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.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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