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Dec 19, 2012 07:48 AM

Winter Trip to Calistoga

We are traveling to Calistoga the last weekend of February with another couple for 3 nights. We got a good Jetsetter deal at Solage, where we've stayed once before. This will be our 2nd trip to Napa Valley. We stayed in Sonoma once as well. In the past (in NV), we've been to Robert Sinskey (favorite), Pine Ridge, Silverado, Larkmead (favorite), Vincent Arroyo (favorite), Chateau Montelena (twice), Summers, Bennett Lane, Schramsberg (favorite) and Dutch Henry (but I'm afraid this was a last stop one day and I was too gone to remember anything about it). We've eaten at the French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Redd, Terra, Tra Vigne (back when it was good). I'm sure there must be other places, but they don't stand out in my memory. This time, I am traveling with 3 others, each of whom have some type of travel/food issue. The husband of the other couple is mostly a meat and potatoes kind of guy (plus Italian food). He does not like fussy food, and the restaurant MUST have a full bar. His wife does not eat red meat, but is at least fairly adventurous with other foods. My husband, lastly, doesn't have any food issues. His issue is that he is afraid of heights - in particular, driving on mountain roads.

We arrive SFO at 1:00 pm on Friday. I'm assuming we would get to Napa around 3:00 pm. Any suggestions for a late, quick lunch in Napa? For the rest of the weekend, I'd like to stay in the general vicinity of Calistoga or St. Helena. We have Sat. and Sun. for wine tasting, though I'd like to take one of those afternoons to do a spa treatment at Solage. I'd very much like to do something different and try a couple of the mountain wineries. Can someone please tell me which mountain road is the least scary (windy and steep). I looked on google maps and both Pride and Smith Madrona look like they are pretty far up there. Howell Mountain seems even more steep. Any suggestions?

We prefer the more informal types of wineries, where we can really spend some time talking to people about the wines, etc. We might try Dutch Henry again since it's a blur. I'd especially also like to try to find some good chardonnay, if possible.

For lunches, I was looking at the Farm Table at Meadowood for one (or possibly dinner), and I'm hoping for a casual suggestions for the 2nd lunch, depending where we end up for tastings. For dinners, again, I'd like to stick to Calistoga or St. Helena. I think we may eat a late dinner at Solbar the first night (though that may be our night to venture further since we won't have been drinking all day). I looked at PRESS and it looks perfect for our meat eater, but it's too pricey. I like JoLe (and loved Matyson when we traveled to Phila.,) but I'm not sure it works for our non-fussy meat eater. How is Brannan's? What about Cook and Market in St. Helena? They both have no/reasonable corkage, which could lower the cost of dinner.

By the way, we've never traveled to Napa Valley in the winter before. What can we expect at the end of Feb.?

Sorry for the lengthy post, but I wanted to provide as much info as possible. Thanks for your help in advance. I've always relied on generous CHounders in the past and have been so successful.

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  1. If your plane arrives at 1:00 on a Friday, you won't get to Napa until 4:00ish at best. I would recommend stopping in downtown Napa at Grace's Table - their Happy Hour menu is fabulous and half-price from 3:00 to 6:00 and will probably sate you for dinner as well. Then you can have a leisurely drive up to Calistoga from there. Your other option will be Oxbow where everyone can choose what they want (from wood-fired pizzas to amazing burgers or oysters). Again, I will be surprised if you are hungry for dinner.

    On the north end of the valley, my first recommendation would have been JoLe and I am confident even your fussy meat eater will be satisfied there. Brennan's has been hit-or-miss over the years; my first visit was stellar and very memorable but I know they have had a number of chef changes since then.

    Cook is also an excellent choice and because you are looking for a full bar, I heartily, heartily recommend Goose & Gander in St. Helena. That will easily satisfy everyone and could be the culinary highlight of your trip. If you want to be completely and 100% safe, you could dine at the CIA which can accommodate any palate.

    As far as roads and weather are concerned, I don't find the Howell Mountain roads to be particularly difficult compared to Spring Mountain. A lot will depend if you have rains or not and that is what could make it harder for you. If dry, they are easy to navigate and not very treacherous at all. There are no cliffs to speak of so it isn't like you will notice the height because you are surrounded by forestation.

    7 Replies
    1. re: CarrieWas218

      I have one last question: Our plane arrives SFO at 1:00 p.m. I don't think my crew is going to make it to Grace's Table 3 hours later without a snack when we arrive. Is there anything on the drive, close to SFO where we can stop for something quick?

      Thank you in advance!

      1. re: tlubow

        Oh, and one more last question! Do you think we need to make a reservation for lunch at Farmstead at Meadowood on a Sunday in late Feb., or can we walk in? If we can walk in, it will allow us some flexibility in our wine tastings that day.

        1. re: tlubow

          You should be able to walk in to lunch fine unless there is some sort of unexpected event. Farmstead is pretty large (though a lot of the seating is semi-outdoors so without a reservation you may end up outside - which is fine on a good weather day).

          You will want to book it out of the city and firmly into wine country before the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic starts around 2:30 pm. I'd highly suggest just eating at the airport and getting over the bridge ASAP.

          1. re: goldangl95

            That is useful information that we would never have known! Thank you so much!

            We'll pick up some stuff at the airport to eat in the car.

        2. re: tlubow

          There's surprisingly good food at SFO. If you know which terminal you're arriving at we could give some specific recommendations.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            We're arriving in Terminal 2 (Virgin America). Would love recommendations. Thanks

            1. re: tlubow

              I can vouch for Lark Creek. There's also Andale (Mexican), Burger Joint, Napa Farms (deli), The Plant (vegetarian), and Wakaba (Japanese).


      2. I agree that Oxbow is a good choice for a group. Recently my husband had a Reuben from Five Dot Ranch--he loved it--while I got an interesting ham and wild mushroom sandwich (on pizza-ish bread) from Ca'momi, They give out a buzzer to tell you when it's ready, so you can wander around. Then we ate together outside.

        Also had happy hour at Brennan's. The food was fine, not special -- shrimp skewers and beef skewers. But the big wood bar is gorgeous. We sat near the bar in one of the cozy wood booths. It was a very pleasant way to warm up.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Glencora

          I was ashamed to admit that for all my years in Napa, I had never tried the Reuben at Five Dot Ranch (thinking of them only as a local butcher instead of an eatery) when I went with my family and my bro-in-law ordered the sandwich.

          I ended up eating half of his amazing Reuben and gave him my duck taco from C Casa instead. It *is* an amazing Reuben...

          1. re: CarrieWas218

            Thank you for your responses. Great information about Friday and our timing. If we opt for Oxbow, is there somewhere we can all eat our selections together? Grace's Table happy hour looks very promising. We could do that and if we get hungry later that night, just have some snacks at Solbar or at the bar at Brannan's.
            Do you have any specific recommendations for wineries on Howell Mountain?
            I will run JoLe by our fussy eater's wife and see what she thinks. I would love to be able to eat in Calistoga one night. We'll check out Goose & Gander but I noticed that Carrie paid $70 p.p. for her meal - I was hoping to stay a little lower by bringing our own wine. G&G charges $20 corkage as opposed to Cook/Market.
            Thanks again for your help.

            1. re: tlubow

              Oxbow is a big community area so the only exception is Hog Island Oyster - if anyone wants to eat there, they are sort of confined to their eating area and won't let outside food in their area (lame, if you ask me).

              But everything else can be shared and eaten at the community tables. If you are ensconced in Calistoga, downtown Napa (i.e., Grace's Table) probably won't be an option as it is a 30-minute drive. I suggested it or Oxbow as it will be convenient for you as you are entering the valley; once you head up-valley, you probably won't want to drive all the way back down for a late-night nosh.

              My favorite Howell Mountain wineries are those doing juice that is off the beat-and-track (i.e., not Cabs): Outpost creates Rhone varietals and Lamborn specializing in Zinfandel - both are worth visiting. Honestly, there isn't a Howell Mountain winery I don't love...

              1. re: CarrieWas218

                Thanks. I understood about Grace's Table. I was saying we could eat there for happy hour (instead of Oxbow) and then eat a snack later if we are hungry at Solbar or the bar at Brannan's. I'm very interested in the Rhone varietals at Outpost. I'll check those out. Thank you again for your help!

                1. re: tlubow

                  I can't recommend Grace's Table Happy Hour enough. My BF and I walked into downtown last weekend for some last-minute shopping around 3:00. After the first fish taco (amazing grilled ahi), pork taco, empanada, pear salad, fried egg with frisee, and onion rings, my BF ordered a SECOND fish taco...

                  1. re: tlubow

                    Roaming around Oxbow is fun and recommended, but I would eat at Grace's table - especially if it is cool weather (likely that time of year). I just finished a meal of cassoulet there this evening and it is wonderful for winter chill busting.

          2. It will not be packed - but if it's a warm sunny day there will be people about. It may off on and on rain while you are there (if you are super unlucky it will rain the whole time - but that's rare). The weather will definitely be gray at least some of the time. Temp probably in the 60s during the day and 50s at night.

            If you want to stay completely flat (e.g. in the valley) some winery suggestions:

            Trespass (call ahead) - small family owned winery making solid wines. Nice picnic tables and a bocce court! No bathroom though (at least not when I went).

            Larkmead (appt only) - used to be under the radar but now not so much. Grounds are pretty you mainly sit in the living room or outside and talk about the wine. They reserve the good wine for their members, but the wine they serve to taste is pretty good.

            "The standards"
            - Chateau Montelena
            - Rombauer
            - Duckhorn
            - Beringer

            1. I'm surprised you don't want to schedule a meal at Solbar, the Solage Resort restaurant. The food is excellent. Half the menu is light spa food; half the menu is substantial lots-of-animal-parts food. We enjoyed both halves, mixing and matching. The bread, especially the corn muffins, are to die for - almost as good as Cyrus' were.

              During the early part of 2013 they're planning on adding some Asian touches to the menu, so you could be the first to report back what you think of their experiments, if you go.

              2 Replies
              1. re: jaiko

                Jaiko, in my original post I mentioned that we may eat at Solbar the first night, so we are indeed considering it. We may also have lunch one of the days. How does it compare to JoLe?

                Goldang, in my original post I mentioned that we had been to Larkmead and it was one of our favorites. We've also been to Chateau Montelena twice and have really enjoyed it. I will check Trespass and Rombauer. Thanks for the suggestions!

                1. re: tlubow

                  JoLe is on our ever-growing list to try. But in 2012 we made four trips to Sonoma, which meant only one trip to Napa instead of our usual two trips (we go mid week and stay 3 days when we travel around the Bay Area - we're retired).

                  So sadly, I can't compare Solbar to JoLe. Maybe someone else here can chime in and help?

              2. Cook is my favorite local place. Very consistently good at reasonable prices, not fancy or stuffy and we've been able to get vegetarian entrees.

                second Oxbow and Fatted Calf Charcuterie is right next to it.

                not food related by mud baths in the chilly Feb. weather are great.

                32 Replies
                1. re: tjinsf

                  Thanks everyone for the responses. Now that I've spent a little more time doing some follow up research, below is the tentative itinerary:
                  Arrive Oakland Friday afternoon.
                  Stop in Napa at Grace's Table for heavy happy hour apps and drinks.
                  Check in at Solage.
                  Possible late night snack at Solbar or Brannan's.

                  Light breakfast at Solbar
                  Head up Howell Mtn.
                  Lunch at Farmstead or somewhere else casual in St. Helena
                  (I'm thinking one of these wineries may need to be cut because this seems a little ambitious)
                  Dinner at JoLe/Farmstead/Goose&Gander/Cook

                  Breakfast either in Calistoga or St. Helena (need suggestions)
                  Lunch in St. Helena/Rutherford (Cook/Market/La Luna??) need reasonable suggestions please
                  Corison or Ehlers Estate?

                  Mud bath at Solage

                  Dinner at Cook/JoLe/Market/Goose & Gander

                  Please weigh in. I appreciate your help in advance. Happy New Year!

                  1. re: tlubow

                    You have two dinners: One should be Goose & Gander and the other should be JoLe. Cook is great, but they are open for lunch.

                    For breakfast, consider French Blue. I haven't been (not in the 'hood for breakfasts), but it has been getting much better buzz than your alternative, Gillwoods, which is just your basic local diner...

                    1. re: CarrieWas218

                      Gillwoods actually looks perfect for breakfast. So, if I get the other couple to agree to JoLe, we'll probably do JoLe and G&G for our dinners, as recommended. For lunches, I guess Farmstead and maybe Cook??? Though, I wouldn't mind something even more casual for one of the lunches.

                      Re: wineries, are the choices good? Would you do Ehlers or Corison? Which of the Howell Mtn wineries would you cut if you had to cut one?

                      Thanks a bunch.

                    2. re: tlubow

                      I would highly suggest that you pack a picnic lunch for Saturday instead of driving back down Howell mountain for lunch and back up. You'll have to allocate 2 hours for that which eats a huge chunk out of the wine tasting hours.

                      1. re: goldangl95

                        I love your idea, Goldangl, but I'm concerned about picnicing weather at the end of Feb. Do any of the Howell Mtn wineries we are looking at have facilities for picnicing? It seems like there is a town call Angwin (sp?). Is there anything there to eat?

                        1. re: tlubow

                          I worked on Howell Mountain for three years (but can't name the winery, lest my post be deleted....)

                          There is no were to eat in Angwin. It is a town that is 100% geared towards sustaining the Pacific Union College which - interestingly - is a holdover from the days when Angwin was a "spa town" at the turn of the last century and is 100% vegetarian. (PUC is a Seventh Day Adventist school). The local market has a soup and salad bar and I used to adore their chili, but it IS 100% vegetarian so dismiss any ideas you might have of shopping in that market for charcuterie.

                          Many of the wineries up there have picnic areas but the weather could be a huge issue. I would call each one and see if there are any inside areas that you could "picnic" at during your stay; some might be very accommodating to the ideas because it could mean you would be buying more wine to dine with.

                          And, yes, for your lunches, Farmstead and Cook are the best choices although many like the Taylor's Refresher for burgers. Honestly, you could spend as much money getting one of their burgers than you might at the latter.

                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                            I second the suggestion of seeing if any of the wineries would let you eat indoors if the weather is bad - doesn't hurt to ask when you call to set up the appointment. Just explain that you want to spend a whole day on Howell mtn but are worried about lunch outdoors/weather.

                            If that doesn't work, frankly I'd rather eat in the car then drive all the way down to St. Helena and drive all the way back...but that's my travel style/preference. With really only 6 hrs to taste in a day (and that's if you want to taste wine in the mid-morning) allocating 2 hrs on lunch is not where i'd like to spend my time.

                            1. re: goldangl95

                              We will take your suggestions and picnic at one of the wineries. Any place to pick up picnic supplies between solage and howell mountain? Also, we still need to drop one winery on each day and I'm looking for advice as to which ones to cut.

                              Btw, I got clearance on JoLe and Goose and Gander from our difficult eaters, so those will be our two dinners. One lunch at Farmstead and one picnic lunch. I think we're nearly there! Thank you.

                              1. re: tlubow

                                For picnic supplies, you will want to go to Sunshine Food Market in St. Helena. They have the BEST cheese selection in the entire valley (and that includes Dean & Deluca which is down the road a half-a-mile and way more expensive).

                                1. re: CarrieWas218

                                  Agreed. Great deli section, upscale sandwiches, bakery and bread items from all the Bay Area, tropical fresh fruit already cut up, gourmet salads, great cold drink section (to balance out the wine). Wonderful spot.

                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                    I've run into a hitch in the plans. Ladera, Outpost and Neal all cannot accommodate our indoor or outdoor picnic plans, so we may go into St. Helena after all for lunch. We've decided to hire a driver, so maybe we will do two places on Howell, drive to St. Helena for lunch and do one more down around St. Helena (instead of going back up the mountain for another winery). So we will have to eliminate one of the 3 Howell wineries listed above, and I guess we can do Failla, Ehlers, and Rombauer (one on Sat. and two on Sunday).

                                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                                        I've been doing a little more research and stumbled upon Von Strasser and Reverie, which seems to be pretty close to Calistoga and not very high up on the mountain. They both look very interesting to me. Would you exchange any of our current planned vineyards (Outpost, Ladera, Failla, Ehlers, Rombauer) for a visit to these two?

                                        1. re: tlubow

                                          Von Strasser's wines are beautiful. Especially the 2008s. Beautiful, direct fruit, nice acidity, velvety-ness. Reverie is just a driveway's walk away. That's a nice little spot there on Diamond Mountain where both those wineries are.

                                          I like Failla.

                                          Rombauer is not my cup of tea (wines are too manipulated for my liking). Ehlers is OK, but you want better than that when time is so limited.

                                          Perhaps more research is in order. Spring Mountain District. St. Helena, so many possibilities.
                                          Do you know what you're looking for?

                                          1. re: maria lorraine

                                            I did all this research on Howell Mountain wineries, but now that we can't picnic anywhere up there, and we've also decided not to get a driver ($$$), I'm rethinking the whole thing. We like smaller, more intimate tasting experiences, with an opportunity to really learn about the wines. I like Failla because of the pinot, which is hard to find on the Napa side. We were looking for chardonnay as well, which is how I got to Rombauer. Because we only have 2 days, I also don't want to be driving all over the valley tasting wine. That's why I'm trying to stay close to Calistoga/St. Helena. We are very interested in cabs also, but not the fruit bomb in your face style. Thank you for your advice!

                                            1. re: tlubow

                                              Rombauer is really famous for the huge, California-style oaky, buttery Chard bombs (which is why Maria and I agree that we don't care for it, preferring the more austere, French-style which is harder to find in the valley).

                                              You might want to consider Chateau Montelena. Famous for a reason and worth the visit.

                                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                LOVE Chateau Montelena, but I've been twice!


                                              2. re: tlubow

                                                If (like me) you don't like fruit bombs, maybe Clos du Val and/or Corison. Eric Asimov published a list of old-school Napa Cabernet producers a few years ago:


                                                1. re: tlubow

                                                  With those constraints, I'm not sure Romauer is the best fit. On a Sunday in April, post linked below, we encountered a packed room. Their Chardonnay was sickeningly buttery... (I say that as someone with a largely uneducated palate for wine, but it sounds like other agree with that too. I would guess some people like that). On the other hand, we did have a nice picnic there and enjoyed the reds enough to purchase a few bottles.


                                                  1. re: hyperbowler

                                                    I've heard people in the business use "Rombauer Chardonnay" as shorthand for oak bomb and more generally for wine they are or would be ashamed to sell.

                                                  2. re: tlubow

                                                    <<I'm rethinking the whole thing. We like smaller, more intimate tasting experiences>>

                                                    I would re-think completely. Please read the posts on smaller, more intimate wineries. Failla, Von Strasser and Reverie, all fit.

                                                    Carrie and I live in Napa Valley, and we both taste extensively here and in Sonoma. You can read our posts; search using "all years" to get an idea of what we like. BTW, neither of us like fruit-bombs either.

                                                    1. re: maria lorraine

                                                      Thank you all. Rombauer is out. Holding on failla, Von strasser and reverie and back to the drawing board for 2-3 more choices. I'll report back with additional questions soon.

                                                      1. re: tlubow

                                                        I did a little more research and came up with 3 more options, based on what we seem to like and location: Heitz Cellers tasting room (free tasting also!); Grgich Hills and Corison (which we were considering earlier in my research). Frog's Leap is of interest also, but is a little further away.

                                                        We can do Von Strasser and Reverie on Sat. after breakfast, have lunch in St. Helena as planned (does Sunshine Market have any tables for eating your sandwiches or is it strictly take-out), and do one of the 3 or 4 above after lunch. On Sunday, we can go to Failla and another of those listed above, before lunch and heading back to Solage for mud baths, that is if I have Maria's, Carrie's and Robert's approval on the options above!

                                                        1. re: tlubow

                                                          The wines at Corison are great and I've always enjoyed visits there.

                                                          1. re: tlubow

                                                            Love Corison - one of the best women winemakers in the valley. I actually like Heitz for its Port. Grgich doesn't blow me away; they are more known for the Chards which I can do without, but I love their Violetta, a late-harvest...

                                                            1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                              The Violetta is the one wine I really wanted to try there.

                                                              1. re: tlubow

                                                                You're missing four really good small Calistoga wineries:

                                                                I **really** like the wines of Cuvasion -- their two cool-climate Pinots (especially the Block F5), their Mt. Veeder Cab. They're right on Silverado Trail just south of Calistoga.

                                                                Also, pay a visit to Vincent Arroyo for his wonderful single-vineyard wines, and to Bennett Lane for their very good Chard and very good reds (I love their very drinkable red wine called Maxiumus and their Cab). Stop by Summers on Tubbs Land and try their Charbono, their best wine (it's an unusual Italian red varietal and very tasty there).

                                                                Corison's wines have never blown up my skirt, and I've sampled them many times over the years. Grgich has little appeal for me also. If you're interested in late-harvest wines, of which Violetta is one, speak up. There's a good Chowhound link on these that I recall.

                                                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                  Thank you, Maria. It's been a long time since my original post where I wrote that we'd already been to Vincent arroyo (loved), Bennett lane and summers! I will look into cuvaison (I've had their wine before). I am very interested in late harvest wines, but I may be the only one in my group who is, unfortunately. I'll do a quick search anyway. Thanks again. Tamar

                                                                    1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                      The Far Niente Dolce is one of my favorites!

                                                                      1. re: tlubow

                                                                        Sorry for not remembering about the wineries you've already visited. Here are a few more ideas:

                                                                        Tres Sabores, this is a small outfit owned by winemaker Julie Johnson. Her wines are very flavorful and drinkable, and she's fun and knowledgeable. Smallish, off Whitehall Lane just south of St. Helena.

                                                                        Sullivan Vineyards, off of Galleron Lane, St. Helena.

                                                                        Schweiger, Terra Valentine, Keenan and Barnett on Spring Mountain.

                                                                        Newton in St. Helena at the end of Madrona for their beautiful unfiltered Chards, and a remarkable blend (Syrah-based) called The Puzzle. Stunning setting and gardens. These are some of my favorites. I have more south of St. Helena, obviously.

                                                                        Frog's Leap in Rutherford on Conn Creek/Rutherford Cross Road is an amazing winery, and winemaker John Williams is brilliant on many fronts. It's one of the most fun wineries to visit, and the staff is among the most fun anywhere. The wines are very well-crafted, beautiful old red barn, lovely Victorian house, many gardens, vegetables, fruits. Here's an article from The New York Times on John Williams and Frog's Leap:
                                                                        In Napa, Some Wineries Choose the Old Route

                                                                        Locals love La Luna Market on Rutherford Cross Road for their burritos, and Sunshine Market for everything. CalMart in Calistoga is quite good for lunch and hotel room snacks, especially their gourmet cheese section, chocolate selection and deli area. Sadly, the restaurant food in Calistoga is not so good, though Solage has been steadily improving. You might enjoy a microbrew at Calistoga Inn. BTW, your concierge will be able to book winery appointments and may have tasting passes for you. Take advantage of this. Good luck.

                                                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                          Thanks again for all your help. We had a great trip. We ended up getting an evite to a barrel tasting at Vincent arroyo a couple days before the trip so we rearranged some things and had a great time enjoying the gorgeous weather, food and wine at arroyo. It was wonderful. From there we went to reverie, which was lovely. The setting is amazing, Jose, our guide and host was super friendly and knowledgeable, and we really liked the wines. We finished the day at frogs leap, outside on the terrace. It was so nice. We were feeling no pain and the blue skies, breeze and view made the experience even better. We loved the wines and its nice that they serve some cheese and nuts with it.
                                                                          The next day I was sidelined with food poisoning (actually the next 4 days) but I forced the rest of the group to forge ahead with my well planned itinerary. They went to failla, which they liked but didn't love, and to Von strasser, which they loved !! Von strasser was the highlight of the trip for them. We ordered a lot of wine, so I'll decide for myself.

                                                                          As far as food goes, we had a great stop at graces table for happy hour on Friday. Great snacks and wine at super reasonable prices. We had a late dinner at solbar which was pretty meh and pretty expensive. Two really good breakfasts at sarafornia in Calistoga. Lunch sat was at farmstead, and was really good. I'll skip over the offending dinner, though at the time I thought everything about the place was terrific. On Sunday, I couldn't convince the group to keep the reservation at jole without me, so they just went to brannans at the request of the meat and potatoes guy. They said it was fine. All in all, a good trip for me and a great trip for the rest of the group. Thanks again for your help and hospitality!