Friday, May 29, 2009

New threat to California camping: budget cuts?

I'm planning to hit the road this summer with my Coleman stove, REI tent, and a flannel sleeping bag so well used the label has torn off. Camping in the redwoods maybe, or by a pine-fringed lake.

THEN, I just saw a Twitter report on that says that California's budget woes could mean "closing down 220 state parks, including scenic attractions that draw millions of visitors." Yikes! That could be a disaster for family camping vacations (though a park spokesperson admitted that the plan is a "worst case scenario").

Still, I'm going. My plans are inspired by Sunset Magazine's May issue and its epic story on the West's best camping spots (plus, full disclosure, I helped a little bit with the story). So where can we happy campers and our families go?

For a list of 94 Cailfornia state parks that allow camping, like Jedediah Smith Redwoods (shown above), and take reservations, click here. Several of my fave parks show up on the supposed hit list, including Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, along with non-camping parks like Will Rogers' Southern California ranch and Bodie State Historic Park (which is a beautifully preserved ghost town and a photographer's dream-shown at right; no camping here). Best advice? Call your park and check before setting out.

Details: For complete camping info in the state parks, call 800-444-PARK (7275) or click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Both Courtesy of California State Parks, 2009.

Dining deals in San Jose

San Jose's downtown is quickly emerging as a major player on the Bay Area dining scene, with first rate fare from hot chefs like Michael Mina at Arcadia Modern American Steakhouse and fresh, jazzy newcomers like Gumbo Jumbo Cajun Fusion and Habana Cuba Restaurant.

This month there's added incentive to visit this sizzling scene: the DINE DOWNTOWN deals. From June 3-13, extraordinary prix fixe menus at more than 25 of the best restaurants during the first-ever DINE DOWNTOWN event. Three-course dinners go for $20, $30, or $40.

Get a flavor of the food diversity on June 3 with $3-or-less sampler plates at the City Bites Kick Off Sampler Event. The week is packed with promotions and specially crafted menus that showcase each restaurant's unique flavor and flare. It's an easy way to get a real taste of what downtown San Jose has to offer. Want to stay and play awhile? During Dine Downtown, check out deals at various hotels.

Details: For information or reservations, menus and a list of participating restaurants, click here. For lodging and attractions, click here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wildflowers and railroads in Suisun, California

A visit to the Western Railway Museum is like stepping into some 1930s American city: a place where streetcars and interurban electric trains not only still run, but they're thronged with riders. That's because this is home to one of the most extensive collections of authentic historic streetcars and interurban electric trains in the U.S.

You can easily spend the better part of a day hopping onto, roaming about, and riding some of these lovingly restored gems—and it won't cost much more than a movie. It's a great place to take kids who want to ride on some fun choo-choos (or even, dare we say, learn more about environmentally smart public transportation). Visit now and you'll catch the last of spring's wildflowers (some of the trins journey past vernal pools).

During summer, May 27 – September 6, the Western Railway Museum expands its operating days and will be open five days each week, Wednesdays through Sundays, from 10:30 – 5. Hour-long excursion trains will operate at 11, 12:30, 2, and 3:30.

Details: $10, $9 seniors (65+), and $7 ages 2 to 14. 707/ 374-2978; off Highway 20 between Fairfield and Rio Vista;

Thursday, May 21, 2009


It's the vision of romantic early California come to life: Santa Barbara has always prided itself on its history and loving preservation of its charming Spanish/Moorish/Mediterranean style buildings. You almost expect to see the characters of Ramona, the Helen Hunt Jackson novel that first idealized the lifestyle of old California, in the days when it was part of the Spanish Colonial empire.

Now, you can e
xperience the most significant architecture and history of Santa Barbara on small-group walking tours of the downtown area. Join knowledgeable docents from the Architectural Foundation for an exploration of the architectural and landscape design heritage, and the events and people that shaped it.
From historic adobes to modern interpretations of the Spanish/Moorish/Mediterranean style, discover why Santa Barbara is often called “the American Riviera.”

Details: morning walking tours begin
Saturday at the City Hall steps at de la Guerra Plaza at 10, and Sunday tours begin at the entrance of the Public Library (near Anapamu and Anacapa Streets) at 10. Walks are an easy stroll and take about two hours. Cost: $10 per person; children under 12 are free and should be accompanied by an adult. For more, go to; for info on lodging and dining, visit Santa Barbara CVB, click here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cool deals in San Jose

Is the recession turning your vacation into a 'staycation'? No prob-the Bay Area has so much to offer that staying in the area is no hardship. But to make sure you get the most bang for your buck, look south: San Jose is rolling out the welcome mat with a raft of bargains (some are even free), from deals at local restaurants to the San Jose Giants plus a range of great hotel packages. Plan a daytrip or a weekend getaway in San Jose and you'll discover a world of fun in the South Bay.

Family fun stuff

Free fun: History San Jose at Kelley Park is a fond reconstruction of what San Jose looked like a century ago. Stroll amongst the Victorian architecture, then spread a picnic. There is no admission charge Tuesday through Friday, but there is a summer parking fee (or try around the corner on Phelan). The history park also sponsors free Family Sunday events. Tue-Sun noon-5; call 408/287-2290, or check

Free movies at the Starlight Cinemas: June 10-August 26, 2009. This traveling cinema series lets you take advantage of San Jose's warm, summer nights and enjoy a movie under the star-studded sky with good company. Movies begin at dusk so come early for the best seat. BYOCB: Bring your own chair or blanket. Explore one of three downtown neighborhoods each week and meet the people and businesses that give downtown its character:San Pedro Square:
Every second Wednesday; Historic District: every third Wednesday; SoFA District: every fourth Wednesday of the month. For a full schedule, go to

For really affordable family entertainment, the San Jose Giants hit a grand slam. You can't get much closer to players than you can at historic Municipal Stadium; and who knows, you could be watching the next Barry Bonds (word has it that the San Jose Giants should have one of the strongest teams in their history for the 2009 season). Tickets start at just $10 a seat. Plus, the best BBQ in baseball is right here at the newly renovated Turkey Mike’s BBQ. For more, call (408) 297-1435 or visit

DINE DOWNTOWN Restaurant Week: June 3-13. For the first time ever, more than 25 downtown restaurants invite you to dine in Downtown San Jose over the course of 11 days. It begins June 3 with $3-or-less sampler plates at the City Bites Kick Off Sampler Event. Three-course dinners range from $20, $30 to $40 at more than 25 Downtown restaurants, from A.P. Stumps, Billy Berks, Il Fornaio, Morton's The Steakhouse and more. Reservations recommended. For the full list, please visit


Spend your holidays in style this Memorial Day and Independence Day with “stay two nights and get the third night free” packages at Hotel Valencia Santana Row. Includes: a stylish guest room for two, deluxe continental breakfast at Citrus and two complimentary Vbar cocktail coupons. Rates: from $189. Complimentary night can be applied to current stay or can be used for a future reservation (gift certificate to be provided by hotel at check-out). For reservations, click on Hotel Valencia and enter the promotional ID: PROHOL, or call toll free 866/842-0100 and ask for the Holiday Promotion Package. Holidays include: Memorial Day Package Friday, May 22 – Monday, May 25 Promo Code: PROHOL; Independence Day Package Friday, July 3 – Sunday, July 5 Promo Code: PROHOL. (Rates for double occupancy, exclusive of tax and subject to availability.)

More hotel deals: Click on the Doubletree Hotel San Jose’s “Winchester Mystery House Package” and book a deluxe overnight stay, starting at $119 per night, and two admission tickets to the fab mystery manse.

The Dolce Hayes Mansion is making it easier to go green and help the environment during these upcoming summer months with the “It’s Not Easy Being Green” package from $169.

Or craft your own percs at the Sainte Claire Hotel; starting at $159, the Design Your Stay package comes with nice amenities and any two added features: early check-in (10 a.m.), late check-out (4 p.m.), in-room dining certificate ($25 value), a gift certificate to Il Fornaio restaurant ($25 value), a $25 gift card to the Westfield Mall, valet parking or a $25 gas card. For more information, call 408/295-2000 or visit

Details: check out the complete list of fairs, festivals, and free fun when you get a copy of the Official Visitors Guide; contact the The San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800/SAN-JOSE (800/726-5673) or visit

UPDATE: Visit Sunset Magazine's blogs...or their gardens

UPDATE: Sunset Magazine's One Block Diet blog has earned earned the Best Blog award, given out by one of America's most prestigious food awards programs. Dubbed “the Oscars of the food world,” by Time magazine, The James Beard Foundation Awards are a coveted honor for chefs, food media, authors, designers, and architects. It's pretty special company.

Make time to check out the blog and you'll see why they've been honored. The writing is lively, real, and a compelling look at the Sunset team's attempt at making beer, starting a beehive, making wine, and raising chickens (including an unfortunate encounter with rats—talk about gettin' real!). And while you're at it, visit the Sunset Traveler blog, which covers topics around the West (one of my recent faves was a post on watching puffins in Oregon).

Congratulations to the One Block bloggers at Sunset Magazine!

Meanwhile, don't forget you can take a free, self-guided tour of the Sunset Publishing Headquarters' beautifully landscaped gardens and grounds (be sure to peek into the test garden). Step inside the grand double doors of the Cliff May-designed landmark, pick up a free self-guided tour booklet, and roam the 7-acre grounds. You'll see everything from floral border plantings to tall redwoods. Strolling the gardens makes a great springtime outing, even if you come away a teensy bit intimidated by what they've managed to pack into their 'backyard'.

And to find out what’s growing in the editors’ own gardens, just check the masthead in the April issue; there's a mention of what every staffer has growing this spring in their own garden (tomatoes are big this year). It’s an inspiring idea; after all, you've gotta think, if these busy folks can grow it, why can’t I?

Details: 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, CA; open weekdays (holidays excluded) 9-4:30.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Things are rosy in San Jose

Portland, Oregon, bears the official nicknamed of the Rose City. But maybe San Jose, California, deserves to be called Rose City II (or, too). The city boasts two outstanding rose gardens and this is the month to tour them both. Floral displays are at their peak and both gardens are free.

Check out the Heritage Rose Garden at Taylor and Spring streets, for a variety of bloomers, from lilacs to roses. It's just off Guadalupe Gardens and Guadalupe River Park and makes for a nice afternoon stroll.

Then swing by the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden at Naglee and Dana avenues, in the heart of the Rose Garden Neighborhood. The garden covers more than 5 acres, with more than 3,500 rose bushes and some 180 varieties.

You'll get a sneak preview of top roses here: the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden receives All-America Rose Selections (AARS) award-winning roses before they're released to the public. Funding cuts threatened the health (and AARS accreditation) of the garden, but in 2007, the nonprofit Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden rode to the rescue, clippers in hand. This year, the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden was "rededicated as an official All-America Rose Selections Test Garden, one of 23 in the USA and the only one in Northern California," according to Wikipedia. But the garden still needs volunteers and donations.

Want to learn how to help, or to deadhead your own rose bushes? Check out the Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden and their blog, for rose growing tips and upcoming events.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bon Appetit… Affordable French Cuisine in the Bay Area

By Linda Lau Anusasananan

Fifteen years ago Roland Passot, chef/owner of San Francisco’s elegant La Folie created Left Bank, a casual, lively brassiere that served everyday French classics such as Onion Soup Gratinée and Steak Frites. His prototype has multiplied five-fold with locations in Menlo Park, San Mateo, Pleasant Hill, Santana Row, and Larkspur.

A few weeks ago, Lora (my travel pal and author of this blog) and I visited Left Bank Brasserie in San Mateo. I fell in love with the new menu. There were tempting choices for every taste. Best of all, prices seemed fair. Some even offered great value, considering the quality ingredients and generous portions.

We started with typical French aperitifs Pastis and Lillet as we studied the menu. There were so many appealing choices we had a hard time deciding what to order. We asked recently promoted Executive Chef Brendy M. Monsada (left) for his personal favorites. He suggested the Navarin D’Agneau (lamb stew $18.50) and Halibut with sautéed Calamari, braised in Fennel Broth ($23.50). Both were delicious and generously portioned. In the lamb stew, spring vegetables such as sugar snap peas, baby turnips, and carrots added a fresh lightness to tender chunks of lamb, braised in veal stock and white wine. Olives, sweet cherry tomatoes, and fava beans gave the halibut a Provençal persona.

We were intrigued with the Les Tartes Flambées, described as classic Alsatian thin crust savory tarts. We chose the Périgord ($11.75) simply because I love duck confit. We ordered it as a first course. Out came a 10-inch tart, somewhat akin to pizza. The very crisp, blistered, cracker-thin crust was blanketed with delicious moist shreds of duck confit, mushrooms, and truffle vinaigrette. It was hearty enough to be our whole meal. We had to stop ourselves from consuming the whole tart so we could eat the rest of our dinner.

There were so many dishes I wanted to taste, I stopped by again a few nights ago. I seriously considered the Monday special Roasted Duck å L’Orange ($19.50). A different French classic such as Cassoulet ($19.50), or Beef Short Rib Pot au Feu ($19.95) is offered every day of the week. I was tempted by the three-course Prix Fixe by Passot ($26.50) which that night included Mesclun Salade, Basque Tarte Flambée, and Crème Brulée. I finally chose the regional two-course Tour of France Prix Fixe ($28) that changes monthly.

May’s menu from the Loire Valley featured Artic char (below, right) with a soft coral color similar to salmon set on a bed of white and green asparagus in a delicate sorrel sauce. A regional cheese followed. The handmade goat’s milk cheese, Le Chevrot,, came with cherry compote, candied pecans, and toasted baguette slices. My husband opted for his perennial Left Bank favorite, Moules Florentine (steamed mussels with spinach and white wine $11.75). A huge bowl overflowing with petite mussels is a meal in itself.

I can’t wait to go back again and explore the menu further. Dining at Left Bank tastes like a trip to Paris, without the plane ticket!

About our guest writer: Linda Lau Anusasananan is a freelance writer/editor and recipe developer. She was a food writer/editor and recipe editor at Sunset Magazine for 34 years. Currently she is working on a Chinese cookbook and

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Best view of the Golden Gate Bridge?

Sometimes, I avoid some of the Bay Area’s most beautiful spots because “only tourists go there”. I suppose its natural: I’ve grown up with postcard-pretty spots—such as the Marin Headlands—just a short drive from home, so I often take them for granted. And other times, I remember: they’re a big part of why I still live here.

Here I am on a Friday, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and looking up through the sunroof to a robin’s egg-blue sky behind the ocher-red thrust of the bridge’s North Tower. Pulling off at the Alexander Avenue exit, I bear right, then left onto Bunker Road heading through a cut in the mountain, and then right up into the Marin Headlands. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the headlands stretch north from the end of the Golden Gate Bridge and remain a vivid, gloriously beautiful reminder of the foresight of long-ago planners. And the best place for a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I drive the snakelike Bunker Road past greening hills edged by 360° views of a placid blue bay, stern, dark cliffs, and a white city; I say a silent prayer of thanks to San Francisco area citizens who campaigned to save the open space I'm standing on from developers so many years ago. If this were L.A…

Sure there are tourists up here: they’re dazzled by the views too, and happily snapping photos of each other like papparazzi going after Tom Cruise. But they don’t bother me. After they snap their pix, they’ll head for home. Me, I’m trying to decide what I want to do first here: explore old NIKE missle sites, roam historic Fort Barry and Fort Cronkhite, or trek out to the 150 year-old Point Bonita lighthouse. I end up hiking trails around sun-dappled Rodeo Lagoon and watching brown pelicans skim the waves. Of course, I don’t have to do it all today. I live here. I’ll be back.

Details: Contact the San Francisco CVB by clicking here, or call 415/331-1540.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Adventure touring in Santa Barbara

Wildfires aside, Santa Barbara is one hot destination these days. It's handy to major urban areas (less than a tank of gas away from Los Angeles/Long Beach, and an easy drive south from the Bay Area along scenic Highway 101). And yet it feels exotic, like some lovely fugitive from California's early Spanish Colonial period, with all those red tile roofs, courtyards, and adobe-style buildings.

For laid-back travelers, there's shopping along lively State Street, strolling along Sterns Wharf, and a charming mission atop a hill to roam. And if you're looking for active sports, local outfitters are ready to guide you on a variety of new active adventures to inspire, invigorate, and educate.

BlueLine Paddle Surf
( is the area expert in Stand-Up Paddle Surfing, and now provides instruction and rentals. In addition to high-end bike equipment rentals with delivery service, Santa Barbara Bikes To-Go ( offers personalized bike tours for cyclists of every level—local wine and food can be easily incorporated into itineraries. Vino Vaqueros ( blends gourmet food and local wine with horseback riding on a variety of exclusive guided, customized treks in wine country and coastal settings.

So think about Santa Barbara for a long weekend getaway. It's as laid back or action-packed as you want.

Deal alert:
This summer, Tydes (Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara’s new signature restaurant) will offer daily “Sunset Suppers,” a three-course prix fixe menu for $49 per person;

Details: For lodging, dining, and events, go to Santa Barbara CVB, click here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Car hop Heaven in Long Beach, California

Clcik on pic to find out more about Frisco's Long Beach
Southern California was the birthplace of car culture, and the 50's burger joints that catered to cars (via roller skating waitresses) grew out of that culture.

These days, it's hard to find one of those 50's-style gems, but my pal, Bob, in Long Beach tells me these car hop Heavens are experiencing something of a revival in his neck of the woods. “Roll back the clock and check out Frisco’s Car Hop,” he Twitters. “Fun place to dine and be entertained; car hops servers don rollerskates!”

Frisco's Carhop Grill and Restaurant (in Long Beach and City of Industry) hasn't been around since the 1950s, but does a darn good job of evoking that era (as you can tell by the classic cars often parked out front). Okay, car hop lovers, now you know where to get your burgers on!
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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