California Splendor: Sierras, Whales, Bridges, and Lakes
By Mary Charlebois
When I was asked to experience and review an escorted tour of some of California’s most scenic regions, my first instinct was no, no, no. Images of tour buses packed with 55 complaining passengers said NO!
The PR folks making the request were people I had worked with and respected. So I listened and learned the tour was nothing like I imagined.
There would be no more than 10-passengers in a roomy, Wi-Fi-equipped touring van; luxury accommodations in spectacular settings at the end of each day’s hike, top-shelf food and libations, naturalist guides, flexible itinerary, built-in free-time, no driving, and some of the best hiking in California. I was in.
Day 1 – San Francisco
The tour group met in San Francisco’s Japantown at Kimpton Buchanan, a jewel box, small boutique hotel. That evening during happy hour, I met my traveling companions, seven Brits, and American driver/guide, Julie.
We walked together to dinner at Palmers, a San Francisco pub serving west coast fare in the Filmore District. The food, wine, and conversation were lively. I relaxed; I was in good company with two couples and four singles.
Day 2 – Monterey
After breakfast, we got our first look at our transport for the next six days, a 12-passenger touring van. Julie performed a magic trick and got all our bags in the cargo space in the back.
Onboard we had plenty of seating options and lots of overhead storage.
In Monterey, some folks walked the bay trail. I wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf, had calamari, talked to some fisherman, and photographed everything.
That afternoon, we re-grouped and went whale watching on Monterey Bay. What a bonanza. We saw not only pod after pod of whales, but hundreds of seals and sea lions all feeding on the shrimp and small fish that were prolific in the warm weather. Our Captain stayed out an extra hour, even he was amazed at the wild feeding frenzy.
My British companions were feeling jet-lagged and unfit for dinner. I went to the hotel’s pub on my own where I had a shrimp salad and the best martini ever. Ironically, I had worked with the bartender years earlier. We chatted about the old days on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Casa Munras, our hotel, was a place I dreamed of staying when I lived and worked in Monterey as a young woman. My room had a soaking tub. I used it.
Day 3—4 – Yosemite
From Monterey, we headed to Yosemite for two nights and two days of hiking, biking, or an optional float trip on the Merced River. We stopped along the way and bought picnic provisions to share in a park in the Sierra town of Mariposa.
Our home for two nights, Rush Creek Lodge, is located outside the park. The resort-like property is luxurious and rustic at the same time.
Pools, hot tubs, restaurants, entertainment, and miles of trails are set in a Sierra conifer forest. It was a welcome respite after hiking to Yosemite’s Vernal Falls.
Day 5—6 – Lake Tahoe
We moved on to Lake Tahoe for two nights and two days. The group took the Mount Tallac Trail into the forest. Scenic ridgelines, small alpine lakes, and wildflower meadows were our reward.
We took advantage of free time to enjoy Lake Tahoe in our own style. Some lazed on the hotel’s beach, others hit the casinos or tried the spa. A sunset champagne cruise topped our final evening in Tahoe.
Day 7 – San Francisco
A walk across the Golden Gate Bridge was spectacular. From that height, it’s easy to see how wild the Pacific is while watching ships leave the bay, pass under the bridge, and head into open water.
Most of the group stayed another night at the Buchanan. After 7-days so close together, we had formed friendships and found common ground. Highlights were reviewed, and email addresses exchanged. Vows of “We’ll have to do this again,” and “We’ll get together when you’re in London” were affirmed.
How was the tour?
The tour was excellent. The small group of eight formed a congenial band. The destinations were a perfect combination of wilderness and city. Each of our hikes and walks was led by a Naturalist from the area sharing with us their in-depth knowledge of Mother Nature.
During the day we immersed in the outdoors, at night, we relaxed in luxury accommodations with delicious meals and local libations. I never waited in line. I was never rushed to move along. My companions didn’t complain. Our tour leader wsn’t a control freak. I didn’t have to drive, haul my bags, or plan anything. I’ve been an independent, solo traveler for most of my adult life, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed the tour and leaving the planning to someone else.
The tour operator, Grand American Adventures, attention to detail, a network of destinations, outfitters, and years of experience made the trip effortless, unique, and immersive. The British company is a specialist in escorted and equipped tours of the Americas. Regional experts are used to leading hikes, wildlife viewing, immersion activities, and provide all equipment needed.
Grand American Adventures plans and facilitates trips to Alaska, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Galapagos, Peru, and the USA.
Choose a small group tour for your style of travel. Select from active or laid-back excursions. In a van, on a small ship, or wilderness camping, there is a style or destination you can’t resist.
Give a small group tour a try. No matter which destination calls to you, sit back, relax, and leave the itinerary, transportation, and equipment in experienced hands while you chat with your companions, watch the world stream by or simply take a nap on the way to your next adventure.
Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.