Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Sonoma Coast tasting room

Looking for a new place to taste the vintages of some of Sonoma County's smaller wineries? Make a daytrip to the new Sonoma Coast Tasting Room at Timber Cove Inn; it showcases local boutique wines on weekends (including three-day holiday weekends) from mid-April through October, open noon to 5.

Here's how it works: each weekend, a different local winery will be featured, with pourings by a winery representative who will be available to answer questions. Tasting room visitors can enjoy four 2-oz. tastings of wine (cost: $15-$20), with the option of a four-course cheese pairing for $10.

The entire tasting room collection of Sonoma Coast wines will be available for purchase. Corkage will be free for guests that purchase a bottle of wine to accompany their dinner at the Timber Cove's restaurant, Alexander's (which now has a new executive chef, Jon Mortimer,
nominated for the prestigious James Beard 2008 Best Restaurant/Northwest award).

Guests can sign up for local winery newsletters and clubs. Shipping from the Timber Cove Inn can be arranged for those who wish to send wine home.

the Timber Cove Inn is at 21780 North Coast Hwy 1, Timber Cove; 707/ 847-3231 or click here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Passport to spring in Sonoma's Dry Creek wine valley

In a short note to me this morning, my friend Elaine wrote all about her garden in the south San Francisco Bay Area. It sounds lovely, with roses bursting into bloom and the promise of sunflowers, tomatoes, and homegrown corn to come. She concludes: "Springtime in Northern California is something else, isn't it?"

She's absolutely right. I was up in Sonoma County's Healdsburg this past weekend, with my foodie friend Linda, and came to the exact same conclusion. Springtime here is something else. We were lucky enough to go to the annual Dry Creek Wineries Passport event; it's really an 'open sesame' to fabulous wine and food at 54 wineries all over this lovely little valley. And just to clarify, the Dry Creek Valley sits outside Healdsburg (just north of Santa Rosa), at the northern end of Sonoma County. From San Francisco, the valley is about a two-hour drive north on U.S. 101.

The weekend's impressions from my wine-splashed notebook:

Man, everyone is having a blast--it is one big moveable feast. And the food is sublime. The Dry Creek Passport has been called one of the first of these mass open-house type Passport events, and it has to be one of the best (although, full disclosure, I've never been to the one in Amador or the Santa Cruz Mountains). You get really top-notch food from chefs like Charlie Palmer of the Dry Creek Kitchen to BBQ Bob (I watch him roast a whole pig on a giant spit) preparing the food. Each winery offers something different food-wise, and some even have themes, from a circus (complete with performers) to a Mardi Gras.

Linda and I both get lots of recipe and party ideas. And of course, we buy a few bottles of vine: the wineries are pouring the good stuff and some is only available here at the wineries.

Some standouts: Alderbrook, with roasted pork sliders and three types of Zinfandel; Ridge Winery, for paella and outstanding Lytton Estate Syrahs; Mauritson Wines, with the Sauvignon Blanc with a taste of exquisite Togaroshi crusted fried Tomales Bay oysters, then the fantastic 2006 Rockpile Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel (one of Linda's faves). The gardens at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery are in their full glory (shown above), and I detour from the tasty Eldorado Gold (a Sauternes-style dessert wine, blend of 76% Semillion and 24% Sauvignon Blanc) to take a quick turn in the garden and snap some pix. Bella, with its circus performers and hilltops views.

One of the nicest surprises is Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate, tucked high on a side road in a lovely, Mission-style manse, complete with Moorish-style window, belltower, and courtyard fountain. Here, we get the idea for a unique party dessert: a snow cone, topped with Syrah syrup and drizzled with a mole-like (Mo-lay) sauce: simple, refreshing, and divine! And Dutcher Crossing Winery , whose cutting-edge winemaker is Kerry Damsky, with it's distinctive style; I love the elegant, claret-style Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Linda notices how much organic and biodynamic winemaking is going on here, especially at smaller wineries like Truett Hurst and Unti Vineyards, a small producer of Italian-style varietals. And Quivira Estate Vineyards and Winery has practically taken over the front 'yard' with raised beds filled with veggies, flowers, and the like. We pass one winery that even sells fresh eggs.

Thing is, these are all small-lot, artisan-made wines and all family owned (with one exception, Ridge). I'm planning to come back on a normal weekend (not busy Passport Weekend), when I know visitors get the chance of face time with the winemaker. But, ah, to be in California's Dry Creek Valley now that spring (and Passport Weekend) is here!

Details: For the dates of next year's Dry Creek Passport Weekend ($120 for two days, $70 Sunday only), check with the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley at Or, since spring has just begun, create your own Dry Creek weekend wine tour. Check with the Sonoma Wine Country tourism bureau for lodging and dining suggestions.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mai Tais and memories in a San Francisco institution

If you grew up in the Bay Area, you’ve probably been to The Fairmont’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, in San Francisco. Their Mai Tais are legendary, and the Pacific Rim Asian cuisine isn't bad. But its really the unforgettable (and somewhat campy) atmosphere that everyone goes for: a faux-tropics setting complete with rainstorms, thunder, and lightning. The place is one of the earliest 'Polynesian palace' bars (dating to the 1940s and designed by a Hollywood set decorator).

A live band performs on a floating stage on an indoor lagoon. And it was green before that was a political statement: the dance floor is made of wood reclaimed from an old schooner.
We've heard rumors that this tiki torch haven may be closed, as the hotel owners are considering a condo conversion that would edge out the tropical wonder (we're waiting to hear back from the company). In any case, you should probably check it out while you still can. Try to go for Thursday and Friday night’s Happy Hour buffet (mini shiitake eggrolls, chicken wontons with chili sauce, Kalua pork garlic noodles, and more); at $9.50 plus one-drink minimum for the all-you-can-eat extravaganza, the price isn’t bad. It’s one of those institutions that everyone has a memory of (my Mom remembers dropping in after a day of shopping along Union Square).

Details: At 950 Mason St., atop Nob Hill. Click here.

Have a Tonga Room memory? Tell us, by leaving a comment.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New way to the Napa Valley

New shuttle links San Francisco to the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley Wine Train and Platypus Tours have teamed up to offer a fast and easy way to travel from San Francisco to Napa Valley. The new, direct shuttle service creates an express link from the San Francisco ferry to downtown Napa; one round-trip a day runs between the Vallejo Ferry Terminal and the Napa Valley Wine Train station.

How it works: You depart from San Francisco's Ferry Building in the morning, take a ferry cruise into the Richmond and San Pablo Bays ending in Vallejo (BayLink buses and ferries leave San Francisco at 8:10 every morning). From the Vallejo Terminal, you catch the special shuttle to the Napa Valley Wine Train Station in downtown Napa (it's pretty centrally located). You arrive in downtown Napa by 9:30 AM. From there, you have lots of options, but of course, you have to include a trip on the wine train.

Details: You could take the Napa Valley Wine Train's lunch or winery tour package (departs daily at 10:30 am for lunch and winery tours, returning to the station at 2:30). Then take the rest of the afternoon to do some wine tasting, or shopping. Shuttle passengers have one hour in the morning and two hours in the afternoon to explore before getting back to the station to hop on the return bus at 4:30 PM to get back to the Vallejo ferry. That's enough time to walk to see Oxbow Public Market, the Hatt Building and some downtown Napa shops. Two bonuses: no traffic hassles, and no need for a designated driver.

Costs: Round-trip ferry prices range up to $26; buy tickets at the Ferry Terminal. Shuttle service costs $15 round-trip and is added to the price of your Wine Train package (for example, a ride on the Silverado Car costs $49.50 (lunch extra), plus $15 for the shuttle from the ferry). Platypus Tours runs the shuttle, but reservations are made by calling the Wine Train 24-hours in advance of your trip: 800/ 427-4124; visit

Photo credit: Trenton McManus.

Monday, April 20, 2009

New California mission exhibits in Southern California

La Purísima Mission State Historic Park (SHP), near Lompoc, is one of the best restored and best interpreted missions in the entire California chain of 21 historic churches. And soon it will be even better. Six years in the making, new life-size figures and historical displays will go into the recently-upgraded museum at La Purísima Mission, in one of the most extensive exhibit projects ever undertaken by California State Parks. The 14 new exhibits are set to open for the first time on Saturday, April 25th in the Visitor Center at La Purísima Mission SHP.

Some exhibits interpret the early days before the mission, when the land was occupied by the Chumash people (see image of mural, right). Several tell the mission period story. Another describes the revival of interest in California missions in the late 1800s—early1900s and led to the 1934 decision to restore La Purísima Mission. It became the largest restoration project ever done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in California.
An opening ceremony will be held from 1 to 2 PM, after which the exhibits will be open to the public. The ceremony will also commemorate the restoration of the mission by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Call 805/733-3713 or click here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cool California hotel weekend deal

When times are tough, nothing beats a free weekend trip. That's why this announcement intrigued me: "This Memorial Day, Joie de Vivre – California’s largest boutique hotel collection – will kick off summer by giving away 25 Explore California Passports each valued at more than $17,000. Every one of the 25 no-strings-attached Explore California Passports features a two-night stay at each of Joie de Vivre’s 35 hotels (70 room nights), with two-year validity, transferability to friends and family, and no blackout dates."

What's a Joie de Vivre hotel? Well, it ranges from the
family-friendly Americania Hotel in San Francisco to the hip Hotel Angeleno in Los Angeles and the sexy-surfer-chic Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach. Of course, to win, you do have to register at their website.

Sign up between April 16 and May 20, 2009 on You'll receive a free tip sheet featuring 100 affordable things to do in California and a $25 credit for each room night booked on The 25 sweepstakes winners will be announced via a video posted to the website on Monday, May 25, 2009.

Monday, April 13, 2009

San Francisco treat: tulips in Golden Gate Park

I've always meant to make a spring pilgrimage to visit the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Last week, I finally made the trek and I'm so glad I did. At the far west end of John F. Kennedy Drive and wedged into a corner of the city's big, oblong park, this little gem is pretty enough to be a park all by itself.

Laid out before a tall, Dutch-style windmill, this garden was named in 1962 for the late queen of the Netherlands (a fascinating, fiesty, and complex lady). The windmill once worked—it pumped irrigation water into a reservoir on Strawberry Hill, inside the park—but now serves mostly as a postcard-pretty backdrop for visitors snapping pix of the flowers (like me). But the real stars are the wide variety of tulips and other annuals (including Icelandic poppies). They were still at their peak when I snapped my pix, but go soon—the show is an ephemeral beauty, and can disappear with the next rainstorm.

Details: In San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden is open, free, on John F. Kennedy Drive near the intersection with the Great Highway. Bring a picnic and make it a totally free day. Or, since you're out at that end of the park, pop into the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant for a pint of their California Kind (amber) or Fleishhacker Stout handcrafted beers and a pile of garlic fries and wild Dungeness crab cakes. Yum.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Celebrate Earth Day in Yosemite

I can't imagine a better setting to convey the meaning and message of Earth Day than Yosemite National Park. So it's fitting that the park will celebrate the occasion with four days of special events geared to educate/ enlighten us all about environmental best practices, eco-friendly products and display nature exhibits and interpretive programs.

There will be a raft of events geared to children, from a
Childrens' tent and a Family Walk (Sat. Ap. 18) to a Pedal, Play and Protect Bike Ride (Wed. Ap. 22). And some photo walks that show how Ansel Adams captured some of his most famous images. But don't forget to leave time to hike to a spring-gushing waterfall.

More highlights:

Friday, April 17th

7:00—8:30pm, Earth Day Family Night (Join Park interpreters and educators for an evening of song, entertainment and fun at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls Amphitheatre/Garden Terrace if weather is inclement.)

Saturday, April 18:

10:30 AM-2 PM Yosemite Village Mall Celebration. Wander between the Village Store and the Visitor Center to learn more about the NPS "Do Your Part Parks" program and how the changing climate is affecting the management of Yosemite's natural resources. Get the dirt on the park's geologic and hydrologic features and see how the park is implementing sustainability practices; check out hybrid vehicles and more from Yosemite Institute, Yosemite Association, and DNC’s “GreenPath” efforts.

Children’s Tent: Stop in at the kid's booth for easy kid and earth friendly crafts & face painting.

Earth-Friendly Product Faire, Sustainable/organic products; visit with vendors and receive free samples.

Details: Book your lodging early for this jam-packed week of enviro-fun. For a full schedule of Yosemite’s 2009 Earth Day activities, call 209/372-1445. For information on lodging, reservations and other park activities, contact 801/559-4949 or go online at

Friday, April 10, 2009

Saddle up with sea horses: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Tiny, graceful, and big-eyed, sea horses are charismatic and, well, cool. What other animal has a belly pouch like a kangaroo, head like a horse, a prehensile tail like a monkey, and can change colors like a chameleon?

They're pretty complex, which may be why sea horses remain so mysterious. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Secret Lives of Seahorses aims to unveil some of the mysteries of these cute creatures. You'll see 15 species of sea horses, pipefish, and pipehorses. And check out their mating rituals: intertwining tails, showing bright colors, and twirling about. And THEN, the males give birth. Talk about some impressive guys!

This is the first weekend of the exhibit, and it's a great excuse for a Monterey getaway. After seeing the sea horses by the seashore (we couldn't resist), take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Aquarium, then roam the wharf, hop on the bike path out to Lover's Point, or just wave-watch as you sip a latte at an ocean-front cafe. Hey, you may not be tiny, graceful, and big-eyed, but you deserve a break, too, right?

Details: The Sea Horse exhibit runs now through 2012. Monterey Bay Aquarium is open daily 10-6 on Cannery Row; entry (includes the Sea Horse exhibit; behind-the-scenes tour is extra): $29.95, $27,95 senior and student, $17.95 ages 3-12. For lodging and dining info, visit the Monterey County CVB website.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A deal in Death Valley

This news just in:

Death Valley National Park

The Furnace Creek Ranch will offer the “Stay & Play” Package featuring one day of unlimited golf on the world’s lowest golf course at 214 feet below sea level, overnight accommodations, golf cart and club storage. From May 10 through Oct. 8, 2009, rates for this package are $140 for two people based on double occupancy in a standard room. Rates do not include applicable tax. This package may not be combined with other offers; some restrictions and blackout dates apply. To make book, call toll free at 1-800-236-7916 or 1-303-297-2757 or go to and use the promo code “GOLF.”

Ed. note: remember that summer heat means you'll have to play early or v. late in the day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wine tasting in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley

I'd never heard of the Dry Creek Valley until a few years ago, when I tasted a killer zin in a restaurant in Healdsburg, where I was weekending after an especially tough week at the office. I asked where the wine was from, and the next day I was driving the winding backroads of the Dry Creek Valley. It began a real love affair with this exceptionally beautiful, and small, region in northern Sonoma County (check out this map).

Passport to Dry Creek Valley (April 25 & 26,) is a good way to get to know this fine appellation quickly. It's an annual event showcasing some 45 of the 62 wineries and 150 vineyards of Dry Creek Valley. Special weekend events along the Passport route include the usual suspects: food, entertainment, and tastings. And some decidedly different activities; you can wander sculpture gardens, play bocce ball, watch tight rope walkers (because, well, they're there), take vineyard tours and sip barrel samples. Four wineries are opening their vineyards with special tours, discussions and tastings; Saturday: Hawley Winery or Puccioni Ranch; Sunday: Montemaggiore or Sandhu Vineyards.

It's a rustic valley producing some absolutely elegant wines, and you're sure to fall in love with the place, as I have.

Details: April 25 & 26 from 11-4:30; Saturday and Sunday Event Tickets: $120.00 each, including tax, for a 2-day Passport. Plan ahead-there are a limited number of passport tickets. A complete participating winery list can be found by clicking here. Call 707/433-3031 or go online.

Why not make it a three-day weekend? For lodging and dining info, visit the Sonoma Country site. And for more activities, click here.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Near Yosemite, a Sierra wildflower hotspot

"Where is this hike, again?" my sister Mary Kay asks, as we wind along State Highway 140, climbing east from California's Central Valley. She's not whining (in fact, she's been pretty quiet since we left the In 'n Out Burger in Merced); it's just that there's nothing that looks like a hiking trail anywhere around. "I'm thinking it's just around the next bend," I assure her. "And once you see it, you'll forget the drive up."

Finally, we see the landmark (the closed Savage's Trading Post), park in a wide pullout across the street, and know that we've arrived: Hite Cove Trailhead. At Yosemite National Park’s front door, just 21 miles from Mariposa, or 8 miles west of El Portal, the Hite Cove Trail travels through the Mariposa County foothills and one of the best, most abundant wildflower displays—both showy and accessible.

This easy-to-moderate trail puts on one of the earliest of the big bloom shows in the Sierras. Right now, the poppies are out in a real orange-crush profusion (check them out on the Mariposa County Tourism website--better pix than we have).

We park (make sure you're in a legal spot) and head for the trailhead sign on the south side of the highway in the Merced River Canyon. Angling high above the meeting of the South and North forks of the lazy Merced River, the trail produces a bouquet of deep azure lupine right away, and out comes my camera. "Okay, Mary Kay," I command, "stand by the lupine and look like you're enjoying the floral scent." She complies, then informs me that lupine doesn't have a scent. "Oh well, nobody knows that," I reason, "and anyway, it'll make a good picture." (She still kids me about that one.)

It's midweek, so we have the trail almost to ourselves. Which means we can mosey along, hiking, taking pictures, and then pausing for a picnic atop a flat rock outcrop that gives us an inspiring view of the river below and a bundle of fairy lanterns nearby. It's sunny and warm, but a nice breeze is coming off the water, ruffling the field of poppies. My sister and I are just sitting here quietly; I take a mental snapshop. Click. This is a picture I'll remember for years to come.

Details: Dozens of flower varieties are already in gorgeous bloom in this high river gorge (Yosemite's higher wildflower flower meadows are still underneath snow). Oh, and the poison oak is out, too. It's an easy/moderate, 4.5-mile out-and-back hike to Hite Cove and back; not everyone goes the full distance, since right away you get to see hillsides blanketed by lupines, poppies, and almost 60 other wildflowers.

Peak time to visit: March through mid-May (it can be busy on weekends). Where: Off Hwy 140, 7 miles west of El Portal. Make hiking (or just Sierra wildflowers) the focus of a weekend getaway; for lodging and dining ideas, check the Mariposa County Tourism website. For more vacation ideas, roam around the California Tourism website.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Death Valley for pre- or post- spring break

My friend Mona writes to me about a different way to consider national parks: “Think of them as the original theme parks. Most people know that when it comes to education, inspiration and value, nothing beats a vacation in a U.S. national park," writes Mona. "What’s not as well-known, however, is that a variety of thrilling adventures are also available in national parks.”

Okay, I'll buy that concept. And when it comes to history and adventure, it’s tough to beat California's Death Valley National Park. Mona suggests hiking explorers’ trails in Death Valley : “With the ruts from wagons still visible, today’s guests can follow the trails made by explorers searching for a shortcut to gold in the 1840s. Breathtaking scenery surrounds hikers as they travel to the Harmony Borax Works, Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon and sand dunes. Celebrating its 15th year as a national park this year, Death Valley features the lowest point in the Americas at Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, and high alpine vistas of Telescope Peak at an elevation of 11,043 feet. Spectacular road and mountain biking adventures also abound.”

Thanks Mona, you’ve “peaked” (sic) my interest. This is a good time to plan a quick Death Valley adventure. I love the place (that's me, bundled up for a chilly dawn atop Zabriskie Point, above). But go now, before the hordes descend for Easter break, or go right after, while warm (not hot) spring weather still prevails.

Details: The best (and most convenient) lodging is at Xanterra Parks & Resorts' Furnace Creek Inn. For more information about Xanterra Parks & Resorts and online reservations visit For lodge reservations and more information about Death Valley (or Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, or Crater Lake), call 303/297-2757 or 888/297-2757.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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