milled about in the sunshine and peeked into the various shops.
You know about these Teslas, right? Only in Silicon Valley would someone show up to a meeting in a $100,000 car and a pair of rubber flip-flops.
As Ellen, Brian, and Angel perused the various shops, I mentally prepared a list of all the places I wanted to eat next time we were here.
Back at Ellen and Brian's new apartment, we took in the resort-like setting and marveled at their size of their closets. (Cat is for scale.)
Ellen and Brian's cats, Peaches and Daisy, are snuggly and sweet, but unfortunately one of them is addicted to kitty porn.
That evening Ellen had made reservations at Palacio in Los Gatos, which is housed in a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian constructed in 1891.
We settled in under the heat lamps on the outdoor patio and ordered a round of margaritas -- the hibiscus for Ellen and Brian, the watermelon for me, and the "caliente," with fresh muddled jalapeno and cucumber, for Angel.
Of course, a similarly-priced margarita in NYC comes in a glass whose size can best be compared to the plastic dosage cup attached to a bottle of cough syrup, so the look on Angel's face is understandable.
The service was a bit slow that evening, so each of us had downed two Big Gulp margaritas by the time the food arrived. As a result, I'm pretty sure my meal consisted of chips, salsa, enchilada sauce, all of the peas in Angel's paella, and a gallon of tequila.
The next morning was The Hike. Naturally, I prepared by donning white pants, a pair of ballet flats, and a cell phone at the ready to call for a taxi in case my pants got dirty.
Ellen wisely planned more of a nature walk than an actual hike, and she picked what is surely one of the most gorgeous parks in California: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is home to the largest continuous stand of ancient redwoods south of San Francisco.
A sign in the park helpfully provides some perspective on the height of the trees, noting that coast redwoods are roughly 379 feet tall, while the Statue of Liberty comes in at 289 feet and a Tyrannasaurus rex is 15 feet tall. So next time you see a T-Rex, you'll have some idea of just how tall these trees really are.
In addition to really tall trees, Big Basin also has over 80 miles of trails. And you might think that between two lawyers, one finance guy, and one publishing guy, that we would have enough combined brain power to distinguish left from right.
But you would be wrong. And so we were roughly halfway through the 12-mile hike to the beach before we realized that we hadn't seen another human being since we arrived and were probably going the wrong way. We were a little tired, and a lot hungry, and you know that you are getting loopy when instead of noticing all of the ancient redwoods surrounding us, someone notices a big yellow slug instead.
And so we retraced our steps, took another look at the directions, and headed for what we thought was the parking lot. Thankfully we were right, and we stumbled out of the woods exhausted but triumphant, like those people who get stranded in the wilderness and survive on tree sap and bird droppings for a month.
We probably should have collected some bird poop just in case, because by the time we dragged ourselves back to the car, it was well past lunchtime and we were famished. And so we raced back down the mountain toward Santa Cruz for lunch. Ellen and Brian spent the ride deciding where we should eat and where we should park, while Angel and I spent it deciding which one of them to eat first if the drive took longer than expected.
We soon found ourselves at the Crow's Nest, which thankfully had a salad bar. Angel and Brian stayed at the table to watch our bags, while Ellen and I attacked that salad bar like Gwyneth Paltrow after a juice cleanse.
This fabulous creation is called a Lava Flow, which is a pina colada swirled with strawberry "lava" puree. I'm not convinced there's actually any booze in it, but whipped cream can make up for a multitude of sins.
I ordered the local petrale sole in a cream sauce with asparagus and little trumpet mushrooms that were so cute I could barely stand to eat them. Then I remembered that I almost starved to death just an hour ago, so I gobbled up even the teensiest ones with nary a twinge of regret.
For his part, Angel went with the Hawaiian poke special, which was blackened and topped with lump crab meat.
After lunch we checked out the beach, where those crazy Californians were working out and playing sports instead of lounging in the sun.
Then again, it helps to be in good shape around here, just in case.
At least there was a bar. I was starting to worry there for a minute.
By now it was late afternoon, so we hopped back in the car and took a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.
The views from the PCH are gorgeous, of course, but the most amazing thing about it is what you don't see: McMansions. The prime real estate along this stretch of coastline -- from Santa Cruz north toward Half Moon Bay and Montara -- is utterly, gloriously pristine, dotted with strawberry fields and pumpkin farms and absolutely nothing else. And so we stopped here and there to breathe in the salty air and marvel at the untouched beauty of it all.
Our first stop along the PCH was at the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, situated on a bluff so breathtaking that it doesn't look real.
Sure, they charged us $10 just to park the car, and cocktails were $18 each, but cozy blankies and fire pits are priceless.
Despite having seen the redwood forest, the dramatic cliffs at Half Moon Bay, and, later in our trip, the justly famous beach at Monterey, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Ellen knew a restaurant would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip. That would be La Costanera, a contemporary Peruvian spot whose name translates to "the waterfront," overlooking the dramatic cliffs and crashing surf at Montara Beach.
Inside, the eclectic décor holds its own against the natural beauty just outside.
Besides the main dining room, La Costanera boasts cozy, fireplace-warmed nooks, a hip downstairs lounge, and an airy dining loft.
The food here leans toward the light and fresh -- a variety of ceviches, plus shrimp, scallops, calamari, and other seafood -- which was perfect, since we were all still stuffed from lunch.
But first we had to get Pisco'd.
A white brandy made from Muscat grapes, pisco originated in Lima, Peru, and therefore features prominently in many of La Costanera's cocktails. With its hints of apple, grape, and stone fruit, it also plays well with lime, mango, and other tropical juices.
We kicked things off with the addictive, salty plantain and yucca chips, followed by four bowls of the Kabocha squash soup with shrimp, queso fresco, a hint of pisco, and choclo, which are gigantic Peruvian corn kernels that look disturbingly like really big teeth.
Then it was on to an assortment of small plates. I decided on the snapper ceviche with leche de tigre, or tiger's milk, which is the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood.
Angel settled on the calamari stuffed with chorizo and rocoto pepper aioli, while Brian had the tuna ceviche and Ellen went with the tamarind barbecued shrimp.
And we all had another round of cocktails, of course.
Which was perfect timing for the spectacular sunset that evening.
After dinner, we retired to the outdoor patio. The air was cool and crisp, the fire pits provided just the right amount of heat, the crashing waves supplied the background music, and the conversation was of the boozy vacation variety ("What the hell am I doing with my life? Living on the beach in a tent would be GREAT!")
On Monday morning Angel and I set off for Napa Valley, ostensibly so we wouldn't be underfoot during Ellen and Brian's work week, but in reality so we could geek out at the wineries and gorge ourselves at the restaurants without judgment. At the end of the week we drove back down to San Jose and met up with Ellen and Brian for dinner, this time at El Jardin, an open-air hotspot in Santana Row.
There, we enjoyed live music, potent margaritas, and the biggest pile of chicken nachos you are likely to see outside of a Chili's.
On our last full day we headed south, to Monterey Bay. As described in John Steinbeck's book of the same name, the Cannery Row area of Monterey is "the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
The honky tonks and flophouses have been replaced by jewelry shops and Starbucks, but the restaurants remain, and one of the best is the Fish Hopper.
They had me at goldfish-bowl-sized cocktails.
Ellen must have pulled some serious strings to get us what was hands-down the best table in the house -- a roomy corner table surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides.
After much hemming and hawing over the dozens of cocktails on the Fish Hopper's list, I finally decided on the Monterey Passion, a tropical swirl of coconut rum, passion fruit rum, pineapple vodka, plus banana and melon liqueurs.
As usual, however, Ellen won the Best Drink Derby by a mile, literally flaming the competition.
Lunch began with the Fish Hopper's famous clam chowder, which has been voted Best Clam Chowder in Monterey County nine years in a row.
The only thing that could have made that chowder any better is serving it with a side of $100 bills.
That was followed by three orders of the macadamia-nut-crusted halibut with caramelized sweet potatoes for Ellen, Brian, and Angel, and the crab-and-shrimp stuff petrale sole with fava beans, mushrooms, artichokes, spinach, and a light saffron broth for me.
The clam chowder was small, and the fish was light, which is all I can think of to justify what happened next.
The irony is not lost on me that, after stuffing ourselves silly at lunch, we headed over to the pier to see the sea lions, an animal whose favorite pastime is flopping about on its giant belly.
The day was extraordinarily windy, which is always a problem for me because of my eyes, which Angel refers to as The Vortex. My eyes are big, and my eyelashes are freakishly long -- so long that I actually trimmed them once in junior high because they kept hitting the insides of my sunglasses. (You can just leave your hate mail in the comments.) Combined, they attract all manner of dirt, dust, and other assorted items (I have actually bitten into a potato chip and had the shrapnel end up in my eye). And so, "Wait, there's something in my eye" is the only phrase that I utter with more frequency than "Are you gonna eat that?"
Which explains why I tried to pry the helmet off this sculpture and attach it to my own head.
In the end it was a good thing I couldn't get it off, or I might have missed the spectacular scenery all around us.
In addition to the area's natural beauty, Monterey is full of quaint shops, small cafes, and manicured oceanfront parks.
Sometimes the best laid plans are no plans at all, and on our way to the pier we were thrilled to stumble upon the annual Monterey Rock & Rod Festival, featuring hundreds of classic cars and an old-fashioned sock hop.
The four of us nearly gave ourselves whiplash trying take in all the fins and fuzzy dice, while the band played "Trac(e)y" by The Cufflinks.
And just when I thought things couldn't get any better, one of the car's owners approached me and asked if I'd like to sit in the car and have my photo taken. While wearing a FABULOUS FAUX FUR. Is that even a question? Not even bothering to open the door, I hopped through the open window Dukes of Hazzard-style, flung my new fur over my shoulders, urged Ellen to jump into the passenger seat, and savored every minute of our "Thelma and Louise" re-enactment.
We couldn't believe our luck when a second car owner invited us to sit inside, this time in a bubblegum pink confection called the Pink Lady.
As Angel posed in the driver's seat, the owner asked me, "Is that your husband?" When I answered yes, she good-naturedly elbowed me in the ribs and said saucily, "Luckyyy! Look at that smile!" Yes, he's very cute. When he isn't making fun of The Vortex or refusing to give me half his dinner.
We made our final rounds, delighting in the shiny fenders, gleaming fins, and funky hood ornaments.
Although the car show had been great, our reason for visiting Monterey had been to see the sea lions, and so we headed back over towards the water. . .very carefully.
As we walked along Ellen looked in all their usual haunts, and right when I started to worry that they'd all gone home for the day, we heard the unmistakable honk of the sea lion, which can best be described as a cross between an irate duck, my sinuses on a bad day, and a kazoo.
Besides the sound, we were also completely unprepared for how playful they are. Like slippery, overgrown puppies, the sea lions chased each other around, performed back flips and side floats, and flopped onto their backs -- and over each other -- to bask in the sunshine.
I could have watched the sea lions frolicking all day, but more sights beckoned, and so we took a quick trip down the pier to check out the shops, as well as the restaurants' free samples of clam chowder. Sure, I was already stuffed from lunch, but somebody had to make sure the Fish Hopper's chowder really deserved all those awards.
As we strolled along, we spotted this animal trying to swallow a Chihuahua whole. Is it a giant wolf-dog? A small, mangy horse? Let's just compromise and call it a Dorse.
Soon it was time to head back to San Jose. We had dinner reservations for that evening at a restaurant in nearby Saratoga, but the day had been so filled with fun and sun and wind that none of us were feeling up to changing for dinner by the time we made it back home.
So we decided to get kinky in the hot tub instead.
Get your mind out of the gutter, would you? I'm just talking about booze . . . again.
In fact, we were so exhausted that I had just enough time to eat half of a large pepperoni pizza and cozy up on the couch for the first half-hour of "Jurassic Park" before I completely passed out. (As Brian lamented the next day, "You didn't even get to see anyone get eaten!")
Our flight was scheduled to leave the next afternoon, so we had time for one more meal before heading home. And because she is a good and true friend, Ellen agreed to forego a normal brunch and take me here instead:
You didn't really expect me to leave Cali without trying one, or four, did you?
One burger tasted like a second one, so Angel went back up to the counter to order us another round.
Sure, two burgers and a mound of fries aren't the healthiest of breakfasts, but now I get it: That's what hiking is for.
Next up, a wine-soaked trip to the Napa Valley, a rum-soaked trip to Key West, and another sweat-soaked summer in the Hamptons!