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 ├ętoile 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

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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