What would you do with 36 Hours in a Rolls Royce?
Drive down from the chateau to the lake house, to make sure the staff is keeping the silver polished? Parade around your ex’s house, honking the horn, and yelling, “I won the lotto; I won the lotto.” Have your chauffer drop you and a date off at a Hollywood premiere and let the paparazzi surrounding the red carpet wonder, “Who are they?” (This may also work at some White House functions.)
Actually, the matter of what to do with 36 hours in a Rolls Royce cost me some sleep. The problem was finally solved when I decided to merely spin a compass. It pointed “north” (since I started in Huntington Beach, California, “west” was not an option), so, I headed up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu.
I was skippering a 2011 Phantom Drophead Coupe (for more on the car, see my New York Times review) in shimmering Diamond Black, with a black canvas retractable top. A brushed steel hood and matching windshield surround, and a J-class yacht-inspired teak rear deck, under which the retracted top stowed, was a $17,550 option. Inside, the cabin fairly glowed with a herd’s worth of Light Crème leather and many boards-feet of reddish Rosewood.
The cost of all this luxury? Nearly a half million dollars. The value? Priceless.
1. Top Down, Spirits Up
First order of business was to lower the top. The intention – as I believe should always be the objective for convertible owners – was to keep it down as much as possible. It was cool; in the lower 60s. But sun shone brightly, and the blue sky made the seas off the Malibu coast seem more Mediterranean in hue than they really are.
With the side windows up, the cabin was so quiet I could have recited Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” in a normal voice, to the passengers in the rear seats. Sadly, I know little Keats by heart. Besides, there were no rear seat passengers. But they would have been in their bliss, had there been.
“Much have I travel’d in the realms of gold…”
2. Navigating to Safe Harbor
The Drophead Coupe has a perfectly serviceable GPS-based navigation system. But I preferred to follow the lead of The Flying Lady, the iconic sculpted hood ornament of the immortal Miss Eleanor Thornton, who was positioned at the prow of the hood, like a maritime figurehead.
I mentioned above that I felt as if I were “skippering” the Rolls Royce; the nautical inference intentional, as I captained this land-yacht over an asphalt sea. The Phantom-class vehicles float down the road with a grace, power and majesty I’ve experienced only on a cruise ship, such as the Queen Mary 2. Ironically, the QM2 is powered by Rolls Royce engines; the Phantoms are not (a BMW-sourced V12 is used).
Eleanor guided me past gilded Malibu, a somnambulant Santa Barbara and Solvang, the quaint Dutch-themed tourist trap. A cute farmers’ market there, but no energy around lingering. Past Los Olivos, somewhat renown as the setting for “Sideways’, the 2004 Oscar-winner.
The sun was dipping into the Pacific Ocean as she turned inland from Pismo Beach, toward San Luis Obispo; Eleanor continuing to point straight ahead, like a divining rod seeking water.
Finally, she whispered to me, “Here.” We pulled off the highway and wheeled into the driveway of the Madonna Inn, the late Alex Madonna’s rococo palace of kitsch. The staff offered the “What’s Left” suite, which seemed somehow apropos.
The Drophead Coupe looked peacefully in repose, and entirely in place, parked out front.
3. Picnic Power
Dine In? Dine out?
For the evening’s repast, I decided to empower the Phantom.
Outward appearances to the contrary, every Rolls Royce boasts potent powers for picnicking. A signature feature of the Drophead Coupe is its two-piece “picnic trunk”, with a rear section that opens out horizontally. It is rated to hold up to 150 pounds; enough for a suitably Bacchanalian feast. An optional ($4,020) Portable Leather Trimmed Cool Bag – perfect for protecting your bubbly, caviar and other perishables – can be stored in a hidden compartment under the boot.
A new two-tier glovebox can accommodate a complete array of condiments. For your post-prandial pleasure, there’s also a drink cabinet and optional humidor ($3,530). Your snifters will look especially stylish in the Rosewood veneer twin cupholders ($980).
4. Separation Anxiety
As I nodded off to sleep, I was jarred by a melancholy thought: Nearly half of my 36 hours with the Phantom would be spend sleeping. I considered bedding down instead in the rear seat, but it’s not all that spacious back there in the coupe; the cavernous Phantom sedan would be more accommodating. But, sleeping in one’s car carries a connotation not well associated with a Rolls Royce.
5. When an Oracle Speaks, Listen
Next morning, the adventure resumed, with a quest for two essentials: Breakfast and gasoline. This would be the first time I’d ever – myself – put fuel in a Rolls Royce; most owners have people for that.
I resumed traveling north, toward Paso Robles – a wine-growing region of increasing renown. At a State Road 46 filling station, whilst replenishing the 21-gallon tank with high-test (fuel economy: high teens), I enquired as to where I might find the Eos Estate Winery, the maker of well-regarded reds (a winery built by former racing driver – and friend – Frank Arciero). A local advised me “the best wineries” were located “this way, not that way.”
After initially ignoring his superior knowledge and advice – Eos was closed – I turned around. So it came to pass that I found myself driving up Chimney Rock Road, through undulating hills the color and texture of suede, dotted with the occasional oak. Wild turkeys noshed along the – not even any tire noise; it was like being on a grand patio that moved.
Just before the road’s end (at a pharmaceutical-grade limestone pit – think Rolaids and Tums production), in a tiny valley all its own – with a micro-climate to match – I found the Justin Winery. This is an achingly picturesque 160-acre facility with French-style tasting rooms, owned by the Baldwin family. Their signature product, a Bordeaux-style red called Isosceles, has been rated as high as 95 points (out of 100) by Wine Spectator; the 2007 vintage had recently won gold medals at several prestigious tasting competitions. Again, Eleanor bid me to stop and linger.
Travelers fantasize about finding their own secret Shangri-La. This was it.
6. A Vintner’s Dream
Winemaking has been going on in the region since 1797 when Catholic priests (padres) planted vines near the site of Mission San Miguel Archangel. Modern winemaking methods have been employed, however, only since the 1980s; that’s when aspiring vintners, horticulturists and climatologists put their collective knowledge to work to locate the area’s ideal tracts for winemaking.
Paso Robles’ best winemaking areas – rocky canyons, fertile bottomland and the slopes in between – boast a daily, dramatic 50-degree temperature swing. Hot days sweeten the fruit and an evening chill, coming from the nearby Pacific (less than 15 miles, as the crow flies) and the cool Salinas River valley, balances acidity. Complex soil composition, including silty loams, clay, volcanic ash, and limestone, help sharply define the distinct “terroir” of the region’s white and red varietals.
Justin Winery enjoys the best of the best, of what the region has to offer winemakers.
Though tastings at Justin are offered most days, and lovely meals are prepared daily by a master chef in their small restaurant, tours must usually be scheduled in advance. As luck (or Eleanor) would have it, a comprehensive tour of the wine-making process, a visit to the 160-foot deep wine cave, and barrel tasting, was to begin in approximately, um, five minutes.
7. The Wages of Sin
I will spare the reader the full details here. Suffice it to say the process was impressive. The cave wondrous. And the barrel-tasting sinfully delicious. But to participate, one needs either a designated driver afterward, or a place to stay.
By another stroke of serendipitous good fortune, the Justin Winery also offers the Just Inn. It’s a delightfully posh confection, comprised of just four rooms, and sumptuously decorated; the rooms are often spoken for (usually by members of Justin’s large wine club), so it may be wise for a more deliberate traveler than I to book in advance.
8. What’s For Dinner?
On most evenings, the visitor would be well served by dining on-site. But this evening, the chef was reportedly off-site – at a James Beard Foundation event, where he was a Celebrity Chef. Yes, that would qualify as an excused absence.
But not to worry, the tasting room also offered an adequate array of items – French cheeses, fruits, vegetables (stuffed olives are super-veggies, right?) and homemade chocolates – for yet another picnic.
This picnic was in a much more peaceful setting than the Madonna Inn, which is hard against the U.S. 101 freeway. The discernible population around the Just Inn seems limited to the indigenous hawks, bald eagles, deer, wild boar, jackrabbits and turkeys; only their chatter punctuates the quiet night. On this moon-less eve, the stars seemed close enough to stir; even the remotest constellations twinkled clearly; and no night here could be considered complete without a meteor dashing across the sky.
To maximize the entertainment value, I recommend sitting in the Drophead Coupe with the top down, and the business-class seats at max-recline; it’s like being at the world’s greatest drive-in movie theater.
9. Relax, Refuel, Repeat
There’s a charming restaurant, just off 101 as you enter San Luis Obispo from the north called the Apple Farm. It offers ample parking and wide spaces (some thought must be given to where a Rolls Royce might be prudently parked). Inside the restaurant, the atmosphere is inviting, and the menu mouth-watering. Not the best place, perhaps, for those counting carbs.
But for the 99 percent of Americans who eat as if they could care less, a hearty breakfast here of apple pancakes, waffles and the like will sate even the most profligate appetite.
10. The Road Home
The drive back seemed both long and short. Too many miles, too few minutes left to savor the experience. The Rolls Royce buyer, as opposed to a mere 36-hour guest, can take solace in the knowledge a trip like this could forge a relationship that lasts a lifetime.
I was mis-guided to fret in advance about where I might take this Rolls Royce. I needed to let it take me. Ultimately, it did, but only because I relaxed, let go and allowed the power of possibility, and the wisdom of a stranger, to guide my way.
Some travelers say the journey is the destination.
For this experience, I would amend that to say the Rolls Royce was the destination; the journey was architected by Eleanor.
October 31, 2010