Monday, May 29, 2017

Ride the Pipe Mountain Coaster in Revelstoke, B.C.

The Pipe Mountain Roller Coaster in Revelstoke, B.C. is an exhilarating ride. Down the Wrabbit Hole Travel Blog tells you what to expect and how to plan for your visit.

I wouldn't typically claim to be a so-called 'thrill seeker'. I have no aspirations of bungee jumping or leaping from an airplane. Heights freak me out, to be quite honest, although I can usually stomach them if I know I am perfectly safe. Even waterslides give me butterflies in my stomach, and I tend to stick to the ones where I am lined up with five-year-olds in the cue. So there isn't a lot of 'daredevil' travel stuff on my blog.

But this past weekend I rode a roller coaster down the side of a mountain. And that was pretty cool.

The Pipe Mountain Roller Coaster in Revelstoke, B.C. is an exhilarating ride. Down the Wrabbit Hole Travel Blog tells you what to expect and how to plan for your visit.
Ready to zoom down the roller coaster.

The Pipe Mountain Roller Coaster is located at the Revelstoke Mountain Resort just beyond the town of Revelstoke, British Columbia in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The coaster was North America's first Brandauer Mountain Coaster, a streamlined monorail alpine coaster. The attraction is basically brand-new, as construction on it was completed in 2015 with the official opening day on May 21, 2016. We rode the coaster almost one year after its opening, on May 20, 2017.

The coaster boasts a top speed of 42 kilometers per hour, which doesn't sound altogether too impressive, but when you are sitting on it, whizzing down a mountainside, it is. The run is a 279 meter vertical drop along a 1.4 kilometer stretch, and lasts for about 4 minutes, which is pretty long in the roller coaster world.

The rails as seen from the inside of the gondola.

The Revelstoke Mountain Resort itself is easy to find. There are tons of blue signs sprinkled throughout the town of Revelstoke guiding you along. Once you reach the resort, it is only a matter of walking through the dusty parking lot towards the back side of the resort, towards a blue-roofed kiosk near Guest Services. There you can purchase your gondola lift tickets and roller coaster tickets. I am a little unclear on how the prices work - the website says $25 per adult and kids 5 and under free, but for myself, my husband, my three-year-old (who rode the roller coaster), and my one-year-old (who did not ride the roller coaster), we were charged a total of $71 so I don't really know what I was charged for exactly. It is expensive for one ride on the coaster, but we really wanted to try it so we were willing to pay.

The Revelstoke Mountain Resort from behind.

On a related note, the gondola pass is good for the entire day with unlimited trips, so you can enjoy the views of the Kootenay mountain range from the comfort of the gondola repeatedly. You just have to go back down the same way you came up.

Once you purchase your ticket, you can choose to cue up at the base of the gondola right away, or stroll around the resort and check out its multiple shops and restaurants. Of course, we opted to line up right away as the roller coaster was our main purpose in visiting. When you hit the gondola station, the attendant scans your ticket and staples a number to your pass. This number determines when it is your turn to ride down the roller coaster.

My husband and son enjoying the ride up the gondola.

I really liked this numbering system, because it assumes your time is precious, which it is. The roller coaster loads riders up in 40 people increments. If numbers 1-40 are loading at the top of the mountain, and you are holding ticket number 65, then you know you have time to explore the Village Plaza at the resort base instead of wasting it standing in line at the top. Loading numbers are broadcasted on multiple screens around the resort, as well as online so you can watch from your phone for your turn to ride up the gondola.

Of course, you can go up the gondola anytime you want. There is a building at the top called Revelation Lodge where you can rest, get refreshments, and enjoy the view of the Columbia valley. There are also a couple of rough hiking trails that you can enjoy if you don't want to buy a roller coaster pass, or find yourself a top the mountain much earlier than needed. I do suggest that if you want to explore the top of the mountain, bring some sunscreen, water, sunglasses, bug spray, snacks, etc. That way you are prepared to enjoy an extended stay surrounded by an amazing view. (But don't pack a massive bag or purse, or you might not be able to take it down the coaster with you.

My girl and I ready to 'ride in the sky'. 

Once it is your turn to board the roller coaster, you squeeze into the little yellow cart and get strapped and buckled in by the attendant (straps across your ankles, seatbelt across your lap). You are given a lesson on how to operate the roller coaster - there isn't really much because it is a self-driven machine hurtling down a metal rail. Pushing the lever forward makes the coaster go faster (topping out at 42 km/hr) and pulling back on the lever helps to brake the machine. It is recommended you don't go too crazy on the brake, because there are people coming down the mountain behind you and you don't want to start a traffic jam. Let the attendant know if you plan on going slow or fast, and they can time your release so you don't have to worry about riders either ahead of or behind you.

The Pipe Mountain Roller Coaster in Revelstoke, B.C. is an exhilarating ride. Down the Wrabbit Hole Travel Blog tells you what to expect and how to plan for your visit.
Daddy / daughter ride about to begin!

Beyond that, just enjoy the ride. I brought my GoPro and slid it into the clip mounted on the front of the coater seat, courtesy of the resort. There are no handheld devices allowed, so don't expect to use your iPhone to take video footage. In fact, you can't even stick your hands or arms outside of the ride, as there are trees whipping by you near the track that could cause some damage if you smacked into them. You even whiz through a tunnel at one point. So be safe and have fun.

The words '42 kilometers per hour' don't sound like much. But flying down the track with your hair whipping in the wind, tears streaming from the corners of your eyes, you sure feel the speed. My adrenaline was pumping, and I tried to scream at times, but it mostly came out as a laughter. The ride is a total rush and I wanted to go again but we didn't have the time or cash. My daughter, who is only three, rode down the coaster tucked between my husband's legs. She was yelling, "This is the best slide ever!!!" so she definitely agrees with me that the coaster is a thrill and a half.

The Pipe Mountain Roller Coaster in Revelstoke, B.C. is an exhilarating ride. Down the Wrabbit Hole Travel Blog tells you what to expect and how to plan for your visit.
I always have a silly face on rides, but this went fast!

(For parents out there planning to ride with their family, kids under 8 need to ride with an adult, and kids over 8 meeting specific height requirements can be their own driver. Just know before you go, because that will affect who can ride and when. I went up first and rode solo while my husband watched the two kids at the bottom, then my husband and my daughter went up to ride while my son and I rode the gondola a few times. Parker, at almost two years old, was too small and young to ride the coaster. Depending on your family structure, you will have to sort out who can ride independently, who can ride with an adult, and who can't ride at all.)

Riding the Pipe Mountain Coaster was a wonderful experience - quite the rush with beautiful scenery to boot. The weather we had that day was gorgeous, with full sun and no wind. (Rain is BAD - they will close the coaster down during inclement weather, so check the forecast before you buy tickets.) My kids enjoyed the gondola, the coaster, and even the rolling hills at the base of the resort where they cleared the ground of dandelions. (You are welcome, Revelstoke Mountain Resort.) We will definitely be going back when the son is old enough to experience it as well. Fun for the whole family.

"Best slide ever!!!"

On a final note, I really want to thank the resort staff for rescuing our double stroller from the overflow parking lot where we left it all by itself. Our stroller, while still working through its abandonment issues, is happy to be back safe and sound with us (except we forgot it once more at 3 Valley Gap, but I'll save that story for another post). The Revelstoke Mountain Resort staff walked out to the parking lot, grabbed our forgotten stroller, and stowed it away safely until we could come pick it up, and for that I say, "Thank you!!!" What a great team you guys have there.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Discover Magic in British Columbia's Enchanted Forest

This May long weekend, my family took its first ever ‘family-only’ holiday - no extended family or friends, just us. It was wonderful and we had a total blast, spending some quality family time together. We headed out to Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia for a few days, choosing to stay at the Coast Hillcrest Hotel, which was really nice. (I will do a hotel tour post on that soon.) 

Me and my munchkin sharing a 'Cheers' on our hotel patio.

Over the course of the weekend, we packed a lot in considering we had a three-year-old and a one-year-old, one of which still requires afternoon naps. We went swimming in the Revelstoke Aquatic Centre on our first evening. The kids loved it - the centre features a ‘lazy river’ that pulls you along in a figure 8 while you relax on a floaty mat or a pool noodle. For the kids, it also had a fountain to splash in, kiddie pool, hot tub, and waterslide. It was a great way to unwind after our nearly seven hour drive from Alberta. 

The Revelstoke Aquatic Center. Image via.

We also enjoyed a ride down a mountain on the Pipe Mountain Coaster at the Revelstoke Mountain Resort, a stay at the 3 Valley Gap Ghost Town, and of course, an afternoon exploring the Enchanted Forest, one of my favourite childhood places to visit. 

I remember my parents taking me to the Enchanted Forest as a kid. One time we went, my little sister, who had gorgeous blonde ringlet hair, was sitting outside the Three Bears’ hut, and a tourist took a photo of her, thinking she was Goldilocks. I wanted my kids to have similar magical memories, and so when my husband suggested a weekend trip to Revelstoke for my birthday gift, I knew we had to go to the Enchanted Forest.

Parker and Avy excited to embark on our Enchanted Forest adventure.

The Forest is about 30 minutes west of Revelstoke, and is accessed on a very picturesque drive through the Rocky Mountains on Highway 1 West. We headed for the Enchanted Forest after a busy morning riding the Pipe Mountain roller coaster, and reached the parking lot just after lunchtime. Upon reaching our destination, we opened the bed of the truck only to find we’d forgotten our double stroller at the roller coaster resort! Luckily, both kids were so excited to explore the forest’s pathways and exhibits that riding in a stroller would never have happened anyway.

The castle looms over the Enchanted Forest parking lot.

Entrance to the Enchanted Forest costs $12.00 for adults, and $9.00 for children aged 3-15. Kids under three are free. The attraction is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the summer, but I recommend you check the website to ensure it is indeed open on the days you plan to visit. It covers an area of 40 acres, and speckled throughout are white-picket-fence-lined pathways leading to displays of fairytale creatures, magical woodland figures, nursery rhyme characters, and more. There are over 350 handmade cement figurines on the property, all of which are connected to some sort of childhood tale. Rather than rehash the history of the Enchanted Forest here, I simply took a photo of sign that hangs in the castle explaining how the Enchanted Forest came to be. 

The story behind the Enchanted Forest, displayed on the castle wall.

After paying for your entrance in the gift shop (which also functions as the exit, so you have to go through it twice - get your wallets ready! There’s no escaping the toys and trinkets!), you enter the forest and immediately spot Humpty Dumpty balanced precariously on the forest wall. Beyond him is a modest sized castle, complete with drawbridge and an alligator-infested moat. Fountains and other water features can be found throughout the Enchanted Forest as well, making it lush and musical-sounding.

Peek-a-boo! Is anyone home?

We hit up the castle first. Inside there is only one room on the main floor, featuring Snow White’s magic mirror, a talking wizard, and a few implements brought up from the dungeon. Down the stairs, the dungeon is dark and dank, so bring a sweater! I have memories of being terrified of the dungeon as a child, and it didn’t disappoint as an adult. It isn’t scary to me now, but it freaked out my three-year-old daughter (to her delight) and made my one-year-old son cry, so I guess things haven’t changed. There are only three rooms in the dungeon, but one of them featured a zombie-looking thing shaking around - that’s what did it for my son. Of course, as soon as we escaped back upstairs, the daughter HAD to go back down and check it out again. She may be a little morbid like her mother.

My husband trapped in the castle. 

Once we emerged from the castle, we kept left. If you turn right, you will end up at the washrooms, and then to the fish pond and out of the exit. And then you’d miss EVERYTHING, so keep left.

My son enjoys a hobby horse ride. 

The left path loops a considerable distance into the forest, which is incredible all by itself. The trees are massively tall, the forest floor is lush with ferns, flowers, moss, and a plethora of beautiful plants I don't even know the names for.

Some of our favourite ‘exhibits’, not featured in the correct order as they are found on the pathway, include:

The Homes of the Three Little Pigs

This interpretation of the Three Little Pigs’ houses is quite literal. There is a small hut made out of bound straw, one made of sticks, and one made of brick. You can go inside all of them. The brick one is the most comfortable to get in and out of, and it has two doors so there’s no shifting around inside to access the exit, but the other two are worth a peek as well.

My daughter checking out the Little Pigs' stick house.

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

No adults inside this one, unless you are extremely petite! But for kids, this is a fun exhibit. You can enter the old woman’s shoe house, go up a narrow, twisting set of stairs, and exit out of the top of the shoe via a steep slide. The slide is quite steep, so your kids might freak out a little. My daughter, who is usually stubbornly independent, insisted that my husband catch her, and my son literally had to be extracted out.

The Home of the Three Bears

This house has plates of porridge, three different sized chairs, and a second level inside with three little beds. My kids loved the houses that featured beds - they laid down in all of them. It was big enough for all four of us to squeeze into, which made it easier to drag the kids out when it was time to move onto the next sight.

The home of the Three Bears.

The Pirate Ship 

The pirate ship is mostly just a massive ramp reaching up into the trees. The ramp is pretty steep, so beware of your kids taking a tumble if they run down too fast. But when you are at the top, there is a pretty cool view of the forest pathways.

Way, way up on the elevated end of the pirate ship.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ Home

Once again, this little house had seven beds, and I believe my kids reclined in all of them because they were in there for about 20 minutes before we could convince them to move along. The front door is tiny and not for most adults to squeeze through, but a larger hole in the back of house makes it possible to reach in and drag your children out!

The Farm with the Digging Machines

I think this is supposed to be Old MacDonald’s farm, but I wasn’t sure. The barn isn’t open to the public, and the chicken coop features an animatronic farmer collecting eggs, so I didn’t find the exhibit very thrilling. But in the farmyard, there are two digging machines set up in a sandpit, and my kids had a total blast digging sand with them.

We might have to invest in one of these digging machines at home!

Along the way are all sorts of other exhibits, such as a hollowed out burned tree you can climb inside, Little Miss Muffet, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, the cow jumping over the moon and so much more. Some of the nursery rhymes referenced I hadn’t even heard of, so it is almost like a learning experience when you visit!

My son and I in the hollow tree at the Enchanted Forest.

When I took a peek at what there was to do in Revelstoke online, one particular image kept appearing of a massive treehouse with winding steps stretching up to the top of a huge pine tree. (I think it is a pine - correct me if I am wrong.) I found out that this amazing three story treehouse was found in the Enchanted Forest, so I was excited to climb it. It definitely wasn’t around when I was a kid!

We climbed up the treehouse separately, due to the fact that I had to run back halfway across the forest because we forgot my son’s hat in Snow White’s house (all part of our theme of forgetting stuff during this particular trip). So my husband and kids waited for me on level 2 while I dashed through the forest. When I returned with the hat, I explored level 1, saying hello to the two creepy witches located there. Level 2 has a table and chairs, perfect for a wee snack break. Level 3, at the tippy top of the treehouse, has a bunkbed occupied by another slightly creepy replica of a little boy. I had to bribe my daughter with food to get her to come back down from level 3, as she was ready to nap the day away in that bunkbed!

The giant treehouse at the Enchanted Forest.

Looking out the window of the treehouse gives you a great view of a secondary part of the park, although separate from the Enchanted Forest. This area is called SkyTrek and is a kid and adult climbing attraction, where you walk through the treetops, rappel down the sides of climbing walls, and do skywalks on ropes. There are about four or five sections, but my kids were only old enough to play on one of them, so we opted to skip SkyTrek this time around and do it again when they are 6 years old and able to participate in all of the sections. But it could be worth checking out if you have older and adventurous children.

The cow jumped over the moon...

After we finished the ‘left loop’, we ended back up at the fork where we’d begun, with reclining mermaids and singing frogs. From here, we walked past the main washrooms and towards the fish pond.

Magical mermaids adorn one of the tinkling water features.

At the fish pond, large catfish circle lazily in the water waiting for tourists to shower them with pellets of fish food. A quarter machine that dispenses fish food is located right next to the pond. We didn’t even have to put money in the machine - there were enough loose pellets located in the lip of the machine and on the ground to keep my kids occupied for quite some time.

There are signs posted on the grounds warning visitors not to climb the rocks - signs my three-year-old believed did not apply to her. Did she ever learn a lesson! While she was climbing rocks to get closer to feed the fish, she slipped on some algae and slid into the fish pond, soaking her shoes and the bottoms of her pants. The pond isn’t deep or dangerous by any means, but her shoes reeked like fish in the aftermath of that escapade. A lesson to be learned about listening to your parents!

The kids feeding fish before Avy dunked herself in.

After the dunking adventure, we knew it was time to leave. We had seen all there was to see anyway. But even leaving the park was a fun experience. Just before we left the forest, I noticed a figurine of Jack, protecting the goose that laid golden eggs. He was frozen in the process of chopping down one of the pine trees. Make sure to look up, way up, because at the top of that tall tree is a massive figurine of a giant, clinging desperately to the tree as it is felled. It is a pretty nifty sight.

A giant stuck in a tree, which is meant to be a beanstalk.

In order to exit the park, you are directed to walk through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole (which I thought extremely fitting considering the title of my travel blog!). Of course, no one is forced to walk through the tunnel - there is a little side exit if you’d rather not go that route. But I recommend you do! The tunnel is well lit, with little Alice in Wonderland references hidden throughout. It was a fun way to leave the Enchanted Forest.

It took us, a family of four with two toddlers, about two hours to meander through the exhibits in the Enchanted Forest, seeing every one and spending considerable time at some of them. We did NOT do the nature walk, which extends out past the left loop and includes a boat ride if you so choose. The nature walk restricts access after 4 p.m., and we hit that part of the loop around 3:45 p.m., so it didn’t seem smart to add that extra hike to our day at that point. But if you have older kids who aren’t so taken with the fairytale part of the park, the nature hike might add an extra element of excitement.

Just hanging out at the farm display.

The memories I had of exploring the Enchanted Forest as a kid are pretty fuzzy and vague except for the one Goldilocks moment, but overall, the park did not disappoint. If I did not have children with me, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice to attend, but for young ones the park is pretty magical. My kids are already asking to go back, so I’d say that is positive feedback!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Explore Sonoma Valley's Wine Region in California

For someone who enjoys wine as much as I do (I even brew it at home!), a trip to California without visiting one of the more famous wine regions would be implausible. Luckily, I visited San Francisco in September of 2016 with several like-minded ladies, and we found ourselves embarking on a sunny road trip around Sonoma Valley in search of beautiful vineyards. We managed to hit quite a few in the time we had, discovering not only a plethora of delicious wines, but also olive oils, cheeses, and even some authentic Mexican cuisine.

We hit the road in our rental van (sexy, I know) at about 9:00 a.m. on a weekday morning so that we could make the most of our day and hit as many vineyards as possible. Most vineyards open to the public at around 10:00 a.m., and the drive from San Francisco to the heart of Sonoma is about 1 hour and 20 minutes. It was a little less for us, only a one hour drive, due to the fact that we were staying just north of San Francisco in a town called Corte Madera.

We were so determined to see as many wineries as possible that we stopped at the first one we saw, and then proceeded to vineyard-hop down the road whenever the scenery struck our fancy. There were a couple vineyards that we were specifically looking for, but overall, it was all luck and timing regarding the places we visited. So here's an overview of what we discovered, in case you'd like to embark on a similar adventure!

Viansa Sonoma

Viansa Sonoma vineyard was not one that I had ever heard of. However, as we approached the sprawling hilltop property, we knew that this vineyard would be a wonderful place to begin our tour of Sonoma. The structure that houses the wine tasting bar, gift shop, and event rooms perches on the top of a ridge boasting a beautiful vista, overlooking 33 acres of rolling estate vineyards and a grove of lovely olive trees.

The logo for Viansa Sonoma vineyards.

We puttered slowly up the long driveway, parked in the empty parking lot, and meandered through the olive grove pathway towards the main building. It wasn't quite 10:00 a.m. yet, so we enjoyed the peace and quiet of a tourist-free vineyard, resplendent in the early morning California sun.

It was a beautiful day when we visited Viansa Sonoma vineyards.
Viansa was full of beautiful, old-world touches such as these doors.

A little after 10:00 a.m., we approached the main doors, and found them still locked. After knocking a few times, a young woman opened the door, apologizing profusely. She ushered us inside, propping open the doors to welcome the fresh, warm outside air. The woman bustled behind the bar counter, while an older gentleman introduced himself, welcomed us to Viansa, and showed us around the gift shop / cafe. The wares being sold in the shop were elegant, many hand-crafted, and most would have looked great in my kitchen, although most I also could not afford.

Viansa Sonoma had a ton of beautiful items for sale, other than the wine of course.

After browsing through the gift shop, we decided to quit pretending about the real reason we were there, and headed up to the bar. Three of us were interested in tasting some of Viansa's wines, so we purchased one tasting between us, all white wines. I am not really a white wine fan, so I was happy to be sharing. The wine was good, but since I don't really enjoy whites, I am not the best person to speak for the true quality of Viansa's wine. I am sure it is great - I wish I'd had the chance to try some reds.

Cheers! We sip some white wine at Viansa Sonoma.

My favourite part about Viansa was not the wine, but the people working there. The woman pouring our wine was very friendly and knowledgable about the merchandise, while the man was funny and open and knew a lot about the Sonoma region. He recommended a few other vineyards worth visiting, which was nice since we had really no idea where we were headed next.

Plump grapes shining in the sun, waiting to be turned into wine.

After leaving the main building, we basked in the sun for a few more minutes and enjoyed the view of Viansa's sprawling estate before heading back to our mom van.

My friend Kerry and I model the amazing view at Viansa.

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards

Just a few minutes down the road from Viansa Sonoma was a more wealthy and well-known brandname: Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. And yes, that is the same Jacuzzi family that holds patents for hot tubs as well. While we didn't see any bubbling jet tubs on the premises, there was a lot to see and do at the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Ready to start our tour of the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

The grounds of the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards are impressive. Although the land that the main Jacuzzi building is situated on does not have the same majestic view as Viansa Sonoma, the landscaping and attention to detail was extremely well done. The building, which had the outer appearance of being built by mortar and stones in the old European style, was outfitted with two end towers, vaulted windows, and little balconies filled with blossoming flower pots. Even the garden topiaries were designed to fit the theme, shaped into wine bottles!

Wine bottle topiaries at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Once through the main doors, you could walk left and enjoy your complimentary wine tasting of five non-reserve wines while shopping in the gift shop, or turn right and do a little sampling of olive oils and tapenade, while shopping for fine cheeses and whimsical pasta. Naturally, we opted to enjoy the delicacies of the right room first, and headed to the tasting bar.

The Jacuzzi wine bar.

Mark, our server, was run-off-his-feet busy with two tour buses that had cruised into the parking lot behind us, but still managed to be attentive and funny. This time, because I didn't have to share my order with the other ladies, I ordered all reds and tried the whole rainbow from dry to sweet. They were all very good, and I surprised myself by liking one of the sweeter wines the most.

Mark, our entertaining and hard-working server.

When the wine bar became a little too cramped, the ladies and I moved into the second room where the food products were being sampled and sold. There was an entire olive oil bar, with flavoured oils of every combination and taste. Examples included chocolate olive oil, strawberry olive oil, mint olive oil, and so much more. Bowls of cubed baguette were available for patrons, who could stab a piece of bread with a toothpick, soak it in any oil of their choice from the olive oil bar, and sample the flavour.

Vibrant olive oils ready for tasting at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

We tried several flavoured oils, but my taste buds really enjoyed the delicious yet traditional black olive tapenade. I ended up buying a jar of it to take back to Canada.

Colorful pastas - yum!

We explored the grounds of Jacuzzi Family Vineyard only briefly, as the crowds created by the arriving tour buses made it difficult to just enjoy strolling around. Agreeing to find a less populous vineyard, we hopped back into the mom van and continued on our merry little way.

Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyard

As we drove down the road, away from Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, our stomachs started to collectively grumble. It was nearing lunch time, and we didn't want to keep tasting wines on empty stomachs. One of the biggest no-nos in wine tasting country is to get tipsy or even worse, outright drunk. That's why many people spit out their wine during a tasting - so they can get the aroma and flavour without compromising their sensibilities. (I figured if we were only sampling small bits of wine at a time, and leaving big gaps in between on account of traveling from vineyard to vineyard, I would be okay to just drink the wine and not waste it. Oh and also, we had a DD in case my readers were wondering what was going on there.)

All of us had heard of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines, and since the name of the vineyard alluded to exploring some sort of cave, we all agreed to stop at this particular vineyard before moving on to find a restaurant for lunch.

At the Vista Terrace at the Gloria Ferrer Vineyards.

Upon reaching the main house at the vineyard, we discovered good news and bad news. The bad news: the cave tour was part of a vineyard tour that you had to purchase, at a cost of $25 per person and a tour length of at least 45 minutes. We did not want to spend either the extra money or the extra time, and so agreed that visiting the caves was out of the itinerary. I was sad about it, but we were all trying to be frugal. However, the good news was that we didn't have to keep searching for a restaurant, as the vineyard offered nibbles on their outdoor Vista Terrace.

Pooling our money (seriously, we were nearly spartan in our attempts to save cash) we all split a cheese and charcuterie platter and had one sample of sparkling wine to wash it all down. It wasn't a huge lunch, but it sure hit the spot and also felt a little glamorous in light of all the wine sipping. The Vista Terrace had a nice view of the Gloria Ferrer vineyards, and we even had a visit from a wee little hummingbird.

The Gloria Ferrer Vineyards.

Our next vineyard was not technically just down the road, but one of the ladies in our group really wanted to see it, so we made it our goal.

Kenwood Vineyards

The drive from Gloria Ferrer Vineyards to the Kenwood Vineyards was only about 25 minutes, which isn't a long drive at all. However, before that, we'd just been going on 5 to 10 minute jaunts down the road. So if you are following our journey, just be aware that the next stretch of driving is a bit longer than the last few.

Deep purple grapes warming in the sun at Kenwood Vineyards.

Entering the Kenwood Vineyards was a bit like stepping out of Sonoma and into a mountain wine region - there were more pine trees, less yellow grasses, and even a shift in the air temperature towards cooler numbers. It felt weird that just 25 minutes down the road, the entire landscape seemed to have morphed.

The ladies and I outside Kenwood's main building.

The interior of the Kenwood Vineyards main building reflected this shift. The decor was darker, with a cabin-in-the-woods feel, somehow more masculine than the last few 'trendier' vineyards, which worked hard to achieve either light and airy, or old-world European. Everything at Kenwood was wooden, from the wine tasting bar, to the display shelves, to the thick dark beams supporting the ceiling high above us.

The wine wall at Kenwood's wine bar.

We split a tasting here, opting to try some of their reds. After our samples, the friendly staff at Kenwood offered to take me back into one of the storage rooms so I could see their immense oak barrels. They were massive! I was duly impressed.

Demonstrating how large the barrels are at Kenwood Vineyards.

By this point, we were winding down a little in our journey, and decided to turn around and begin heading back to San Francisco so we could rejoin the rest of our group (two had decided not to explore Sonoma with us, and had gone shopping in San Francisco instead).

Deerfield Ranch Winery

Doesn't it always seem to happen? The last place you decide to go, or the place that you were most skeptical about, often turns out to be the best part of your day. This was exactly the case with Deerfield Ranch Winery.

As we were making our way back to San Francisco, looking for a specific Mexican restaurant along the way that one lady's father had recommended, we decided, "Let's do one LAST vineyard." There were several small ones advertised along the side of the road, none of them very impressive, and so we just randomly turned at a corner and drove up a driveway. This driveway led us to Deerfield Ranch Winery.

I model the Deerfield Ranch Winery entrance.

And out of all the vineyards we visited, this one was by far my favourite. Although Viansa had the best view (and also the advantage of the early morning sunlight hitting the vineyards at just the right time), Deerfield Ranch Winery had the coolest underground set-up I have ever seen. Basically the entire 'main building' is underground: the wine tasting bar, all of the storage barrels and casks filled with fermenting wine, even the washrooms. The whole atmosphere of the Deerfield Ranch Winery was unique, eclectic, even a little medieval.

When we first parked, it was a little under-whelming. There was a house off to the right hand side, and to the left a large covered frame, much like a carport but about five times bigger. Inside the frame were several parked pieces of wine-making equipment, some folding tables, and on a puddle on the ground, remnants of some crushed grapes covered in buzzing flies. It looked like people had been hard at work crushing grapes, but had recently stopped for a break. Everything was frozen in time. No one greeted us, no one waved hello. It felt a smidgen post-apocalyptic.

I may have tried a little grape-smashing of my own while at Deerfield.

But we bravely followed the signs posted, promising us a wine-tasting experience, into a pair of double doors embedded in the side of a hill. And here is where it got really cool.

It was like being in an underground bunker, designed to store all the wine for the world. A long tunnel led us to a four-way intersection, and down each branch were rows upon rows of wine barrels stored against the walls. We continued straight through the intersection and found ourselves in a spacious, vaulted room with couches, end tables, and best of all, the wine bar. Sinking into chairs around a table, we looked around in awe.

In the underground tasting room at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

A waitress sidled up to us and handed us a sampling menu. This being our last tasting of the day, we each ordered our own so we could try exactly what we wanted. We knew we'd be lingering in this place for a little while. Naturally, I tried some reds.

The washrooms were even located in this underground fortress, and so we were able to explore the tunnels a little bit. No one at Deerfield seemed to mind us traipsing around the halls, posing with the barrels and pretending we were James Bond. They are probably quite used to it, to be honest.

Tunnels filled with wine barrels at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

I was so glad we had stopped at Deerfield Ranch Wineries as it was very surreal experience. All of the vineyards had something special to offer, in fact. Viansa had its beautiful view, Jacuzzi had its olive oil tastings and free samples, Gloria Ferrer had that delicious charcuterie platter and outdoor terrace, Kenwood had the towering oak barrels and unique decor, and Deerfield had the bunker scene nailed down.

We had such a great time exploring Sonoma! Who else has been, and what vineyards did you see?