I have a definition of what a vacation entails. It’s pretty specific but it’s pretty simple. It involves waking up, making coffee, and sitting on a deck with a book. Like, for the rest of the day.
Lots of the trips I take are not of the deck-sitting coffee-drinking book-reading variety; I tend to pack my itineraries with challenging destinations, replete with translating, map-reading and train station meltdowns. I love that stuff. But what I’ve come to realize as I’ve gotten (a little) older is that those are not vacations. And sometimes what I really need is a vacation.
That was the case with the last-dregs-of-winter escape to California my husband and I just took. I’ve traveled California enough to know that what I love most about it are its (pardon this California word) essences: the smell of eucalyptus groves, the angle of the sun’s rays on the canyons, the particular way the Pacific sparkles — and, at this time of year, is speckled with seals. There wasn’t anything more specific, on this trip, that I really wanted to see. I just needed to be around this stuff, and do some relaxing on some decks.
This was a budget trip for us — more of a “help, get us out of here!” than a saved-for excursion. We booked JetBlue flights on a cache of miles (a combination of values accrued from work and other trips, and the generous points that the JetBlue Amex we’d been using for everyday purchases offers —this is not an endorsement of any kind, but that card has gone a long way for us in those “help, get us out here!” moments).
The plan was to start in San Francisco and make our way via Pacific Coast Highway to somewhere with a warm beach. We agreed on an Air BnB budget of $125 a night max, and private units only — we’re too old and New Yorky to feel comfortable in other people’s actual houses. And each unit, of course, had to have a deck.
The first thing we realized was that we’d never be able to find accommodations that fit these specifications in San Francisco. And the second thing we realized is that we didn’t care. We both work in midtown Manhattan. There’s not a lot we find relaxing about being in a big city, even if it’s a beautiful one like San Francisco. So we immediately re-centered our search a millimeter north on Google Maps — in Marin County — and found exactly what we needed.
This adorable studio was in Sausalito, walking distance to coffee shops and restaurants and the water and anything else we could possibly desire. (Yoga, even!) It was on one of those death-defying streets where the houses cling like barnacles to the cliffs, the turns are hairpin, and your calves scream for mercy going up and down. I always wonder about Californians: what draws them to live in these precarious circumstances? But then the view of the bay (and the effort of ambling up the hill) takes my breath away and I get it.
A prime place for Chardonnay and cheese. (All Photos: Jessanne Collins)
The place just about had it all; a luxe shower, a bottle of Chardonnay called “Complicated” and a super-cozy couch bed that we spent a whole night curled up in reading the New York Times (like good New Yorkers on vacation). Waking up there was like waking up in a tree house. And best of all was the deck: it was here that we lured our San Francisco friends for some glasses of Complicated and gourmet cheese in the afternoons, and where I spent the mornings drinking not just coffee but mochas I made with an organic power-cacao drink that a cute power-cacao peddler sold me at the posh local grocery store.
Our next stop was deep in the Carmel Valley region. Staying anywhere in Big Sur on our budget wasn’t going to happen (and we’re not campground people), so we figured an hour’s detour out in the mountains behind it for a couple days would be interesting. The drive was truly spectacular, breathtaking in a panic-attack-inducing way, and if I’d thought waking up in Sausalito was like being in a treehouse, this was like waking up as one with the trees.
Above a babbling brook, a good place to read a book!
The cabin was perched on a hill over an eagerly babbling river, heated by a wood stove (which it only took us 24 hours to get the hang of), and epically equipped with snacks and reading materials that took our minds off everything but the enjoyment of the deck. Which was perfect. I’d packed tons of intense feminist literature to catch up on — and promptly abandoned it all and became immersed in the house’s copy of Eat, Pray, Love, which, it’s true, is also intense feminist literature.
The place happened to be just a two-minute drive from the local general store, which six days out of the week is a modest little outpost selling beer and chips and used books, but one night a week (Mondays) is transformed into one of the coziest, most festive and most truly epicurean experiences imaginable. All of the locals and local vineyard employees — and, judging by their sartorially-forward outfits, a healthy smattering of visitors from tony Carmel by the Sea — gather in what looks like a VFW done up for an indie wedding to eat some Michelin-quality food and local wines. It was worth it both for the people-watching and the mushroom linguini, which I am still thinking about a week later.
I felt more rejuvenated by these 48 hours in the woods by the river (especially after I unloaded into it a long verbal torrent of things I’m anxious about in some kind of impromptu spiritual ceremony inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert, no doubt) than I have felt in a very long time. But after a couple of nights, we were ready to move on. And the next stop had been carefully negotiated because whereas I’m a woods person, my husband is a beach person. So we were on, after the long drive down Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara, to a garden-beach bungalow.
Okay, who am I kidding. The truth is I’m a beach person too! And after a few chilly nights in the woods, being back in the sun felt like amazing. This place might have been our favorite if they weren’t all our favorite. It was a little bedroom with a big, super-sunny deck over a verdant, succulent garden with a big palm bush of some type rustling mysteriously with wildlife, and a detached but ultra-luxe cedar eco bathroom that felt like it belonged at a fancy spa.
When it got too sunny on this deck, it was time to get in the hammock. Sigh.
In fact, in the warm southern California sun, that deck got a little too hot after a certain point in the mornings, so we’d had to relocate to the hammock under the avocado tree (I know!) to finish reading. And then we’d borrow bikes from the garage and head down to the private beach. Now here’s a thing about a private beach in Santa Barbara on a weekday afternoon. There is no one else on it. We literally had the place to ourselves for hours, except for one show-offy seal who was busy basking on a rock outcrop just off shore and, I swear, kept checking me out to see if I was checking him out.
Sometimes this is all the company you need.
It was here that I cried at the end of Eat, Pray, Love at the beauty and drama of it all (life and love and California vacations, I mean). After that, there was nothing to do but get up and splash my face with the sparkly Pacific, wave one more time at the seal, and head back for happy hour on the deck.