Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cool deals at Yosemite

How low can it go? At Yosemite National Park, a fun new deal spells it out. We're talking about midweek winter rates for an unheated cabin at scenic Curry Village, and the "Temp-RATE-ture" special: guests receive a reduced rate in an unheated tent cabin based on the previous night's recorded low. So if the temperature is 17 degrees, the guest pays $17 per night; if the Fahrenheit falls below zero, the guest is paid the difference to stay overnight. Now THAT's a deal!

“This is a really fun way to get that word out that the pristine winter season is a beautiful reason to visit Yosemite,” said Curry Village General Manager Brett Archer.
It'll cost $39 to book your reservation, and there are some blackout dates. Then, your rate will be determined by the previous night's low. Sure, it's bound to get cold, but bundle up and enjoy bargain rates for some of the world's best real estate—Curry Village in Yosemite Valley; your cabin will be below Glacier Point, with a spectacular view of Half Dome and easy access to valley hiking trails.

How cold will it get? Check it out yourself, using the model they'll use to figure your rates. The low temperature is determined based on the National Park Service data collected at http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/queryF?YYV (once there, click on the Daily YYV Data at the lower right).

Yosemite in winter can be truly magical: frozen Yosemite Falls, ice patterns on Half Dome's grey granite walls, and summer-shy wildlife venturing into meadows.

Details: Call the Yosemite Central Reservations at 801/559-4949 or click here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sonoma lodging deal with a twist

I love MacArthur Place, a luxurious 64-room hotel and spa a few blocks from Sonoma Plaza. With its garden spa, earth tone hues, and rustic/elegant cabana suites, it always feels like a mini Tuscan vacation. But I can’t always afford it. 

Right now, however, to coincide with the Olive Festival they’re offering an Olive Fest Package through February 12. The deal starts at $199 per night midweek or $249 per night on weekends and includes welcome martinis and $25 off an Olive Oil Body Polish at the Spa. Considering their regular rates start at $349/$399 weekends, it’s a fairly good deal. Call 800/ 722-1866  or click here.

For more lodging and dining info, contact the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. Oh, and, don't forget to ask for an olive in your martini.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Monterey weekend: Pt. Lobos and Julia Morgan

I am in the parking lot at Monterey's Point Lobos State Reserve, sitting in my car and watching fat raindrops pepper the windshield and wondering how long I should wait before giving up and heading home. I consult with pals Janet and Lee, and we decide to give it a few minutes and drive out to the trailhead, before heading home. Best decision we'll make all day.

By the time we pull into the parking lot on the bay edge, the rain has stopped, the sun is out and the winds have nudged the clouds aside to reveal a wedge of bright blue sky. That's winter along the windswept Monterey coast—pouring one minute, gloriously sunny the next, and always surprising.

I've come for a winter "fitness" hike and there are few more inspiring spots to walk than Point Lobos. Today, volunteer docent Stan Dryden is on hand to show us around on the Cypress Grove Trail (about 1-mile RT). We trek uphill into a grove of cypress, one of just three species of trees here. But it wasn't always this heavily forested, Dryden explains. "This was all grassland," he notes "and around 1900, it was subdivided and about to be developed." It's hard to imagine any spot this beautiful being lost forever to housing. As we pass the Allan Grove, Dryden tells us about A.M. Allan, who helped preserve Pt. Lobos and for whom the grove is named. It's an amazing legacy.
We pause at a rocky point (a good spot for whale watching, Dryden says). Beside cypress trees bent and sculpted by fierce winds, we gaze down at turquoise seas and granite rocks wrapped in white, foamy waves. Across Monterey Bay, we get sea-framed views of the Monterey peninsula.

Now the breeze is picking up, whipping the waves up pretty violently. Janet and Lee take out cameras to capture the drama of the frothy sea. The coastal views are amazing, but so is the quieter world here. I step back from the edge to scan the trees for delicate lace lichen and the granite rock faces for bluff lettuce, a ready-made bouquet of a plant that flows over the rock and clings to nooks. And then, just as I turn to head back, I'm surprised by the sight of a profusion of wild Douglas iris scattered alongside the trail, just ready to burst into bloom in another month or so. 

I head back to my lodge—the storied Asilomar Conference Grounds—and warm up in front of the giant fireplace in the main lodge. Founded in 1913 and boasting a host of buildings designed by acclaimed architect Julia Morgan (famed for her work on the iconic Hearst Castle), the center showcases the Arts & Crafts architectural style and seems the perfect fit for its natural surroundings. I join a ranger-led tour and we tramp through cozy loge buildings full of carefully thought out architectural details as well as fun stories from its early YWCA days (like the Stuck-ups Lodge, so named for the sometimes snooty college girls who worked here each summer). I'm surprised to learn there are more Julia Morgan buildings here in a cluster than any other place in the state.

As the day ends, I scan through my snapshots of Julia Morgan's architectural wonders (another legacy) and, at Point Lobos, the incredible sights I had almost given up on because of a few raindrops. I should know better. A winter day in Monterey is always full of surprises.

Point Lobos State Reserve is open 9—5; call 831/624-4909 or click hereAsilomar Conference Grounds has a range of room offerings, including bed, breakfast, and dinner packages starting at $159. My favorite rooms are in the Long View lodge (for the coastal views, of course). For info on packages, call 866/654-2878 or click here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration Day cocktail idea

Tomorrow's the day!
Okay, so you're going to drink the same bubbly that'll be served at the Inaugural and are ready to par-tay like the folks in DC (see Korbel Champagne Cellars post, Jan. 9). But you want to dress your drink up a bit (or, dare we say, make it a bit more healthy)? Try these festive champagne cocktails. 
Stars-and-Stripes (shown at right)
1 part Korbel Brut
1 part Cranberry Juice

Presidential Punch
3 oz Korbel Brut or Extra Dry
2 oz Lemonade
1 oz Blue Curacao 

Alan sends along another cocktail idea: "I think the Eggnogurlibation (pronounced "Egg-Nog-Your-Li-Ba-Tion) ought to be the official drink of the Inaguration. Make sure it is spiked, with whatever floats your boat."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

6 ways to save our environment

Just got some exciting news from the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA). The economic recovery package proposed by the House Democratic leadership today contains "$2.25 billion for job-creating, ready-to-go projects in America’s national parks", plus more for roads and transportation. The numbers are awesome: $1.7 billion for pre-approved construction projects, $100 million for the National Park Centennial Challenge public-private matching grant program, and $200 million for restoration of the National Mall. The NPCA says that these national park investments could create some 50,000 jobs and help parks and projects all over the country, including, possibly, California’s Death Valley National Park.

There's another interesting idea on the table: the creation of a new National Park Service Corps. You don’t have to have lived in the era of the 1930s’ CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to have enjoyed the lasting benefits of such public works programs can have on the improvement of our parks and natural resources. If you have visited a national park, chances are you’ve enjoyed a trail, road, stone bridge, or even a landmark hotel (like Oregon’s Timberline Lodge) that resulted from CCC work. Could we do something similar today, with a 21st Century CCC?

What can you do? Six clicks will help to learn more and lead your actions. Check out these websites: NPCA, Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, or click here. Or write a letter to the editor of your local paper using this link.

Inaugural party ideas

How to celebrate the big event with the kids? The Borders Bookstore in Palo Alto has a special party for kids (Sat. Jan. 17, 2 PM). Choose art activities, a scavenger hunt, games, and a special Oath of Office ceremony. It's at 456 University Ave.

My friend Mike, in Santa Cruz, sends this idea: 
Next Tuesday morning, most us us will jam into one living room for an "indoor block party." Our hosts, both of whom are internationally recognized experts in education, don't own a TV. Instead, they'll project a wall-sized show from the web using a digital projector. It's BYOCP (Bring Your Own Coffee and Pastries). The idea just hatched this morning. We're looking forward to a great morning for our neighborhood--and our country.
You go, Mike!

Free NorCal events on Jan. 20:
Berkeley: make a beeline for UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza at 7:30 AM to watch the event on their giant screen (fitting, since a UC Berkeley economist is set for a major role in the Obama administration).
Oakland: Oracle Arena serves up a big community bash ($5), complete with big screen TVs, starting at 7:00 AM.
San Jose: the San Jose Mercury News listed a raft of Inaugural events in the South Bay. For a list, click on their link.
San Francisco: hop on BART to the Civic Center stop and head for the plaza (Grove and McAllister streets) for a live simulcast on several screens. And while you're there, pop into the Asian Art Museum nearby.

A number of libraries are also hosting Inauguration-watching events (check locally) including the Burlingame Public Library, 480 Primrose Rd.,which starts its big-screen showing at 8 AM in the Lane Community Room. For more events, check out InsideBayArea.com. Celebrate responsibly.

Have a party idea to share? Post a comment with your ideas.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2 cool places in Tahoe for teens

The Tahoe weather report is in: blue skies and plenty of snow on the slopes are predicted for the long holiday weekend. Which means, of course, that you'll have to plan ahead and get to the slopes early (MLK weekend is usually a breakout weekend for ski resorts here). 

Got teens? Head for Squaw Valley (at left); with 4000 acres of fun and a noted freeride culture, there's plenty for them to do. Check into the special Ski & Snowboard Camp for Teens, ages 13-18 years (Jan. 17-19). The camp is geared for intermediate to advanced skiers and riders. And don't forget the Riviera Superpipe—Squaw Valley’s night-accessed pipe, open Friday through Sunday until 9 pm, and until 7 pm on weekdays. It's an awe-inspiring 435 feet long, with 18 1/2-foot walls. Photo credit: Squaw Valley; Tom O'Neill.

Or just let the kids rock out, literally, at Incline Village’s grand opening of High Altitude Fitness (formerly Incline Athletic Club). On Friday and Saturday (Jan. 16 -17), they can chill with presentations by world famous climbers –like free climber Lynn Hill and free soloist John Bachar – enjoy entertainment, appetizers, and raffle prizes, or just, well, hang. 

For updated ski conditions, go to www.gotahoenorth.com/events-and-activities/winter/snow-report.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Golden treasures at SF's Asian Art Museum

Who says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? I say, go for the gold. That’s why I’m at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the only West Coast stop for Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (through Jan. 25).

Graphics help tell the story of how these amazing 238 artifacts—long thought stolen or destroyed—were rediscovered and saved, along with brief sketches of the history of Afghanistan (which has Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Siberian influences). Maps, drawings, and a neat digital display of one of the early cities weave the country’s history into the archeological digs which saved these priceless treasures.

The carved ivory, delicate painted glassware, and mysterious bronze discs are magnificent. And the opening National Geographic video, narrated by the author of The Kite Runner, (Khaled Hosseini), sets up the show nicely.

But, at the risk of sounding shallow, let’s face it—I am dazzled by all the bling. Gold necklaces, gold earrings, gold bracelets, a massive golden belt, and an awesome crown—all shine in spotlit cases. And it seems my friends also have a touch of gold fever.

“You can tell its pure gold,” says my friend Francoise, “its so yellow and soft looking.”

“The jewelry looks so contemporary,” notes JoAnn. “I feel like I’m window shopping.”

“It’s a treasure trove,” says Linda.

We spend most of the day at the show (and, okay, at the Asian Art Museum's amazing gift shop), before walking up Larkin Street to a little Vitenamese restaurant, oddly named Bodega Bistro. Over steamy, hot bowls of pho, we can't stop talking about the golden treasures of Afghanistan.

Details: The show is free with museum admission ($12/$8 seniors/$7 ages 13-17). Hurry—the show closes in a little over two weeks. Call 415/ 581-3500 or click on www.asianart.org

PHOTO: One of a pair of pendants depicting the "Dragon Master" (Tillya Tepe, Tomb II) 1st century BCE. Photo by National Museum of Afghanistan,©Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Obama's Inaugural bubbly

I'll have what he's having.
If you can't attend the Presidential Inaugural but want to feel like you're there, now you know what to toast the new president with. I just got word —it's now official (and as I hinted at in my earlier post). On January 20th, Korbel Russian River Valley Natural Champagne will be served at the Inaugural Luncheon (immediately following the Swearing-In Ceremony) and raised in toasts to the new Obama administration. 

This will be the seventh Presidential Inauguration in which Korbel Champagne Cellars has been selected for this honor—from the 1985 Ronald Reagan inauguration through the inaugurations of George Bush, two for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush twice, and now Barack Obama.

This one may be the most historic event yet.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

How to get reservations at Napa Valley's French Laundry

After my earlier story on Yountville's Michelin-starred restaurants (see below), I heard a few more insider tips on booking a table at one of the Napa Valley's (and California’s) most famous and honored restaurants. The nice folks at Yountville's The French Laundry, shown at right (photo by Deborah Jones) sent me a follow-up note. Kristine Keefer, of the French Laundry’s team, offers some help on booking a table at this famous (and famously busy) landmark.

First, know that they only book two months out. “We do release several tables to opentable.com to help guests from overseas and other time zones to make a reservation without having to wait for 10 AM pacific time to do so,” Keefer notes. 

She adds that, if a caller does not get in initially, you should have your name added to the waitlist and leave the best number to reach you while traveling. “We get cancellations all the time—from cancelled flights to changes in plans,” she says, “and this way, if we get a last minute cancellation, our reservationists will be able to reach you immediately.”

Finally, Keefer recommends checking cancellations/availabilities WITHIN the two-month window and to call and make these inquiries later in the day when the phone lines are lighter. “That way, our reservationists will be able to spend more time with you to search for available tables,” she says.

Thanks, Kristine. You’ve given us all hope!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Let the corks pop for Obama's Presidential Inauguration

Champagne is made to celebrate life’s big events and there is no bigger American event this January than the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama (Jan. 20). But what drink should you use to toast the event (or this coming New Year's)? Try one champagne that’s been featured in each of the six past Presidential Inaugurations (since 1985’s Reagan Inaugural): Sonoma County’s own Korbel. 

At the past six inaugurations, Korbel Russian River Valley Natural Champagne  has been served at the Congressional luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony at the capitol and at later balls and galas surrounding the inauguration. At our press time, Korbel Vineyards is waiting to hear if Korbel will continue its streak and be served at the Obama Inaugural (the official announcement comes next week). If the brand is so honored, their champagne bottles will wear a presidential inaugural seal on their foil neckbands (see photo of a past inaugural bottle).

Established in 1882, Korbel Champagne Cellars is one of Sonoma County’s most venerable institutions. Not surprisingly, Korbel is one of the top-selling premium methode champenoise-produced champagnes in America. This methode (the traditional French way of making champagne) is the process that the company has used for its more than 120 years of champagne making. It’s time consuming, but turns out the best bubbly (and the tiniest bubbles-the mark of a good sparkling wine). 

So if you're planning your own inaugural bash, you might pick up a bottle of one drink our next president may be toasted with: Korbel Russian River Valley Natural Champagne ($14.99 suggested retail); it’s sold at major chains. 

Or better yet, pay a visit to Korbel Vineyards' Russian River Valley site. Take a tour, learn the story of the founding family, and taste the latest vintages (including their still wines, most of which are sold nowhere else). Tours are given hourly from 10-3 in winter (more often in summer). They’re on 13250 River Road in Guerneville; 707/824-7000. For more travel info, go to Sonoma County Tourism.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In Napa Valley's Yountville: star restaurants (and a hot tip)

Okay, here's a quiz: in which California town have restaurants been awarded more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else on the planet? Sophisticated San Francisco? Nope. Chi-chi LA? Nah. Try tiny Yountville, pop. 3290, in the heart of the Napa Valley.

I remember visiting Yountville years ago (as a kid); it was a sleepy little burg where the best meal available was at a diner. Thank goodness those days are gone. Yountville is still a pretty quiet, laid-back place, but now they're calling it an "epicurean enclave". And why not: the dining scene is something foodies travel from across the globe to experience.

That's because highly-prized Michelin stars have just been announced for the French Laundry (3 stars), Bouchon (1), Bistro Jeanty (1) and Redd (1). The famous French Laundry books up so far ahead, it's practically an impossible dream unless your name is Brad or Angelina. One insider's secret: book a room 2 or more months ahead at Napa's Meadowood Resort, and at booking time, ask their concierge to reserve your table at French Laundry; you'll likely get one of the toughest tables in town—and you'll surely enjoy staying at the comfy-chic Meadowood. 

The other 'starred' restaurants on this list are no longer secrets and can also be pretty tough to get in to. Your best shot: reserve a midweek night in winter—like right now—or try lunch. 

However, if your name isn't Brangelina and you're locked out of those hotspots, fear not. You'll soon have more Yountville dining choices than ever, with five new (or revamped) restaurants. Just last month saw the opening of Bottega, serving farm-to-table style Italian cuisine in the historic Groezinger Winery and helmed by the Food Network's Michael Chiarello. 

In February, Bardessono is slated to debut with Sean O'Toole of the Mina Group set to be executive chef in the 62-room inn, spa, and restaurant complex. Said to be "environmentally inspired", the restaurant will include a teaching/display kitchen and wine concierge parlor. Oh, and a fire fountain (as Paris Hilton would say, it sounds hot).

Set for fall openings: Hotel Luca, a 20-room luxury hotel and 90-seat restaurant, backed by the folks who are behind Auberge Carmel and the Cantinetta Luca in Carmel. Another eatery set to open in fall is Vita, with a southern Italian food. And Gordon's Wine Bar and Cafe is under renovation, set to debut later this year.

For more information and travel inquiries, contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce at 707.944.0904 or www.yountville.com. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Calistoga launches a month of wellness

It always feels good to hang out in Calistoga, that laid-back little town in the Napa Valley. This month, there's new reason to visit: its first-ever Wellness Month, kicking off January 10-11, with a festival and lots of activities to help you get or stay healthy. 

The event is a good fit for the town that wellness built: visitors have been taking the waters at Calistoga's natural hot springs since the Native Americans discovered them. Throughout the month, lots of spas will feature discounted treatments and specials on spa packages, plus fun exercise classes and meditation sessions. And you can join bike rides and guided hikes that run right past all that pretty, wine-country scenery. 

Okay, its January and the weather is likely to be chilly or damp, but who cares when you get to take a nice, hot soak in a natural hot springs pool at the end of the day?

On Saturday, Jan. 10 at 9:30 there's a stretch and 5K/10K Run and Walk (Calistoga High School, 1608 Lake St.). Experienced hikers should head for Wildlake Ranch and a half-day hike hosted by the Land Trust of Napa County; book a space on the hike by clicking here.

On Sunday, the city-wide Wellness Festival spreads out over the city, with open houses at spas, restaurants, and even biodynamic wineries. For free health screenings, healthy eating demos, exercise classes and more head for the Calistoga Chamber from 1-5. At other venues, sit in on stress reduction seminars (who doesn't need THAT these days?), or chill out with a bike/wine tour.

Later weekends in the month will see more wellness events, from bike tours to hikes. The last weekend, Jan. 24-25 will see discount rates for services at almost all the major spas: Calistoga Massage Center, Baths at Roman Spa, Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, Eurospa, Fitness First, Golden Haven, Harbin Hot Springs, Lavender Hill Spa, Mt. View Hotel and Spa, and The Craftsman Inn (including cooking classes).

For a complete list of the month's activities and participating businesses, go to CalistogaVisitors.com/events, or call the Calistoga Chamber & Visitors Center at 707-942-6333.  The Wellness Festival is sponsored by Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort and St. Helena Hospital.

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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