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
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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