Instagram tourism is an addiction and it goes like this: drive to destination, hike, crawl, swim to desired location, pose for photos (hand-stands, back flips and planks for extra likes) and repeat. By the end of a vacation, you've captured a few more followers on your Instagram feed and proof that you visited some of the most beautiful places in the world, but deep down inside something doesn't feel right. You know your physical body made it to the destinations, but your soul is left pining for what it needs most — tactile, sensorial experiences to deposit in the memory banks, perhaps to spend looking back at halcyon moments when life offers up peaceful breaks from the daily grind.
What's the antidote? Plan a trip that is designed to put you face-to-face with the locals and in arms reach of great food, drinks and accommodations that put you steps from the action.
We did just that in a land surrounded by endless Instagram-able situations. Yes, we took loads of photos (an occupational hazard), however, we frequently put the gadgets away and explored an array of hidden gems sprinkled across California's Gold Country.
Cuddled up along the southern area of Yosemite National Park, Mariposa County is an excellent place to begin our Insta-detox. The California Gold Rush era town oozes with halcyon Americana vibes of olden days, warm smiles, and one mid-town stop light.
Once we check into our Air BnB and ditch our bags, we head to 1850 Restaurant & Brewing Company. Voted as having the best burger in the county (not country). Our expectations are high.
The good news is our expectations are met and exceeded, but not by a burger. The tri-tip steak with mash accompanied by a locally brewed Bridalveil Honey Blonde Ale steps up for the win. Try the ahi nachos and Parker's farm honey ale mustard wings while you wait for the steak. If you tend to prefer smaller portions, be prepared to share with a friend or leave with a Rottweiler sized doggie bag.
In search of more of what Mariposa County has to offer, we find a spot that upon walking in, feels like a locals only spot, only because it is tucked away a few steps away from the center of town and a few more steps away from the local skateboard park. The Grove House offers one of a kind beers from surrounding breweries and has a fantastic patio that regularly offers live music and DJ's spinning tunes. I line up a flight of light to dark beers pulled together through an easy negotiation with the bartender. An even easier conversation follows until late evening sets in and we retreat to our bungalow to rest. We have white water rapids on the agenda early in the morning.
Day 1: Up Early For A Hike And White Water Rafting Adventure.
The Merced River has been an adventure destination for as long as humans have settled in the area and is a 145-mile-long tributary of the San Joaquin River flowing from the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley. During the Gold Rush Era, folks came in search of fortune; today, we come in search of frothy water fun. Zephyr White Water Rafting is a family owned company that has a team of expert river guides hell-bent on giving you a hell of a ride while keeping you alive.
We sign up for a half day adventure ripe with white knuckle moments juxtaposed with calm river drifts. The calm moments give us just enough time to soak in the beautiful surrounding. We see old railroad tracks used to ferry rocks out the mines, birds gliding overhead and, for a brief moment, feel as if we are settlers braving the raging rapids in search of gold nuggets. This adventure truly fosters an 'in-the-moment' state of being, leaving no time for selfies or curated poses. Don't worry, a photographer keeps you in her crosshairs for most of the ride so that after you dry off, you can purchase dozens of great photos capturing all the feels, from mortal fear to triumphant fist pumps of joy.
Sufficiently jazzed at surviving the treacherous Merced River rapids, we drive 10 minutes to Midpines for a massage, bite and tour of Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort. The Resort is a locals go-to for spa treatments and yummy food, likely because the prices are reasonable and the menu has tonnes of options. Folks travel from all over the world to stay in the rustic cabins that offer hostel style shared rooms to fully provisioned log cabins decked out with Victorian era furnishings to hotel style rooms. Definitely book a massage and spend some time in the large stainless steel tubs filled with fresh spring water mixed with natural ingredients. The tubs are positioned with views of the grounds through oak and pine tree meadows.
Blissed out and ready for a succulent dinner in the heart of Mariposa.
We make our way to Savourys Restaurant in Mariposa and show up early for our reservation so we can enjoy a cocktail and local craft pint at the bar. The menu offers contemporary American cuisine with a focus on specialty cocktails.
The walls are peppered with framed images of the surrounding Gold Country with leather and dark wood furniture that gives the space a 'date night' kind of vibe. I order the surf and turf with a pint of local craft beer and am pleased when the steak is cooked perfectly and the shrimp is juicy and fresh.
Day 2: In search of vineyards and a lakeside living.
With our second day in Gold Country in our sights, we check out of our Air BnB bungalow and make our way to The Sugar Pine Cafe in downtown Mariposa County for breakfast. The overcast sky and damp smell of pine trees make us feel like we have set foot on a David Lynch, Twin Peaks set. The Sugar Pine Cafe, originally a Dairy Dell Diner built in the 1940s, is now the go-to greasy spoon, with epic American-style biscuits and gravy as well as a complete diner style lunch menu. As would only happen in a small town, where tourism is the heartbeat of the economy, the same lovely server that brought us our meals the night before at Savourys takes our order for breakfast.
We want to stay longer and sip coffees but we pay our bill and set off to visit America's most award winning port vineyard, Ficklin Vineyards. After an hour long cruise along winding rural roads, we park amongst sprawling rows of Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Madeira, Alverelhao and Touriga vines just a few minutes outside the town of Madera. We walk a short distance through a courtyard past vine-covered abode-brick buildings that house the spoils of decades of family labour. Once inside the main warehouse, we find third generation partner and wine maker, Peter Ficklin, for a tour of the vineyard and a tasting. We learn that while the land has been in the Ficklin name since 1918, the production of Port did not start until the end of WWII. In 1980, the Institute of Porto inspected the wine making press and tanks and sanctioned the vineyard as a fully recognized Port producer, a distinction that makes sense when you sip the and savour the wines.
Merry and slightly lit from our late morning Port tasting (another occupational hazard—morning wine tastings), we make a move with our designated driver to the outskirts of Sierra National Park to visit Miller's Landing Resort at Bass Lake.
The family owned establishment is a must visit spot for folks looking for water adventures such as stand up paddle yoga, fishing derbies and just chilling beach side, all while living the cabin life. We stop in at the restaurant and general store to for a banana bucket ice cream, including three scoops of ice cream, your choice of toppings, banana wedges, whipped cream, nuts and chocolate drizzle served in a beach bucket and shovel. After we fight over who gets to keep the bucket, we take cruise on a pontoon boat provisioned with a BBQ and beer cooler. We see majestic eagles circling above in search of fishy snacks and spot several gigantic nests probably occupied by a few hungry eaglet's waiting for lunch. Miller's Landing Resort is a family friendly one stop destination that books up very fast each year, and within our short half day visit, we now know why. This spot is the perfect place for a digital detox as you are steps from nature, yummy food and friendly resort staff at the ready.
As the sun begins to dip behind the trees, we make our way to Madera County to a town called Oakhurst and check into our tiny house like cabins at The Queens Inn By The River.
Eager to check out what Madera County has to offer, we head to Southgate Brewing Company for what the locals say are the best burgers in the county (not country). Sound familiar? I order the deadwood porter BBQ burger and a honey badger wheat ale off the house taps. The verdict? Gigantic. Tasty as heck and definitely bring a to-go box.
Exhausted from our day of fun in the sun, we head to bead early (and very full).
Day 3: Yosemite National park is the grand finale. Or is it?
We are as excited as anyone would be excited to visit Yosemite National Park for the first time or twentieth time. Up early I get out my new hiking shoes that I've been saving for this trip. Should I wear my Hoka One One Sky Arkali's or should I wear my Hoka One One Hupana's.
The Sky Arkali has a Vibram soul and is a pretty hard core hiking boot. We are not climbing any extreme trails, so i go for the street style, but hiking friendly, Hupana's. When we drive through the tunnel that leads to the jaw dropping view you see on post cards, Instagram feeds and in the movies such as legendary free climber Alex Honnold's mind blowing Free Solo movie, you expect to be wowed. And we were. Intensely. We do exactly what everyone does when they get to the first parking best view point—take more photos and selfies than is necessary. As you can imagine, it takes a while to get our fill of the view before we venture into the park and visit Ahwahnee Hotel formerly The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Another jaw dropping photo extravaganza unfolds before we eat at the very busy restaurant and get a good look at some folks climbing El Capitan, the rock face that has been many a climbers claim to fame as well as claimed many lives.
We see the traffic backing up to leave the National Park so we head out early knowing that although Yosemite is a great destination while in Gold Country, there are endless surrounding things to see and do.
And there you have it. The antidote to Instagram tourism. Look beyond the hyped and find the people, places and things to do that give a place its unique personality and soul. And within the journey, you will find yours.