What A ‘Post-COVID’ Trip To California Wine Country Is Like Now
At the beginning of June, my wife and I decided to venture out of our “COVID cave” and go on a brief vacation, our first in a year. We originally had reservations to visit the Hawaiian island of Kauai but had to cancel. Among other reasons, the only rental car we could find was a Tesla for $550 a day.
So, like most Americans, we re-adjusted our expectations. Instead of a bucket-list tropical trip, we set our sights on a “fully vaccinated” driving vacation two hours from our Los Angeles home. (We did not take our vaccination cards, and no one asked to see the copies we had on our phones.)
We decided on a 120-mile road trip to wine country in Santa Ynez, CA, the first week in June. We went in mid-week, which, reassuring, still offers the best deals. I found an $89 a night rate at the Sideways Inn in Buellton, CA on Travel Zoo (I spring for $99 for the king-size bed).
We enjoy the movie SIDEWAYS, about the comic misadventures of a pair of mismatched friends on a last bachelor trip to wine country, so it sounded like fun. We added a night at the Lavender Inn By The Sea in Santa Barbara for just over $200.
Good thing it was single tank trip, as I paid $4.50 a gallon in LA ($63) before departure. Gas prices are at a 7-year high nationally, highest of all in California. As we would soon find, restaurant prices were up, while hotels cut costs by skimping on cleaning.
Santa Barbara was as cool and beautiful as ever. Riding bikes (included at the Lavender) around the beach and harbor was a highlight. Eating lunch while watching the waves from Longboard’s Grill on the wharf was a close second.
But Longboard’s also illustrated the uneven state of the tourist economy. I overhead one young waitress telling the bartender that she and another server 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 short supply. A waiter at a seaside fish restaurant said Memorial Day broke all sales records. But on “mellow” (slow) nights, they would close before 9pm to save money on wages. Of course, this would leave any late-arriving tourists in the lurch.
We had a different service problem at the popular A.J. Spurs Steakhouse in Buellton, a funky cowboy-style place featuring mounted game and a stuffed buffalo. We waited at the hostess podium for about 20 minutes. It was manned by the owner, who told of us of his problems getting servers or even Heinz ketchup. This spring, contending with inflation, he’d had no choice but to start charging $40 per steak, something he had tried to avoid. Fortunately, our delicious steak was big enough to split. Even better, they’d held the line on drinks. A stiff martini was $10, and my Cadillac Margarita $12.
Similarly, when we visited the nearby Danish tourist village of Solvang, there were some long lines at the stores and restaurants. Many had signs on the windows reading, “Hep wanted.”
Still, we were able to get friendly, competent service for lunch and dinner, as well as at the wine tastings. Breakfast, included at both hotels, was another matter.
Thanks to COVID, there was no hearty breakfast in a communal dining room, or people grabbing food from warmer trays at close quarters. At Sideways, we were given a few (cold) breakfast choices on an order we put out the night before. In the morning, a white bag with an apple, a banana, some yoghurt, a croissant, bagel and cream cheese was delivered “contactlessly” to our room.
Breakfast was OK, and the room, right outside the pool, was nice. You had to make a reservation to swim in the pool, not a problem as the hotel was empty mid-week. A sign warned you not to move the pool chairs, as they were ‘socially distanced.’
What was irritating was the hotel’s failure to make up or clean up the room during our two-night stay due to “COVID protocol.” Hopefully this unwelcome trend will go away as “re-opening” rolls on. I ended up tossing out our pizza boxes myself rather than live with them for our stay.
We enjoyed wine tastings at both urban (Santa Barbara) and winery (Buellton, Solvang) settings. But other than an urban winery in Santa Barbara that we walked to from our hotel, we never quite solved the drinking and driving problem. For example, we’d heard that Brick Barn, on the outskirts of Buellton, had a live music and tastings night. We thought we’d walk there from Sideways and get a Lyft or Uber back. It turned out to be a longer, hotter 1.5 mile walk along a highway than we anticipated.
As we finished our tasting, I tried to summon an Uber or a Lyft. Both said, “No cars available.” The COVID-era availability and price issue is one that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshah himself has unhappily noted, blaming it on a slow return of drivers.
So we walked back. Better than a $20,000 DUI (after lawyers, fines, insurance, etc) but still annoying. Unless someone is willing to serve as designated driver, I would recommend first checking on local availability of rideshare or going on an organized wine tour.
Perhaps our most enjoyable winery visit was to Blackjack Ranch and Vineyards. We swapped stories with the sommelier, herself a former Brooklynite, and saw pictures and stories of the Ranch in SIDEWAYS. My wife enjoyed the tasting, and I had a sip. We bought some excellent Maximus Syrah to take home.
All in all, our vacation was fun and not too stressful. But when you go on your own “post-COVID” getaway, be sure to pack the patience.