Monday, December 20, 2010

New and old in Old Sacramento

It's a fresh-scrubbed winter day and I'm scuffing my feet through mounds of vivid yellow leaves in Sacramento's Crocker Park and wishing I'd brought my niece's little girls with me. They love this kind of day. I hadn't been to the neighborhood around Old Sacramento (or Old Sac, as locals dub it) for ages when my pal Lucy invited me to tour the new Crocker Art Museum expansion. That is enough to pull me out of the winter doldrums and into the brisk air.

" The new 3-story addition to the oldest Museum in the West is dazzling!" says the writer on Of course, I don't take their word for it--I have to check it out myself. Turns out, they're pretty much right on. The Crocker holds more than 14,000 original pieces of art, everything from drawings, paintings, and sculpture to ceramics, including an amazing exhibit there now—The Vase and Beyond: the Sindey Swidler Collection of the Contemporary Vessel, thru April 10,2011. I've known and loved the museum for years for its famed collections of California art, and I never miss a chance to gaze at the amazing, massive California landscapes like Thomas Hill's Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite, 1871.

And I've always loved the original, jewel-like museum building itself— an exquisite and grand Italianate mansion. But it always felt cramped and a bit dark to me, the kind of place where art is a thing of the dusty past.

Now, the new expansion (opened in October), gives this museum more air, light, and the space to really showcase its incredible collections, many of which have been unseen by the public since their acquisitions. The gleaming 125,000-square-foot Teel Family Pavilion, is a classic, contemporary design. Whether it, indeed complements the historic structures is in the eye of the beholder; indisputably, it more than triples the museum's former size and makes it a better visitor destination.

This month, besides the ceramic exhibit, there's a Classical Concert on Dec. 19 (3 PM), and a Kwanzaa Family Festival on Dec. 26 (12-4). There's a ton of stuff for kids and familes, including studio art classes (wisely divided by age groupings). Don't miss Drop, Yak, Splat! A museum adventure for families each Second Saturday at 1 PM and Third Sunday at 11 AM.

If you have time for a casual bite, and have the kids along, try the fine new Crocker Cafe, run by Bobbin and Patrick Mulvaney, proprietors of Mulvaney’s B&L, Next Door, and Culinary Specialists Catering. Today, I want a more formal, white table cloth experience, so I meet my pal Lucy at The Firehouse, just a short walk away in Old Sac. I start with a cup of the creamy and rich heirloom squash-crab bisque, enlivened by a tiny crabcake in the center, then opt for the chicken Marsala in a heady, wine-infused demi-glace. Lucy has the sea scallops, with pancetta and a watercress pear salad. Both winners. As I look at the whorls of sauce draped across my entree, I can't help thinking that, in the right hands, even lunch can be an artistic experience.

Details: Crocker Art Museum, 916/ 808-7000; The Firehouse, 112 Second St. Old Sac., book at 916/442-4772. For more lodging and dining info, check out the Sacramento Discover Gold site.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fresh snow at Lake Tahoe ski areas

Adding to an already heavy snowpack, North Lake Tahoe got two feet of new snow in the last 24 hours. That makes more than 14 feet of snow falling at the ski resorts’ higher elevations since late October, with more snow on the way.

“It started dumping heavily last night,” said Tourism Director Andy Chapman of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. “This morning we woke up to blue skies and a ton of fresh powder, perfect conditions for skiing and riding.”

Most North Lake Tahoe ski resorts have opened, including Alpine Meadows, Boreal Mountain Resort, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood Mountain Resort, Mt. Rose – Ski Tahoe, Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort, Royal Gorge Cross Country, Soda Springs, Spooner Lake Cross Country, Squaw Valley
USA, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Cross Country, Tahoe Donner Cross Country and Tahoe Donner Downhill.

Diamond Peak Ski Resort opens Thursday, December 16, and Granlibakken Lodge opens for skiing Friday, December 17. Granlibakken’s sledding hill is open.
Details: To find deals on skiing, lodging and activities, along with special events, is available at; hit 'Cool Deals'.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dining, drinking in downtown Napa

Just got back from a fab trip to Napa--the town at the south end of the Napa Valley. One day, I tasted wines at six or seven stops (I kinda forget the exact number)! No worries-they were within walking distance from each other, clustered in downtown Napa. So no designated driver was needed (but I did need a nap after all that vino)!

And P.S.--the wine was very good, even though most of the wineries were tiny ones I'd never heard of. But isn't that the fun of wine tasting--discovering new labels before your friends? Like Gustavo Thrace, at 1021 McKinstry St., has an absolutely yummy Cab and a unique Bordeaux blend that I couldn't put down. At the same location on McKinstry is the Toolbox Wine Company, making fun drinkable, everyday wines from a company run by three young gals (see above). And their mission is to 'build houses and good will, one bottle at a time', so a portion of the profits goes to Habitat for Humanity (hence the Toolbox logo and the wine holding toolbelt).

Around the corner, at 714 First St. is the bright and cheery tasting room of Mason Cellars, where Megan Mason poured the best Savignon Blanc I ever put in my mouth (its their specialty); try the Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc for a really aromatic experience. Mason's Three Pears Pinot Grigio is super tasty, too, with a fresh, peachy/pear and apple nose.

We wandered down to Trahan Winery at 974 Franklin St. where their lively chocolate lab greeted us with a wag or ten, before settling back into his unique doggy bed (made of wine barrel staves). Young Chuck Custodio (winemaker/owner) left the corporate world to study winemaking, commuting from San Francisco to the Napa Valley, driving four hours per day to learn the trade--he did that for four years. It’s in his blood--the Trahans, on his mother’s side, were grape growers and winemakers way back when in France. I really liked his 2007 Trahan Chardonnay – Carneros.

Perhaps the most sophisticated of the bunch is John Anthony Vineyard, also a boutique winery with a tasting room at 1440 First St. (adjacent to the AVIA Hotel). Their wines are pricier than most of the other, but they are elegantly made. I fell in love with the rich mouth feel and complex flavors of their 2006 Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon. This upscale tasting lounge is the only one open late (until 2 AM) and you can relax here after dinner with a full glass of wine if you like, rather than just a taste.

Details: All these and a few other wineries--including Ceja Vineyards, and several at the Oxbow Market, are small independents, part of the 13-member Buzz Downtown Napa Tasting Room Association. For information on how to devise your own walking tour, go to the Napa Downtown Association site to For a lovely place to stay, handy to all the wineries and fine dining, check out AVIA Hotel, ,1450 First St. I found it both luxurious and surprisingly affordable (but more on that in a later post).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cool fall cruisin' in San Francisco

My pal Molly alerts me that San Francisco's Red And White Fleet has some cool fall specialty cruises coming up for Fleet Week, when San Francisco briefly becomes a Navy town again. "Over the weekend of October 8-10, Fleet Week takes over San Francisco with a series of Navy-inspired events, entertainment and the legendary Blue Angels air show," says Molly's note. And for a ringside seat on all this action, you can't do better than hopping aboard a Red And White Fleet vessel. You'll get the best views of the daily air shows from the bay. But they do book up, so plan ahead for these popular trips.

Details: Departing at 2 p.m. on both Saturday, October 9 and Sunday, October 10, the Fleet Week cruise price includes appetizers and one complimentary beverage. Additional snacks and beverages are available on-board for purchase. Cost is $58 per adult (18+); $36 for youth (5-17); and $52 per person for groups of 15+ adults. For more info and reservations, visit Oh, and just for fun, check out the cool Blue Angels website.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A hot summertime deal in Sonoma

Summer is a lush, warm, and laid-back time in California's fabulous Sonoma Wine Country, and when you can get there on a free tank of gas, why wouldn't you go? The inns of Wine Country Inns are offering a neat way to make it easy (especially for Bay Area and Central Valley vacationers) to take a quick, close-to-home vacation to stroll the cool gardens at Ferrari-Carano Winery (at left) or sip local vintages. Here's the hot summertime deal in Sonoma: From August through October 31, stay two nights on the weekend or one night mid-week with any of their WCI member inns at the normal rate and you'll receive a $50 gas card.

What's to do in summer: enjoy tasting wine or walking in the ripening vineyards, wander bountiful farmers’ markets, kayak on the river, hike along the many local trails, splash in an inn’s pool or hot tub, or just blog about the natural beauty of the area. The warm, sunny days and cool romantic nights make Sonoma a real getaway for Bay Area and Central Valley vacationers, without the hassle of a long plane trip (and those sometimes cuckoo flight attendants who want you to 'take this job and shove it').

Details: This package is available immediately and through October 31, 2010, and includes breakfast. It is based on availability for two persons in one room for consecutive nights; must be requested at time of booking and may not be paired with any other offer. Call the WCI line at 800/946-3268; you must mention the following code WCIFREERIDE.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Top choice for a fall visit: San Francisco

Just heard about some annual travel-search data put out by by one of those 'cheap flights' comparison sites, an outfit called Skyscanner. I've never used them, but their press release revealed the most popular destinations for US travelers and the best time to avoid crowds. What I thought was funny was that they call folks who travel a lot "Power Travelers" (aka PTs), which makes some of my family members very powerful indeed (cousin John, are you listening?). And of course, savvy PTs know that the best time to visit a popular destination is in the “off season” when there are fewer crowds. (So I guess they publish all this info on the best times to visit popular destinations for us non-power- travelers, who don't know when the off-season is for these places. I think my feelings are hurt!)

Jonesing for a little sun, sand, surf, and a last-of-summer blast? Check out Honolulu. SkyScanner says it's the seventh most popular destination in the spring, but then by summer it falls to 11th most popular. Translation: the number of tourists drop, too. How come? Lots of factors, but one theory is that we folks in the lower 48 don't need a warm weather haven like Hawaii in summer as much as we do in winter. So summer's the time to look for bargains in flights and hotels in Aloha-land.

Anyway, I was kinda surprised to read that fall is their idea of off-season for San Francisco, since as a local, I've always known that's when SF gets it best weather. But in terms of flight site searches, SF drops
from ninth most popular destination in summer to 17th in the fall. However, what the PTs know (and even some non-PTs), its that weather-wise, fall is San Francisco's best of all seasons: the fog disappears, and days are warm and sunny, with a hint of bay breeze to keep things comfy. So check out the city by the bay in September for good airfare, hotel and restaurant deals in fall. And don't forget to pick up a sourdough baguette!

Monday, July 19, 2010

California's kid-friendly Truckee River rafting

It’s one of North Lake Tahoe’s most popular family activities: rafting or tubing on the Truckee River. And in the midst of July's heat, we can't think of a better way to cool off. Take a raft trip on California's mild Truckee, and you'll find it is a good river for a kid's first raft trip, or for a grownup who doesn't want to work too hard and chill out on a hot, lazy summer day.

The timing is perfect: we just heard from our pal Pettit Gilwee that the dam gates have flung open, the river is flowing, and rafting along Lake Tahoe’s scenic Truckee River is now underway. Two outfits— Tahoe City-based Mountain Air Sports and the Truckee River Raft Company—have opened for the season, offering self-guided, leisurely five-mile float trips down the Truckee River. North Lake Tahoe is just a 45-minute drive from the Reno Tahoe International Airport, two hours from Sacramento International Airport and just over three hours from San Francisco International Airport.

Details: With either the Truckee River Raft Company or Mountain Air Sports, most trips take two to three hours; you pull out at River Ranch Lodge near Alpine Meadows Road along Highway 89. Park in Tahoe City and take a free shuttle back to the car vehicles after the float (any time before 6 p.m). Hours: 8:30 —3:30 daily (weather permitting). Trips include parking, shuttle, paddles, life jackets and commercial rafts for 2-20 people; footwear is mandatory. Group rates are available. To watch a video of the trip, go to this link. For lodging reservations, recreation and event details, call North Lake Tahoe at 1-877-949-3296 or visit

Friday, July 16, 2010

California secret: Lake Tahoe's best beaches

When most of California is baking in triple digit heat, what better time to go to the beach? But no, not the crowded coastline—it's so crowded, nobody goes there anymore (our apologies to Yogi Berra). You should head for the sublime beaches of California's North Lake Tahoe. We got some great ideas from locals about their beach faves:

Best beaches to dip your toes in the water: Moon Dunes Beach in Tahoe Vista, an open sandy beach guarded by a grove of tress and sand dunes or Sand Harbor in Incline Village, with a scenic granite outcroppings and long sandy beaches.

Best beach playground: Tahoe City’s Commons Beach has a big playground and expansive lawn area, perfect for resting in between dips.

Best beach for families: Kings Beach State Recreation Area is one of the area’s most popular spots for families, where a wide stretch of sand is ideal for picnics and playtime (with adjacent playground and barbeques). Parasailing, kayak rentals and paddleboats are also available from a number of shops in and around the recreation area.

Best beach for pooches: Have a canine in your clan? Then head to Patton Beach, just west of the marina in Carnelian Bay or Kaspian Recreation Area on the West Shore, just south of Sunnyside.

Details: North Lake Tahoe is a 45-minute drive from the Reno Tahoe International Airport, two hours from Sacramento International Airport and just over three hours from San Francisco International Airport. For lodging reservations, recreation and event details, call North Lake Tahoe at 877/949-3296 or visit

PHOTO CREDIT: GoTahoeNorth/Zikas

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Following John Muir's footsteps to Yosemite

I recently followed John Muir's footsteps from the Sacramento Valley up to the door of Yosemite National Park, thanks to the newly-designated John Muir Highway out of Coulterville--Highway J132 between Highways 49 and 120. The road generally follows the route thought to have been taken by John Muir, famed conservationist and botanist, on one of his many treks between San Francisco and Yosemite.

Now, thanks to local efforts, including years of work by local Ken Pulvino (a friend of mine), new signage marks the 8-mile route which crosses both Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. Historians say that this route fairly approximates what is known of Muir's second passage to Yosemite in 1869, described in Muir's own book, My First Summer in the Sierra, in which he describes rambling through glorious arrays of wildflowers en route to his beloved Range of Light. Alas, there are no signed hiking trails or public picnic areas along the Historic John Muir Route; much of it passes through private land or national forest land lacking developed public access. But its a pretty little drive and offers a chance to stop in scenic Coulterville and as you head up a little-traveled route towards the national park (the last part of your journey will be via busier Highway 120).

Much has been written about John Muir's travels to Yosemite, but until now, it wasn't that easy to actually follow in Muir's footsteps. The new highway is a way to begin to see the route through Muir's eyes, but for serious Muir fans and hikers who love a challenge, a terrific option is the new book by Peter and Donna Thomas called the Muir Ramble Route (Poetic Matrix Press), $18.50.

I met with the authors recently at the opening of the highway and asked them what they thought of the new highway designation. "Our vision so much parallels the vision of the creators of the John Muir Highway," said Peter Thomas. "Anything that gets people out of their cars and seeing California at this intimate level is a good thing," Thomas notes. "Its still gorgeous, and you can see glimpses of what John Muir saw on his journeys," adds Donna Thomas. "So much of California has lost touch with its history," she adds, "and this highway is a special thing in the way that it shows Coulterville, Mariposa, and Tuolumne has such pride in its history."

These two intrepid backpackers did some amazing original research, combing the Bancroft and other library collections for Muir's unpublished letters and other little-known early accounts. Over time, and using early and contemporary maps, they pieced together the details of Muir's actual route. Then they hiked it—four times, each time departing on the day of the year that Muir began his journey (April 2). In re-discovering John Muir's first journey to Yosemite, the Thomases re-discovered their own love for California—especially the Central Valley and its abundant natural beauty—as they unlocked the secrets of Muir's actual route.

The book breaks the some 300-mile trek into smaller sections, and offers detailed routes readers can follow, suggesting which way to hike, and which routes are better tackled using a bike (both for safety and practicality). Thanks to civilization, some portions of the route skirt private lands or take you along the shoulders of busy roadways and highways. But it's all do-able. "We aren't super athletes," admits Peter Thomas, "and any average physically fit person can do this hike." Unlike Muir, the Thomases had no encounters with grizzlies, rockfalls, or rattlers. And Thomas owns up that he didn't even wear out one pair of hiking boots scouting the trek. While the Thomases book is a paean to the more famous writer, their feat in re-creating the author's rout is an amazing accomplishment in itself, and I'd highly recommend you get the book.

Details: call the Coulterville Visitors Center at 209/ 878-3074 or the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center at 209/962-0429. Muir Ramble Route, Poetic Matrix Press.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Help that's not just for the birds

I got a note recently from a friend (thanks, Sherry) that included a message from the Cornell (University) Lab’s Conservation Science Director, Ken Rosenberg. Rosenburg cited the destruction in the Gulf of Mexico from the oil spill, and detailed how thousands of birds are in danger. I'm a bird lover and wanted to help, so I sent off a donation to Cornell's effort to help save birds and document the oil spill’s effect on birds for the public, scientists, and policy makers. I also sympathize with the residents of the Gulf Coast; the nightmare they're living thru could happen off our California shores just as easily. So I know that donations aren't just 'for the birds', but for people, too.
Go to the Cornell website to make a donation that's not just for the birds.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dry Creek Valley celebrates Passport Weekend

One of the best of the many passports to wine country starts today outside the small, charming town of Healdsburg. The Passport to Dry Creek Valley begins in earnest today, with BBQ, sculpture gardens, bocce ball, tight ropewalkers, music, and of course barrel samples, and newly released wines. Set in the steep-sided valley west of the village of Healdsburg, the wineries of the Dry Creek Valley are generally not as big or as famous as their cousins in Napa, but that's part of their charm. Vist today or tomorrow and you'll find that nearly every winery features live entertainment—belly dancers to blues, jazz or 50s rock and roll—and fabulous food.

Participating winery locales are dotted throughout the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County (get a complete winery list at

I'll be going tomorrow. Stay tuned for my full report.

Passport to Dry Creek Valley™—A First Class Journey activities begin at 11am, lasting until 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday, April 24 & 25, 2010. Tickets for the two-day event cost $120; for Sunday only, $70. For more, click here. For info on where to stay, dine, click over to the Sonoma County Tourism website.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rush to a Gold Rush town this spring

Wonder if they make a cake big enough to hold 160 candles? That's the birthday the Gold Country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Historic Park) will celebrate on March 27, and you can join in the fun. Spring is the best time to visit, when flowers are popping up and daytime temps are cool and comfortable in the Sierra foothills.

The town of Columbia became instantly famous when a party of men uncovered a rich gold deposit in 1850, forever altering the land as thousands of people poured in to “strike it rich”. Initially a tent camp, then a sprawl of wooden buildings, Columbia was swept by fire and nearly wiped off the map. Handsome brick buildings arose from the ashes, and today,
over 30 of the original brick buildings along the town’s Main Street have been preserved to tell the story of the towns which arose during the California Gold Rush to serve the needs of miners. California State Parks has restored Columbia and continues to preserve the town.

The birthday event is made for families, history buffs and home schoolers (its a self-teaching history lesson), with live reenactments of the discovery of gold, costumed docents in venues throughout town, and special tours highlighting the town’s beginning. Its many historic-style stores and restaurants are run by over 20 concessionaires whose businesses, along with park staff and volunteers, help recreate the experience of the California Gold Rush.

Details: Saturday, March 27 (12 – 4 pm), refreshments will be served. Columbia State Historic Park is located in Tuolumne County and is designated as a National Historic Landmark District. The event is sponsored by Friends of Columbia State Historic Park; the group helps raise funds to support the educational and interpretive programs at Columbia State Historic Park.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Read Wall Street's Bailout Hustle

I digress from my usual fare of CA travel to alert you to a 'must read' article in the current Rolling Stone that uncorks the stink behind certain Wall Street institutions and practices that are still going on, despite our troubled economy. According to Matt Taibbi in "Wall Street's Bailout Hustle: Goldman Sachs and other big banks aren't just pocketing the trillions we gave them to rescue the economy - they're re-creating the conditions for another crash." I urge you to read the entire tome.
Go to

My take on the situation: despite causing the crash (in large part), these geniuses are still taking huge bonuses (out of our bailout money) and cooking up new schemes to put our fragile economy at risk. Wall Street's arrogance has the makings of the 'let 'em eat cake' attitude that spurs revolutions.

These high-finance hotshots aren't ballsy, they're greedy and clueless. Wall Street is Marie Antoinette. And we know what happened to her (hint: she didn't have to worry about her hairstyle after the French Revolution).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Baby zebras at Santa Rosa's Safari West

The note came in the form of a puzzle: what's black and white and new all over? The answer: the cute zebra babies born at Santa Rosa's Safari West wildlife park. Drive 75 miles north of San Francisco and you find a slice of the Serengeti. Some 400 acres in the heart of California's wine country, Safari West is home to over 400 exotic mammals and birds, from cheetahs and reticulated giraffes to newly arrived Speke's weaver birds and flamingos.

January brought three new arrivals to boost the zebra population to 15; the striped bundles of joy weighed in at between 55 and 88 pounds at birth. And late winter/early spring usually heralds the arrival of more hoofed animal babies (last spring saw the arrival of two Bongo antelopes, two Eland and an Addax).

You can stay in a luxury safari tent with a view of exotic African wildlife and dine in their cafe, or just enjoy a daytrip. So while the arrival of adorable animal babies always makes things feel like spring, it's still winter, with winter deals and discounts. But don't delay—deals fade as the weather warms.

Details: Take Safari West's winter safaris now: on a 90-minute safari vehicle tour through the Sonoma Serengeti, get up close and personal with exotic animals. Then, stroll around to visit lemurs, cheetahs and giraffes; back to the Savannah Café buy a hot cider or chocolate. Cost: $58; ages 3-12 $20; Infants $5; offered 10 AM and 2PM - Fridays through Sundays. Book: 7

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mardi Gras in San Jose

You're never too old to celebrate Mardi Gras (Feb. 16). But if your budget (or beads) won't stretch to a trip to New Orleans this year, then head for San Jose's Santana Row and the Roux Louisiana Kitchen. It's a little bit of the Big Easy in Silicon Valley. Tucked on a side street off the main drag in Santana Row, Roux Louisiana is a bold, lively clash of colors (purple and red) and decor, with folk art, photos, and artifacts that would feel right at home in the French Quarter. Off to one side, a stage for weekend live jazz fronts an elliptical, copper-topped bar below a massive, illuminated ceiling sculpture. I can imagine how this place hops at night.

My old college chum Kathy and I are here for lunch and I'm pleasantly surprised that there are so many items on the menu that I could actually eat (I'm notoriously timid about spicy foods). I admit, the closest I've come
to visiting Louisiana is seeing the film "The Pelican Brief" , a pretty good legal thriller with Julia Roberts and dishy Denzel Washington . But I'm told that the name "Roux" refers to the classic, flavor-filled base used in many traditional Louisiana dishes, including the state's quintessential specialty, gumbo.

Of course,
you'll find many of the Creole, Cajun and Soul Food specialties that have made the Pelican state famous here--and these dishes are also famous for their heat. But our waitress is patient about explaining the menu and steering me to less painful choices. I'm on a diet, sort of, so I bypass the list of killer apps, like BBQ shrimp; bacon-wrapped oysters; sautéed crab cakes with roasted pepper aioli, shrimp rémoulade with fried green tomatoes (hey, gotta save something for next time). Lunch combos ($9.95) offer a choice of seafood gumbo, crafish etouffe, fried or salad with an added side (for $4) of pulled pork sliders, fried chicken, chicken strips, or catfish. Instead, we go right for a couple of their signature dishes: Jambalaya (shown below) with andouille sausage for my friend and crawfish etouffe (it's a seasonal dish) with a side of creamy grits for me.

The grits are a surprise--more like a smooth, triple cheese polenta. The etouffe is moderately filled with tiny crawfish (the taste is similar to lobster, but from a much tinier animal). I confess, I practically licked my plate; I love crawfish and you just can't find them at many restaurants. The Jambalaya was filled with chicken, shrimp, onions, tomatoes and moderately spicy sausage, (delish, says Kathy, and a more than ample portion).
For dessert, I'm tempted by the banana Foster bread pudding, but opt instead for the beignets, small doughnut-like concotions covered in powdered sugar and served with hot, chocolate sauce. A pot of hearty, French-press coffee helps further the illusion of a leisurely lunch in the French Quarter (although way too many coffee grounds made their way into my cup). All in all, we give the lunch two thumbs up.

This month, Roux Louisiana Kitchen will celebrate Mardi Gras on Feb. 16 (from 6-9 PM) with a big bash: samples of food/drink, live music, even fire-eaters and bead tossing. Where: 3055 Olin Ave., Suite 1005 (open daily). Reservations 415/249-8000.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One on one wine tasting in Napa town

Poor Napa. Just as the Robert Modavi-backed food, wine, and art museum, Copia, was starting to garner some kudos for this under-appreciated town at the mouth of the Napa Valley, what should happen but Copia goes belly up? But this quiet, wine-country town along the banks of the Napa River is fighting back, hoping to regain some allure with its latest food, wine-tasting, and shopping district.

The Oxbow District, a loop of land created by a U-shaped bend in the Napa River, has had its historical ups and downs—mostly when the Napa River would jump its banks after heavy winter rains. The feds started a flood control project, but then (like so many federal projects, it seems), the work stalled. Now, the city has been promised nearly $100 million in stimulus money to finally finish the job.

The idea behind this unusual flood control project is to create a somewhat channelized yet still living river, with terracing on the riverbank and a parklike bypass channel instead of just pouring concrete in (if you know the LA River--that’s the concept they’re trying to avoid).

Along the way, it’s helping to revive the entire neighborhood. A retail/residential project called the Riverfront has opened along the river, with restaurant and retail space below condominium spaces. You can already enjoy the restored Napa Valley Opera House and Hatt Mill Building (with cafes and shops), along with some 20 wine tasting rooms and dozens of area restaurants, including Ubuntu-- the vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio (recently mentioned in Sunset Magazine).

The death of Copia (the Mondavi-backed wine and art museum) hurt the area, of course, but a group of Napa businesspeople called the Coalition to Preserve Copia, is working to reopen that building in the fall (it is expected to have conference space). In any case, the restaurants, tasting rooms, and newly opened Avia Hotel downtown as well as the Westin in the Oxbow has brought new energy to the district.

In part because it sits in the biggest town in the Napa Valley, the Oxbow is drawing more top foodies like chef-restaurateur Ken Frank (he just moved his famed restaurant, La Toque, from Rutherford to the Westin Verasa in the Oxbow District). At the stub end of First Street (near the Napa River and the Oxbow Public Market) there are now four new free-standing tasting rooms, each operated by a local vintner. The latest is Uncorked at Oxbow, housed in three historic cottages, the creation of fiancés Bruce Ahnfeldt and Celeste Carducci, who pour and sell the wines that bear their names. The trend of vintner-operated tasting rooms is becoming a mark of the Oxbow neighborhood almost as much as the flowing river.

Details: There's so much to do here: lodging at the Napa River Inn, cruises and river tours with Napa River Adventures, bird watching and walking along some segments of the Napa River. Uncorked at Oxbow offers wine seminars, wine and food pairings, and art and music education. A seasonal Farmer's Market operates May thru October. And don't forget The Wine Train, a great way to sip as you sightsee, without worrying about getting pulled over.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

California's bald eagle watching hotspot

Here's an idea: on this Valentine’s Day three-day weekend, take the time to fall in love with nature. Put down the remote and go outside to watch a majestic bald eagle (or two or twenty) at one of America’s most amazing national wildlife refuges—Klamath Basin Refuges (Tulelake, California, 530/667-2231).

Or check out one of the national wildlife refuges or fish hatcheries nearby (there's one that's about an hour's drive from most major metropolitan areas). This month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Let’s go Outside” website contains electronic Valentines, in both English and Spanish, featuring bald eagles, red foxes and even turtles, to send to friends and family.

Among the dozen or so national wildlife refuges where bald eagles are common, one of the bbest is Klamath Basin Refuges (Tulelake, California, 530-667-2231, , which hosts the largest wintering concentration in the lower 48 states. In February, the refuge plays host to the nation’s oldest birding festival: the Bald Eagle Conference. I've grown to love this festival, where guides can take you out to bald eagle roosting sites at the crack of dawn, and you watch awestruck as dozens of bald eagles stream overhead. The Klamath Basin hosts thousands of overwintering geese and ducks, too, and the self-guided auto tour route offers easy viewing from the comfort of your traveling duck blind (your car).

Details: On the website, you'll find fact sheets about wildlife species, including bald eagles, moose, sea turtles, and cardinals; tips on how youngsters and their families can start observing wildlife; links to maps and a special events calendar that can help families find places to go and see nature up close. To reach Klamath Basin Refuges in Tulelake, California, click or call 530/667-2231. Make a weekend getaway of it; for lodging and dining ideas, click here to go to the Klamath Falls, Oregon, tourism website.

Friday, January 29, 2010

V-Day Weekend in Santa Barbara

How handy! Valentine’s Day falls on a three-day weekend this year, which means there’s more time to wine, dine and be lovey-dovey (or just recover from the workweek). For northern or southern California lovebirds, Santa Barbara makes an ideal choice for an overnight getaway or a long romantic weekend. It's tough to beat all that early California ambiance for romance; picture yourself strolling hand in hand past adobe-style buildings with arches and red tile roofs, or ducking into one of the grandest missions in the California chain.

And you don't even have to stress about the budget (such a
buzzkill for romance). A bunch of package deals means the getaway is more affordable. Can't get away for the big weekend? Not to worry: most of the packages are good throughout the winter. Spend your time roaming Mission Santa Barbara, strolling the beach, dining along the waterfront, or poking into the shops and cafes on historic State Street. Or not. Whatever happens, romantic Santa Barbara will work its magic. Details: Romance on the Riviera at the Brisas Del Mar Inn at the Beach (from $188/night; package includes accommodations that are walking distance to the beach plus a $50 dinner credit at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill). Or book the Book the “It’s Complicated…Not” package at Inn of the Spanish Garden, a boutique-style inn (shown in photo, above). You can have a classic “date night” in downtown Santa Barbar,
with dinner and a movie (two cinema tickets included); rates start at $279/night. Visit for more packages and full travel info.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

For Love or Money in LA

Okay, the name of this V-Day deal is clever: the For Love or Money Package at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles. But it seems like a pretty good deal for downtown LA (especially if you're a SoCal guy who forgot to plan anything for that special weekend).

Choose the “Love” option, you get luxe accommodations in one of the historic Millennium Biltmore’s Classic Rooms, plus chocolate truffles, a bottle of pink champagne, and a late checkout. Take the “Money” option, and the Biltmore offers a complimentary upgrade to your choice of a Junior Suite or the exclusive Club Level, with access to the Club Lounge (offering complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’ouevres and beverages, evening turndown and Biltmore bathrobes and slippers in-room). For either one, rates start at $179 per night.

There's plenty to do here: visit the famed Getty Center, roam the historic Pueblo, of gawk at (sort of) celebs at the Hollywood Wax Museum.

Details: Offer valid for travel throughout the month of February. To book, please visit t or call 213/ 624-1011 and use the booking code LOVE! for “love” option, MONEY! for the “money” option.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Monterey and Big Sur winter escape

Lightning, rainstorms, mudslides, oh my! When this rain stops (as if!), I'm going to need some serious relief from a case of cabin fever that's been building up for about the last 10 days. I can't think of a better place for some fresh air and classic CA scenery than the Monterey area.

One of my faves: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (so named for the wolf-like barking of sea lions who hang out here). What's to do? Hiking, winter bird watching, photography, and wildlife watching (look for 250+ animal and bird species in this 544-acre park). head for the ocean-front perimeter trail or just hit the key points including Cypress Grove, home to one of two naturally growing strands of Monterey Cypress in the world, Bird Island, Whaler's Cove and China Cove. The sight of the jade-green waters, crashing waves and fresh breezes of Point Lobos' is a sure cure for anyone's cabin fever.

And if I'm in a Jack Kerouac road-trippy kind of mood, a drive down to Big Sur (depending on road conditions on Hwy One), and a gander at the classic lines of the 1932 Bixby Creek Bridge, will do the trick. It's quite the marvel, stretching 714 feet long and one of the top ten highest single-span bridges in the world; it's so lovely, they're honoring it with a stamp Feb. 3!

Details: Any excuse for a package deal, right? Along with the new stamp, area hotels have teamed up to offer a "Bixby Bridge Package" this winter. Big Sur River Inn (accommodations, breakfast and dinner for two starting at $160/dbl). Treebones Resort, with 16 upscale yurt accommodations (two-night mid-week stay with breakfast at 20 percent off, starting at $124.00/dbl. per night). The Post Ranch Inn, (two nights' accommodations, two one-hour spa treatments, dinner at Sierra Mar and daily breakfast starting at $2120.00/dbl). Ventana Inn & Spa ($250.00/dbl. rate including a complimentary upgrade and $50 resort credit for the luxury spa or restaurant). Or try a quaint cottage at Big Sur Lodge, in Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, (breakfast and guided hike with bag lunch for two at $180.00/dbl). NOTE: packages exclude taxes and are based on availability, restrictions and blackout periods apply. For more lodging and dining, check

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Celebrating Shanghai in San Francisco

I've been reading about the fascinating cities of the Far East recently, in books like The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee (about Hong Kong) and so I'm looking forward to the start next month of The Shanghai Celebration, an unique, year-long festival presented by more than thirty San Francisco Bay Area organizations. It's a chance for local families to broaden the kids' horizons and learn about important world cities without leaving town!

It commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the sister city relationship between San Francisco and Shanghai and is spearheaded by the Asian Art Museum. The Celebration runs through 2010, coinciding with the World Expo in Shanghai from May to October. The more than 50 Shanghai-related programs run the gamut from exhibitions, concerts, performances, films, and lectures, to book readings, artist demonstrations, and other special events. Delve into topics such as Shanghai's architecture, jazz, historic Jewish communities, Art Deco design, filmmaking industry, contemporary art, cuisine, high-rise urban planning and fashion.

Details: One main event: the Asian Art Museum's presentation of Shanghai, a major exhibition examining the visual culture of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, scheduled for February 12-September 5, 2010. For the Shanghai Celebration program calendar of events, and a list of participating organizations, click here. For details on the Asian Art Museum, click here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Search to save on travel with SideStep

Heard of this new way to save money on travel costs: Yeah, we've all tried Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz. Well, it seems you can, ahem, sidestep the best known travel search engines (Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz) by heading straight for, which will search them all at once. Sounds like a great way to save both time and money.

Details: Caveat: I don't have a trip coming up for a bit, so I haven't had the chance to try this tip out myself. When I do, I'll let you know how it works.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yosemite in winter-an insider speaks

You don't have to have a friend living in Yosemite National Park to get the inside track on what's cool about a winter visit there, but it doesn't hurt. My pal Teri just moved there to work for the park concessionare. Yep, she and her husband live right in the middle of Yosemite Valley! (I can only imagine the view out their front window). How cool is that?

Her latest report? "Right now we’ve got Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee going on until early February. Winter is awesome because there’s hardly anyone here and you often get the feeling you’ve got the park all to yourself. Badger Pass is California’s original ski area, celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, and is seriously the safest place for families to teach their kids how to ski. They’ve also got a Nordic Center that’s all about world-class cross-country skiing and snowshoeing." Thanks for the scoop, Teri.

Details: To help plan your visit, click here. For lodging and dining info, click here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kenny Karst, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Napa Valley hidden gem

If you're passionate about all things “green” and “sustainable”, Long Meadow Ranch in Rutherford should be on your must-see list. For years, the organic farm, organic winery, and organic ranch has been a leader in the use of organic and sustainable farming methods.

Set in the Mayacamas Mountains, Long Meadow Ranch has been featured as one of the settings and local food providers for Bravo Television’s 2009 Top Chef Finale. Though the grand tour is $175, it includes a hike around the grounds, a memorable lunch of ranch-produced fresh produce, olive oils, and grass-fed beef accompanied by their world-acclaimed organic wine. Not up for that kind of fee? Then check out their new St. Helena tasting room location (which also boasts a farm-to-table restaurant named Farmstead, slated to open in February 2010, and long-time St. Helena favorite, Whiting Nursery); taste a flight of wine for $10.

Details: Long Meadow Ranch is at 1796 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; book tours at 707/963-4555 ext. 161; or stop by the new tasting room for Long Meadow Ranch Winery, Logan-Ives House, 738 Main Street, St. Helena. For details on lodging and dining, click here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A dreamy (free) home show in Santa Clara

Want to while away a Saturday with your honey without spending a dime? This weekend, you can dream about creating your ideal kitchen, bathroom, or outdoor room at the California Home, Garden, & Gourmet Show at the Santa Clara County Fairground. Pick up a San Jose Mercury News for a free entry coupon. You'll see some great design, a lot of 'green' ideas, and you can catch a few how-to and cooking demos. The seminars offer a lot of help for those looking to go solar.

Details: Friday Jan 8 (noon-8), Sat/Sun Jan 9, & 10 (11-6) at the SCC Fairgrounds (344 Tully Road, San Jose). For more, call 650/593-3462 or click here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dining deals in Yountville/ Napa Valley

There's still time to take advantage of one of the coolest dining deals in the Napa Valley: the Moveable Feast program, good through February. It's Yountville's way of showing off the best of their best.

Say you and your squeeze want to get in some exercise, while experiencing some of the finest food in Napa's wine country. Here's the deal: some 15 top notch restaurants are within strolling distance of one another in the walkable town of Yountville: the new Bottega from Food Network’s Michael Chiarello, restaurant at Bardessono, Cantinetta Piero at Hotel Luca, and Thomas Keller/Laura Cunningham’s Vita, and more.

Want to extend your trip into the weekend? For more lodging, dining, and wine tasting info, contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce at 707/944-0904.

Details: 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).
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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