2021 January Liveaboard (Caribbean Explorer II)

This January’s trip was supposed to be a week on the Aggressor Liveaboard in the Cayman Islands. Sadly, COVID restrictions in Grand Cayman, requiring you to quarantine for 14 days before doing anything, basically take that off the table. We were informed by Aggressor that our trip was canceled about 45 days prior to departure. We sort of saw this coming when we booked so everything (outside of the liveaboard itself) was refundable. So we pivoted to search for an alternative.

After some research, it appeared St. Maarten was open and doable. We had previously considered Turks and Caicos, but liveaboards weren’t operating during our time windows. They shift to snorkeling with the humpback whales in the Silver bank, off the Dominican Republic.

Entry into St. Maarten only required a negative COVID test 120 hours prior to entry so that, we could do. Next, we started looking for either a Condo to live in on the island to day-dive from but ultimately found the Explorer Ventures Liveaboard aboard the Caribbean Explorer II. This seemed to fit our needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, our trip time (Jan 30th – Feb 6th) had (0) Reservations. Fortunately, the trip was on sale. So I reached out to them to figure out the minimum required to sail and was informed it was 4 people at the regular price or 6 people at the sale price. So we went to work and started inviting friends. Kim and Frank just so happened to be talking about needing a dive trip in January so it worked out. We now had 4 and agreed we’d go full fare if need be. Shortly thereafter Charles and Michelle agreed so it was game on.

We all did our research and made our reservations. We agreed to head in a day early “just in case” we ran into any issues, weather or covid. Charles and Michelle decided to rent a car and tour the French side of the island. We decided to keep a low profile and hang at a hotel near the marina. After some research, we settled on the Holland House Hotel on the boardwalk.

The hotel itself was great, right on the beach and boardwalk in Philipsburg. The place was a ghost town, we might have been the only actual overnight guests that evening. There were a handful of people in the bar and restaurant, but I didn’t see anyone else checking in on Saturday. If we weren’t the only ones there weren’t more than a few other people. It was pretty sad considering this is really part of their high season. Because of Covid, there are no cruises or cruise ships, and the island was eerily quiet. We have absolutely no problem keeping away from others “social distancing”. I won’t spend a lot of time on the hotel, it was more than adequate. I could stay there for a few days. Wouldn’t really want to be there if the island was hopping. We just don’t like crowds that much.

Saturday morning came pretty quickly, we had a late checkout and couldn’t board the boat until 3pm. Claudine and I walked about town, saddened by the closures and lingering devastation still apparent from Hurricane Irma in 2017. We had previously visited St. Maarten twice both from cruise ships. It was really moving to overhear conversations of the economic devastation that Covid has, and continues to have to the island without cruise and ease of regular travel. They make nothing there, there are no exports, travel is the economy.

Enough about the sadness. Onto the boat.

Boarding was simple, the crew took our luggage and fogged them following COVID protocol. We were shown to our cabin, then unloaded our dive gear into our dive spots. Since we were first to the boat we got to choose the spots closest to the entry points.

Frank and Kim followed shortly afterwards and received the same welcoming treatment.

The crew did their jobs both following COVID protocols as well as the safety briefings and tour of the boat, so we were all aware of at least two exits at any given time.

Let’s talk about the boat for a minute.

The boat specifications are listed on the Explorer Ventures Website here. It’s certainly an older boat but it’s well maintained and overall great condition. While this was our first dive liveaboard it’s certainly not our first boat trip.

The layout and rooms.

It’s a dive boat, the main deck is devoted to diving, with 4 cabin rooms. We arrived first and took cabin 1, which had a double bed but no bunk. All rooms had their own bathrooms and showers. The showers were surprisingly larger than expected, but still phone booth sized.

The other couples were in room 2 & 3, both with queen beds and an twin bunk. Frank and Kim used the upper bunk for storage (luggage). There was plenty of room under our bed for our luggage.

The lower deck… Rooms 5 and 6 were certainly larger and if I had it to do over again might choose one of those. The downside is that the stairs up/down from the main and lower deck were more of a ladder than stairs. I didn’t want to deal with that. If you’re not in your room or on the dive deck, all other time is spent up top in the dining room or sun deck. I honestly cannot imagine how busy that is with 18 guests. Having only 6 on board it was awesome and roomy.

The reality with up to 5 dives a day it is literally diving, eat, sleep, repeat. We only had one down day where visibility was so bad that diving wasn’t really possible so we played cards. No other entertainment was required for the rest of the week. During surface intervals, there’s still plenty of time to get some sun, read a book or take a nap in your room. Again, with 18 guests, I probably would have spent more time in my room as I’m ultimately an introvert.

The dive deck was clean and organized. You didn’t swap tanks, they simply refilled your tanks where they sat which was cool. The boat also had their own Nitrox generator. You need Nitrox on a liveaboard with 5 dives a day. The Nitrox routine was simple. Check your percentages (yourself with a meter they provided), log your percentages and tank fill before each dive. To be prepared I bought a Nitrox gauge prior to the trip. I didn’t know how many people would be on board but couldn’t imagine trying to share a meter with 18 people and we’ve all been on those boats where the DM says “We checked it for you this morning it’s 32”. I prefer to check and verify myself, thanks. That wasn’t the case here, they made you do it yourself which I appreciated.

COVID of course changes things, the only community rinse tanks were for camera gear. Again, with only 6 on board, rinsing with the hose was fine when we returned. With 18? not so sure. They were also picky about where you charged your gear (cameras and cell phones, etc.) and had a designated charging area with fire suppression just for it. You could charge in your cabin, only if you were in your cabin. Again, attention to safety and detail was top notch.

The weather...

Claudine and I don’t get sea sick, the other couples used countermeasures. We had some pretty rough weather at times (sea wise), with 10-12 foot swells which really can move a boat like this around. Captain Nelson did a fabulous job hiding us from the weather when possible but during the crossing and some of the movement from dive site to dive site the motion was significant. Not significant from a sea sickness perspective, but significant from a “You better be holding on to something as you move around the boat” perspective. Hence the ladder/stairway of doom to the lower level would have potentially been unpleasant.

The weather also kept us out of a number of dive sites where a larger boat like this cannot use the smaller mooring lines. We ended up executing a few live drops which were ideal vs getting beaten up on the granny line to the mooring line on top of the water. As much as we didn’t like swimming to the front in rough seas, we get it. It’s all about safety.

The crew was Outstanding:
– Captain Nelson A+
– Purser Sarah A+ (also dove with us)
– Chef Julian A+ (Food was amazing)
– Engineer Terrance A+
– Dive Staff: Kirsten, Gabe, and Dale A++

The staff overall was amazing. We were very fortunate there were only 6 guests on a boat that can house or service 18 so we had extra attention. It was really great to eat with the crew, talk to them and get to know them. You don’t get that same opportunity if there are 18 guests.

We had dives led by Capt. Nelson, Sarah, Kirsten, Dale, and Gabe. All were awesome in their attention to detail and safety. All covered the site, navigation, flow, and wildlife we were likely to see. Gabe went the extra mile with “Science with Gabe” where he talked to us about Fish, mating, feeding, coral, colors, symbiosis, etc, etc. He was outstanding. Terrance and Chef Julian didn’t get in the water with us. Diving’s not for Terrance, and Julian was busy cooking 😉 though was an accomplished captain and diver in former careers. It was really great to get to know the staff.

Mad props to Explorer Ventures for dealing with COVID rules, regulations, and travel restrictions. One of our biggest fears became reality when, with less than 10 days from our trip, the US declared you must have a negative COVID test before being allowed to return. This sent everyone scrambling. How or where do you get a test? How much is it? St. Maarten is on island time which means people get to it when they get to it. Punctuality isn’t in their vocabulary. Venture Explorers stepped up and coordinated exit tests that met the criteria for us. We weren’t that concerned about a positive test, we all were negative 120 hours prior to travel, the boat was clean the crew was clean and they kept us safe. Not to mention we were living in saltwater for 5 hours a day. But you never know. Turning up positive would have meant quarantining in St. Maarten for 10 to 14 days prior to coming home. While not devastating for us, could be for other people. Getting stuck was certainly something to be concerned about and they did everything they could to minimize that.

The Diving…

As much as we love diving, we’re still somewhat new to it with around 100 dives behind us. We started with our PADI Open Water certification but added Advanced Open Water on our last trip. Advanced means we don’t really need to be ushered around by a divemaster. We should be able to complete these dives on our own and make it back to the boat without assistance (ability to navigate underwater). We can also go deeper (100ft vs the Open water 60ft floor). But we all know how that goes.

Our favorite place to dive is still Cayman Islands. For us visibility has always been outstanding, with little current overall. That caribbean blue dive water, makes it like diving in an aquarium. We were told all caribbean diving is well, caribbean diving. That hasn’t been our experience but OK. We were told diving St. Maarten, Saba, St. Kitts would be very similar to Cayman. In some ways it was, other ways not-so-much.

The weather played the biggest factor so certainly you could say, the same can happen in Cayman. We just haven’t experience that, and/or with 200+ dive sites to choose from there’s always one that’s ‘open’. Not the same around Saba. Again, our choices of sites were kind of limited by where the boat could moore.

Traditionally this trip is a one-way from either St. Maarten to Saba to St. Kitts or the reverse. At this time St. Kitts was closed to tourists and to diving off or around the island. So we had to dive Saba for 6 days. That, mixed with the weather made it challenging at times both from a visibility perspective (more on that in a minute) to the weather and currents blowing around the island. Saba is a SMALL island with many great sites, but it’s not the smorgasbord of sites we’re accustomed to in Cayman. Details here at seasaba.com.

Because of the weather, currents, swells, we were forced to stick to the western side of the island. The weather also kicked up the ‘Cloud of Doom’ which instantly dropped visibility to almost 0. Our first dive day Sunday was a complete wash out because of it. The first two dives were 20 minutes total, out and down the mooring line where we couldn’t see farther than 3-6 feet, then back up the line and back on the boat. You can’t control the weather so you just have to deal with it.

Captain Nelson spent the rest of the week searching for sites with visibility and navigable currents to get us in the water. It was frustrating at first, but it all worked out.

The Cloud of Doom

Saba is basically an ancient volcano. I’m sure I’m not explaining this properly as we heard multiple explanations. But basically, the island is surrounded by volcanic silt, and as the currents and wind shifts, it stirs up these clouds, clouds of doom. When this happens, visibility goes from unbelievable to zero or near zero in no time. Charles, who’s been all over the world, has never seen anything like it and neither had we. We’d be on a dive with good visibility (60+ feet) and you could see it coming, in minutes, you could barely seen your hand in front of your face. Time to huddle up with the divemaster and head back to the mooring line. This happened on a few dives. Nothing to be afraid of but be aware. The boats is still right where you left it and worst case, ascend and find it.

On our second dive on day one, heading down the mooring line, Claudine lost a weight pocket knocked loose from the swells and the mooring line, which prevented her from making it down. The divemaster told me to stay put, while she took Claudine back to the boat. Visibility was not good (maybe 7 feet). I found a coral head near the bottom of the mooring line and just watched the wildlife. I looked over to my right and could see Frank. Looked back over a minute later and he wasn’t there. I was told to stay put so I did and just hung out for about ten minutes. Just me, a small coral head, and some fish. After about 10 minutes it was time to ascend, I didn’t have a buddy, and it was time to go. I ascended to my safety stop. Kirsten found me there, chilling at ~15 or so feet, checked on me, and directed me back to the boat. The rest of the day was a wash.

Of course, I would have loved better visibility, and the option to dive St. Kitts but it wasn’t in the cards. I would take the trip again, under the same conditions and visibility.

I dove 22 of the 23 opportunities to dive. I only sat out of one night dive because I wanted a glass of wine more than I wanted a low visibility night dive on Wednesday.

Charles put together a highlight video you can can watch here:

Overall most of the dives were great, well worth it. Some were challenging either due to surge or visibility. Tammy has always said “You learn something on every dive” and that was very clear on this trip. We learned about low visibility, we learned about some crappy conditions. We learned swimming against the current back to the boat when the current changes, sucks, a lot. Just relax, take care of business, enjoy what you can enjoy. I’d leave tomorrow for the same boat, same conditions, including limited visibility.

The night dives were amazing. “The freaks come out at night”. We got to see some amazing stuff. Turtles and Sharks on Every Dive! We got to see a shark hunt and eat Dorry with the help of Charles’s big ass dive lights. “Chip” was Charles’s personal nurse shark for the week. He was everywhere Charles was. It was impressive the area that the shark covered, we spent a lot of time with him.

More Photos

The Food…

We never went hungry and the food was outstanding. Something new every day. Breakfast was great, from the omelets to the pancakes and french toast. Lunch and dinner were even better… Ribs, Lasagna, Burgers, Steak, and always a Salad for no reason. The deserts too. I have no idea how chef Julian did it on an often rocky boat. The ribs were really, really good and I know my ribs. He claims he’s converted more than a few vegetarians and I don’t doubt him for a second.

This was our first liveaboard but certainly won’t be our last.

2020 COVID RV Trip Out West

2020, the year of COVID. So much has changed at this point. Our vacation plans for 2020 certainly didn’t include renting a big ass RV and driving it across the country and back. But as COVID swooped in and crushed the cruise industry, canceled our cruise, and ruined the majority of dive destinations by way of limited inter-country travel, that’s exactly what happened.

Out west is amazing. I’ve seen parts of it on two previous motorcycle trips. Both times I’ve been in awe of the beauty and magnificence of it all. I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what’s out there. You just have to see it for yourself and photos simply do not do it justice. Claudine experienced this on our trips to Europe. You can describe the Alps, you can take photos of the Alps but until you’re there, breathing the air and looking up (or down) across them you just don’t “Get It”. That was the motivation for this trip. To share that awe with her and Matthew. Doing it by motorcycle was out of the question. We had talked about flying out, renting a car, and driving around but COVID made that problematic. While I understand travel isn’t horrible and there are hotel rooms are available, we wanted to be 100% self-sufficient. What better way to do that than with a big Class A RV that can support you self-contained for days at a time?

At this point, I will focus on our trip, how I planned it, where we visited, and share some stunning photos. I’ll put together another post on the RV we used for the job, how I came to that decision, where I found it, what worked, and what didn’t.

I had 11 workdays of vacation (two weeks and a day) to maximize. I picked up the RV on Friday, August 7th, drove it to our house where we packed it for an early departure on Saturday the 8th of August, traveling out west in a southern to northern loop (more on that later) returning home on Saturday the 22nd to unpack before returning the RV on Sunday the 23rd. 17 days, 16 nights with the RV and/or traveling provided us with the sampling of “Out West”.

Having done it twice on the motorcycle there were places I knew we wanted to see. Pikes Peak and Beartooth Pass speak to me so they were must-haves. Sadly the latter wouldn’t make it on the trip since we weren’t going to be close enough with a rental car at hand and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a 36 foot RV over Beartooth. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s not my RV.

I had started to plan the trip north to south but realized that would put us in the Black Hills during the 2020 Sturgis Rally. I don’t have anything against Sturgis or my fellow bikers who choose to ride Harleys, but where masses like that are gathered, well, that’s just not for me. Plus the point of this trip was not to mingle with millions of people amid COVID. So I planned it backward (to me).

Our route looked like this.

I used a couple of very useful apps to plan. The first of which was RVParky.com and you can see the entire itinerary here including addresses for parks and where we stayed. RV Parky is particularly useful to call out places you can stay in an RV, even if that stay is a Walmart parking lot that permits overnight parking. Since we were in a self-contained Class A, we assumed we’d probably spend one or two nights on the cheap this way. Turns out we didn’t need too. As I was planning our trip, I made only one reservation and that was night number 1. The entire trip was tentative and subject to change based upon weather, or if we decided we just wanted to stay somewhere longer.

RVparky has both a website and an app (which really only loads the website). But it was extremely handy. The reviews were often dated, and links to websites for a lot of parks were bad. But you could generally find them without too much trouble.

The other application that I stumbled on thanks to brilliant google adwords targeted marketing. You know, when you start looking for cars or RV’s on the internet and then all you see on the internet are RV and Car ads. Yeah that. Was:

HarvestHosts.com

All it took to hook me was a 15% off coupon code. For $79 you’re a member and can request to park or stay overnight at any of their hosts. These are generally wineries, breweries, museums, or farms. The idea is that in exchange for letting you park there you’ll patronize their wares (wine/beer/farm). You’re supposed to be self-contained, no hookups, but we found that some did offer electric hookups for a fee.

On our first night (1 on the map), we stayed at Arcadian Moon Winery just east of Kansas City. We got there early enough to order pizza and a bottle of wine. We’re wine snobs and prefer big bold Cabs and Reds Blends. Most midwestern wineries focus on sweet wines which are not our thing. I bought a bottle of their darkest red and it was OK, but it wasn’t awesome (for our tastes). Their pizza was amazing though and I’d definitely go back or stop again if I was in the area.

Free parking (with purchase of wine and food), but we would have had to eat anyway. 🙂

Continue reading “2020 COVID RV Trip Out West”

16 Days and 14 Nights in a Class A RV

This post/article is a piggy back to my article on our two week RV trip out west which you can read about here if you didn’t already. This article will focus on the RV itself, how well it worked for the task at hand, and what I would change if I could do it all over again.

2015 Fleetwood Southwind 36L

The RV we used was a 2015 Fleetwood Southwind 36L stats here via rvusa.com.

MSRP: $144,549
Fuel Type: Gas
Ford F53 Chassis / Ford Triton V10 (Gas) 362-hp and 457 lb-ft of torque, with fords dependable TorqShift five-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, plus Tow/Haul capability.
140 cubic feet of inside storage (cabinets. cupboards, closets, under-seat/bed, etc.)
118 cubic feet of outside storage. The brochures mention pass-through storage but I didn’t see that, although there were some full length ‘slots’ in the rearmost and middlemost slots.

The 36L has the following floorplan:

That’s right 1 and a half baths!

I’ll talk more about what was awesome about this and what was less awesome about this later.

Finding a rental and executing it.

When we were planning for our epic vacation I talked to numerous folks about what type of RV we should take. Everyone pushed us towards a Class A over a Class C for comfort, a step up in build quality, and most importantly noise level, especially for mountain travel. Apparently the doghouses (the area between the driver/passenger seat that covers the engine) aren’t as quiet, especially when you’re grinding up a mountain, or holding the engine back in low gear. I’ve driven many vans so I knew what they were talking about. Ideally, a diesel pusher with the engine and all associated noise in the back is best.

I started my rental search on rvshare.com as well as outdoorsy.com about 2 and a half months before the trip. Kind of last-minute actually. Both are great owner rental sites. I didn’t want to drive an RV USA billboard across the country and back. I wanted to look and feel like an owner, and rent an RV that was *hopefully* cleaner, and likely more cared for than a fleet rental RV. Mor than the vanity that that sounds like, I wanted an RV that the owner knew about and could tell me, it does this well, that well, doesn’t do this well. Over someone who would just hand me the keys. and say “Good Luck, Have Fun!”.

My initial selection was a diesel pusher in Cincinnati. I think I interviewed the owners more than they interviewed me. We talked about the trip, our desire/need to be 100% self-sufficient for boon-docking (the act of parking an RV anywhere legal without hookups). He totally got that. We talked about the route, mountain passes, roads, etc. We agreed on the deal but his RV was in the shop getting a ride enhancement kit, plus he was headed out-west 2 weeks before us and we’d be cutting it close. Then it happened, when he picked up his RV from the suspension work other things weren’t working, he wasn’t comfortable I’d have a trouble-free trip. So I started looking again. (We’ve kept in touch and I will rein that RV next).

I talked to a number of Class A owners, and asking to take their $100k+ RV across the country and back over two weeks is a big ask. Mileage is what kills the value in RV’s and I’m asking some of these folks who have less than 20k miles on their RV in some cases, to let me put 25% of the mileage on the vehicle. I’m paying for that of course, but If they could rent it to someone for 7 days that’s simply going to drive it 300 miles (150 miles to a campground, park it for a week, and drive it back), that seems more lucrative and simply a better rental strategy.

Surprisingly, most folks weren’t really all that concerned with our ability to drive one. While I’ve driven some big things in my life including a 40 foot UHaul, and a box truck back in the day, I had no REAL RV experience and I was clearly jumping into the deep end. It looks very intimidating, more mostly because you’re driving something that potentially costs more than our house to replace, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t that bad (more on that later).

Renting from rvshare/outdoorsy…

Continue reading “16 Days and 14 Nights in a Class A RV”

California Wine Country 2019

2019 marks 30 years Claudine and I have been married. To celebrate, we decided to take a couple of vacations this year. The first was a trip out to California wine country (Napa and Sonoma). We’ve visited both a few times but only as daily jaunts up from San Francisco. We also share our anniversary date with some friends (Vic and Kim) who visit wine country more often than we do so we booked a trip together letting Victor coordinate the lion’s share of the trip.

The following are the highlights of our trip along with some tips and suggestions should you find yourself out in wine country.

Historically we’ve stayed in San Francisco, San Jose, or some other part of the state, usually extending a business trip. Staying in wine country is the way to go. For this trip we opted for a luxury boutique hotel. The olea hotel to be precise. Vic found this hotel, and while it was pricey, it’s right in line for what it offers and have no buyers remorse from staying there. Future trips will likely be at a VRBO or something less hotel like, but I would absolutely stay at the olea again if the price and conditions were right.

The Olea Hotel

If you’re looking for a private boutique hotel with; gourmet breakfast, a good view, fabulous staff, great outdoor places to relax, wonderful pool and hot tub, on-site spa services, crazy comfy rooms with heated bathroom floors look no further.

The Olea was our home Monday – Thursday for our trip. Claudine and I actually came out to California two days earlier and spent those days in a nondescript Marriott in Walnut Creek. We stayed there on points because we thought we’d be bums and hangout by the pool. Turned out the hotel wasn’t all that great so we ventured out on Saturday to Mt. Diablo and the surrounding area and a trip up to Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and some shopping in Mendocino on Sunday.

Downtown Walnut Creek was nice, lots of great restaurants including http://kaiwasushi.com/ for awesome “hole in the wall’ sushi. We also rolled the dice for an off-airport rental car through Sixt. While our experience was great; there was no line to get our car, and we returned it late at night on Friday. It turns out that’s usually not the case. Our car, a full size Chevy Tahoe was great, even though it was a Chevy.

Wine Country 101

If you’ve never been to wine country, or are new to wines and winemaking do take a tour or two. After that, all the stories are the same, the wine making process is the same and usually goes something like this:

Our winery was founded in the <late 1800’s, early 1900’s> we have always made wine here in some form or fashion. We survived prohibition by making wine for the Catholic church or for pharmaceutical use, or we turned into an orchard, and back into a vineyard after prohibition. In 1976 it was <our wine, or one of our closely related wines, vines, winemaker, father or grandfather of our winemaker> who was responsible for beating the french at their own game and putting California wines on the map. We still have those vines today, in a corner of our vineyard.

We <insert winery name> are focused on making world class <insert wine type>. Our micro climate here in (Napa/Sonoma) is the best for <insert one type of grape> because of our unique soil/sun/fog/coastal breeze/non-coastal breeze> and our <flat/hillside/north/south/east/west> facing vineyard is the best for <insert wine type>. We use only the finest barrels from a cooperage in the <USA/France/some other location> and only use <new/old/american/french> oak. We tightly control the char in the barrel better than anyone else and age the wine in our <warehouse/cave> and bottle it at exactly the right time every year. As you explore our wines through this tasting you’ll discover why we are the very best at what we do.

While a little tongue in cheek, it’s not far from the truth. There are, depending who you ask, between 400 wineries in Napa (600 if you include Sonoma) with tasting rooms and upwards of 2000 different wine producers in the region. Even google doesn’t have a solid count.

Over the course of our trip we visited (10) wineries for tastings or tours. Which is a lot over 4 days, as almost all involved a tour or considerable tasting time. 3 per day is a lot unless you’re going to taste and spit, or have a dedicated driver.

Day 1:
Clod Du Val
We didn’t have a scheduled tour or tasting. We dropped in and they were able to accommodate us for a tasting. Newly remodeled or added tasting room was fabulous as were the wines. We liked it enough to join their wine club. They do distribute some wines although the story is always “What you get here is not what we distribute”

Trefethen
We were set up with a tasting here by a co-worker. We opted to taste the red flight in their recently renovated barn tasting area. Trefethen is known for their Pinots and whites that we didn’t taste. Their reds weren’t our favorites but I did like the Dragon’s Tooth Blend quite a bit.

Dinner: Glen Ellen Star
This place was amazing, pricing was steep but amazing 5 Star food.

Day 2:
Del Dotto Cave Tour (Historic), the have 3 different locations and tasting options. We chose the cave experience with barrel tasting and it was excellent. They have a certain reputation but we enjoyed their wines and bought some. I also bought a checkable wine case for the trip back home from Del Dotto.

Favero
Fred Favero winery. Fred’s estate is also his home. Our friends met Fred back in 2009 and insisted we return on this visit. They weren’t wrong. Favero winery is perched atop a ridge that straddles the Sonoma and Napa borders. He makes 3 reds, an estate Sangiovese, a Monte Di Sassi, and an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. He only produces around 500 cases a year and you must buy direct. His prices are very fair for the wine quality, in fact, he could charge 65% more just by labeling them Napa wines but he chooses not too. If presented with an opportunity, don’t miss a private tasting at Favero on his patio overlooking the valley.

Dinner: The Girl and Fig
Excellent food, great service.

Day 3:
B. Wise
B. Wise was a recommendation from Olea, in fact it’s one of the wineries that has an agreement with Olea and promotes a free tasting. The story is unique, there isn’t a winery visit, but there is a tasting room just north of Sonoma. We had the place to our self, they have some really powerful and unique reds. Highly recommend a tasting here. We bought a few bottles and will likely order more from B. Wise.

Kunde Mountain Top
We had pre-booked the Kunde mountain top tasting before we came out to California and we thought it was pre-paid. Had we realized it wasn’t pre-paid we would have cancelled it simply because it made getting to Repris on time a bit tough. The mountain top tasting was OK, not horrible, not great, just OK. You start in the main tasting house, board a shuttle to a perch at the top of the winery overlooking the winery for a handful of tastings, then ride the shuttle back down. Maybe 45 minutes at the top. It is a beautiful view, no question. The wines though were not to our liking. I did enjoy the reserve wine at the end. Same spiel as most, join our wine club for exclusive deals you can’t get in distribution. We didn’t join, nor did we purchase wine. Wade our tour guide was fine, a little too Mr. Rodgers like and they are living off the view and the fact that parts of Bottle Shock were filmed there.

Repris
Repris was a recommendation from Fred (Favero). He called Repris and set up the appointment for us. This was my second favorite private tour behind the time with spent at Favero. We beat feet from Kunde and got there just in the nick of time. It is also up on a mountain and takes time to get there. We arrived were greeted with a white wine for tasting, then another for our ride in a 4×4 side-by-side for a ride up to the top of the vineyard for a spectacular view. We stayed up top for a while getting the backstory for the winery then taken back to the caves for more tastings. We bought wine here, their reds were amazing as well. They too only sell direct.

Dinner: The Salt and Stone
Good food, great service. Likely our most forgettable meal though. Steaks were overpowered by the sauce or all would have been excellent. Mac-n-cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil was amazing.

Day 4:
Napa Wine Train:
This was a vacation check-box item. We’ve done it, we’ve checked the box, and that’s that. We are not group tour people. We don’t do cruise ship excursions we book on our own, direct and private (usually for less). So why in the world would we do a group train tour to take group wine tours and tastings? Because trains are cool that’s why. The wine train isn’t cheap initially, the Estate tour itself is about $375 per person, but when you break it down, 3 tastings at say $60 each is $180, the meal is a $75 meal, that gets you to $280, a driver for the day at $120 bucks is a deal. The train is nice, fairly cozy and thankfully for our tour only half full. I probably would have lost my mind if it was 100% at capacity as it was the tours seemed crowded.

The food was good, but not awesome. Portions were smaller than I expected and we got stuck with one winery that no one in our group would have chosen to visit. But again, box checked. I just wouldn’t do it again.

The wineries we visited from the train:
Domaine Chandon
Bubbles, nobody in our group cared for bubbles. I did enjoy a mixer and the grounds are spectacular. If you like bubbles, this is a no brainer stop for you.

Louis M. Martini
We entered this winery with low hopes. Their wines are average, and we think we’ve visited here before the renovation when the grounds were quite plain. The renovation is amazing, and the wines were surprisingly better than expected. I would visit here again, for a private tasting or tour, but not for a group tour.

Inglenook
Francis Ford Coppola makes Inglenook great again! We visited this estate many years ago and had, honestly a not great experience. The wines were good but the tasting server just didn’t want to be there that day. This time we took a broader tour, got the story of the winery from inception in the 1800’s to now. We even bought a bottle. Well worth the trip!

Dinner: Glen Ellen Inn (late evening dinner after the train)
This might have been my favorite meal, certainly right behind the Glen Ellen Star if not the favorite. Killer Cucumber Martini, and a great Salmon filet. The fact that I had just come from a couples massage at the Olea has nothing to do with my assessment 😉 don’t hesitate to eat here or the Glen Ellen Star.

Day 5:
We wrapped up our wine country time after breakfast at the Olea we checked out and headed south for a day in San Francisco with a mildly successful whale watching tour, dinner at Alioto’s, and a sunset cruise around the bay. The latter was my favorite. Awesome new boat in the Red/White fleet, all electric, very clean and quiet.

I loved every moment of this trip with good friends as phase 1 to celebrate our 30 years of marriage. I’ll post more photos later when I have time.

Working from home, what it’s really like.

Getting up and going to work

For the majority of my career I have gotten up every day and driven into an office somewhere.

I have also been fortunate to work for good companies that worked hard to keep employee morale up and endeavored to provide good working conditions. I’ve lived in my fair share of cubes but I’ve been fortunate. Digineer prided themselves on a great working environment with good 10×10 cubes with high walls and large desks with great chairs. Seapine as well, while the cubes weren’t as large, they at least had tall enough walls to provide some privacy. I was also fortunate to have a closed office for a good portion of my time, though it was rare the door was ever closed. It was invaluable when it was, either for time to focus or time to collaborate in private, without searching out a huddle room or some other hard to schedule resource. Open offices vs cubicles vs closed offices is a debate that will never end. I’ll tee that up for another day.

During this time I’ve always had the ability to work from home occasionally but not as a primary work method. Being on call 24/7 sets you up for that. I’ve always had a virtual office at home, with a full VPN tunnel to HQ, VOIP phone for calls, etc. But the times I used it were rare and more for off-hours coverage working with folks over seas in different time zones.

Bottom line, my go to the office life has been a good one, with manageable commutes, and for the most part great working environments.

The grass is always greener

Throughout my career I’ve interfaced with a lot of users, mostly vendors and consultants who “Worked Remotely” and I’ve supported my fair share too. This usually meant; working from home, car, hotel, someone else’s office, starbucks, or gate B-17 at their local airport.

I admit at times I was envious. Usually when I was heating up my lunch in the cafeteria/lunch room in the microwave, or when the weather was especially nice.

In 2016, I made a career change to the other side of the table. After spending nearly 30 years running an organization or infrastructure, I’m now the guy working from home, traveling, creating solutions, and supporting sales. I’m now that guy who works from “where ever”, but mostly from home.

It’s awesome right?

Yes, it mostly is, and I’ll likely never go back to a 9-5 office but there are some drawbacks and if you’re considering a change like this there are some things you need to know.

Pros to working from home

  • Your office is what you make it. Nobody gets to tell you what your office will look like, how tall the walls are and if you have to share a desk or cube cluster with that person who’s perpetually sick, or is, well, just gross.
  • While you might be given a laptop, your choice in monitor, keyboard, peripherals is usually up to you. Of course you might get to pay for that, but you get to choose for the most part.
  • You have access to the coffee you want to drink, not what’s provided which usually sucks. Speaking of coffee, if you make it, you get to drink it. No more making a pot, walking away to let it brew, come back to find an empty pot.
  • You get better toilet paper 🙂
  • If there is rotten stuff in the fridge, it’s your stuff, for sure, and nobody’s stealing your lunch.
  • If there’s a mess in the kitchen it’s yours. You pretty much know if the dishwasher is clean or dirty, and you don’t have to scowl when you’re the only one that cleans up the kitchen.
  • Work attire, while I mostly worked in a t-shirt and flip-flop software environment, most people don’t and now they get to work in comfy clothes if they want.
  • It’s quiet (usually).
  • I get to move about the house, work from the porch or pool area and get to hang out with these co-workers:
  • Travel, can be nice, it is what you make it. Getting out of the home, out of the office, visiting customers is where it’s at for most of these jobs. (Requires a wardrobe change though). I probably could not work from home all day every day.
  • I’m fortunate that my travel is mostly local, within a 150 mile radius for the most part with limited air travel. That does mean overnights in Toledo, Findlay, Columbus, Louisville and Lexington. Those can be good and welcome from time to time just for the change of scenery.
  • When you’re traveling you normally get to eat pretty good too.
  • You are pretty much immune to office gossip and when it does circle around it’s easier to stay out of it, and/or not perpetuate it.

The Cons to working from home

  • Your at home, a lot.
  • There are no lines of demarcation. This is fundamentally the biggest issue, especially if you’re prone to be a work-o-holic. Work doesn’t start when you get there, and it doesn’t end when you leave. I’m not saying that people who go to the office every day don’t work outside the office, they do, and I did, a lot. But there is a mental switch that happens when you show up and when you leave. Your world changes, and your attitude can change just by changing your environment. When you have a bad day at work, it’s a lot easier to leave most of that behind when you when you walk out the door. It’s a lot easier to “Not take work, home with you”, and likewise to “Not take home into work”. When you work at home, and wake up at 5:30am, you are at work. 8pm at night, you’re still at work especially when the company you work for is headquartered on the left coast. You have to consciously make the decision to turn off work and it’s harder than it sounds, at least for me.
  • The amount of impromptu conversation and collaboration is minimal. Sure you can pick up the phone can call someone, or skype them, or slack them, but it’s not the same. Not even close. It is really hard to keep your pulse on the office vibe. This is a double edged sword, when the vibe is negative you’re not subject to it and that’s generally good. But you’re also out of the loop, a lot more than in an office environment. There is no water cooler to hang out near and just have casual conversations with peers or others in the organization. From a management perspective, those candid discussions with people are invaluable.
  • The phone, you live on the phone. Conference calls, video calls, webinars, Skype, WebEX, zoom, etc. Good thing cellular is pretty much unlimited these days. I used to have a phone plan that provided 500 minutes a month and never used them all. Now my phone usage is counted in days, not minutes. 79 days and 1 hour of phone calls at the time of writing since July of 2017. That’s, 113,820 minutes over a 24 month period, or about 215 minutes a day (22 working days per month) puts that at 3.59 hours on average. Keep in mind there are days when I’m on-site with a customer all day, days where I’m in meetings most of the day. So there are days when 7 of 8 working hours is on the phone. (There’s also no such thing as an 8 hour day, never has been, even when I worked in an office). But that’s a lot of phone time and I am on the phone less than a lot of guys in sales or sales management. Bottom line, I’m on the phone more in 2.5 days (on average) than I used to be for a whole month. (Oh, and regardless of the products ability to use computer audio, I always dial into conference with my phone when possible. It allows me to not be tethered to my desk).

Video/Conference call realities:

  • Collaboration, despite all the tools, just isn’t the same as getting in a room with a whiteboard and working through it.
  • Nobody sees how hard you work. Nobody sees how hard some people don’t work either.

All joking aside. Working from home, or remotely has its challenges. It’s good way more than it’s bad that’s for sure. But it’s not for everyone. It is unlikely that I will ever go back to a daily office job.