Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year 2010 (and 7 good things from 2009)

I don't know about you, but I'll be hugely relieved when 2009 goes out the door. Let's review the low points of the year, shall we?
-The worst stock market decline since the 1930s (okay, it was sheer panic).
-The end of a decade where the $1000 you put into an S&P Index fund in Jan. 2000 turned into $900 by Dec. 2009 (so much for Buy and Hold).
-Congressional wrangling over a Health Care bill that's turning into something nobody likes (and a view into the legislative process that has been truly frightening).
-Yet another goofball that managed to smuggle a bomb onto a plane (up next--airport strip searches).

Okay, now I'm depressed. So let's focus on the positive.
+Barack Obama was inaugurated.
+The stock market did turn around (and I think it's heading higher).
+Unemployment has slowed.
+Michelle O. planted the first organic garden at the White House.
+Climate change got some serious attention
+Dick Cheney didn't shoot anyone (as far as we know).
++And on a personal note, my 88-year-old Mom survived both back surgery and pneumonia (and let's hope I got HER longevity genes).

So on New Year's Eve, I'll be ready try this festive champagne cocktail (the recipe came from my friends at Sonoma's own Korbel Champagne Cellars).

Stars-and-Stripes (shown above)
1 part Korbel Brut
1 part Cranberry Juice

Salut, everybody. And if you have an equally yummy champagne cocktail recipe, please share it in a comment!!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

California whale watching tours on the north coast

Some flukey things to plan ahead for: weekend whale talks start January 2 at MacKerricher State Park, near Ft. Bragg on the Mendocino coast. Trained docents will spout off about the annual gray whale migration and about other marine mammals seen along the coast every Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM, January 2--March 21.

March 6 - 7, and March 19, 20 and 21 marks the Mendocino and Fort Bragg Whale Festival. The activities focus on three top whale viewing points: MacKerricher State Park north of Fort Bragg, Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, and the Ford House Visitor Center at Mendocino Headlands State Park. For more about art and crafts, food tasting and events, click here.

Details: The talk/walk starts at the MacKerricher Visitor Center and then proceeds to the whale skeleton before caravanning to Laguna Point for whale watching. MacKerricher State Park is located approximately three miles north of Fort Bragg on Highway 1.Turn at the MacKerricher State Park sign, and park near the entrance station and visitor center. For more, click here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade begins

It's older than the Macy's T-Day Parade and the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. Charting a 14-mile route through Newport Harbor, the 101st Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade kicks off on Wednesday, December 16 at 6:30PM and runs nightly until Sunday, December 20th. It is said to be the longest-running holiday boat parade and no doubt is one of the biggest, with more than 100 vessels "decked out" in holiday finery.

You'll see everything from canoes and kayaks to million dollar yachts wend their way throughout the scenic harbor. The show is free and viewing areas are available on public beaches on Balboa Peninsula, at the Fun Zone, and on Balboa Island. And several restaurants and watering holes along the waterfront offer prime viewing (reservations advised). (And while you're in SoCal, don't forget about the great winter birdwatching, which I wrote about last winter.)

For free, kid-friendly fun, you can't beat this wonderful Southern California tradition.

Details: For more info on the parade, including viewing spots, click here. For lodging and dining info, click on the Newport Beach tourism website.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lake Tahoe's newest hotel: really Ritzy

The Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe, opened its doors this weekend, in time for the holiday season (and skiing) at Northstar-at-Tahoe. It's the biggest hotel/resort news in the Tahoe Basin, having taken three years and some $300 million.

Tucked into a wooded hillside, The Ritz-Carlton Highlands' grandeur is, from a distance, fairly well-disguised. Still, it is hard to hide the fact that this is the area's first five star-caliber hotel, featuring 170-rooms, 23 private rsidences, a top-flight restaurant, and a vast spa.

Just how 'ritzy' is this place? Well, to start with, all the rooms have a fireplace. And there's a mountain concierge and ski valet, with ski-in and ski-out access; and an inter-mountain gondola connecting to the Village-at-Northstar. There's the luxe Highlands Spa that's bigger than all the houses on my block, and boasts a lap pool, fire pit, yoga and spin studios. And that top-flight restaurant? It's called Manzanita and is helmed by San Francisco chef Tracy Des Jardins. Too rich for your blood? Consider the great deals in spring and fall, when prices drop by half; or swing by for drinks or a meal at Manzanita. All we can say is, it's about time, Tahoe.

Details: In Truckee, at 13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Court; 200 miles east of San Francisco and 98 miles from Sacramento. Rooms from $355 in winter (from $175 in spring and fall); 800/241-3333 or click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas at Yosemite

Winter just may be my fave season at Yosemite National Park. If you're into lots of action, there's plenty of variety in winter sports (click here for current conditions). I've written about skating at the Curry Village ice rink (one of California's most dramatic outdoor ice skating venues). Take a spin on the ice, or sit by the fire pit and wolf down toasty s'mores. Head up to Badger Pass for downhill skiing, siding down a tubing hill, or joining guided snowshoe hikes into the forest. There are easy valley hikes to take (watch for the tracks of last night's animal visitors in the snow).

And if you're into less action, then there is the Ahwahnee Hotel. In the famously formal dining room, plunk yourself down at a window looking up at Half Dome dusted in snow and partake of a grand meal. Or just lounge by the most massive fireplace this side of a European castle. Time your visit right and you can hone your food-and-wine knowledge at the outstanding Chefs Holidays and Vintners Holidays (see my earlier story on those dinners), shown at left; the best parts: meeting the chefs and then enjoying a 5-course wine-paired dinner. Or if you're really into the holidays, enjoy the festive pageant of music and food that marks the Bracebridge Dinner (easier to get tickets to, now that they've expanded the schedule).

Details: For ice rink conditions, 209/372-8319. For road and weather conditions, call the automated National Park Service info line at 209/372-0200. Chefs Holidays and Vintners Holidays start in January; for schedule, click here. The Bracebridge runs Dec. 13-25 on vario;us days; for details, click here. For lodging options, click here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ahwahnee Hotel, courtesy Kenny Karst, DNC

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Free skiing at Snow Valley

Just heard about a great package including free skiing in the 'Southland Alps', just 90 minutes from Los Angeles. Stay at The Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa on their Mid-Week Ski Value Package and you ski for free at the Snow Valley Resort, high in the San Bernardino National Forest. Overall, it’s a savings of more than 30 percent and is available all winter long.

Details: Mid-Week Ski Value Package: two adult lift tickets at nearby Snow Valley Ski Resort; two après-ski hot toddies or hot chocolates; two $25 certificates for the hotel’s Spa of the Pines; room, tax and parking. There are no blackout dates/no minimum stay; valid Sunday – Thursday. Cost: $219/night (a $323 value). Book 800/800-6792 or click here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The seven days of swine flu

(Sung to the tune of A Partridge in a Pear Tree...)
On the first day of Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three!

On the second day of Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: 2 bleary eyes aaand Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three!

On the third day of Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: 3 achy joints, 2 bleary eyes aaand Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three.

On the fourth day of Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: 4 doctor’s calls, 3 achy joints, 2 bleary eyes aaand Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three

On the fifth day Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: 5 gobs of phle-eem, 4 doctor’s calls, 3 achy joints, 2 bleary eyes aaand Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three.

On the sixth day of Swine Flu, H1N1 gave me: 6 hours of coughing, 5 gobs of phle-eem, 4 doctor’s calls, 3 achy joints, 2 bleary eyes aaand Chills, Shakes and Fever-all three.

On the seventh day of Swine Flu, H1N1 left me! I got 7 hours of sleeping, 6 hours no coughing, 5 full deep breaths, 4 loads of laundry done, 3 square meals, 2 clear eyes, and a lifetime swine flu bug immunity!!
(Thanks Tamiflu and Advil!)

And how are you? What has your experience with this bug been like-leave a comment!
I'll be back to traveling and blogging shortly. Thanks for your kind calls and emails. And stay safe out there!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Napa Valley Wine Train rolls with BRAVO

Imagine trying to whip up an award-winning meal on board a moving train. Well, it happens on The Napa Valley Wine Train on TV tonight. As part of Bravo's season finale for its popular TOP CHEF reality show, the finale of TOP CHEF's season (airing tonight at 10/9c) takes place in California's lovely Napa Valley.

If you've been there, you know that Napa is a magical setting for a vacation. Well, it's a pretty inspired setting for Bravo's TV culinary contest, too. The show's first Quickfire Challenge happens on the Napa Valley Wine Train as it travels the Valley floor on a rainy harvest afternoon. Watch it tonight on TV, or tomorrow online.

Details: Online at For details on lodging and dining options in the Napa Valley, click here; want more info, click here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A bit of Yosemite at Sunol park

I know, Thanksgiving is tomorrow. So why not plan now to take off the pounds you know you're going to add after our national eating holiday? I've got just the place: Sunol Regional Wilderness in the East Bay. With miles of hiking trails, newly-greened hills, and a rocky gorge dubbed Little Yosemite, it's the perfect antidote to our traditional pig-out and pigskin day.

Last fall, I took a roughly 4-mile hike with pals Linda and Terry, enticed by the prospect of exploring the 6,859-acre wilderness, with more than 25 miles of trail. As I take my hiking poles out of the car, Terry gently teases me about my "canes". I tell him that, while the trail looks gentle enough at the outset, we'll soon be boulder-hopping and grateful for the support provided by the poles.

We trek up the Canyon View Trail, that crosses Alameda Creek and enter a forest of alder, willow, and sycamore. Coast live oaks dot the hillsides, along with valley and blue oak. In the bushes and trees, we spot acorn woodpecker, black phoebe, and titmouse. Overhead, lots of turkey vultures soar; and I keep my eyes peeled for the golden eagle, said to be commonly sighted in this part of the Diablo range.

Soon, we reach the weathered serpentine and sandstone outcrop that marks the entrance to Little Yosemite (there's a picnic table opposite the side trail going down into the gorge). We hop and crawl over massive boulders that give this spot its name. Deep pools reflect yellow and crimson leaves from overhanging trees, and a small waterfall cascades over the lip of a giant blue-green serpentine cliff. It's a magnificent, peaceful place. We pause and spread our small picnic over a flat rock, sharing our cheeses and apples. And on the climb out, I share one of my hiking poles with Linda (and yes, Terry has stopped kidding me about my "canes").

Details: Fall and spring are the best times to hike here, when summer's blast-furnace heat has abated, the grassy hills have colored up, and there's water in the creek. Parking Fee
$5/seasonal, weekends and holidays. The park is at 1895 Geary Road, Sunol, 925/ 862-2218,
925-862-2244 or 925-862-2601. Toll Free: 888-EBPARKS (888-327-2757), option 3, extension 4559.
Park directions: From the Oakland/Berkeley area:
Drive east on I-580 to the junction with I-680 in Pleasanton. At the junction, go south on I-680 and exit at Calaveras Road/Highway 84 just south of the town of Pleasanton. Turn left onto Calaveras Road and proceed to Geary Road, which leads directly into the park.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas at Hearst Castle

I’ve heard that Christmas was one of William Randolph Hearst’s favorite holidays (didn't he get a way-cool sled one year?). So can you just imagine celebrating the holidays at Hearst Castle in San Simeon in the 1930s and 40s? (And they say the 1990s were the era of excess!)

The Julia Morgan-designed estate perched atop La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) was indeed an enchanting setting for Hearst’s little soirees; the famed publishing magnate entertained on a grand scale, and it's said that bigwigs fought over invitations to the Castle during the holidays.

Nowadays, Hearst Castle® is a state park, so you don’t need an invitation to Christmas—just a reservation (and it’s not too soon to start working on it). Hearst Castle is already quite decorative (to put it mildly). It looks like the top of a wedding cake. For a princess. So this may be gilding the lily, but what the heck, Hearst would have loved it: by December 1st the Christmas decorations will all be up and ready for you to enjoy. The Assembly Room, The Refectory, and The Morning Room are lavish with decorations—hand-made garlands, brilliant red poinsettias, and two 18-foot Christmas trees decorated with lights and traditional ornaments. (To see these rooms, sign up for The Experience Tour during the daytime.)

Details: Tours offered daily (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day). Reservations are highly recommended (availability is limited). The Experience Tour costs $24, $12 for ages 6-17; for reservations call 800/444-4445 or online at

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dining news and deals in the Napa Valley

The tony village of Yountville keeps reaching for (and getting) the stars. Now, restaurants in this Napa Valley, California, town boast SIX Michelin stars. Holders of the coveted stars include the French Laundry (3), Bouchon (1), Redd (1) and newly-crowned étoile at Domaine Chandon (1). Some 15 top notch restaurants are within strolling distance of one another in this very walkable town: the new Bottega from Food Network’s Michael Chiarello, restaurant at Bardessono, Cantinetta Piero at Hotel Luca (Nov./’09), and Thomas Keller/Laura Cunningham’s Vita, and more.

Now, foodies have another good reason to visit Yountville this winter—the new lodging/dining package called Moveable Feast. The town-wide Moveable Feast program covers everything from value-season hotel/dining packages to a range of prix-fixe meals.

Details: Moveable Feast is available December 1, 2009 - February 28, 2010. The Moveable Feast program and free passport can be downloaded by clicking here. The passport links you to hotel packages and restaurant deals (like a three-course prix fixe dinner for $70/couple, $1 oyster specials, 50% off VIP winetasting and up to 25% off hotel/dining packages, starting at $165/double). For more lodging, dining, and wine tasting info, contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce at 707/944-0904.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On ice in San Francisco

Holiday shopping can be a real skate when you do it in downtown San Francisco near a seasonal ice rink. Now, San Francisco doesn't seem like a hotbed of ice skating action (unlike San Jose, which has its own ice hockey team), so you might be surprised to know that there are three super cool rinks near shopping meccas, all open now. And one local rink is home ice to Brian Boitano, four-time US National Champion, two-time World Champion, Olympic gold medalist, and full time nice guy (by all reports).

Boitano does his triple axels out at the city's Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center, and so can you. Set in an urban rooftop garden at Yerba Buena Garden downtown, the center offers ice skating all season long and the view of the city from the rink’s giant window wall is, well, pretty cool.

If you want a setting close to the scenery, and the gourmet gift shopping at the Ferry Building, try Justin Herman Plaza and the Embarcadero Center ice rink. This seasonal rink has returned to the waterfront annually for more than 20 years, and will be open to the public for just nine weeks.

And for cool shopping variety, then you can't do better than the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square, surrounded by top shops and posh hotels. The rink is in its second year at Union Square and is also open just about nine weeks.

Details: Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center is at 750 Folsom St., open for public skating daily and there's a Children's Skating School for all levels, including Parent and Me classes. For more, visit The Embarcadero Center ice rink, at Justin Herman Plaza, is open Nov. 11, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010; for more visit Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square is open Nov. 11, 2009-Jan. 18, 2010; for more visit
PHOTO CREDIT: Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bike tour of the Stanford Campus

Forget that the calendar says November. It is a lovely, spring-like day, so I get a brainstorm: I'm take my new flat-bar road bike on a ride around the campus of Stanford University. In Palo Alto, California, Stanford is famous as one of the world's leading teaching and research institutions. Of course, in my day I wasn't, ahem, mentally gifted enough to gain entry here as a student, but it doesn't take a brainiac to know this is an awesome place to bike around.

I park at the car at Stanford Shopping Center, unhook the bike (so light, so sleek!) from the rack and cross the street to the campus' northwest corner at Arboretum and Quarry roads. At that point, I enter a peaceful, leafy world, where the air actually feels cooler and.. what is it.. rarefied?

First, I pass the memorials to members of the Stanford family (granite tombs that are alternately grand and heartbreaking) and then circle the Arizona Cactus Garden (it looks like one of the giant yuccas is about to bloom).

Popping out on the aptly named Palm Drive, I wheel beneath an avenue of giant palm trees, marching in twin, arrow-straight rows toward the heart of the campus. The road ends at the courtyard for the magnificent Memorial Church, where I pass under rows of arches and instantly recall events at the church that were happy (I once attended a friend's lovely wedding) or poignant (years later, I attended a funeral for a cherished boss).

On campus back lanes, I move eastward, past the dorm where my niece lived during her own college days (I visited her there once and was surprised at how they allowed students to decorate their rooms--enough said).

The campus appears generally flat, but there's a slight rise in elevation, so I gear down to climb to Lagunitas Lake. It's a dry lake bed, once used for the Big Game bonfires (or so I've heard) but its nonetheless pretty and ringed by a jogging trail that is busy this day. I imagine the joggers are actual brainiacs—students and profs alike. And then I think: but the brainiacs have to go back to work/class at the end of their run, don't they, poor devils? Unlike me, the doofus, who graduated from a lowly state school and retired young. I almost sprain my arm from patting myself on the back.

As the sun sinks, I work my way back downhill past the imposing Hoover Tower then circle back toward the Rodin Sculpture Garden. And there they are: the massive bronze Gates of Hell, and the famed Burghers of Calais, bent with cares. Others pieces are scattered around the small, tidy garden and I'm struck anew at how accessible they are. As I roll past, I almost feel the brush of one giant, expressive hand (Rodin's work on hands and feet is simply amazing). Inside the adjacent Cantor Arts Center are more works by Rodin--200 in all in a collection that is the largest in the world outside Paris.

I promise myself to come back for the docent tour--sometime when I'm not all helmeted and lycra-ed up and looking like a doofus.

Details: Docents lead free tours of the Rodin Collection Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays at 11:30 am, and Sundays at 3 pm, rain or shine. Meet in the Cantor Arts Center lobby. It's a great place to bring youngsters. Nearby, Stanford Shopping Center has lots of parking, lovely flower beds year-round, and several good restaurants.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A new cookbook for kids that's about real food

I've always been put off by children's cookbooks that are filled with so-called recipes for sweet and sillly foods (like peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipes-who needs that?). Kids need real info on real food, just as adults do. So when I saw You've Got Recipes by my friends Jerry Anne Di Vecchio & Francoise Dudal Kirkman, I knew I'd found the ideal cookbook for my two little great nieces, Robyn and Iris.

You see, Jerry & Francoise know a thing or two about food. Jerry was the Food Editor of Sunset Magazine (she wrote for the magazine for some 40 years). Francoise, a Paris-trained artist, was a designer at Sunset Magazine and a fabulous cook herself. Together, they've produced a delightfully illustrated 94-page story book that weaves a tale of a San Francisco-based raccoon in email contact with a Paris-based mouse, who each share stories and recipes. It's a fun format that mixes in solid cooking tips and how-to for young 'foodies' with easy recipes. The book lets the kids be entertained by a sweet story while they learn how to wield a potato masher.

What I like best, though, is that the recipes are for tasty foods the whole family will enjoy, from cheese puffs and zucchini soup to lamb stew. More importantly, the youngsters can pick up good eating habits as they master some solid recipes that will come in handy their whole life long. That's a heck of an accomplishment for a kid's cookbook.

Details: Available from the authors at for $34.60 (includes CA tax and shipping) or at or Trafford Publishing . Coming soon: Notecards featuring the cute characters featured in the book; see the author's blog.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thanks for your help, readers!

This is a pre-Thanksgiving note of thanks, to you. Longtime readers of my blog might recall that I had posted a story a little while back about a site that was using my blog stories (all of them) without my permission, a site called My Stay in LA. I grouched about it and got some very helpful tips from many of you in the form of comments.

Well, I'm happy to report that I was able to contact the originator of the blog (thank you, Fred Sandsmark, for tracking down that email). I sent him a polite note and he responded quickly, saying that all my posts would be taken off his site this afternoon. My hat is off to him, and (more importantly) to all of you who sent me helpful suggestions.

In fact, you were so helpful, perhaps I should also ask you what to do about my sore knee...oh, never mind. Anyway, thanks!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Near Santa Barbara, California's new wine country

I know why it's called Happy Canyon. It's because this little corner of Santa Barbara wine country, in the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley, has just become California's newest AVA (American Viticultural Area). On the Los Padres side of Highway 154, this broad, sunny cleft is home to horse ranches and hillside vineyards.

To become an AVA, a wine region has to be significantly different from other winegrape growing areas, and Happy Canyon qualifies: hotter temps, less fog, and a mineral terroir (serpentine soil lace with high magnesium content) make it distinctive. It's also pretty small, with just six major vineyards and two active wineries (a third is due next year), but note: none offer public tasting.

Still, you can make your own tasting tour of their wines (mostly Bordeaux-styles), by visiting winetasting rooms like those listed below. Or visit the better known area Santa Barbara wine regions. And don't miss Santa Barbara's downtown Urban Wine Trail, with stops at eleven wine hotspots. Happy now?

Details: Taste Happy Canyon wines in Santa Barbara at the soon-to-open The Alliance tasting room at the Wine Cask Wine Shop and the Star Lane/Dierberg tasting room in rural Lompoc. Happy Canyon labels to look for: 3CV Wines, Barrack, Chukker, Cimarone, Edge, Piocho, Star Lane and Vogelzang. Want to make a weekend wine touring in the area? Check out the lodging deals, dining, and shopping info at the Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau website.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fremont hike 'n dine

Lake Elizabeth beckons. The placid, 83-acre lake in Fremont's Central Park has 4 playground areas, a lagoon nature area, basketball courts, ballfields, picnic tables and a wide, paved path running along its edge. In summer, the boathouse is busy with rentals and lessons as is the new waterslide park. But on any day, in any season, the path is the big draw: you'll find moms pushing strollers, joggers, cyclists, and power walkers puffing along the walkway.

My pals and I pick a sunny fall day and hit the trail (we carpool, making it a really 'green' day). This morning, the wind is gentle, and puffy clouds dot the sky. Along the 2-mile-long waterside path, we pass beneath giant pepper trees heavy with red berries. The birdwatching isn't bad, either: we spot ruddy ducks, Western grebes, mallards, egrets, and great blue herons.

The walk is not terribly strenuous, but just enough to work up an appetite, so we head for the heart of Fremont's "Little Kabul", to lunch at one of the better known Afghan cafes: Salang Pass Restaurant . It is outstanding. I have the chopan kabab (lamb skewer) and it is tasty and plentiful. Linda has the wonderful Quabili Pallow-a baked brown basmati rice dish with lamb shank, aromatic with spices, raisins and carrots. Francoise and Sara order the Aushuk and Mantoo, each a kind of Afghani ravioli filled with variously lamb or leeks. For dessert, we get four spoons and dive into a Firni, an Afghani pudding with hints of rosewater, cardamom, almonds and pistachios.
My overall review: Yummy and very affordable. I'd go back in a minute. One caveat: it's a little hard to find, but parking is plentiful (in the back).

Details: Salang Pass Restaurant (510/ 795-9200; 37462 Fremont Blvd.). Fremont's Central Park is at 40000 Paseo Padre Pkwy., Fremont, CA; 510/ 790-5541.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sumo seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

Brace yourself: the big guys are about to return to Ano Nuevo State Park. The sumo wrestlers of the pinniped world, elephant seal males weigh up to 5,000 pounds and during mating season, they really know how to put on a show. Except when they don't feel like it. When they ARE feeling, er, in the mood for love, they do what some tacky guys do. They throw their weight around, do chest bumps with each other, and get into nasty, biting, snorting, snot-slinging fights. That's their idea of fun.

The much smaller elephant seals girls just lie there, eyes closed (thinking of England, perhaps), and hoping not to get squished on their romantic 'date'.

When the elephant seals don't feel like 'it', they just lie on the beach like large, brown turds (hey, you get downwind of them after they've been lying there for a while and see what springs to mind). So after you've signed up weeks in advance, paid your money, and hiked out a couple miles over the dunes to witness wildlife in action, you pretty much hope you see some action.

And, bulls being bulls, you stand a good chance of seeing a lot. But you know what? Even if you don't see a fight, you'll witness one of wildlife's most amazing spectacles. You'll see thousands of animals in a beautiful coastal setting, birthing pups, lunbering along inch-worm style, and living out their lives. Plus you get a nice, informative walk out of it. The guided 3-mile walks (moderately strenuous) go over rolling sand dunes and sloping terrain and last about 2 ½ hours and are held rain or shine. Don't miss one of California's true miracles: it only happens one season a year.

During the winter breeding season – December 15 through March 31 –you can only access the breeding area while on a guided walk (hey, it's for everyone’s protection). On October 20, individuals, families, and other groups can start making their reservations for the Public Seal Walk, for any dates up to 56 days in advance and as late as one day prior to their walk. Cost: $7; Children 3 and under free. Parking $10. Details: 650/ 879-2025 or 650/ 879-0227. To BOOK, click here or call ReserveAmerica 800/ 444-4445.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of California State Parks, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Shipwreck: the haunting of the Queen Mary

I love wandering the decks of the graceful Queen Mary, permanently moored in the Port of Long Beach. The lovingly restored ship is rich in maritime history and loaded with authentic Art Deco period decor. The views of the Pacific Ocean and Long Beach city skyline make you feel as if you're just setting out on a romantic sea voyage (albeit on very calm seas).

Today, it's a grand hotel, with 314 suites that harken back to the ship's glamour days. Their Sunday Brunch is to, ahem, die for. For others, the main attraction of the Queen Mary are the tales of ghosts who wander the bowels of the ship to this day—lost souls permanently shipwrecked. (Check out the YouTube videos of recent sightings.)

Which is why their Annual Halloween Terrorfest, SHIPWRECK! is such a big draw, now through November 1. They've put together five mazes both on and off the haunted vessel: Vampire Village; The Graveyard; the Isolation ward (paging Nurse Slasher); Blackbeard's Revenge (a Pirate Maze, AAAAAARRRRGGG); Paranoia's House of Horror (sounds like my last job). And if you're already afraid of clowns, don't go through the Psychedelic Krazy Klown Maze. Scarey fun.

Details:1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, 800/ 437-2934 or 562/ 435-3511. Shipwreck run from 7 PM- midnight.; open later on weekends. Admission - $29; VIP Fast Pass - $40 (includes cut-the-line privileges); Month Pass - $69; VIP Month Pass - $99 (includes cut-the-line privileges); Prices Subject to change. For more info, click here.

Photo credit: Queen Mary/Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween fun in the Bay Area

As a kid, when my sister wanted to scare me witless, she'd button her robe over her head, stick her arms straight out and moan like the Headless Horseman from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And then spend the next hour explaining to my Mom how much her little sister actually enjoyed having the poop scared out of her (truth is, I did).

At Fremont's Ardenwood Historic Farm, you can take a ride on their Halloween Train (Thursday and Friday this week), tour the semi-spooky Patterson Home, or roam the Pumpkin Patch to pick up a pumpkin from the field. (It all may not scare the kids as much as the Headless Horseman, but maybe that's a good thing.)

Or join one of Ardenwood's educational programs where you can see/ participate in many activities common to a turn-of-last-century farm. Beyond Halloween, there's plenty to see here: Board a horse-drawn train and ride into the park with docents dressed in period costumes. Roam a Victorian Garden or the 1857 Patterson House with its turreted Queen Anne addition. See sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, goats, and cows or poke your head into the Blacksmith Shop.

Details: Pumpkin Patch hours are 1 to 7, Monday – Friday; 9 to 5 Sat. The pumpkin patch will close at 5:00 p.m. on Halloween (October 31st). Weekdays, naturalists provide programs for school classes and other groups by reservation; call 510/ 544-2797. Parking is free but there's a modest entry fee for the park.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Oktoberfest in Disney's downtown district

In Anaheim, the Downtown Disney® District is slated to host its first Oktoberfest celebration this weekend: October 23-25. The streets of the Disney District will be alive with the sound of Bavarian music, as three different live acts stroll through.

The Downtown Disney District, a lively Orange County promenade with unique shopping and dining, is set just outside the theme parks and adjacent to the Disneyland® Resort hotels. The bands—in full costume—will be performing throughout the nightly (and yet, family-friendly) festival, so pull on your lederhosen and head on down. Ask about Give Me a Break discount packages.

Details: The "Give Me a Break” deals include discounts to several OC hotels – including free night stays, food and beverage credits and savings on spa treatments. A number of hotels are helping to ease the “pain at the pump” by offering gas cards, as well as mileage and fuel credits. As an added benefit, those who book a three-night stay or more at participating hotels receive a $50 Disneyland® Resort Gift Card. For more Anaheim fall festivals, check the Anaheim calendar.
PHOTO CREDIT: Disneyland® Resort

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Off season wonders of Point Reyes, California

Ahh, off-season at Point Reyes National Seashore. Swirls of fog wrap around twisted cypress and deer dart amongst the trees; offshore, seabirds circle, seals surf the waves, and gray whales migrate along the coast.

In a past article for Sunset, I wrote: Point Reyes is a poem; complex, untamed and raw, yet elegant. That’s still true today. I love a Point Reyes fall/winter trip; days are spent on the park’s vast network of trails, looking for wildlife like tule elk and fallow deer; evenings usually end luxuriating in a quiet inn, with a hearty Zin by the fireside.

The waters of nearby Tomales Bay and Drakes Bay are home to some of the most productive oyster growing spots in the country, and on sunny days my favorite thing is to get a beach bonfire permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center (its free), then grab some fresh local oysters and grill ‘em up on Limantour Beach.

Three commercial oyster operations are open to the public: Drakes Bay Family Farms Oysters
Hog Island Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company .

Now, there’s added incentive to visit, with Point Reyes Lodging’s Whales and Wildlife promotion (November 15, 2009 —Wednesday, March 31, 2010). Stay two nights midweek (Sunday through Thursday) and get the third night free at any of the Point Reyes Lodging bed and breakfast inns.

Details: To make a Whales & Wildlife reservation, visit and contact the inn or cottage of your choice. Mention Whales & Wildlife when you make your reservation. Holiday periods are excluded and advance reservations are required.
Photo Credit. Steve Wyrostock (Bear Valley Inn)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sonoma wine country lodging deal

Fall and winter is ideal timing for a Sonoma wine country getaway. Sipping the robust Zins at Ravenswood, sampling the fresh-pressed olive oils at B.R. Cohn, and driving quiet, leaf-strewn back roads. Want one more reason to go? This is such a great Sonoma Valley lodging package, we thought it was a misprint: $75 a night (weekends excluded) at the 16-room Sonoma Creek Inn, with the “Stay Longer, Dream More” package. Guests who want to “stay longer” get an even better deal: a two-night stay is only $145 per room ($72.50 per night for two people).

Besides amenities like free wireless Internet, in-room refrigerators and cable TV, many rooms have private outdoor patios or porches -- just the thing for relaxation after a busy day exploring the wine country. Winery tasting passes offered will vary from the well known— Buena Vista to Ravenswood, and B.R. Cohn— to the more surprising: Paradise Ridge, Charles Creek, Ty Caton, Bartholomew Park, Deerfield Ranch, Roche, Ledson, Schug and Cellardoor.

The inn is in Sonoma, on Boyes Boulevard (near the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa).

Details: Valid Sunday through Thursday nights from Nov. 1, 2009—April 15, 2010, the package is priced at $75 (for two people) and includes one night in a queen guest room, complimentary wine tasting passes for local wineries, and an upgrade to the best available room upon check-in. The package excludes holiday and special event periods and is based upon availability. The package must be requested at the time of booking.

For reservations, call 888/712-1289 or click here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

California's mysterious sand dunes (and its lost city)

"Sand dunes are made of light," the photographer tells me, and good light is early light, which is why we're out here at dawn. An art director (Dennis) and I are saddling up to ride through the picture frame, across an arching dune (Don wants some action in his shot). It's the late 1980s and we are at Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes on California's central coast, shooting my first big story for Sunset Magazine that we hope will make the cover. Soon a warm, lemony sun lights up the sand like mounds of shining crystals. Just as the morning sunlight strikes the face of the dunes, we spur our horses to crest a sand peak, casting long, elegant shadows down the opposite slopes of sand. Snap!

As the camera shutter clicks away in rapid-fire, I imagine I'm starring in some 'blood and sand' picture of the silent movie era, galloping away from the approaching hordes. Not surprising I feel that way, since we're near the site where a legendary Cecile B. DeMille movie was, indeed, filmed.

I've always been fascinated by sand dunes—their sinuous sweep of clean, white sand glistening in the sun, seeming to shape-shift with every angle of light. It's the reason that, long after that old photo shoot, I still find romance and mystery in the curve of a towering dune. So I'm thrilled to learn that the 18-mile-long Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, on the Santa Barbara/ San Luis Obispo county coastline, is more accessible than ever.

Open to visitors, The Dunes Center in Guadalupe, California, (in the Santa Maria Valley) has just launched a new web site, new tour map, and enhanced educational exhibits to help visitors get the most out of their experience at the Dunes Complex. That's good, because though the dunes are easily accessible from Highway 1 in the Santa Maria Valley, this place is so big, you need good intel to get the most out of it.

This is one of the most ecologically significant and largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on the West Coast. A major portion of the nearly 22,000 acres of dunes is under public management and open for recreation; more than 1,400 species of animals call the dunes home.

The dunes are also where famed director Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments (right); recent movies have filmed here, too, including The Pirates of the Caribbean starring Johnny Depp. DeMille’s massive “City of The Pharaoh” became a lost city after it was abandoned and ultimately buried by the crew and, later, by the shifting sands. A documentary about the modern search for the lost sets of The Ten Commandments—including five-ton sphinxes and giant statues—will debut next summer.

Oh, and our 1980s shot did make the cover, by the way. I saved the picture and glance at it whenever I open that box in the attic; I see a very young girl on horseback, loping across a graceful peak that glistens like sugar—and I remember learning what sand dunes are really made of.

Details: The Dunes Center offers ongoing guided walks and hikes, plus children’s activities, all on the new web site. This month, the center debuts its free new map to help visitors find their way around the dunes; a $2 charitable donation is requested when visiting. The Dunes Center is at 1055 Guadalupe Street (Highway 1) in Guadalupe, California; 805/ 343-2455. For lodging, dining, and recreation information on the Santa Maria Valley, please click here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Luxury lodging in Death Valley National Park

It's no secret. I love Death Valley (last year, I wrote about taking a spring break vacation there). Now, the storied Inn at Furnace Creek, in the heart of Death Valley National Park, has just opened its doors for the season (through May 9, 2010).

Built in 1927 with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area, the elegant hotel now boasts 66 rooms, including two suites. The best news: all 66 units were refurbished last year. Maintaining its high quality is probably why the hotel has been awarded the prestigious AAA Four-Diamond Award since 1982. The unique hilltop setting, oasis-like garden, and hot springs-fed swimming pool have made it a lure for celebrities and vacationers alike.

For those looking for a more cost-conscious option, there's the more family-oriented 224 room Furnace Creek Ranch nearby.

While you're in the park, check out one of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems in the United States, recently completed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which owns the Inn and takes environmental concerns seriously.

Details: For more information about Death Valley National Park or to make reservations at in-park lodges, call toll free at 800/236-7916 or 303/297-2757 or go to

Monday, September 28, 2009

California state parks stay open!

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today unveiled a plan that would allow for all state parks to remain open without increasing the Department of Parks and Recreation budget appropriation. Following the passage of the budget reduction in July, the Governor tasked the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Finance to work together on a plan to achieve $14.2 million in budget savings in the current fiscal year while mitigating the number of park closures.

“Working closely with my Departments of Finance and Parks and Recreation, we have successfully found a way to avoid closing parks this year,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “This is fantastic news for all Californians.”

You got that right, Guv!

Friday, September 25, 2009

National park memories: Yellowstone

We'll get a good look at our National Parks this fall with the new Ken Burns series for PBS. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea —a six-part, 12-hour film— is scheduled for 8 p.m. slot Sept. 27 through Oct. 2 (check local listings). As a huge fan of our national parks, I'm eager to see the series. I'm sure they'll spend a good deal of time at one of my faves: Yellowstone National Park. The thought has had me combing my memories for some of my best times in Yellowstone.

And while the park gets most of its visitors in summer, I love Yellowstone best in winter. The park's first official winter inspection didn't occur until 1887--15 years after it had been designated a national park. Those first inspectors tramped around for a while on heavy wooden skis, half frozen to death, before turning back and declaring the park unfit for winter visitation.

Indeed, Yellowstone in winter is no picnic: snow swirls, winds can howl, and crowds largely melt away. Except for one northern route, roads are snowed in and you can only enter the heart of the part via snowcat or snowmobile (or, of course, by skis). That's when Yellowstone regains its true wild self.

My first winter visit was probably 30 years ago. Here's how I remember it: From West Yellowstone, I climb into a marginally heated red Bombardier snow coach, equipped with tracks like a tank (and about as comfortable) and we rumble our way into the park. Out frosted windows, I see hissing fumaroles spray clouds into the bitterly cold air.

Along the road's edge, we pass small herds of bison lumbering down into warmer, wind- sheltered valleys for food and warmth. The journey takes a couple of hours, including stops alongside the pewter, ice-flecked Yellowstone River to watch trumpeter swans and the occasional elk, looking majestic with a spreading rack of antlers, pawing through the snow to munch on grass below. When we turn the engine off, I stand before a forest glittering with ice, and wrapped in a thick blanket of snow. The silence is so deep, and the sense of alone-ness so complete, it's almost frightening.

Arriving at Old Faithful, I find the geyser still does its thing, just as in summer, but it explodes above a smaller crowd, one swathed in helmets and snowmobile suits, fresh off their ski-dos. The main access to the rest of the hissing stars of Lower Geyser Basin is by snowshoe or cross-country skis. And there, with a bit of effort, I can watch the geyser show in relative solitude. I love lesser-known Castle Geyser, wreathed in mounds of snow and steam, with its white cone continually reformed by hot blobs of mud that erupt like burps. I stand for a while and listen: the geyser almost seems to breathe, as each exhalation adds another crust of ice to the silvery branches of overhanging trees.

I step gingerly toward a steaming, algae-and mineral-tinted pool, edged in hot pink and mustard yellow, with an aqua blue center (kind of like an alien eyeball). Then I remember stories of foolish tourists fallen into the pool and a horrible, boiling death. One wrong step off the snow-packed trail could lead to trouble, so I step carefully back to the snowy path and stick to it.

As I ski along the loop trail, I pass more small geysers and odd steaming formations before swinging around back to the trailhead. The Old Faithful Inn looms into view, shuttered for the season, yet still grand, it's dark wooden roofs and lacy balconies mantled in snow. I'm snapping out of my skis, ready to walk the rest of the way back to the Snow Lodge, when I catch a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Then, it moves.

Here, less that 50 yards from the side door to my lodge and 'civilization', is a furry, dark brown bison. I freeze. He seems almost as big as the snowcoach I rode in on, and certainly as terrifyingly powerful. His liquid brown eye, fringed in long lashes, locks with my eyes, as if in a game of who-blinks-first.

Then he snorts, and slowly crosses the trail in front of me and shuffles down into the basin, as I slowly exhale. Wild, man.

Details: It's a perfect time to plan a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park, a great family destination. The park service offers a handy trip-planner, click here. To book your lodging with the park concessionaire, Xanterra, click here. Or just watch the live geyser-cam showing you Old Faithful.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dining news from Yountville, Napa Valley

I love Yountville, California. It's close enough to San Francisco for a long weekend or even just a single exquisite daytrip. I've written about taking the Wine Train, about new lodging and the Mustard Festival, and about newest restaurant, Bottega. And now, my pal Kolleen emails me that the dining scene in Yountville is about to bubble over. In the next year, she notes, "Yountville expands its dining options from a simmer to a boil!" Here's what to look for:

-- Hotel Luca – The folks behind L’Auberge Carmel are set to open a 20-room luxury, Italian-style inn and restaurant sometime this fall. Like rustic, informal Italian dining? The inn's Luca Spa and Cantinetta Piero sounds like it will marry the best foods/styles of Italy and Napa Valley.
-- Vita –Laura Cunningham's new eatery is a Sicilian/southern Italian restaurant in the heart of Yountville that's named after her grandmother Vita Morrell. Remember, Ms. C. was the gal behind the service and key operations at Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se in New York, so Vita should be something special. Scheduled to open next year, it's got a great pedigree: the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group is driving operations.
--Gordon’s Wine Bar & Café – This is set to be the new, improved version of a much loved local fave. Opening date is flexible: 2009/2010 (but hey, they're renovating a 19th century building, which can be tricky, so cut 'em some slack). Sally Gordon is still part of the project, which will debut with 50 seats and a similar cuisine.
Details: Yountville is 55 miles north of San Francisco, via Highway 101; contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce at 707/944-0904.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Celebrate California's coast with Sunset Magazine

Today, Sunset Magazine, the guide to life in the West, is partnering with the California Coastal Commission to present the first-ever Coastal Heroes Awards. Honoring nine individuals whose 'dedication and hard work are protecting the California coast for future generations to love', the awards will be doled out at a ceremony held—fittingly— at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco.

You can read all about these heroes in Sunset's September Coastal Issue (on newsstands now). In a way, it's business as usual for this enviro-aware publication. "Sunset magazine has a long history of passionate concern for the California environment and the California coast," says Katie Tamony, Sunset's editor-in-chief. "Today, Sunset's environmental interests range from Western rivers to wise use of water and energy in home and garden, so we are always looking for ways to honor the people and organizations that are committed to championing these important causes."

And the Coastal Commission, established in 1972, was created expressly for the 'protection and enhancement' of the California coast.

The timing couldn't be better: this marks the 25th anniversary of the Coastal Commission's wildly popular Coastal Cleanup Day, slated for this weekend.

Details: To find out how to subscribe to Sunset, click here. To join the Coastal Cleanup, held on Saturday, September 19, click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Happy birthday to Big Basin State Park

One of our favorite parks, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, has a birthday coming up. On September 26, from 10 – 8, you can celebrate Big Basin Founders’ Day and Redwood Jubilee at Big Basin Redwoods State Park (nine miles outside of Boulder Creek on Highway 236). The visionaries, valued workers, and visitors that have shaped the character of Big Basin State Park over the past 107 years will be honored during this special event. So revel in the beauty of the majestic old growth redwoods and enjoy historic hikes, music, games for kids and a melodrama.

It's a good time to remember how much we value our state parks. State parks are under attack, with funding cuts threatening to close some 100 parks. For Californians who treasure the outdoors, the prospect of sacrificing parks to the state's budget woes is unthinkable. (The parks department has begun modest fee increases to help keep parks open, but the major funding still comes from the state budget.) According to the California State Parks Foundation, the list of parks threatened with closure is set to be released next week.

Meanwhile, there's no better time than now to celebrate the parks we love: go out this weekend and visit a state park near you, pay the modest day use/parking fee, and thank the ranger (or volunteer) who staffs the visitor center, and support the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation.

Details: Going to Big Basin: call 831/ 338-8883 or click here. Want to help stave off park closures? Click here for more info on how to take action.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of California State Parks, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeing, shooting Yosemite's fall color

Planning a fall visit to take in the glories of Yosemite National Park and the High Sierra? The coming months will bring sunny, crisp days, cool nights, and splashes of autumn color. Dogwood trees produce the park's most spectacular hues, turning shades of magenta or pink. An abundance of color, in clusters throughout the park, comes from yellow aspen, broadleaf maples, and cottonwoods; to tawny gold oaks.

And to make sure you really understand what you’re seeing, consider joining The Yosemite Association a nonprofit membership organization that provides opportunities for people to learn about and experience Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada.

Hit the Yosemite Association’s Outdoor Classroom, to gain a deeper understanding of the park’s natural, cultural, and historic story.

Or build your own Yosemite library from their top-notch selection of books, maps, DVDs. One of their most popular books combines artistry and functionality: The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite by Michael Frye (shown at right).

Whether you’re a novice or an expert, this comprehensive guide will help you capture the grandeur of Yosemite. You get an in-depth description of some 40 top photo locations, with tips for the best months and times of day; detailed maps of viewpoints; tips on technique and equipment; and for inspiration—an array of knockout Yosemite photographs.

Details: The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite ($9.95) by Michael Frye, is available through the Yosemite Association store. Click here. For lodging and dining ideas, check the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

San Francisco and chocolate: a match made in Heaven

I love mine dark and semi sweet. Chocolate, that is. So I've gotta love Ghirardelli Square this weekend. Just the aromas alone will drive a chocolate lover wild. Why? It's San Francisco's 14th Annual Chocolate Festival, running noon-5 Saturday and Sunday. It's a tribute to all things chocolate PLUS a benefit for Project Open Hand, so what's not to like?

You can see a host of chocolatiers, listen to live music, and taste something delish at each booth. Don't miss cooking demos (like the Ghirardelli Chocolate School's Steve Genzoli or Kara Lind of Kara's Cupcakes). Kids will go for the Ice Cream Sundae Eating Contest, at 2 p.m. daily. Or just buy some of the dark, semi-sweet stuff and take it home to whip up your own dessert-they have a bunch of recipes online.

Details: The festival is free, but tasting isn't: chocolate tasting tickets cost $20 for 15 tastes; pick them up at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. (I tried going online-fughedaboudit).

Friday, September 11, 2009

A new San Francisco getaway package

A 'small hotel' getaway that includes a fab dinner? Why didn’t I think of this? Joie de Vivre Hotels has an amazing collection of boutique hotels throughout California, each with a distinct style and personality. I recently enjoyed a stay at The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, so I’m intrigued by their Hotel Drisco in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights.

But what interests me most are their new stay-and-dine package deals, aka Epicurean Packages. Hotel guests can choose to book a meal with their stay, or more precisely, a three-course prix fixe menu with wine. The classic Drisco (built in 1903 and beautifully decorated and renovated) has partnered with four popular restaurants, each offering a different menu: Cassis, Garabaldis, 1300 Fillmore, and Yoshi's. All are just a short distance from the hotel.

Details: For example: the Package Provencale lets you dine at Garibaldi’s (available Sunday through Thursday evenings 5:30-8:00 p.m.). The Menu features a 3-course Prix Fixe Dinner, including a glass of wine with the first course, another with the Entrée and a glass of Port with the Dessert. The price of this Package, including tax and tip, is $180.00 for a couple.

[Note: Packages must be booked at least two days in advance; bookings not valid for same day arrival. There is a $25.00 cancellation charge per person for any cancellation within 72 hours of the arrival in addition to the room cancellation fees.]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fun pix for kids

A great egret wades in a lake near Karpavichi, Belarus; a cannibalistic praying mantis is shown in Los Angeles; an Australian crested pigeon is pictured, along with a note on the pigeons' secret way of alerting fellow birds to predators – a "whistle" emitted by flapping their wings when it takes off in alarm.

These are the photos you can see on an amazing website I discovered recently, that's a project of the Guardian newspaper, published in the United Kingdom. It struck me, as I scrolled through the pix, that this was a fabulous teaching tool for parents with little ones, anyone who is involved in home schooling, or anyone who loves animals.

Besides looking at pretty pictures, there are sections on Conservation & Wildlife, World News of animals, and Science & Zoology. There's also a series titled This week in wildlife.

Details: click here for the site. It's a free, fun "outing" to see critters, without leaving home.

Monday, September 7, 2009

New cottages outside Yosemite National Park

Just got back from a trip to Yosemite National Park last week. Despite some smoke from recent foothill fires (they're pretty much knocked down, now), I had a fab trip and found some new stuff. Just off Highway 41, and a mere 2 miles from Yosemite's southern entrance, I stumbled upon the Cottages at Tenaya.

Part of (and a five-minute walk from) the AAA Four Diamond-rated Tenaya Lodge, these pretty yellow cottages offer the benefits of a more secluded escape than the main lodge, but with access to Tenaya's signature amenities and services. If the 50-room property looks familiar, it should: it was once called the Apple Tree Inn. Tenaya recently acquired the property, dubbed it the Cottages at Tenaya, spiffed it up with fresh new decor and added some nice touches. So now you can have the best of both worlds: a peaceful cottage experience and all the big-resort luxuries (indoor/outdoor pools, spa, fitness center, upscale dining, concierge service) nearby.

Tucked into the pines, some of the cottages are split into two or three units, so you may have some neighbors, but chances are all you'll hear is the wind through the pines. Now that the busy summer season is past, you can find some great fall and winter package deals. One to check out this winter: the Spa Snow Day/ Girlfriend Getaways Package.

Picture a morning cross-country skiing at Badger Pass (set to celebrate its 75th ann'y next year), then getting a deep-tissue massage at the spa beforearriving back at your cheery yellow cottage with the fire going and deep snow outside. Or end your day at the Lodge's Embers with its signature Blue Flaming Coffees—a mini light show (the server creates it in front of you). Yeah, now that's a getaway.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You 'otter' go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Otters got it goin' on.

Cute, furry, and smart, they’re also among the most charismatic creatures around. They’re the Ashton Kutchers of the wild. And they're worth celebrating, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Hence: Otter Days, Saturday and Sunday, September 12-13. The weekend also marks the last chance to see the African spotted-necked otters and Asian small-clawed otters before the clsoing of the special exhibition, Wild about Otters, an exhibit covering five galleries and some 32 species.

The Otter Days weekend includes special programs, a family craft room, face painting and otter-related prizes (a chance for families to win behind-the-scenes tours of the Aquarium's sea otter exhibit). You'll also learn about efforts to save California's threatened southern sea otter population, from the Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program and staff of Defenders of Wildlife.

Details: Get Aquarim tickets in advance by clicking here. Can't go? Then visit virtually and play kids games by clicking here. Get lodging and dining info from the Monterey CVB.

PHOTO CREDIT: © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder

Thursday, August 27, 2009

White shark on display in Monterey

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has done it again. For the fifth time, the Aquarium has put a great white shark on display, giving visitors a chance to see this fearsome predator up close. The shark was collected August 12 near Malibu, California, and placed in the million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit on August 26.

The Aquarium's first shark was on display for 6 ½ months; the second, for 4 ½ months; third, for 5 months; and fourth, for 11 days. The happy ending: all were successfully returned to the wild. But you never know how long it'll be there. So grab the family (kids go bonkers for sharks) this weekend and take them to check this puppy out while its on display.

Details: Get Aquarium tickets in advance by clicking here. For info on lodging and dining in Monterey, contact the Monterey CVB.

CAPTION: Female juvenile white shark in the Outer Bay tank (above). The three-story living Kelp Forest (right), the centerpiece of the Oceans Edge galleries at the aquarium.

PHOTO CREDIT: shark photo: © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy White; Kelp tank: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More memories of Julia Child

I got a nice note from my pal Kathleen Iudice in the Napa Valley. As its marketing and media gal, Kathleen was a big part of COPIA's early success and as such, she had many lovely encounters with Julia Child. My post on my own memories of Julia Child spurred her thoughts as well. Here are her memories:

"I'm sure you've heard it before, but I must say that I don't know anybody who knew/met Julia Child that didn't adore her. I've met a lot of celebs, but she truly "took the cake." Despite her celebrity, Julia was a genuinely gracious and fun-loving person. She looked everyone in the eye and acknowledged their presence - from the person holding the door and the clerk in the store, to the adoring fans that swarmed her for autographs. A couple of friends drove Julia to her Santa Barbara home after a COPIA visit (she didn't like to fly at that point) and had the time of their lives. she regaled them with stories, and had them stop at an In-N-Out Burgers for one of her favorite meals: burger and fries (she once innocently requested a burger in *Julia's Kitchen, not knowing that they didn't have hamburger on premise, and Chef Mark Dommen cheerfully chopped up a steak and served it to her like "of course we have burgers!").

She was an Honorary Trustee of COPIA and lent her name to the *"dining room" - Julia's Kitchen (we couldn't call it a restaurant), which was a tremendous honor. When her Cambridge kitchen was dismantled, she kindly donated the pegboard, designed by her husband, with the copper pots to COPIA. These arrived prior to the month-long celebration of her 90th Birthday (August, 2002), which COPIA celebrated by offering special programs, tastings and events, including butter tastings, lemon meringue pie cooking demos, meals with oysters and foie gras, and, of course, plenty of bubbly. The festivities culminated in a grand weekend of events that she personally attended (in a wheelchair), including book signings, a public party and a black-tie dinner/fund-raiser. One of the COPIA chefs made Julia’s favorite cake, which I think was Le Marquis (chocolate spongecake), plus a cake sculpted in the form of a stove-oven, which sat on display near Julia's Kitchen for weeks. The Copper Cookware wall was officially unveiled at the black-tie event with her niece by her side, and it remained on display within the permanent exhibition, Forks in the Road, until it was finally moved to the “Library” area between Julia's Kitchen and the Café.

When COPIA closed, there was only one thing to do: reunite the cookware with Julia's Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian. It's a good thing."

Thanks Kathleen. And good luck with your current venture, the Napa Fresh Aire Festival, happening the last weekend of August:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tahoe's Wine and Food Fest really cooks

It's not just another food fest. The Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival always makes an effort to spotlight the latest culinary trends. This year, the September 11-13 gourmet gathering at the Village at Northstar in Truckee is focusing on Asian grilling techniques. Plan ahead to attend the fest and who knows, you may end up to be a better backyard barbecuer.

Your guide to the mysteries of grilling: Lars Kronmark of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. Kronmark, a regular at the 24th annual festival, says that the difference between Asian grilling (Yakitori) and grilling as Americans know it, is the focus on high heat, thin cuts, and marinades, similar to a skewering style. Kronmark recently returned from a chef tasting tour in Japan where he was inspired by the growing popular spin on grilling and small-bite dishes.

Yakitori – The Secret to Great Japanese Grilling is a free event at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival and takes place Saturday, September 12, at 11 a.m. And there are lots more freebie demos.

Details: Call 888/229-2193 or go to Some events are free (like the Gourmet Marketplace), others cost, because the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival is a fundraiser for the Community Fund of North Lake Tahoe through the 501c(3) Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation. My old pals at Sunset Magazine are a co-sponsor of the event.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Stay In LA steals my writing

A blog called My Stay In LA has repeatedly stolen from me. How? By ripping off my blog posts and using them on their own site, as if I were one of their writers. How can I stop them? Any ideas?

If you must, check it out at
And wouldn't it be funny if they stole this posting, too? They seem to like my weekend getaways, so that's how I'll tag this post. Stay tuned.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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