Saturday, December 20, 2008

A gift of birds at a SoCal preserve

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the toney Southern California enclave of Huntington Beach holds such an amazing wetland: Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. It’s existence is a testament to locals who fought for its preservation and who still work for it today, as in the guided tours run by the Amigos de Bolsa Chica. And a visit in December is to give yourself (and the kids) something free, memorable, and lasting: the gift of birds.

You might not think of winter as an appealing time to roam a wetland, but now is prime time for seeing high concentrations of shorebirds and migratory waterfowl— godwits, western grebes, sandpipers, black-necked stilts (shown above) pintails, willets, and more. Birders here have logged as many as 70 different species on a winter day (Nov-Mar). And at  any time of year in Bolsa’s 1200 acres of undeveloped wetlands, lowlands, and lower mesa you could spot egrets, herons, northern harrier, and peregrine falcon.

Bolsa Chica Tours

The Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a 33-year-old preservation group, provides school programs and free guided tours for visitors; trained docents lead all their tours. Check out their first-come tours on the first Saturday of every month (9-10:30); gather at the south lot of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, across the street from the main entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beach. The kids will get a fun lesson on the area’s history, birds, endangered species, ecology and restoration. And you may walk off a few of those holiday pounds. If you're really inspired by their work, volunteer or donate to the Amigos

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Art, wine, and a castle in Calistoga

I couldn't believe my eyes: a real castle, looking like a fugitive from 12th-century Tuscany, rising in the hills outside Calistoga. Castello di Amorosa is the brainchild of winemaker Dario Sattui, a true visionary who long ago fell in love with the ancient castles of Italy and simply decided to build his own version of one. It took 15 years and $30 million, and the result is simply awe-inspiring.

I took a tour led by Sattui himself, a tall, silver-haired man of boundless energy and contagious enthusiasm. We started by climbing up high on the crenellated parapets and worked our way down into the dungeon (yep, complete with 'the rack' and an iron maiden) passing wine-filled oak barrels along the way—the castle battlements disguise a working winery. 

Along the way, Sattui told the 'backstory' of the castle as he dreamed it up: "Here was where the castle was attacked, burned, and rebuilt using different stone," he notes. And I can see a difference in the stonework. "And there above the windows, you see the different patterns, showing how the carvings were done over a period of years as the styles and craftsm
en changed," he adds. Sattui says all this with a twinkle in his eye, knowing that I'm going along with his imaginative tale. And that's part of the fun of the guided tours (offered daily); even the regular guides add fuel to the imaginative potential of the place.

We end our tour in the tasting room, sampling some of Castello di Amorosa's 13 fine Italian-style (natch) varietals. The Pinot Grigio is sublime but the Sangiovese, rich and full-bodied, makes me weak in the knees.

The castle is actually Sattui's own creation, not a replica of anything in existence. Which, of course, makes it just the latest and biggest work of art in Calistoga. Later, we explore more of Calistoga's artsy side downtown. At Calistoga Pottery, on Foothill Boulevard, I meet two potters who paint a unique ash glaze on their plates and cooking vessels, leaving the pots with a cool shine. The ash is a uniquely 'wine country' product, made from the residue left after local grapevines are burned each winter.

Ca'toga Galleria D' Arte on Cedar Street features the works of Carlo Marchiori, another visionary that some would dub eccentric; he offers tours of his Palladian villa that's a vast gallery of his trompe l'oeil frescoes, statuary, Roman-style  ruins and fountains. Tours are offered Saturdays at 11 (May-October), but it's wise to book well ahead.

By evening, my friends and I are walking past more art—charming new outdoor murals painted on walls of a tiny alley—on the way to apps and drinks at bar Vino on Lincoln Ave.; the pancetta-wrapped dates and fried calamari with pequillo pepper aoli get our taste buds fired up. Then its across the street (Lincoln Ave.) for dinner at Brannan's Grill. The menu focuses on fresh ingredients in classically-influenced dishes: Spanish onion soup with Machengo cheese crouton, honey Chipotle glazed pork loin, Gorgonzola polenta. Heaven!

By the end of the day, full of fabulous wine and food (and having trashed my diet), I vow I'm going to exercise more restraint tomorrow. But as I check into the small and chic Chanric Inn on the hillside above town, I'm enveloped by wonderful scents. Co-owner Ric (a trained chef), is already working on part of tomorrow's brunch menu which will feature—get this— roasted butternut squash bread, poached fresh figs with creme anglais, and chived eggs on fontina toast with mushroom duxelles and white truffle oil. But I'm not worried. Hey, if they can build castles out of imagination in Calistoga, then surely calories don't exist here either, right?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas at a castle

Want to see how the rich and famous decked the halls, circa the 1930s? Check out San Simeon's Hearst Castle for the Holidays. The historic estate, designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, features 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, and pools (Cary Grant once swam here). This year marks Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument's 50th anniversary as part of the California State Parks system, and there's no more festive time to visit than now.

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was famous for entertaining on a grand scale, and if you tour during December you'll get a glimpse of his style, as the Refectory, Morning Room, and Assembly Room are swathed in hand-made garlands, clouds of pointsettias, and 18-foot Christmas trees fully decorated in traditional ornaments. See it all on The Experience Tour ($20/ $10 ages 6-17). Book ahead, as holiday tours are limited.

For lodging and dining options in nearby San Simeon and Cambria, click on SLO County's website.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On the ice in Yosemite

The Curry Village ice rink in Yosemite National Park is one of California's most dramatic outdoor ice skating venues. It just opened for the season last week, celebrating its 80th year of operation (photo courtesy of DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.).

The Curry Village ice rink came to life in 1928 when the Yosemite Winter Club flooded an unused parking lot. Now the rink is a regular winter fixture, framed by Yosemite Valley's dense pines and granite icons. While you’re gliding around the rink you can glance up to see Glacier Point, Washington Column, and North Dome.

"It’s fun to see people’s jaws drop when they look up during the afternoon
skating sessions and see the alpine glow on Half Dome,”
said Mike Poisson, manager of the ice rink for DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite (the park’s official concessioner).

The Curry Village rink has all the amenities: a warming hut and new Riedell skates for rent (including Soft series figure skates and adult hockey skates). If you'd rather kick back and watch the skaters, there's a cozy fire pit nearby for socializing, making s’mores (kits sold on premises), sipping hot cocoa, apple cider or coffee, or just drinking in the beauty of Yosemite in winter.

Details: Daily skating sessions from 3:30- 6 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. weekdays (subject to weather conditions). Weekends and holidays, the rink is also open 8:30-11 a.m., and noon-2:30 p.m. as well. Cost: $8 per session ($6 per child). Skate rental $3 per session.

For more information on winter activities and lodging in Yosemite, visit the DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite web site at or call 801-559-4949. For current ice rink conditions, call 209-372-8319. For road and weather conditions, call the automated National Park Service information line at 209-372-0200.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warm wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving

California, 2008

Wildfires, bank defaults, home foreclosures. It may not be easy this year for Californians to call to mind things for which to be thankful. And yet there are so many:

*The beauty of a wave curling into Zuma Beach.
*The majesty of Half Dome, dusted with snow.
*San Francisco, the shining city on seven hills.
*The vibrant colors of cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento, among the most diverse cities in the world.
*Native wildlife like tule elk, still thriving in select California wildlands.
*The flavors of California's many 'wine countries', from Santa Barbara to Napa and everywhere in between.

We could go on, but there's turkey to be carved, family members to tease, and football games to watch. So here's where you come in. What's on YOUR list this year?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Santa Barbara fire news and landmarks update

Those who love Santa Barbara as I do are saddened by the news of the recent wildfire that destroyed some 210 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito. If you have ever visited this special town that so evokes California's Spanish Colonial era, you may be wondering about the fate of it's beloved red-tile-roofed landmarks.

The good news is that all is well along State Street (the town's main shopping and dining thoroughfare); the graceful, twin-towered Mission Santa Barbara still stands unscarred on the hillside; and the stately, historic Biltmore (aka Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara) remains untouched. The hotel (shown above)—and really the town itself—is an architectural treasure, so it's good to know these gems still shine. 
For more information, click here for the Santa Barbara CVB

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yosemite Chef's Holidays: food and snow fun

Here's our plan: a three-day winter trip to Yosemite National Park when it's hushed under a mantle of snow. Hikes to wispy, wintery waterfalls, ice skating in Curry Village, and hanging out with trendy chefs. Wait-us hangin' with chefs in Yosemite?

Honestly, my sister, Mary Kay, and I aren't really that into spending time in the kitchen. But we do love good food, wine and cheese, and mingling with foodies—you know, those people who know all the hottest food trends and wine discoveries. So when we had the chance to attend Yosemite's Chefs' Holidays at the Ahwahnee, last winter, we leapt. Frankly, we figured we'd be out playing in the snow most of the time, with the occasional foray into a cooking demo. But that's not how it worked out.

The foodie stuff turns out to be a knockout. The demos are fun, casual, even funny sometimes and have a load of info that even laid-back home cooks like us can use (kosher salt is best in cooking; fennel makes a good substitute for celery in stocks and soups; don't saute with straight olive oil-use a blend of oils for better flavor and less scorching). "What I like," says Mary Kay, "is that it's a mini-cooking course without being too technical." 

It's a blast meeting the young chefs, cheesemakers and vintners at nightly wine-and-cheese gatherings. And the Gala Dinner is a meal to remember, supervised by such cutting edge chefs as John Stewart and Duskie Estes (seen above, photo credit Yosemite DNC) of Bovolo and Zazu; each session features different chefs.

Even the behind-the-scenes tour of the Ahwahnee's kitchen, with its own pastry shop and  bakery (making 400 loaves of bread daily), turns out to be kind of fascinating. The kitchen dates to the hotel's beginnings in 1927 and has its own great stories, for example, in the early days, 500 lb. blocks of ice cut from Mirror Lake were used to keep the kitchen's  'icebox' cool.

But after all that wonderful food (and time indoors), we need to stretch our legs. A hike to Yosemite Falls sounds like just the thing. We step out of the hotel into a white world. A soft snow is falling, the park is quiet, and we're the only ones on the trail. Its an easy, level trek of less than an hour to the base of Yosemite Falls, which even now has more than a trickle of falling water. We watch as the icy water drops in rhythmic plops onto rocks, some freezes, forming a pile of ice. "It looks like a snow cone," I tell Mary Kay. "Wow- I guess you can't you get your mind off food for a minute!" she laughs.

Details: book now for 2 or 3-day Chef's Holidays, with start dates in January (11, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28) and February (1, 4) in 2009. Call 801/ 559-4870 or click here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wine country steal: Silverado off-season

I love a wine country deal! And now is the best time for bargains at one of the Napa Valley's swankiest lodges. At The Silverado Resort, it's the "Suite Season", when rates for one- and two-bedroom suites are cut by as much as 40 percent. Sweet, indeed!

The details. Nov. 23, 2008-Feb. 28, 2009: nightly rates for a junior suite are $185 ($195 Fri-Sat); a one-bedroom suite is $210 ($265 Fri-Sat), a two-bedroom suite is $270 ($315 Fri-Sat). How great a deal is that? Well, in summer, you could pay from $335 to $525!

The big picture. The venerable resort boasts 280 condo units and cottage suites edging the fairways of two championship golf courses. The one and two-bedroom suites include a kitchen, dining area, and balcony or patio, plus a load of other amenities, making them perfect for girlfriend getaways or family group get-togethers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Calistoga warm-up

I just had a mud bath. And I never felt better.
At Calistoga's Indian Springs Resort and Spa, you get the real dirt: mud from volcanic ash dug on site, mixed with hot geyser water. I'm with a group including my friend Amy and her boyfriend Matt, and honestly, we're iffy about the whole mud thing. But we psyche ourselves into trying it. Later on, we compare notes.

I liken the ritual to plopping down into a vat of hot chocolate pudding (ahhh!). It's followed by a shower, warm mineral bath, and a steam room session. Talk about relaxed—I'm a total noodle!

"Wow- the mud is like really soft, black, and warm," says Amy. "Not what I expected at all!" And as for Matt? Well, let's just say we've never seen him so mellow.

I take a dip in the naturally-heated, gi-normous spa pool. Wreaths of mist dance around my head in the crisp, autumn air. Then I wrap myself in a fluffy robe and sit by the Buddha Pond. Created from steamy geyser water, the pond is a tiny, palm-fringed oasis. Indian Springs Resort may date to 1917, but the Buddha Pond is very now. I stare at the stone Buddha figure and zone out. I am at one with my noodle-ness.

Check out Indian Springs Resort and Spa cottages and the connected Lodge; ask about Winter Specials (which include complimentary mud baths) now through March 31, 2009. And for more lodging and dining info, visit the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sunset Magazine's fall wine country trips, tips

Have you seen the latest issue of Sunset Magazine? For me, it's a main resource for good seasonal travel ideas, especially for and about California. But the November issue really hits a home run with it's Wild About Wine story. Look for 10 "mini escapes" in wine regions from British Columbia to Washington. 

My fave escape in the bunch is Christine Richard's "Take a vineyard walk" in Sonoma. But the best part about all of these escape ideas: each comes with a recommended wine to try from the region with your Thanksgiving dinner. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Weekend in Paso Robles

I remember when Paso Robles was a sleepy ranching town. Years ago, the market price of cattle was Topic A at just about any bar, shopping and dining were pretty basic, and wine was nil. Now, Paso is at the heart of a thriving wine country, with some 170 wineries hereabouts. 
And while I still see more pickup trucks than Lexuses when I visit, the town is growing more upscale every day, with chic shops, cafes, and an attractive and walkable downtown core. 

One sign of Paso Roble's newly-polished sophistication is the glam boutique Hotel Cheval (shown at left). I stayed there recently and was knocked out. Each of the 16 rooms (named for different racehorses), boasts elegant decor, flat screen TV, and a comfy king bed with luxe linens. At day's end, I had a choice: loll by the fireplaces in the open courtyard, tuck into a book in the cozy library, or head for the hotel's wine bar, called the Pony Club
 (continuing the hotel's 'horse' theme).

Yep, I made for the Pony Club, a hangout for local winemakers, who love the horseshoe-shaped zinc bar and the ambience (see below). Plus, each month the Pony Club hosts Behind the Vines, your opportunity to meet a local vintner, taste featured flights of wine, and nibble hors d' oeurves.
Next up: Nov. 6, Doug Kruse of Jack Creek Cellars; Nov. 13, Tim Newkirk of Steinbeck Vineyards. And the price of cattle never seems to come up in the talk around the bar anymore.

Halfway between San Francisco and L.A., Paso Robles is an easy getaway full of small town charm. Come for a weekend to shop, dine, check out a winery, or just hang with the locals at the Pony Club and get Behind the Vines the easy way. For more travel info, check San Luis Obispo County; for more wine info, check San Luis Obispo Wine Country.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Sierra's secret lodge

One of my favorite places to stay near Yosemite National Park is Evergreen Lodge, outside Groveland and at the front door to Hetch Hetchy. I love Evergreen because it combines the warmth and ambience of a 1920s lodge (that's how far back it goes) with updated style and comforts I like: spacious, modern cabins with DVD players, satellite radio.

There's a cozy bar that could tell a few tales if th
at pine paneling could talk. And the cafe offers a surprisingly varied menu. When my sister, Mary Kay, and I visited she had a craving for sauteed baby bok choy; while it wasn't on the menu, they managed to whip it up for her (she loved it). 

But what really distinguished Evergreen: it's the only area lodge with its own guide service and extensive recreation program. Want to hike or bike but don't know the local trails? These guys do.

Join a fall Bike and Hike to Rainbow Pools, take a Range of Light naturalist tour to see things from John Muir's perspective, or book a private Photography Workshop. And at day's end, enjoy a gourmet meal followed by a massage in Evergreen's open air cabana. Just don't tell everyone else, or Evergreen Lodge won't be a secret for long.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The colors of Death Valley

Call me crazy, but I just love the colors in Death Valley National Park. Yes, it's the driest and lowest spot on the continent. And I know, most people think of the desert park as a vast, beige wasteland. Not me. I know Death Valley's true colors, but you have to catch them at the right time. 

On a visit last winter, I found the park awash in color. In the early morning, I tramp through Golden Canyon with a group of friends, and the morning light turns the sandstone into walls of sparkles. It's an easy 1-mile hike, except for the loose footing on a few sharp ridges (luckily, our guide had advised us to wear good boots). The air is crisp and cool and the light is absolutely brilliant. We turn a corner to see dramatic shadows knifing into Red Cathedral—and the amateur photographers in the group snap away. 

I learn there's a lot that's green in this desert—so to speak. First, there's the Furnace Creek Golf Course; it's eco-friendly and has recently been designated an Audubon sanctuary for wildlife (it uses totally reclaimed water). And this year, the U.S. tourism industry's largest solar photovoltaic system is finished and it really shines. Built by concessioner Xanterra, the massive one-megawatt system can help to reduce the pollution equivalent of 5,100 cars.

After a leisurely lunch, we drive south of Furnace Creek to pull off at Artist's Palette in the late afternoon. Splashes of mineral deposits are scattered through a maze of small canyons here, and I wander away to explore one after another. The minerals seem to blaze in the low afternoon sunlight: teal, mustard, and bands of scarlet. It's quite the visual cocktail.

Our thirsts awakened, we end the day back at the Furnace Creek Inn. Perched on the terrace with fruity drinks (the kind that come with little umbrellas) in hand, we catch one of the most amazing sights of the day: a fiery sun slipping behind palms trees and distant mountains. Again, out come the cameras.

I'm happy (sort of) to rise at O dark:30, leave my comfy bed at the Furnace Creek Inn, and beat it over to Zabriskie Point just to watch the sun's first rays catch the tip of Manley Beacon, painting the pointy peak in hues of ocher, orange, and sunny yellow. Even I can't resist having my picture taken beside this amazing view.

So who wants to shiver under grey skies this winter? Shed that heavy fleece hoodie and head for sunny Death Valley National Park for camping, hiking, golf, or lolling at a luxury resort. It'll bring color to your cheeks—and your whole winter.

Falling for Lassen National Park

I love Lassen Volcanic National Park for some of the same reasons I love the image of movie star John Wayne. It's rugged, big-shouldered, and—set off by itself in California's northeast quadrant—it's kind of a loner. Call it the Quiet Man of national parks. After all, it gets a fraction of the visitors seen every year by its bigger cousin: Yosemite National Park. 

But that may change somewhat with the latest news from Lassen: this month's opening of the new Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. The center's name means Snow Mountain (in the Mountain Maidu language), a fitting moniker for a park whose main summit, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, is capped by the white stuff for much of the year. 
The new visitor center (9-5 daily) boasts an auditorium showing a new park film, a staffed info desk, exhibits, food services, and an after-hours backcountry registration vestibule. Not only is it a big step forward over past facilities, but it's a handsome building.
So visit now, when the center is new and fall crowds are light. There's so much to do here: camping, hiking, fishing; and it only takes about one tank of gas to get here from the Bay Area. The park is a living exhibit of volcanic action; the fumaroles are hissing, the mud pots are gurgling. Now, you'll have the park's network of trails practically to yourself. But go soon, before road access to the park is restricted by late autumn's snows; after that, you'll need skis and snowshoes to see much of Lassen. One tip: before leaving home, check the park web page and status of the main park road.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Seeing stars in Santa Cruz

"Hold a sea star, think like a scientist!"
That's the motto at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California. It's part of the Long Marine Laboratory of University of California, Santa Cruz. And with its strong emphasis on research, low-key exhibits, hard-to-find location, and tiny gift shop, it is a bit different from other aquariums. But the distinction is lost on kids, who seem to love it as much as Monterey's more famous aquarium, as I learn when I drop by with my friend Elaine and her 3-year-old, Milena.  

Its the first Tuesday of the month (free day), so we sail past the ticket desk (admission $6, $4 seniors, students, or kids ages 4-16). Milena skips straight to the touch tank where a nice docent helps her pick up a purple starfish (excuse me, sea star). She spends long minutes ooh-ing over the range of star colors and textures before getting distracted briefly by long strands of kelp (which make great, wet whips, we soon learn). 

Little Milena moves over to the sea anenomes, but first pauses to spend some time neatly stacking up the blue, nesting footstools which allow little ones to step up to the touch tank. Repeatedly.
"If only I could get her to tidy up her room that nicely!" notes Elaine,
with some amazement.

Meanwhile, I drift over to gaze at the Dynamic Planet display—a globe lighted from within that sends images of clouds, hurricanes, and earthquakes (and subsequent tsunamis) cascading across the Earth. It's hypnotic. And somewhat alarming to me (I live in the Bay Area's seismic fault zone—oh well).

"Oh, look at the babies," coos Milena. Well, I think, there are babies all over this joint—the word is out to the stroller brigade about just how kid-friendly this place is. But Milena is talking about the jellyfish she's staring up at in a tall, circular tank. Pulsating white globes fill the tank, and seeming hundreds of them are quite small—about the size of a fingertip. We stare, captivated, for what must be an eternity in a 3-year-old's time frame (1.5 minutes). 

Finally, it's off to Milena's must-see stop: the huge, climb-on-top sculptures of elephant seals in front of the museum—a cute pup, a hefty female, and a Jabba the Hutt -sized male seal. The autumn sun is shining, a crisp breeze is blowing in off the adjacent Pacific, and I gratefully plop myself down for a rest atop the biggest sculpture. I don't think Jabba will mind a bit. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome California travelers!

I'm a travel writer. I have trotted all over the globe, crisscrossed the Western States, and gotten paid to do so. Lucky? Don't I know it! Now I'm focusing on my home state: California. For a writer, this state is the Mother Lode: rich in experiences, beauty, vivid history, and fascinating characters.

I know what you're thinking: "I could be a travel writer, and hike those trails, sip those Cabernets, and rest-test those downy hotel mattresses!" Sure, and I hope you'll add your comments and ideas to my destinations and outings. But make me your backup. I've got years in the business and I've trekked to places you may not have had time to check out. Oh, and I know fun, crazy, interesting travel people, and I'll introduce them along the way.

My goal is to help California travelers. To save you time and research, to help you plan weekend getaways and outings. I do my homework, check things out, and expect value for money. I like my trips to be family-friendly, cost-conscious, creative, and as green as possible. I like good deals and good meals. If you do, too, then check back often! 

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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