California Wine Country Cruise

The Flavors of the Vine: A Weekend Escape For The Senses

4 days and 3 nights of cruising the Sonoma and Napa Valley
The Spirit of ’98 with Cruise West
A Special Blue Grass Music Cruise

Day 1. Sail from San Francisco:
We flew from Seattle to San Francisco in the morning on Tom’s birthday. This was his gift from me this year. He’s so spoiled! Oh well. Check-in is 2 hours before the flight departs to have time for the increased security procedures.

Cruise West handles transfer from the airport to the ship at China Basin, next to the Giant’s Stadium, Their personnel met each flight and escorted us to the bus for the ride to the ship’s hospitality suite.

After checking in we took the free coach to Fisherman’s Terminal where we were dropped off at the Sheraton Hotel. Cruise West provides this service so people will have something to do while waiting to board. They also provide a hospitality suite with refreshments in the building on the pier. There isn’t much activity of any interest around the China Basin for most people, at least not at that time; there was a lot of construction going on.

We had some clam chowder in a sour dough bread bowl at Boudain’s Bakery. We always do, when in San Francisco, it’s our tradition. Then we explored Pier 69 and checked on the Sea Lions.   We enjoy the wildlife, even when it’s right downtown. One of them had a bad infection around his neck from being caught in a fishing line. That left a bad aftertaste. But it’s a great sunny day, so we managed to enjoy the afternoon anyway.

We caught the last shuttle back and checked onto the Spirit of ’98 at 4:00 pm.

   Our bags were already in our cabin when we got there. Shortly after boarding, a safety demonstration and vessel orientation are held, and champagne and hors d'oeuvres are served. The ship sailed at 6:00 pm. It was so nice to see Jean again, our cruise director from the Spirit of Oceanus in Alaska last August. She immediately recognized us, which is special. It makes you feel welcome, right away.

The evening began with a leisurely cruise along the twinkling skyline of the “City By The Bay”. The popular San Francisco songs were dancing in my mind; since I can’t sing, but I sounded like Frank Sinatra to myself. It was a bit chilly out on deck after sunset, but it was so pretty, we braved the cold and dressed with hats and gloves. (See pictures of the San Francisco skyline at night.) 

When the wine tasting started we joined the party inside. Mr. Ardison Phillips, artist and owner of the McKeon-Phillips Winery offered a presentation on his vineyard's wines -- how best to enjoy and appreciate them. Ardison Phillips began producing wine in 1976 under the Studio Grill Private Selection label in Hollywood. He then established his own McKeon-Phillips Winery label, to expand his taste for producing premium wines. Rich in flavor and high in quality, his wines are layered with complexity and are most importantly food-friendly. He designs his wine labels himself. I found a bottle of his wine the other day at QFC in Seattle. The label had a wolf spitting fire on it. I bought it on the spot. "Art, wine, and food are where my heart lies," says Phillips. "I have always wanted art on the wine bottle to draw someone to it, to pick up the bottle, become intrigued with it, take it home and drink it, and realize that not only was it visually appealing, there was good value to the wine as well. That's how to establish repeat customers." 

Dinner was a perfect 10 of filet mignon, cooked to perfection, which is almost bleeding for me! and the company was great. We made many new friends the very first night. After dinner we gathered in the lounge to enjoy the music by the Bump City Bluegrass Band. This was a special Blue Grass music sailing, which made it even more special. This ship, the Spirit of ’98, lends itself so perfectly for this “old-fashioned” style extravaganza. She is so - - turn of the century in décor, yet stately and beautiful with her old-fashioned smokestack. The Spirit of '98 resembles the steamships that once plied the rivers and coastal waters of North America in the early part of the 20th century, and absolutely perfect for this occasion. The Grand Salon is paneled in dark wood and furnished with deep cushioned velvet sofas and overstuffed chairs in rich colors and fancy-full brocade patterns and fancy lamps. You feel at home here and everyone gathers for small-talk before dinner for a drink from the bar. The carved wooden armoire where snacks and hors d’oeuvres are served is perfect for the task.

There is a feeling of camaraderie all over this ship and the crew is encouraged to mingle with the passengers. Their upbeat, friendliness and enthusiastic attitude just ads to the family feeling you come away with after a cruise with Cruise West. There in no “snobbiness” detected here. Everyone becomes a friend. Maybe that’s why the crew remembers you, when you sail with them again. This has happened to me more than once, so I know it’s so. It’s a nice touch and so very nice to have the bartender, of all people, jump over the bar with open arms welcoming you back a year later on a different cruise. It happened to me. I swear!

In the front of the lounge are several wooden shelves containing movie videos and paperback novels, guidebooks and literature pertaining to the particular itinerary. A couple of Victorian style tables and armchairs in blue velvet invites you to sit here by the window, trying to read while enjoying the scenery. Cruise West encourages you to take a book you can’t finish with you and to leave books you did finish for another guest to read. The library is always updated with fresh new books this way.

I’ve heard that the Spirit of '98 was featured in the special centennial celebration of the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska in 1997, and its authentic look caught the eye of Hollywood producers as it appeared in the film Wyatt Earp as the ship transporting Kevin Costner up the California coast. Because the Spirit of 98 is a shallow draft (9.3 feet) vessel capable of navigating shallow rivers and sailing up narrow waterways inaccessible to larger ships, she is perfect for the California Wine Country cruises. She can therefore also offer passengers many opportunities for up-close and personal encounters with nature and wildlife wherever she sails, just like the other ships that make up the Cruise West fleet.

Spirit of ’98 takes only 96 guests; she is an American built ship, registered in the USA with an all American crew, made up of young and enthusiastic “kids” that will and can do anything for you.

All cabins have a marble bathroom, wooden furniture, ample closet space, drawers and mirrors. All cabins are outside, meaning they have windows or portholes. Cabins are rather small but functional, so don’t bring a lot of stuff. You won’t use it anyway. This is a very casual ship. Jeans and tennis shoes are OK at every occasion. So leave the tuxes, business suits, cocktail dresses and sequined gowns at home.

There is an elevator and one wheelchair accessible cabin.

There is one Owner’s suite on the top deck as big as any on a large ship, with a separate bedroom with a king size bed and a spacious living room with a game and meeting area, large bathroom with whirlpool tub, fully stocked complimentary bar, refrigerator, VCR, stereo system and large view windows. There is one convertible hide-a-bed for triple accommodations.

The cabins are more spacious than you would expect for a small ship and feature either two twin beds that cannot be moved together or one double bed.

Deluxe cabins feature a seating area, one queen-size bed and one trundle bed for triple accommodations, refrigerator, large view windows and VCR. Cabin 302 has two twin beds that convert to one queen-size bed. Cabin 301 features one queen-size bed.

AA cabins feature two twin beds, TV/VCR, and large view window. Cabin 311 features one double bed. Cabin 212 features one queen-size bed. Cabins 211, 213, 214, 309 and 310 feature two twin beds that convert to one queen-size bed.

A cabins feature one double bed, TV/VCR and large view window. Cabins 103, 104, 105 and 106 have a slightly different layout.

AAA cabins feature two twin beds, VCR and large view windows. Cabin 202 features two twin beds that convert to one queen-size bed.

Single cabins feature one single berth, VCR and view window.

All meals are served at a single sitting in the Klondike Dining Room beginning at 7:00 pm after an introduction in the Grand Salon by the chef of the menu for today. Nate was very good about describing the food and care that had gone into the preparations of the menu. The Klondike Dining Room features a combination of round wooden tables and booths accommodating six or eight people each. Food is of hearty American fare and a typical dinner menu offers a soup, salad, choice of four entrees and a choice of two desserts along with fresh fruit and a cheese plate. Entrees served would be either rack of lamb, pork loin, prime rib, and crab stuffed jumbo shrimp. There is always steak and baked potato if nothing else appeals.

All bread is baked fresh onboard every day and tend to be addictive.

An early risers breakfast buffet is laid out with a selection of juices, cold and hot cereals, yogurt and fresh fruit in the Grand Salon starting at 6:00 am I think. I was never up that early! It’s for the “I must see every sunrise” crowd. Cruise West caters to everyone. I prefer to close the bar down at night, and I often do! It tends to close very early on a Cruise West ship, since this is not a party cruise or a party crowd. People are usually tired after a full day of activities and want to get up early the next day for more. Plus, the wine tends to contribute to early drowsiness, at least for me.

The ship tied up in Napa late that night. On this sailing, many of the passengers were from such mid-western states as Missouri, Minnesota, and Ohio, while others hailed from Louisiana, California and even Florida. Ages tended toward 50’s and 60’s but there were several octogenarians, as well as travelers in their 30’s and 40’s. We even had a young couple on our cruise, who brought their 9 month old baby along. On a Wine Country Cruise! Seemed inappropriate to me. This is not a child’s cruise. During holidays and in Alaska, well behaved children, who are eager to learn about the wildlife around them and to explore nature would enjoy these cruises, but this is not the cruise of choice for the kids who want to play video games all day, etc. There are no children’s programs provided.

Day 2. Sonoma Wine Country:

Passengers receive a general wake-up call at 7:00 am every morning. Continental breakfast is served in the lounge starting at 6:00 am; hot breakfast is available in the dining room from 8:00 am to 9:00 am, and buses depart for the wineries between 8:30 am and 9:15 am.

We spent the first day in the Wine Country visiting three splendid wineries. All the shore excursions are included in the cruise fare and involve a motor coach visit. Today, first we’re off to the Benziger family winery in Glen Ellen, close to Jack London’s Estate. On another of Tom’s birthday trips here a few years ago, when Tom developed a headache from the champagne at our very first stop, which ended the wine tasting tour, we ended up here on a great tour with a Jack London dressed up “wannabe” actor, who told us everything about the estate and Jack London’s life “in his own words”. That was great fun and I highly recommend such a tour. But not this time, wine tasting comes first.

The Benziger Family Winery sits high on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain volcano, formerly the abode of a hippie doctor, where we toured the vineyards by tractor-pulled open sided tram   and enjoyed the incredible views. We learned all about growing grapes in California and we saw the insectarium, a demo garden that displays the pairing of vine to fruit species used for creating each label. The tasting room is filled with original artwork. It was cold up there on the hillside, so the wine tasting helped a lot. We warmed up from the inside out and soon everyone displayed red noses. 

We visited Viansa winery for lunch, which is owned by members of the Sebastiani family, famous for its highly prized vineyards around Sonoma. An Italian accordionist and a violinist playing familiar Italian music greeted us as we stepped off the bus,   competing for our attention with our own Blue Grass band. The wine tasting of Viansa’s Italian style wines grown with a California attitude are as unique to the area as is the stately hillside property overlooking a bird sanctuary and wetlands area.

Lunch is a Tuscan picnic under the olive trees accompanied by Viansa's rare Italian varietal wines and Italian music. A tent was set up for us, since it was too cold outside. The sun came out as we stopped here and we enjoyed a glorious sunny day. Viansa also is an Italian Marketplace for shopping for specialty foods to accompany the wines.

We also had a free hour in Sonoma, an early Spanish colonial town for some sightseeing and shopping. The Sonoma Village Plaza is an old-time green surrounded by art galleries, boutiques, theaters, bistros, museums and Victorian hotels, all housed in late 19th-century buildings. Sonoma is said to have derived its name from the Suisun Indian word meaning “valley of the many moons”. Sonoma is home to the northernmost and last mission built in California, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. Sonoma was also the sight of the Bear Flag revolt.

Last stop this afternoon is at Domaine Carneros, which stands at the southern tip of Napa Valley and takes advantage of ideal Champagne grape conditions. The Carneros District, whose cool, often foggy hillsides lend a distinctive character to local wines. Here we sipped fine sparkling wines on the terrace of Domaine Carneros, listening to our own Bump City Blue Grass Band.   They loved to play wherever we were, even on the bus. Domaine Carneros is a member of France's renowned Taittinger champagne house.   Sparkling excellence from the Carneros District, crafted in the tradition of Champagne, the chateau at Domaine Carneros is considered one of the most beautiful wineries in the Napa Wine Region.

We return to the Spirit of ‘98 on the Napa River later this afternoon, to enjoy an evening cruise through the Carquinez Strait and into the waterways of the California Delta during social hour, dinner and evening Blue Grass music in the lounge.

After an excellent dinner of lobster and some more music in the Grand Salon with an after dinner drink served by Jason, the bartender, we had no trouble sleeping tonight.

Drinks on Cruise West ships are at cost it seems, very reasonably priced.

Day 3. Napa Valley: 

Today is another beautiful day in the Wine Country. After a leisurely breakfast on the Napa River, we find the Spirit of ’98 tied up at Vallejo. The third day's itinerary focuses on the Napa Valley section of the region. We will be exploring the world-class attractions of the Napa Valley. First we travel to the northern end of the valley near Calistoga to Schramsberg winery, one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley, dedicated solely to the art of producing premier sparkling wines. A fine Victorian mansion, ponds and fountains grace this champagne winery. 19th century Chinese laborers bored thousands of feet of tunnels into the hillside and we toured these intriguing arched caverns, where every sidebay is filled with thousands of bottles of future bubbly delights. 

Today we will enjoy lunch at Cuvaison. CUVAISON WINERY was founded in 1969 in Calistoga, Napa Valley, California. The winery's name "cuvaison" (Koo-vay-sawn) is French for the fermentation of wine on the grape skins. Since becoming a winemaker in 1982, John Thacher has hand crafted world-class Chardonnay, Chardonnay Reserve, Merlot and Pinot Noir from the vineyard in Carneros, Cabernet Sauvignon from the heart of Napa Valley, and Zinfandel from the surrounding mountains. Cuvaison is located just south of Calistoga on the famed Silverado Trail. We took a tour of the winery, complete with barrel tasting, and were introduced to the highly acclaimed style of wine they represent. Britt, our guide here was especially good and animated. He encouraged us to keep our glasses and take them home. I still drink my wine out of my glass every day.

Lunch was served deep in the wine caves at candlelight from these enormous candelabras, surrounded by wine aging in barrels and bottles everywhere we could see in the dark.   The 22,000 square foot wine cave, Carneros Dining Room and private tasting bar - accented with Italian frosted sconces, dramatic archways, and sophisticated banquettes seats up to 100 guests. We felt privileged as we filled the entire space. This was put on just for us. Cruise West does it again!

In the afternoon we visited Artesa, Napa’s newest and most exciting winery. The buildings are dug into the hillside and covered up again, covered with the grassy slopes, ultra modern buildings with glass walls and fountains all around. Resident artist Gordon Huether created six sculptures to encircle the main fountain located at the base of the staircase leading to Artesa. Cascading waters lend a dynamic feeling to the steps that climb to more fountains and an untitled sculpture by Catalan artist Marcel Martí. At the winery's entrance level, arching waters falling into tranquil pools impart a feeling of serenity and grandeur.   One step over the threshold and the setting transforms into a spectacular modernist interior, full of rich woods, expanses of glass and dozens of smooth columns. The building is often compared to an art museum. Indeed, a celebrated Artist in Residence fills the walls and vast spaces with works of art. Art and architecture are part of Artesa's heritage, and that tradition will continue with the work of resident artist, Gordon Huether. Panoramic views of Carneros and the San Francisco Bay Area can be enjoyed over a glass of wine on the view terrace.

What a great and fulfilling day! What a weekend! This really is fun. I would recommend this little getaway for anyone short on time or just for something different to do.

This evening Captain Roy Vest hosts a lavish farewell dinner. Humongous size garlic roasted shrimp are on the menu tonight accompanied by Washington state champagne from St. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries, poured freely into our wine goblets. Captain Roy Vest and his crew had to bid their farewell in grand style. Who can forget this kind of weekend?

Did I mention the player piano in the Grand Salon or the carved wooden bar?

Day 4. Return to San Francisco: 

This morning, the Captain is cruising the San Francisco Bay, enjoying early-morning views of the Golden Gate Bridge   and San Francisco’s skyline   before returning to the pier after a nice big breakfast in the Klondike Dining Room. The young crew does it all: make the beds, serve the food, carry the bags, sing and dance, and they do it with a smile. At the end, they pool the tips and share. It’s recommended that you give $10.00 per day, per person and just drop it into the tip box on the bar or put it on your shipboard tab. 

Cruise West will transfer us to the airport or to a hotel. We flew back to Seattle. 

What a fun get-away. I can’t wait to cruise Baja Mexico next January on the Spirit of Endeavour. And that’s another review!

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