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.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

NOTE: This blog uses Google AdSense to provide relevant advertising for its readers.
Google may track browser habits to provide the best ads based on your preferences.