Two Canadians, A Campervan and New Zealand’s South Island

It’s been over 6 months of us working in this country, and we have now earned holiday time! Vintage is done, and Air NZ started offering really affordable flights within the country. All of this meant that we could finally get to the South Island, and we were so excited to explore it!

As people heard we were going south, they all gave us their lists of the must-do’s! We appreciated all the cool, local tips, but unfortunately we didn’t have a year to actually cross them all off… New Zealand offers almost never ending exploring! So we picked the things that sounded the most intriguing to us, accounted for our budget and time allowances, and carefully planned (on my end) a jam-packed, 6 day adventure, in a campervan, of course!

We got an amazing flight deal to Christchurch, so we headed there early Wednesday morning, thankfully just missed the fog, and landed on time at 8:05am. We picked up our Campervan from Jucy, and hit the road, as we had an appointment to get to in the Waipara area of the Canturbury Wine Region.

I won’t go into too much detail about the wineries we visited on this trip, but we uprooted our entire lives, and moved to this country specifically to work in wine; clearly it was high on the priority list for this holiday, as it usually is.

Bell Hill

The wine in the South Island is very different than it is where we work in the North. We work in the warmest wine growing region in the country, with very vast and diverse soil types; the wine regions in the South Island have completely different soil from each other, and from the North; they also have their own unique climates, and therefore, produce unique versions of some of the grape varietals we have in the North, and also some completely different varietals altogether. We tried lots of Pinot Noir on this trip, some Chardonnay and bubbly wine, as well as many aromatic whites, like Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir based Roses, and even a Muscat, that was dry and surprisingly enjoyable.

In Canterbury, we visited Bell Hill, and had a private tour around their biodynamic and organic boutique vineyards, on incredible slopes, with the vines showing off the beautiful autumn colours. We tried some Pinot Noirs out of barrel. We visited Pegasus Bay, which had beautiful grounds, some very nice wines, and a friendly and knowledgeable Cellar Door host.

Tasting in the Bell Hill caves
Pegasus Bay Cellar Door
Pegasus Bay

We also visited the winery with two labels that belongs to this year’s New Zealand Winemaker of the Year, Greystone and Muddy Water. The Winemaker at my workplace has won that award 2 times in the last 5 years, and we have amazing wine, so I had very high expectations for this place, which I feel is fair. If you are considered the best Winemaker in the country, your Cellar Door should support that, and the visitors that you will undoubtedly bring, and give an exceptional experience. This one, sadly, did not. The host was unfriendly, made no effort at conversation, and was actually outrightly rude to us with a couple comments. Thankfully, the Marketing Manager overheard some of our questions and came out to speak with us for a while, and he was great. If it weren’t for him, we would have had a terrible experience there.

We made our way back into Christchurch for the remainder of the afternoon, did a bit of shopping for some winter gear and groceries, and drove around to see the sights.

A highlight for me was the 185 Empty White Chairs memorial for the people who died in the 2011 earthquake. It was chilling to see, and served as a reminder that life is short and fragile, and should be valued and lived to the full. We had a quick dinner at what I describe as a funky, more upscale food court, Little High.

We visited one of Christchurch’s older and highly awarded bars, the OGB Bar, and had a great experience. One of their employees did a wine tour with me a couple months back on his holiday, and invited me to visit him there on our trip, and him and his colleagues made sure we were taken great care of!

Then, it was time for a very late dinner and wine, once we found somewhere to camp! We used the Ranker’s Campervan App to help us find everything we needed to on our trip. It showed all of the places we could park, empty our tanks, etc., with reviews, photos and prices. We searched for the free options, and found a place just outside of the city to park. I’ll elaborate on the campervan later.

We woke up early on Thursday to get a good head start on our drive to Lake Tekapo.

The Lake Tekapo famous church

The scenery was beautiful on the way, as we made our way into the mountains. We spent the afternoon in Tekapo; we got some photos with the famous church on the lake, and then took a moment to pause inside and admire the view of the lake through the windows on the back wall. What a great place to go to church! We opted to walk to the top of Mount John, which was a short, fairly easy but steady climb.

Almost to the top of Mount John
The view
Snacks at the Astro Cafe

We enjoyed views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and some coffee and dessert in the sun at the Astro Cafe, before heading back down for lunch. We parked the van alongside the lake for a gorgeous view, had a picnic and some Riesling, and then headed to the Tekapo Hot Springs.

We had a booking for 2:00, but because we picked the date and time ahead, we were able to get a great deal on a site called bookme.co.nz. We enjoyed a couple of hours there, soaking in the warm water, and soaking up that view, before heading on.

Next, we drove to Lake Pukake, and stopped for some views of Mount Cook, and then made our way through the Lindess Pass, which was beautiful at sunset, and then onto Cromwell, where we wanted to start our next day.

Classic NZ highway photo
Lindess Pass at sunset
Admiring Mount Cook and Lake Pukake

We found another free camp spot on the Ranker’s App, right next to the lake, and it was such a gorgeous spot. I can’t believe some of the amazing, free camp grounds New Zealand has! I kept saying to Greg, “why is this free…?” In Canada or the USA, those would have been costly spots.

“Pancake Saturday” was moved to Friday, as we had the time in the morning, and the lakeside spot to enjoy! As we awoke in Cromwell, we were already amongst many more great wineries we were excited to visit! This is when it really started feeling like a holiday to me; finally, we had made it to Central Otago, another world renown wine region on our bucket list!

We definitely started off with the bar high, as we visited the appointment only Cellar Door of Felton Road for a tour and tasting with the owner’s daughter. Bookings are required well in advance to get a spot. She was fantastic, as was their philosophy, place, and wine, and we loved our experience there.

Felton Road tasting set up
Felton Road Cellar Door

We followed that up with another amazing experience at Mt Difficulty. It was a gorgeous, sunny, autumn day, and we took in the expansive views of Central Otago on their patio in the warm sun for a delicious and generous platter, that was a special treat for me from a reward card I received at work. After we ordered, we did a complimentary tasting to help us decide what to have with lunch. By the time we finished our tasting, our food was ready for us. We enjoyed our time there so much!

Views with the platter and wine at Mt Difficulty

Other wineries we visited in the Cromwell area were Carrick, and Akarua; we had positive experiences at both of them as well. We then jumped back in the Jucy van to head for Dunedin! The drive was absolutely beautiful the entire way; we arrived around dinner time, and spent the evening with friends.

Baldwin Street

They took us for dinner at a quaint and delicious Italian place, and then drove us to the top of Signal Hill to view the city, as well as took us for a spin up and down the steepest street in the world! We parked the van outside their house that evening, and funnily enough, we weren’t the only Jucy van on the street.

In the morning, we grabbed coffees and had a visit with our friends before making our way around Dunedin to see St Clare Beach, and the famous Railway Station; as it was Saturday, we visited the Farmer’s Market where we purchased some fresh fish and produce for dinner, before making our way back to Central Otago, where we’d spend the next 3 days.

We arrived in Wanaka mid-afternoon, so we went to Rippon, another famous winery with, yet again, amazing wines and an exceptional view!

We also visited Maude Wines, where we had the perfect spot on their comfy couch with blankets in their sun room, overlooking lake Wanaka.

We each had a seated tasting flight of different wines, and then enjoyed a glass in the sun. Our host at Maude was extremely welcoming and knowledgeable, and made us feel very comfortable during our visit.

After we were done relaxing at Maude, we headed down to That Wanaka Tree, to get some sunset photos. We were amongst a group, but got some beautiful shots. I love when I get to see something in real life that I’ve been seeing on Instagram for a while!

That Wanaka Tree at sunset
That Wanaka Tree at sunrise

We checked out another cute wine bar in Wanaka called The Cork Bar. It was warm, dim, and comfortable. So many of these places remind me of small mountain towns in British Columbia, and the whole Wanaka/Queenstown area made me feel quite at home.

At The Cork Bar, I tried some Black Peak Pinot Noir, who’s Winemaker and owner had been in to work last week. We also tried some Burn Cottage Pinot Noir, that came highly recommended, and loved it.

As Wanaka is such a famous tourist spot all year long, there are no free campsites there. We were fortunate to have a friend who’s father lives in Wanaka, and allowed us to park in his driveway for the evening. We carb loaded for our upcoming hike with some pasta, and enjoyed a bottle of wine before bed. We had purchased some candles by this point, so we had our usual ambience and didn’t have to run the bright LED lights in the van!

The next morning, we were up at 6:00am to eat breakfast, grab some sunrise photos of That Wanaka Tree, and make it to the base of the Roy’s Peak Hike for daylight at shortly after 8:00am.

Roy’s Peak Ridge

We were up to the ridge by 10:00am, took our photos, and decided to go for the summit. It was pretty cold up there, but we were glad we made the extra treck to complete the hike. The views were stunning and we had the place to ourselves.

Roy’s Peak Summit, 1578m

We had lunch back down at the ridge, and started our descent just as the rain began. By the time we got to the bottom it was full on pouring, and we were drenched! Thankfully we started when we did that morning, because had we even been 1 hour later, our view would have been largely lost in the rain clouds and fog.

Very wet after finishing Roy’s Peak

Many reviews strongly suggest a high fitness level is required for this hike, and I completely agree. It’s steep, and it’s all up, sometimes at a 45° angle, with basically no plateaus, for hours. And then you have to come down…potentially in the rain or snow, depending on the season. You must wear proper clothing, shoes, and layers. It is almost 1600 meters in elevation; the conditions are considered Alpine at the ridge and upwards, and with all that uphill climbing, if you’re not wet from the rain, you’re wet from the sweat. I was so thankful to have key parts of my work uniform on; I wore my amazing Icebreaker Merino wool jersey and Merino wind proof vest, all thanks to my awesome company outfitting me for the winter. The hike was absolutely worth all the effort and sore knees; in exchange we got some of the best views we’ve ever seen in our lives, and some pretty amazing photos.

Rainbow and mountain views from Roy’s Peak Summit

We had a makeshift shower with baby wipes when we got back into the Jucy van, and were happy to get out of our completely drenched clothing. We hung it all around the van, but the van unfortunately never got warm enough to dry any of it. I got creative to dry my hair.

We headed for Arrowtown, and walked around a bit there.

We found a candy store and got some fudge, but were stiff and cold, and just wanted to sit down. We found a cool restaurant that was just about to close, The Chop Shop, but they gave us a table. Greg had a thirst quenching beer, and I had a warm coffee with Baileys and it hit the spot perfectly. We ordered a dessert, and ended up getting 3 more free because they were using them up before closing!

Do you want another dessert on the house? Yes, please.

We headed to, guess where… more wineries! Are you surprised? We fit in short visits to Peregrine, Gibbston Valley, and then had a nice long tasting at Mt Rosa.

Peregrine Cellar Door

The owners of Mount Rosa had come to do a tasting with me at my workplace in the Bay at Christmas time, and one of my good friends is heading down to help them out for several weeks this winter while they go on vacation! As the owner knew me, he had us in way past close, and gave us a very personalized tasting. We enjoyed his wine, and the cozy, warm, rustic atmosphere!

We made our way into Queenstown that evening to check it out, and then found a campsite in the area. Queenstown doesn’t have any free sites either, but we found a decent one for only $13/each. Greg cooked up a nice meal, and we relaxed in the van, as it was still pouring outside!

The next morning, after a stop at Starbucks (yes, whenever I get the chance) we traded in the Jucy van for a car, as the van specifically had to be back during certain hours, and our flight home the following day wouldn’t allow for that to work. We took the car around the area, and did our last set of wineries: Chard Farm, which has an amazing, 2km cliff side drive in, Wet Jacket and Whitestone Cheesery, which is in an old wool shed and has a super cosy atmosphere, and then Amisfield, which was closed for repairs, so I was quite disappointed to miss them.

Chard Farm’s driveway along the left
Visiting Wet Jacket with wet jackets
Wet Jacket Cellar Door
Bald Hill

The rain had stopped by then, so we ate up the rest of our groceries outside the boot of the car! We went to Bald Hill instead of Amisfield, and then it was time to check into our hotel.

We stayed right close to downtown Queenstown, which was amazing. We got straight to laundry, as our hiking gear was all still soaking wet, and we weren’t sure how we’d get it home that way! We visited with some friends from home, who also happened to be on holiday in Queenstown!

Then we walked downtown from our hotel and checked out the shops, as well as this very cool bar, The Winery.

Inside The Winery

It has many enomatic machines, that work like a Coravin, allowing small tastes of a bottle of wine to be poured from it without oxygen getting in. We were able to try several new wines, and I got that Amisfield wine after all. It was a lovely evening, and we enjoyed some cheese and crackers on the balcony of our hotel before bed, and also really enjoyed a hot shower, a real toilet, and a King size bed! As much as we loved the hotel for the last night, we really did like the Jucy van.

Our Jucy van was just what we needed for this trip.

Fuel prices

It was small enough to get good fuel mileage (which matters a lot here – fuel on the South Island was around a whopping $2.40/litre, and that’s not a typo); it was still big enough to have a functioning bathroom. We had a small living area with benches, and a table that we could set up for dinner. That same area converted to a bed for the night.

There was also a bed option up above, but with just us, we didn’t need to use that one for anything but storage. It came with a kitchenette, and all of the dishes we needed. It also had towels, and bedding. The weather was quite cold (for NZ) at this time of year, and got down to just above 0° at night, but we had 2 duvets, and were toasty warm under them – borderline hot some of the nights. I was glad we only flew with carry-on luggage though, because compared to our camper in Canada, it felt a bit tight, and I wouldn’t have wanted to have any more stuff!

On another note, this was the lightest I’ve ever packed for a trip, and it was a big stretch for me! I wore the same boots the entire time, other than my runners for hiking. I didn’t bring heels. (Who am I?) I didn’t bring my blow dryer or straightener, either, and just made due with the hair situation. I knew we wouldn’t have power for them anyways. (Thankfully, I was able to shower at my friend’s in Dunedin, half way through the trip, and use her hair appliances to freshen up. Alice, you’re a life-saver!) Over all, I really embraced the campervan lifestyle. It was fine for 5 days, but by day 6, I was quite happy in our hotel room! I am still a bit “precious” as they say here, after all.

I have also realized that we’ve only been here just over half a year, and our trip was greatly enriched by the many connections we already had, because of our jobs in the industry, and friends we have made. We visited friends in Dunedin and Queenstown, and I knew people in Christchurch, and Gibbston Valley through simply meeting them at my job and spending some time getting to know them; they then returned the hospitality to us. We tried wines of people I’ve met at my job. We had a free place to stay in Wanaka, through another friend we’ve made. Most of the places we visited gave us extra special treatment when they found out we were industry people. I’m so thankful for all of these connections, and they make us feel so much more welcome in NZ.

Our trip was amazing.

Queenstown area
Queenstown
Roy’s Peak Summit
Arrowtown in Autumn

I’m so happy to have finally seen the South Island, and it is every bit as beautiful as people say. (Although, I do have to give bigger points to the Canadian Rocky Mountains.) 6 days went by so quickly, and we did a lot, but we still had moments of relaxation, and thoroughly enjoyed our first actual holiday in NZ.

Relaxing with my babe, stunning views and some Pinot at Maude

Hmm… where to next?

Why You Should Try Walmart and Truck Stop Camping

I love Walmart Camping for several reasons. Years ago I saw the campers parked at our city’s Walmart, and it looked like such a fun thing to do. I’m really not sure what drew me to the idea, other than maybe how carefree and spontaneous it looked. At that time, the camper we had didn’t have a bathroom in it, which for me, is pretty important on my needs list.

Fast forward a few years to when we had a camper with a functioning bathroom, and a generator, and planned a last minute trip to BC – Walmart Camping became something I crossed off my bucket list! We had just been in the British Aisles that summer and it was so cold there, so we literally decided in the airport on our way home to head to Kelowna with our trailer for a week of hot, sunny weather before summer ended. We arrived home at midnight and left town by 8am the next morning! We had our camper on the back, and nowhere booked to stay.

We spent the first night at a truck stop, and the next three between two Walmarts in Kelowna, and it was great. Since then, our family members have started Walmart Camping a bit, and we’ve done it several more times. Here are the pros and cons to staying at Walmart and truck stops:

Pro’s:

1. It’s Free. This is a major plus, especially if you’re just driving through a place, and you don’t need to spend much time there. It feels like a waste of money to book an RV park just to sleep.

2. It’s Last Minute. This could be seen as a con for some people, but the benefit of sleeping at Walmart is that you don’t have to book ahead. We like to drive until we feel like we’re done for the day, and then find the next Walmart or truck stop, and pack it in for the night. We don’t always know how far we want to make it, so booking ahead is a problem for travel days. Last minute stops allow us freedom in our traveling and make it much more relaxing than, “we’re so tired but we have to make it to that city where our booking is tonight,” or “it’s so early, and we could have kept driving for hours if we didn’t have this booking here.”

3. You can shop! We often need either a couple small grocery items, or something for the truck or trailer, and Walmart has it all. Most have a tire shop too, which is great for being on the road.

4. Starbucks. So far, at every Walmart we’ve stayed at, there has been a Starbucks within walking distance for me to go pick up my mobile order in the morning. It’s awesome. Not to mention, there are usually lots of other stores and restaurants nearby as well.

There are a few downsides too.

Cons:

1. You’re not level, or set up. Since you’re not unhooking your vehicle for any length of time or at all, or putting your jacks down (or shouldn’t be) you can’t level out, so we sometimes sleep with our heads or feet higher than we’d like. Just do your best to find a flat spot when you park in their designated area. You can’t set up full camp either, so you’re living in limbo a bit.

2. It can be bright and loud. As it’s meant to be an overnight thing, don’t plan to sleep in. Walmarts are always in high traffic areas, so there’s going to be noise from that. They also have bright lights that illuminate the lot overnight. Patrons start showing up early to shop as well. We’ve had some Walmart mornings where people park right by us and are walking past on either side to get into and out of the store. Truck stops will be loud as the semi’s are coming and going all through the night, and most drivers leave their trucks running while they sleep to control the temperature inside.

3. You can’t leave your trailer there unattended and you shouldn’t unhook. (I know, in the picture just above we’re unhooked! On that day we did this to block the spot next to us because a super huge and loud motorhome bus had squeezed in beside us the night before and ruined our sleep and space. This is potentially another con – you have to deal with other RVers who may or may not be cool, but you do this at RV parks too). You’re really only supposed to spent one night, or maybe two, but they don’t want you actually camping in their lot. It’s meant to be an overnight rest stop.

That means that when we Walmart camp, we take the trailer behind us everywhere we go during the day. This gets to be a bit of a pain after a while. Walmart Camping is great for a few days, or for when you’re driving to and from your destination, but it’s not ideal for long term stays.

4. No hook-ups or dumps. This isn’t really that big of a con, but it needs to be mentioned. Make sure the appropriate tanks are full and empty before you go, and that you have a generator if you want power. There should be a dump at a service station in town somewhere. If you google it, you can find it, but it’s not likely to be at Walmart or close by.

Despite the short con list, the pros way over-deliver for us and we still camp at Walmart or truck stops on nearly every road trip.

We usually do steaks, or a nice meal for supper, and a pancake breakfast too, because who says you have to eat bad food just because you’re staying at Walmart?

One more brief, yet important point! Make sure you call ahead to ask for permission, because not all Walmarts allow camping! Many have terminated the offer due to people being idiots and leaving dog poop or trash behind, or even emptying their tanks in the lot! Who does that? Don’t be an idiot. Super-centres are a good bet to stay at, but we’ve gotten a courtesy ticket for staying at a Walmart in a mall before. Run inside to buy something or fuel up as a thank you if you’re sleeping at a truck stop.

Happy Walmart Camping!

Broken Down Lessons

I love that feeling when we first hit the highway, the camper’s on the back, we get a good song on in the truck, it’s dusk and we’re hitting the night driving, and my husband’s just cracked the bag of spits – now it feels like holidays.

Then the truck breaks down before we even get to our first option of where we want to spend the night…

I’m a very reflective person. I know I over analyze things sometimes. I’m always looking for the hidden meaning in every situation. “Why did this happen?,” is often the first response I have to anything unexpected, and perhaps that’s a normal response. I had some time to reflect while my husband was outside on his hands and knees in the engine with a flashlight pulling the truck apart last night. With the truck broken I am reminded of a few things that are symbolic of life to me. Here’s what I can learn from this hiccup in the journey:

1. We can make our plans but the Lord directs our steps. That seems simple to understand, although it’s not always easy to accept. No matter how much we think we’re in control, we’re never really in control.

2. It’s interesting how one part in a vehicle can break and it stops you completely. The truck can not run when even one small piece is broken or missing. That tiny piece not functioning in the way it was designed caused our entire journey to end until it was repaired. This reminds me of our overall health. When we let one thing go, even if it’s so small, it affects the whole of our being. When one area of our lives is out of balance or in disrepair, it taints our effectiveness in every arena of our lives. Even more, it’s often the little things that we wouldn’t think are a big deal that can stop us up completely.

3. It didn’t matter how many hours my husband spent working on the truck in the dark last night; when you need a part and don’t have it, there’s nothing that will work until you get it. We spent the night in a farmer’s driveway on the side of the road until our friend was able to come in the morning with the part. As soon as those guys had it in, it was so quick, and we were on our way again. Sometimes I try and do a quick fix, or I solve a surface level problem in my life without getting to the source and repairing what’s actually damaged. This ultimately is a waste of my time, because until the piece of my life that’s broken or off balance, or unhealthy is replaced with something new, whole and functioning, I’m not going to actually get anywhere. Also, sometimes you just need help from a friend.

4. The farmer came home and had to take an alternate route into his yard because we were in the driveway obviously having vehicle trouble at midnight. He did not come and check on us at all, or see if we needed a tool or any help. This makes me thankful for my helpful friends, and also, for my in-laws! They are such a helpful family, and if the situation were reversed, any one of them would have been out there helping the people with anything they needed, and telling them that of course they can sleep in the driveway! My mother-in-law would have likely invited them for breakfast, too. I’m thankful for helpful, kind family and friends in my life.

5. It’s definitely easier to fix vehicles in the daylight than in the dark!

Visiting Napa Valley; Helpful Tips to Plan Your Trip

If you’re a wine enthusiast, California is a must see destination to expand your understanding of one of the most well known wine regions in the “New World” (not Europe).  It can also be a bit overwhelming to visit if you’re like most travellers who have only so much time and money.  How do you choose what you’re going to enjoy the most, and what’s worth every hard-earned dollar?  My husband and I visited several California wine regions in the summer of 2017; hopefully our experience can help you make the most out of your trip.

Napa Valley is world renowned for producing some of the best wine, and most expensive wine, in the world.  I won’t get into specific wine details in this article, but instead, will focus on the travel aspects of a trip to Napa Valley.  So get your palates prepped, pack some chic, warm weather clothes and shoes, and get your wallets ready for Napa Valley exploring!

We drove from Canada, with our travel trailer, down the Oregon coast, and through the Northern Part of California.  It took us two days to reach our first destination, the Napa Valley Expo RV Park.  The RV Park is located right in the town of Napa, which is a great town to be based out of to explore this region.  If you enjoy RV-ing, I would recommend this park.  The staff was friendly and helpful, and even gave us a coupon for some 2-for-1 Tastings and winery recommendations.  It was clean, and had full hook-up sites for a reasonable price.  It was also within easy biking distance of Napa’s downtown, and close enough walking proximity as well.  If you’ll be staying in a hotel, there are many to choose from near Napa’s downtown.

I would highly recommend staying in Napa; we felt we were central to so many different areas.  Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley run parallel to each other, divided by a mountain range, and Napa is at the bottom, so it’s a great starting point to go up either valley from bottom to top.  San Francisco can also be reached by car in less than an hour and a half, as another sight seeing option.  Napa itself has much to offer, with a beautiful and quaint downtown alongside a river.  There are several restaurants and shops, and so many tasting rooms!  The town offers a tasting card that can be picked up at one of its two Tourism offices, that allows you to taste at a discount in several tasting rooms, all within walking distance of each other. It can also be ordered online at donapa.com.  This is a great way to cover more ground in a shorter time if you’re curious to expand your palate, and you need a break from driving.  We only had the later half of an evening to spend doing tasting rooms, so we chose not to purchase the card, but if we had more time, it would have been worth it to buy.  More information on the tasting card and the town of Napa can be found at donapa.com.

If you’re flying in, there are a few different airports you can choose from, with different shuttle or car rental options.  Information on airports can be found at napavalley.com.  Depending on your budget and comfort level behind the wheel, having a car is great when you’re touring wine regions.  That being said, you will want to think about how much wine you’re planning to be consuming.  As I’ll discuss in greater depth later, they’re not exactly under-pouring in Napa and Sonoma, and you could easily be over the legal driving limit after your first winery stop if you’re consuming everything you’re poured.  If the spittoon is your friend, you’ll find you get to taste a lot of great wine without over-indulging.  If you’re thinking, “what’s a spittoon?” then you’ll want to explore other options than driving yourself.

If you have someone in your group that’s okay being a designated driver, then a car rental is the most budget friendly way to see Napa and Sonoma.  You have so much more freedom when you’re in your own vehicle to enjoy the days at your desired pace, rather than waiting on the rest of a tour group, or facing the opposite problem of being rushed away from a place when you’re not done there.  If you’ve got no DD, there are a few options you can use to explore the Valley.  There are multiple tour options, depending on the wineries you want to see, how long you want to be out, how many people you’d like to share a ride with, and what your budget is.  You can choose to hire a driver for the day, and still enjoy your privacy, or you can choose to go with the tour group route.  A Google search for “Napa Valley Wine Tours” will lead you to several companies to choose from, with customer reviews.  The same options are offered for Sonoma Valley as well.

When I first glanced at the Napa Valley tourism map we picked up at our RV Park, I remember feeling overwhelmed.  There are over four hundred wineries in Napa Valley alone.  Highway 29 runs from the top of the Valley, down to the town of Napa.  There are wineries the entire distance on both sides, and then there are more behind those, with access by side roads.  We only had three days to spend in Napa Valley, and had no idea how long to expect to be at each place, or which ones were going to be good.  I had purchased a Priority Wine Pass at prioritywinepass.com that allowed us 2-for-1 Tastings at several wineries, so we highlighted several of those on the map as a start.  We then looked into the opening and closing hours of each of them, and planned to start at the bottom-most one we wanted to see, and work our way up the valley.  We had the benefit of driving through the Valley on our way into town, so we had been able to get a feel for how long it actually is from top to bottom, and the whereabouts of certain wineries we wanted to visit.  It took roughly 30 minutes, dependant on traffic, to drive the entire length of the Valley.

We had heard from people that you can’t do more than three wineries in one day.  We did six on our first day in Napa.  We’re probably more on the extreme end of the spectrum; I don’t think most people would do that many in one day, but we started right at 10am, and went till 6pm, with a quick stop for lunch in the middle.  We also didn’t do winery tours on that day; if you’re doing a tour, you can expect to spend an additional hour at each place.

Most wineries open at 10am, and close at either 4pm or 5pm, but some are open later.  We had looked into this ahead of time to plan accordingly.  We also spent more time at the wineries we really enjoyed, and made a couple of quicker stops at the ones we felt we had seen enough of.  Your start time, end time, and pace is really going to determine the amount of wineries you can see.  We are also extreme wine enthusiasts/wanna-be sommeliers, so we have a high stamina for tasting wine and visiting wineries, and we’re accustomed to using the spittoon.  It may not be enjoyable for you to see more than three in a day, so take your personal and group interests into consideration when planning.  Some wineries do tasting by appointment only, so you need to look into this if you want to visit any of those.  My advice is to choose a few that look interesting to you, and visit their websites.  Napa Valley wineries are in the business of tourism; they expect visitors on a regular basis, and are set up for visits and tours, so they have great websites with all of the information you need to know to help you plan your visit.  Investing some time to explore individual wineries online will prepare you for when you arrive.

Budget is another consideration when planning your winery visits.  Take a look at websites to see what their tastings are offered for.  If you have the Priority Wine Pass, the 2-for-1 Tasting option can save you a lot of money.  If not, you can expect to pay anywhere from $20 per person up to $50 per person for a tasting, or more depending on the level of prestige of the winery you select.  Tours, of course, come at an extra cost, but many tours will come with a tasting at the end.  What do you get for that price?  Each winery does it a little bit differently, but basically, you can expect a flight of 3 – 6 wines, at roughly a 2 oz pour each.  If you do that math, you’re getting 6 to 12 oz of wine for the price you’re paying.  I found that the prices we paid were similar in comparison to what we’d pay in a restaurant for a serving of that quality of wine.  In addition, you’ll receive the experience of knowledgeable sommeliers to guide you through your flight.  They will teach you about the history of the winery, the region, the specific grapes you have in your glass, the process used to make the wine, what you might notice about it, and they can answer a variety of other questions you might have.  They also don’t rush you!  You can choose to stand at the bar if you wish, or you can choose to take your wine out onto the patio, where you can relax at a table in the sun or shade, and take in the view of the vines that grew the drink you’re currently enjoying, and the multi-million dollar estate (I recommend this option)!  I also recommend taking pictures of the wines you’re trying as a catalogue.  The wine estates are so beautiful, that you may want to take photos of the buildings, which could be considered art, the landscaping, scenery, and some of yourselves while you’re there too!  Once you’re done, there’s no pressure to purchase wine, as you’ve already paid for your tasting.  If you like it, buy it; if you don’t, don’t!  Before you leave, take a swing through the gift shop to look at the souvenirs and wine swag, and then you’re off to the next one.

Wineries I would highly recommend visiting:

• If you want well known places, visit Robert Mondavi and Beringer.  They have wine in stores all over the world, but this is not the stuff you taste at the wineries; when you’re on site, they’ll pour you award winning wine that’s made in smaller quantities, specifically from Napa Valley vineyards.  Expect it to cost a lot more (and taste a lot more complex) than the “Woodbridge” by Mondavi and Beringer wines you find in your local liquor store.  No appointment necessary for tastings; tours are offered.  Check out their websites for details.

• For a more affordable winery, visit V.Sattui.  They only sell from the winery, and this allows them to have smaller price tags than many of the others.

• For a piece of history, visit Grgich Hills Estate.  This is a smaller place, that isn’t as flashy as some of them, but it’s a great one to visit because of whose winery it is!  Mike Grgich was the winemaker for Robert Mondavi when his Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting in 1976, putting Napa Valley officially on the map as a reputable wine producing region.  It’s thanks to those two men that Napa Valley was finally given some credit by the European winemakers of the “Old World.”  Oh, and their wines are fantastic!  No appointment necessary here.

• For a luxury experience, visit Opus One!  This one was out of our budget.  Make sure you look into making an appointment here.

• Hall Wines and Alpha Omega also gave us great wines, and great experiences!  They both have beautiful grounds that you can sit and enjoy while you taste.  They served us a variety of wines, and let us choose the types we wanted to try.  We got to taste some of their highly awarded, prestigious bottles, included with our tasting fee, regardless of bottle price.  Having only done tasting in Canada before this trip (where tastings are free, but they never let you try the really good stuff) we were pleasantly surprised to get to try the best of the best.

On a final note, a great highlight of our trip was our lunch on the Napa Valley Wine Train.  The company offers a variety of services for a range of budgets and occasions, including dining journeys, special events, and day trips, where it will stop at several wineries for the patrons to have a visit and taste before getting back on the train.  As promoted on their website, the train is “part distinctive Napa Valley fine dining restaurant.  Part museum, it’s made up on exquisitely and faithfully restored vintage early 20th century Pullman cars… You get to sit back, relax, and savor every delicious bite, every bit of extraordinary scenery, every taste and tour” (winetrain.com, July 23/18).  Having ridden the train ourselves, we would agree fully with these statements.  The food was delicious, and they were excellent with catering to my food allergy.  The cars were beautiful and comfortable.  The service was top-notch; not only were they attentive and timely, but they were friendly and very knowledgeable about the Valley, offering interesting information about significant landmarks as we passed by.

The staff of the Napa Valley Wine Train have this experience fine-tuned to give their guests a memorable and smooth ride, pun intended!  The train station is in downtown Napa, and was easy to bike to from our RV Park.  We arrived early to present our tickets, and then were invited to wait in the large, comfortable lounge, with the option to purchase pre-boarding drinks.  Once it was time to board, we were assisted in finding the right car and table.  Every table is a window seat.  Wine is offered by the glass, or the bottle, and they have several selections if you’re going with the bottle option.  We were served our dinner courses while riding up the Valley for the first hour and a half, at a comfortable pace.  The train stops at the top for the engine to move from the front to the back, something we went to the back to watch!  On the return trip, we were seated in a different car, on the opposite side of the train, in order to see the scenery on the other side of the Valley.  We had dessert and after dinner drinks and coffee on this side.  There was plenty of time in between dinner and dessert for us to explore the train.  They have open air cars where you can get some fresh air and have an even better photo opportunity of the wineries and vineyards.  As I mentioned before, this was a highlight of our trip, and as they have so many options to choose from, I would try another type of journey if we were to return to Napa.  Expect to give a couple hundred dollars for your ticket, but in return, you’ll get over three hours of fine dining, grand service, a museum experience, a guided tour of the Valley, breathtaking views – oh, and of course, you’ll drink Napa Valley wine.  You’re not driving either; no spittoons here!

No matter how much time you spend in Napa, there is never enough time to see and do it all.  It’s a warm weather and wine-lover’s paradise, and I would be thrilled to go back.

Things I’ve Learned While Living in my Camper

My husband and I lived in our camper last summer for 5 months.  We rented out our house, fully furnished, and moved into our early 2000’s, 26 ft pull-behind camper trailer.  We based it at my in-laws’ acreage, but traveled to BC, California, and several other States with it.  We also had sleepovers in our friends’ driveways, and that was absolutely great to get to do as adults.  We were repeatedly surprised at how many people responded negatively to our lifestyle choice, and how forward, and frankly out of place, many of their comments were.  Looking back a year later, I’m so glad we took that chance; we learned so many invaluable lessons, many of which are posted below.  I kept this list of lessons on a note in my phone throughout the summer, so this blog post was composed over the course of 5 months, as each experience was occurring.  It is written in the form of me speaking to myself, as a reminder of what I was learning.  I left it unedited from what I wrote last year.


People can’t believe you would want to live in your camper. You will encounter criticism, sometimes from those you’d least expect.

Most people have no concept of what a camper trailer looks like inside or the amenities it offers. They DO think you’re eating leaves and berries and pooping in the woods (which maybe explains the previous point…)

When you do something in life that goes against the norm, people notice and comment. Some will be supportive and embrace you for who you are; many will be unsupportive. But do you really need to care? (You are learning that you don’t!)

Some people feel the need to spew their opinions about your lifestyle choices as though it’s affecting them directly. (You knew this beforehand).

You find out who your true friends are when they let you do laundry at their houses and offer to help you with anything you need.

You can go many days without washing your hair with the aid of dry shampoo.

Gym memberships are essential for showering and meeting drinking water requirements.

A ten minute commute into town is really not far; in fact, commuting gives you time to think.

You can live quite happily with many less things.

You don’t have to dress nice ALL of the time (even though you’ll never stop loving this).

Cities are freaking loud and bright! (You thought this in June… just wait. The people outside your camper are louder, and the city will seem quiet to you again after just a few months!)

You really like the area of town that you live in. Do not move far from this area!

You can appreciate quiet – real quiet, when you can actually hear nothing. (This is when nobody is around your camper – then it actually is quiet.)

There are a lot more stars in the sky than you think.

The Bachelorette has a ridiculous amount of commercials when you have to watch it online. You need Sarcan drop and go, to buy a new vehicle, and to travel to China. (No you don’t, but advertising works).

You don’t need TV nearly as much as you thought. You can enjoy relaxing in other ways.

Coyotes howl in packs at dusk every single night. (This terrified you at first, but you will miss them when you don’t hear them.)

Small spaces can be cozy.

You can be extremely crafty when it comes to things like water conservation, and organizing a fridge.

You will still find ways to fill your days and busy yourself, even if you’re not living with regular conveniences or in “the city.”

You are really good at planning your appointments and errands in town to line up nicely against one another.

Religion sucks; Jesus is awesome.

God can speak to you through wine at a winery, or even a Kesha song!

Those who you’d expect to support you might not, but other people will come out of the woodwork, people you maybe haven’t talked to in years, and offer such encouragement!

Decks are crucial to the enjoyment of summer. Yes.

Garden food is awesome if someone else does the weeding and harvesting!

You used to think the world was so black and white, when in fact, it’s very very gray. There aren’t as many hard fast rules to life as you thought there were.

PRIVACY – it matters. A LOT! You don’t know what you’ve got until its GONE. Think about where you live very closely.

Bugs! I hate you stupid little bugs! You were surely part of the curse on Adam and Eve.

Quads are loud and I don’t like that. Trucks and fork lifts and chain saws and other things with engines are loud and I also don’t like that.

People don’t realize that we’re not like they are.

You can be extremely flexible and adaptive, which used to be so unlike you! You’re growing!

You can settle in surprising quickly in different places and make them feel like home, and here’s why; you’ve realized that the actual structure doesn’t make the home a home. Wherever Greg and you lay your heads together at night is home.

Camper life is super awesome and you’ll really miss it when it’s over! You might shed a tear.