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November 30, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Destinations: Cruising California's wine country with Elderhostel Destinations: Cruising California's wine country with Elderhostel (November 30, 2005)

By Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

I wasn't about to turn down my mom's offer of a free vacation when she asked me to accompany her on an Elderhostel cruise from San Francisco to Napa, starting with two nights in San Francisco.

I did, however, have a few questions. "I'm not old enough to go on an Elderhostel trip, am I?" I asked. "And how can you possibly cruise to Napa? It's nowhere near the ocean."

Plus, the idea of a cruise had never interested me, nor had the idea of an escorted tour. And I had, once or twice, been to San Francisco.

On the other hand, it would be a week out of the house.

It turned out that, yes, you can cruise to Napa, through the San Francisco Bay, the San Pablo Bay and up the Napa River. And yes, even a mere stripling like myself is allowed to go along on an Elderhostel trip, usually reserved for those 55 and older, if accompanying someone who has already reached that level of maturity.

So I agreed to go with my mother, more to spend a week without being expected to wash a single dish than with any enthusiasm about the idea of the boat, the wine tasting, and the pre-cruise touring of San Francisco (after 25 years in the Bay Area, what could they show me?).

Who would have guessed that by mid-voyage I would find myself regretting I'm not a little older than I am? But there I was, sipping wine and listening to a local historian telling stories about the characters who inhabited Napa and Sonoma counties in their early days, relaxed and entertained, and knowing that until I turn 55 I couldn't have quite the same experience.

Unless my mom decides to take me along on another Elderhostel excursion, that is.

Elderhostel, which aims to combine travel and education, is designed for people like me, with insatiable curiosity who enjoy socializing and getting to know new people. Some people like it so much they can't quit. One of the participants in our group had been on more than 90 Elderhostel trips.

The plan for our program, "California Originals: San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma," was to spend two nights in San Francisco, learning about the city's history and exploring, before transferring to the "Spirit of Endeavour," a small ship operated by CruiseWest, for three nights. From the ship we would take bus tours of Napa and Sonoma county wineries.

What I didn't expect was how much we would learn along the way. The first evening, author and historian James Dallesandro, author of the novel "1906," told us about early San Francisco.

During the Gold Rush, San Francisco grew from a small village to a city of 450,000, most of the residents living east of Van Ness Avenue.

"San Francisco was the wealthiest city per capita that the world has ever seen," Mr. Dallesandro told us.

As many as 500 ships were abandoned in the Bay at the height of gold fever, when captain and crew deserted to pan for gold. The ships' remains are still often found when foundations are laid for new buildings in parts of San Francisco built on Bay fill.

By 1906, the city was "part Paris and part Dodge City," Mr. Dallesandro told us, with an extremely successful middle class thanks to all that gold.

After the earthquake, and the devastating fire that followed, 100,000 people were left homeless, living in tents. The staff of the St. Francis Hotel served more than 10,000 meals a day in Union Square, he said.

More than half of those who had lived in San Francisco before the quake never returned to the city. Communities on the Peninsula and in the East Bay grew as the population dispersed.

Another historian, Lionel Ashcroft, spoke to us the following night, and also accompanied us on the cruise and the tour bus, sharing historic tidbits. As someone who grew up in Oregon and therefore hadn't studied much California history, I came home finally feeling I know more than my children, at least on that topic.

We also toured Chinatown, the Wells Fargo Museum, Mission Dolores and Coit Tower. While I had been to most of these places many times before, I enjoyed the guided tours. I had forgotten, for example, how stunning the murals on the walls of Coit Tower are, and had never ventured into the alleys or apothecaries of Chinatown.

Throughout the trip, accommodations were made for those who, like my mother, have some physical limitations. For example, we broke into two groups to tour Chinatown and downtown San Francisco, depending on how far participants felt they could walk.

The timing was wonderful, late September and early October, when San Francisco tends to have great weather and grapes are ready for harvest. We had some of the most beautiful clear, warm weather I've ever experienced in San Francisco and the summer crowds were also gone, even in the wine country on weekends.

We boarded the Spirit of Endeavour on a Friday afternoon. Our group was originally to have the 100-passenger-capacity ship to ourselves, but since only 35 people signed up for the program, we made up less than half the ship's passengers. I thought this might make the trip more interesting, but the two groups remained remarkably self-contained and rode in separate buses to our daytime activities.

Among the lore Lionel Ashcroft imparted to us on the bus was the story of how Robert Louis Stevenson followed an older married woman he was in love with from France to San Francisco, convinced her to leave her husband, and lived with her, penniless, in Napa County rent-free in the abandoned town of Silverado on Mt. St. Helena. There Stevenson wrote one of his lesser-known books, "The Silverado Squatters."

Predictably, one of the most enjoyable parts of being on the ship was the scenery. Cruising slowly through San Francisco Bay in the evening (the captain tried to time it so we could watch the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge) was breathtaking, especially with the near-perfect weather.

The first night we docked near a bird sanctuary on the Napa River, waking up to a view of acres of marsh land with a few farms in the distance, birds darting by and a few fishing boats drifting by.

Food on the ship, and throughout the trip, tended to good but not great, with the major exception being a lunch in the wine caves at Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga. The manmade underground caves, which have become all the rage in California wineries because they provide near-perfect storage conditions and use no real estate, provided a dramatic backdrop for a formal lunch.

A flamenco guitarist serenaded us while we ate salad, bread, pasta, and a fruit tart, with unlimited pourings of two wines plus coffee -- all of it first rate.

Other standout wineries we toured included Viansa, the hilltop winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma County, owned by Vicki and Sam Sebastiani. Viansa sells its wines only directly to consumers, either at the winery or via mail order. The scenic winery has a large shopping area with gourmet foods and gifts and ample outdoor seating areas.

The Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen is family owned and grows all its grapes organically. St. Supery in Rutherford features an extensive art collection and an 1882 restored Victorian farmhouse museum furnished with period furniture and exhibits about the early wine country.

We returned to San Francisco after spending our last night in Oakland, allowing for an early-morning cruise of the Bay, again with perfect weather.

CruiseWest provided transportation to the airport, and I returned home ready to say yes to my next invitation to go on an Elderhostel trip without any reservations.

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