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Adventures with Nico, Road Trip

It’s August again, so it’s time for another adventure with my young son, Nico. If you recall, last year Nico and I took an epic wander around Italy, which I wrote about in episodes. This year we chose to do a short road trip from our home in Seattle, which grew from an overnight in Portland to a 6 day drive with my mother, Rita, along for the ride.


Sarah’s New Car, Mazda CX-9

The real reason for this particular adventure is that I recently bought a new car. My beloved VW Passat TDI died after a solid 12 years of service. I would have replaced it, but they don’t make that car anymore.

It was a bit of a drama finding a new car that could easily fit a pack of tall people. I’d been without a car for three months and was frustrated, so one day when I couldn’t take it anymore, I hopped on my Vespa and rode down to the Mazda dealership. I told them exactly what I wanted and that I wanted to drive it away that day. By some strange magic, they said “Yes, Ma’am” and I left in a shiny new CX-9.

Now, I’m not a fancy person, and I’ve never wanted or needed a fancy car. I can’t afford one anyhow. But I’m just at that point in life when I cannot tolerate a crappy car. I’ve driven a ’68 Beetle, ’79 Pinto, ’70 Fastback and a ’77 Checker Marathon. Every one of those cars has had funky character and a great story behind them, but not one was reliable. AAA and I are very good friends, unfortunately.

So, to make a long story short, I’d had it. My valiant Passat died a sorry death after carting around messy kids from infancy to middle school. It was falling apart. It lurched into the Mazda lot with a trail of ominous white smoke behind it and I closed that chapter.

I have never in my life owned a new car. I cannot believe that someone gave me a loan for such an expensive piece of machinery, and I have to wonder why I happen to be in the small percentage of people on earth lucky enough to do that. I spent the first few days of owning it standing by the window, staring at it, with a mixture of guilt and terror.

Let’s See What it can DO

Nico on a road trip

Now I’ve got a new car and a week in August to kill. Nico didn’t really care about where we were going, he just wanted to stay places that had pools. Easy enough.

I asked my parents if they’d like to come, this monster of a new car can fit 7 if it needs to. Dad wanted to go to Vegas, but Mom said no, too hot (and Dad likes keno too much). Mom didn’t care about destination, she’s always up for an adventure. Dad couldn’t come in the end, unfortunately, he drives for Wingz and had a few client pick-ups reserved.

I cast the idea out on Facebook to see if anyone would invite us to visit, to give us a plan, and I got a few good offers. San Francisco seemed like a good destination. I hadn’t been in years, since my 21st birthday. I also hoped to get to Napa, one of my favorite places on earth. Without thinking much about it, I decided to get in the car and go.

Day One

Nico and I hopped in the car with our backpacks and a pile of stuffed animals. I had only planned this road trip THE DAY BEFORE. Seriously. I called mom and Saturday and we left Sunday morning. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I do stuff like that.

Spontaneous travel may seem crazy, but we were in a new car, I had a credit card, and there are Target stores all along the route. No worries. No planning needed.

Mom, of course, turned up with more than her weight in stuff. She brought a suitcase that weighed at least 25 pounds. She brought two coolers, a couple of towels, two fluffy blankets, a sack full of paper plates and picnic supplies and a BEACH CHAIR, among other things. She doesn’t read my blog.

While I looked at her in disbelief as she loaded everything into the car, she promised that we would use all of the things she was bringing.We hit the road and drove. I wished we had started earlier. A colleague of mine at Rick Steves had invited us to a show in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare festival, then dinner after. I wasn’t sure we’d make it by 6, or to Ashland at all.

The car drove like a dream, it has all the crazy modern stuff that new cars have these days. Navigation. Excellent climate control. Alarms that buzz to keep you safe. Best of all, it actually starts when you want it to!

We made good time, but didn’t get there for the play. We had to take a pit stop for lunch at an A&W because we like rootbeer floats. I also needed to book a hotel for the night, so I browsed Priceline while I ate. I found a great deal, reserved it from my phone and input the address in the GPS.

I had never been to Ashland, and we were greeted with hugs from my friend and colleague, Caterina Moore. She guides for Rick Steves along with me, and we’d traveled together. She’s a fantastic guide and a delight to spend time with. Our time was short, but we took a stroll around Ashland to see the festival theaters, then dinner and another stroll. Ashland is super cute.

Our last stop before dinner was to try their special “Lithia Water”, spring water that is special to the city and flows in the fountains. Our hosts looked excited for us to try it, so I went first. Oh, um, yeah. GROSS. It is a fizzy spring water that tastes like baking soda and sulfur. Apparently it has health benefits. Anything that tastes that bad must be good for you.

Day Two

We woke at a lazy hour and went down to the hotel breakfast. I kind of despise hotel breakfasts since I eat them all the time, but at least they had waffles. Nico wanted to go for a swim before we left and I obliged after breakfast. Bad form, I know.

After our swim, I loaded up the car and we headed out for the California border. I had not gone over the Siskyou Pass in 13 years. The last time was over New Year’s and it was a terrible disaster. We got stuck in a driving snow storm that piled up to the middle of the car doors, in the Checker, which had no defrost and bad windshield wipers. Bad, bad memories.

This time, snow was not an issue as it was about 115 degrees. I worried a little as we sped down the freeway, I wondered if my car would be able to take that heat. Every other car I’d ever owned would have overheated and broken down. That little concern rattled around my head all day, but it was silly. I have a new car. Normal people who drive normal cars don’t worry about overheating, as it turns out.

We passed through the Shasta area, which is so pretty, and took a quick break at a rest stop for a picnic lunch. My mom’s preparations paid off. She had all the supplies to make sandwiches, including matching paper plates and napkins. I’ll never be the kind of mom she is. We ate quick to avoid melting and I again looked for a place to stay. I was making reservations on the fly because I wanted us to have the flexibility to change our plans as we went. I figured that we could easily make it to Napa before the wineries closed, so that was the goal.

Geez, hotels in San Francisco are expensive. All of my friends that live there were out of town on vacations, so no free place to stay. A friend had suggested staying in Marin county and taking the ferry in, so I booked a place near the ferry dock. Nothing special, but convenient.

I got back in the car and drove like the wind to try and make it to a winery before closing. I cannot believe how Napa and Sonoma close up at 5. That’s nuts. They should stay open later. I found one place that seemed family-friendly and was open until 6.We arrived at Cline Cellars just in time. After driving for many hours, I was ready for a drink or several. The man at the counter was really sweet and helped me choose some wines to try.

I get a little annoyed in Napa by the snobbery level since I visit wineries often in Europe. European wineries are not pretentious in general, wine is for everyone, not just the rich. This particular winery was just perfect, friendly and inviting without attitude.

My mother doesn’t tend to drink at all. If she does, she likes the screw-top raspberry Merlot, and she usually drinks it with an ice cube. I’d never taken her to a winery before and she didn’t want to do a whole flight of wines, it was too much. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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The gentleman at the counter was kind enough to let us share a wine tasting, I was driving anyway and could only have tiny sips. My mother tried everything…I was shocked. She loved it. Mom and Dad are both very chatty and friendly, so she enjoyed talking to the people at the bar and eventually found a couple of wines that she really liked. I was floored. Whose mom are you?

We didn’t stay too long, Nico was pretty bored, even if they let him feed the giant carp in their pond. We walked around the vineyard for a few minutes in the sunset. It was lovely.As a native Californian, I am always missing decent Mexican food, so we went looking for dinner. We drove up to Sonoma and wandered the town center. I was glad it was closing up. My mom is a shopper and I’m not. Sonoma is a cute town, and we enjoyed a decent Mexican dinner. I browsed the real estate listings….someday….

Day 3

My Priceline gamble landed us at an Extended Stay America. It was a little weird feeling, set in an industrial area and inhabited, it seemed, by only men. The sheets were wrinkled, but it was otherwise clean and a bargain. Nico was sad to find that the pool was lame and it was shockingly cold in that part of the Bay area.

The point, though, was to stay outside of San Francisco and ferry in. It was a brilliant strategy. The ferry zipped us across the bay in 30 minutes, dropping us in the center of town. The crossing itself was beautiful, with views over the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. I took lots of pictures of San Quentin and Alcatraz for my dad, he likes those jailbreak movies.

We had no agenda, but I knew that a mix of adult and kid stuff would be the goal. My memory of San Francisco was sketchy at best. We decided to walk. My mom’s goal was to eat sourdough bread. Nico’s was to see the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. My goal was to keep everyone happy.

We walked, and walked, and walked. I didn’t remember Fisherman’s Wharf being so far. We stopped at a cool science museum, but the entry fees were unbelievable. I am so spoiled by European ticket prices. The Louvre is just $15.

Eventually we got to the Wharf and Mom got her bread. Nico got a loaf shaped like a turtle. Each time he took a bite I made screaming noises. He didn’t think that was funny.

The best part of the day was the Musee Mechanique, an arcade full of antique games, fortune tellers and movie machines. Everything was a quarter to play. Nico had never seen anything like it. He tried everything, and we crammed ourselves into the Photo Booth for old-fashioned pictures.[embedyt][/embedyt]

The thing Nico was most impressed by was the hand crank movie machine. I don’t know what fascinated him about those, but he could have stayed all day watching cowboys and indians, the San Francisco Fire and other reels. It was cool to watch an internet-age kid enjoy simpler pleasures.

I had my fortune told (hope it comes true) and was terrified by the automatons and marionettes. I was also freezing my buns off. How is it that all of the west coast, including Seattle, could be over 100 degrees but it’s 60 in San Francisco??

After lunch at In-n-Out Burger, as good former Californians do, we went to have sundaes at Ghirardelli. $15. That’s what it costs for a sundae. Seriously. But it made Nico so happy to pick. I was trying to talk to him while he perused the menu and he said “Mom, stop. This is serious business.” Okey dokey. 9 year-olds have their priorities straight.

After that, I dragged Mom and Nico up to Lombard Street. I wanted to watch the cars zigzag down the hill.

I was being kind of silly and touristy, but I wasn’t the only one. There were more tourists there taking pictures than any other place in SF. What I didn’t know was that the entire neighborhood beneath it is Italian paradise. Everyone else on earth seems to know about it, but I didn’t. What fun to walk the streets and stop to chat with people in Italian. And what a shock for the people I spoke to. Nobody ever expects a 6’2 blonde to speak Italian.

The man at a deli we stopped in was from Catania, in Sicily. I could tell from his dialect so I struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat about Sicily, a place I know very well. I later heard that he is famous for his salami and has even fed the Pope!

Chinatown is cheek-by-jowl to the Italian district. I was looking forward to going there because I recall having fun there years ago and trying lots of street food. It was pretty, but also pretty dirty and my mom was having none of that. Nico was about to meltdown as well. I think that hike up Lombard street did them both in.

We decided it was time to go back on the ferry. Nico got a stuffed animal to remember his trip, Mom got a shopping bag. I was looking for a good book but never found anything to read that was just right. Back at our hotel, we made a feast from Trader Joe’s appetizers and Nico declared it to be the best dinner ever.

Day 4

On this lightning road trip, time was running out. We had to head north. I wasn’t about to leave without hitting at least one more winery, but we didn’t have time to go back to Sonoma. I thought 101 would be fun to drive, hitting the Redwoods on the way, so we slowly made our way along.

Mom had decided that she wanted olive oil, but it’s surprisingly hard to find good places to stop that sell it. Must be more in central California. We eventually stopped near Healdsburg and discovered a delightful wine road, littered with adorable wineries. Mom and I agreed that we could spend days going winery to winery. Nico was not amused.

We found a spot that did olive oil tasting along with wine tasting, and they were nice enough to let Nico participate a bit. It was scorching hot and he was bored, so it was a quick visit, but I’d have stayed longer if I could have. The scenery was so beautiful, so like Italy.

Continuing on, we made it to the Redwoods by dusk. I’d never been to the Avenue of Giants, and we drove slowly through, stopping to wander and explore.

Redwoods are so very impressive, I’m not used to feeling small. Nico was hoping to see the one you can drive through, but he had plenty of fun just climbing around and playing in the cool, lush forest.

Before finishing our day, we made a quick stop in Ferndale. My mother had always dreamed of owning a Victorian house, and she apparently brought us there when we were kids. It was a little late and everything was closed, but the town itself was charming. Like a movie set.

Like Mainstream USA escaped from Disneyland.

Eureka was the only logical stop for the night. “Eureka” means “I’ve found it!” but I’m not sure what they had found that was worth getting excited about. We found a Red Lion, one of the many overpriced and mediocre hotels in town. Oh well, not every stop is a gem. Nico was pretty excited to find a Sizzler in the parking lot, because he loves salad and salad bars. Or so he says. It could be the free ice cream.

Going Home

Our next two days were about going back to Seattle. We had breakfast in Arcata, a place I recall going with my patchouli scented friends in college. We drove through more redwoods and stopped to play on the beach. I took a crazy, windy road and got to really test out my new car’s abilities. It wasn’t on purpose, but hey, it’s an adventure!

We stopped for the night in Salem and stayed with the partner of one of my colleagues. I love how the Rick Steves family really is a family. She’d never met me before but opened her home to me and my family, treating us like relatives. She made us dinner and breakfast, then showed us around her town, sending us off with a packed lunch. It’s nice to be mothered occasionally.

Slogging through Portland traffic, we got back home in the evening after a couple of pitstops for ice cream. Nico was hoping to stop at VooDoo Donuts, but I couldn’t bear waiting in line for hours in the heat for bacon donuts.

You may notice that I never mentioned how Nico behaved in the car. Nico has always been a spark plug, a little fiery and occasionally temperamental. Much like our Italian adventure, he was a gem. He made a little nest in the back, with blankets, stuffies, books, snacks and my iPad. He read, watched movies, looked at the scenery. That kid is a better traveler than almost anyone I’ve ever met.

My mom was a great travel companion, ready for anything and flexible as we changed plans. She’s very chatty, even if I’m not, and talked to me and just about anyone we met along the way. She had a ball, she has called me a couple of times asking when we can go again. Which made me think about road trips.

Many people need to plan or wait or have an excuse to put off taking a trip. We just went. No plan, minimal budget. I can bet that this is something that my mom will always remember. It’s important to do, to make time for making memories with family, even if it’s just a short jaunt.

And we did use most of the 1000 things she brought. Except the beach chair.    

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


  • Carol says:

    What a great trip!

  • Marilyn says:

    Love your adventure, thanks for sharing.

  • Heather Lee says:

    Sarah, what a lovely summer break for you and yours. Sometimes these little unplanned trips are the most fun, aren’t they!

  • Nancy says:

    Thanks for sharing! Love your blog. Your Mom and Nico are both adorable!

  • Kathleen says:

    Thanks for a great story, well told. I love all your blogs 🙂

  • Kim B. says:

    Love that you had this opportunity with your mom and your son — how fun to have your mom along with all her preparations!! And I can agree with Nico that choosing a sundae is serious business.You make everything fun to read with your wonderful writing style.And congrats on the new car!

  • Kathy Noll says:

    Loved your story. You are lucky there is so much endless awesomeness all along the west coast. You made me want to come along. If only you had left that beach chair behind, I could have fit 😉

  • Doyscher Gena says:

    This was really a fun read that makes me want to head out on a car trip! Amazing where new wheels can take you. You son will always remember the quirks of the trip. Your Mom sounds like a real trooper!

  • Andi Cody says:

    What a fun trip! I call the Bay Area home so a lot of what you saw resonated with me as did your spur of the moment adventure with your son and Mom. Together you created memories that will last a lifetime!

  • P Gooddon says:

    Great trip report. Congratulations on your car!

  • Linda C. says:

    What a great trip the three of you had! What struck me is that most of us reading your blog likely do so because we love the wonders of the long haul trips and itineraries, but there are plenty of wonderful experiences and memories to be made without the lengthy planning or the larger budget. Thanks for sharing!

  • Theresa S. says:

    Car trips can really wow and delight with their accessible ease, yes? Even if not going ‘half way around the world’ how quickly you can get someplace decidedly different than home is a joy and treat made even sweeter sharing it among the generations, and especially so in a shiny new rig! Thanks for bringing us along on this fun family Cali trip, Sarah. Your iGen’er IS a superlative traveler and that he hung so admirably with mom and grandma amongst the vineyards proves it emphatically. Last weekend was a spontaneous weekend jaunt for myself, sister and her 12- and 13-year olds (younger sister/older brother) to the Olympic Peninsula. Ferry ride fun Seattle-Bainbridge (35 min) with ultimate Sequim destination (2 1/2 hours). Had comfortable overnight at a Quality Inn with lemon-water in the lobby, afternoon cookies by Franz (they’re legitimately good if commercial), extensive/tasty/fresh breakfast offerings including homemade-looking biscuits and gravy, regular waffle batter AND banana nut, indoor swimming pool and pet friendly. We went to the National Dungeness Wildlife Refuge (not as much critter action in the height of summer but area sees more than 250 avian species among other wildlife) and walked the fabulous, lovely, fascinating Dungeness Spit (longest natural spit in the U.S.; it actually grows each year due to wind and water action) with plenty of kelp dragging, sand digging and structure building. A little too much climbing on crumbling sand dunes for my tastes but auntie doesn’t get to make those calls. A real hootenanny for the kids doing their first Olympic Game Farm tour and getting the thrill of feeding zebras and American buffalo from the car windows, maneuvering around shaggy yaks insolently loitering in the middle of the road (I’m pretty sure they were desperate to show just how sick they are of the wheat bread) and admiring the “autographs” we received post drive-through, i.e. the mucky, slobbery evidence left on the outside of the car doors from the various four-leggers. Lots of offerings at the Saturday market in town, easy bicycling around the area and heading off into the Olympic National Forest/driving to Hurricane Ridge for incredible vistas are only some of the many options available to visitors. Maybe you’ve already done this with your boys but I couldn’t help myself giving the area a plug for a special, authentic and super photogenic Western Washington excursion.

  • Edward Johnson says:

    Cline Cellars is an excellent winery and as you say very laid back. Mexican food is Sonoma was actually very goos when we were there. I believe we ate at La Casa.

  • Judie Marks says:

    Love reading your posts Sarah. This one especially connected with me. Creating special moments with those we love are so important. Things are nice, but memories last forever. Nico and your mom will never forget the time you spent together. My mom passed away 14 years ago, those special moments we spent together still comfort me.

  • Dianne W says:

    Remember the old Mark Twain Quote? “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” What a fun trip and congrats on your new car, sound like it could fit a tour group.

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