09 September 2010

Nob Hill

It's no wonder that the historic Nob Hill district of San Francisco has earned the nickname "Snob Hill." Its former residents, current demographics, outstanding views, and reputation as one of the most affluent areas in this already-expensive city have helped it on its way. All kidding aside, the origin of the name "Nob Hill" still remains a mystery. Some believe the hill's knob shape inspired the name. While others claim similarity to the words "nabob" (18th century slang term for wealthy) or "nobility." Regardless of namesake, one thing is for sure. The rich and famous arrived, and stayed.

Locally know as the Big Four, the Central Pacific Railroad executives built their homes on Nob Hill once they built their fortunes. Mansions taking up city blocks; imported and rare building materials; castle-like architecture with spires and gables. Those were the 19th century homes of Stanford (as in the university), Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker. Other former residents include the silver tycoons Flood, O'Brien, Fair, and Mackay. While the San Francisco fire of 1906 destroyed the mansions of times past, affluent visitors and residents continue to flock to reputable Nob Hill and its high-end hotels named for the city's founders (Fairmont, Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, Stanford Court, and Huntington hotels). 

But it's not just the neighborhood nor its residences, current and former, that exude the "Snob Hill" nickname.  Even its cathedral is a bit over the top. Grace Cathedral welcomes its visitors with one of the few replicas of the Gates of Paradise. Often thought to mark the beginning of the Renaissance, these doors moved away from the flatness of religious art and brought perspective into play. The cathedral itself is a monolithic stone building reminiscent of European religious grandeur. In addition to elaborate stained glass depicting more than just bible scenes (look for the spaceship in the window closest to the entrance), a large section of redwood was chosen for the altar table top. This single section is so large it could only come from a tree that was alive during the time of Christ.

While the people now living on Nob Hill belie their neighborhood's nickname, it is clear that this historic neighborhood (and its historic affluence) still thrives.

05 September 2010

Sausalito and its Surroundings

An easy jaunt from San Francisco lies one the best places for skyline vistas: Sausalito. Situated on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from the city, Sausalito attracts thousands of visitors each year for its boutique shopping, good dining, and of course the view.

The southern end of the city is the main draw.  Walking southward, the main strip leads you to the bayside walkway where hundreds gather to capture on film (er, memory card) the grandeur that is San Francisco.  The Transco Tower and the rest of the financial district; the Bay Bridge and the bay itself; and the city's northside locales of Marina, Presidio, and Fisherman's Whorf; all are right there in panoramic prominence.

With a view like that, be ready to drop a pretty penny. The food is fresh, the atmosphere is upscale, and clientelle ranges from locals to the rich and famous (we saw a 10.5 million dollar boat in the bay...apparently an affluent Russian businessman came for lunch). Scoma's restaurant sits on stilts in the bay and offers local fish and of course Dungess crab. For something a bit more casual, Fish restaurant is a popular choice for sailors and yachters due to its location on the harbor. BBQ oysters are a specialty of the house.

For those who pass up views and fine dining for intellectual stimulation, visit the Bay Model Visitor Center. In an area the size of 1.5 football fields lies a to-scale replica of the bay and all its waterways. From viewing platforms and walkways, visitors can watch a sped-up version of the tide cycle. One day passes every 13 minutes and you can see the tides going in an out every 3.

More of a day-trip destination than a weekend getaway, Sausalito is still a no-miss.

02 September 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Redwood Regional

Tucked between Oakland, Moraga, and Lake Chabot, and a short drive for East Bay residents, lies an oft-forgotten getaway - Redwood Regional Park.  While it lacks the immediate gratification of Muir Woods (redwoods are the first thing you see there), the hike to the canyon bottom as well as the drive to the park are an experience all their own.

To get a true sense for the lay of the land  and the beauty of the park's surroundings, enter Redwood Regional from Grizzly Peak/Skyline Blvd. Though winding and a bit less direct, this drive puts even Highway 1 to shame. Multi-million dollar homes, which get progressively bigger as the elevation increases, are tucked neatly into the roadside hills. Picture windows front nearly every house and soon you know why...like the homes, the views are million-dollar, too. On a clear day, you can look down on Oakland, across at San Francisco, and get full views of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. All this mere miles from a redwood sanctuary.

The park itself is different things to different people. The well-travelled East and West Ridge trails invite hikers, bikers, and runners. With fairly even terrain and wide trails you'll see many close-by residents out for their daily excercise of choice. Others bring their dogs out for some wilderness fun without the restrictions required of neighborhoods and communities (leashes are optional).  Still others are looking for peace and tranquility (we ran into one group on a spiritual hike). For us, the redwood trees were the draw.

Once off the beaten path, the Tres Sendas and Stream trails take you down to the canyon bed where redwoods find their home. Growing in tight huddles, as is typical of redwoods, the trees here reach over 100 feet tall. At one time, prior to the influx of loggers, this park's trees were landmarks for boats entering the San Francisco Bay...16 miles away!

In true redwood fashion, tthe trees at Redwood Regional dwarf the visitors, provide respite from the sun, and offer an awe-inspiring ambiance to all those who visit.

31 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Eugene O'Neill

It has taken some getting used to, residing in California. Not only do LOTS of people live here (more than 10% of U.S. population) but lots of famous people, too. In particular, Joe Montana, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Sully (the famed pilot that landed his plane in the Hudson River) live or have lived mere miles from my house. But perhaps most famous, at least from the literary perspective, is Eugene O'Neill.

You may be wondering what hiking has to do with one of the most reknowned American playwrights of the 20th century. Well, Las Trampas Regional Wilderness is the site of his former ranch home. Now a museum which commemorates his life and works, the ranch is as easily accessible by trail as it is by road. A moderate, 30-minute hike from Camille Road brings the curious up-close-and-personal with northern California's beloved Nobel laureate.

The ranch house, know as Tao House, is where O'Neill wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece: A Long Day's Journey into Night. Simple yet elegant in true taoist fashion, O'Neill's former home was inspired by his interest in Eastern thought. With arguably the best view in all of Las Trampas, it is easy to see how O'Neill found inspiration here where some of his best plays were written. 

Open to the public every summer Saturday and offering play readings on-site, Eugene O'Neill's former home is worth a visit for fans of work, those curious about his life, or hikers simply looking for the picture-perfect view.

27 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Las Trampas

Photos by Laura Seewoester
In the shadow (literally) of its eastward neighbor Mt. Diablo and just west of the well-traveled Iron Horse Trail lie hiking trails that do not get the attention they deserve. With high potential for seclusion, varied terrain, and ease of access, Las Trampas Regional Wilderness offers some of the best hikes in the Bay Area.

Despite its proximity to well-populated East Bay communities like San Ramon and Walnut Creek, the trails are practically deserted...even on weekends. I've been on many 2-hour hikes and have not encountered a soul. With serene, contemplative, and aesthetic surroundings, Las Trampas not only entices but inspires.

Its trails combine steep climbs with flat footpaths making every turn something special. The tree-covered pathways and trickling creek along Ringtail Cat Trail offer coolness and shade from the 100-degree summers. The up-close-and-personal vegetation of the Corduroy Hills Trail makes one almost feel like a pioneer. And the numerous ridge trails, while not offering shelter from the sun, get the cool, strong breezes off the bay.

With a little effort, one can quickly reach the Madrone Trail vista where Mt. Diablo and the San Ramon Valley are in full panorama. Summiting is easy, too. Vail Peak is a quick, well-maintained upward hike off the Las Trampas Ridge Trail and peaks at 1,787 feet. But the best for both view and seclusion is the lower-lying Eagle Peak. A narrow, overgrown footpath brings you to one secluded bench (with no room for much else) looking over the undulating hills and vegetation.

For those wanting inspiration, perspiration, or just a little insulation from city-life, you'll find it all at Las Trampas.

24 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Muir Woods

Just down the road from Point Reyes past Stinson Beach, you go from unknown to most known. And when you arrive you'll know why. Muir Woods is home to the famed redwood trees of the northwest. Towering high above heads, the trees offer not only grandiose sights but also shelter from sun and rain.

A must-see for first-time Bay Area visitors, Muir Woods is accessible to just about anyone. Shuttles easily bus city folk who don't own wheels (the shuttle lot is just over the Golden Gate Bridge); and for those who rely on wheels for getting everywhere, Muir Woods is wheelchair accessible. While the trailhead at the main entrance is what most people come for (paved or boardwalked and easy to hike) try going off the beaten path for a more "authentic" hiking experience.

For those hiking more for leisure, take the Fern Creek Trail. Trickling water, stony creek beds, and log bridges that take you over both make for a peaceful hiking experience. Those erring more toward the hard-core, take the Dipsea and Sun trails through varied terrain. While inclines are steep and there are areas of no tree cover, the end of the trails rewards. The Tourist Club nestled within the redwoods offers members and hikers (for a fee) access to its German-style beer garden.

While Muir Woods offers a nice break from the bustle of its southward city neighbor, the city in all its liberal glory is never too far away (notice the convenient location of the First Amendment Area):

15 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Point Reyes

Just up the road from the Golden Gate Bridge and famed Marin County is one of the best kept secrets of the Bay Area – Point Reyes. While the park itself boasts almost 150 miles of hiking trails, the crowned jewel sits at the Palomarin trail head. If the drive to Point Reyes doesn't awe you (winding along historic Highway 1 inches from hundred-foot coastal drop offs), this trail surely will. 

The Coast Trail starts on the southern end of the park, and immediately the trail pleases. Just a couple hundred yards through effervescent eucalyptus groves you see the coast....from about 200 feet up! Wide pathways make the hiking easy, but be careful; the view entices even the most cautious close to the edge, and vegetated cliffs lead eyes (and hopefully that's all) down to rocky black sand beaches below.

From the cliff side views, the trail leads hikers through varied terrain that keeps the eyes occupied for miles. Dry golden hillsides familiar to East Bayers and short bushes of varied flora line the trails. Evergreens speckling the surrounding hills, some forming covered archways for hikers to pass through. Finally, green leafy vegetation growing high and thick leads to the trail's most popular feature: the Alamere Falls.

Three waterfalls in sequence form a pond-like body of water at the bottom, and views from the still high-up terrain show off the jagged coast. For the more adventurous, climb down crumbling shale cliffs to the beach below. Here, the runoff from the 3 waterfalls culminate into a 4th falling straight to the beach. While the climb down is not difficult cardio-wise, it is not for the faint of heart.  The steep descent requires feet, knees, and hands as the path crumbles with each footfall. Once down you view the 4th waterfall in all its glory, the Pacific Ocean in its vast expanse, and the winding rocky coastline both north and south.

For those who don't hike, try a swim. An estuary has formed between the hills and is accessible by trail or rope swing. Yep, you read right. Adventure seekers can swing by rope from a cliff above into the frigid water of the Pacific. It packs a shock for both observers and participants alike!

The best part about the Coast Trail? Even on a Saturday it is not too crowded. Perhaps it's because Point Reyes falls in the shadow of other close-by attractions; or maybe it's the street signs that local residents take down deterring visitors from finding their neighborhood treasure. But these deterrents should not deter you: Point Reyes and the Alamere Falls is a no miss! (Thanks, Alan, for organizing this unforgettable hiking excursion!):

12 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Point Pinole

Lying in between the craziness of Berkeley and the pretentiousness of Napa is regional shoreline that offers beautiful bay views (San Pablo Bay that is). Point Pinole is home to 12 miles of trails that even the most athletically challenged can enjoy. Head west to the Bay View Trail for hiking that puts you inches from coastline, and at its end places you in perfect position to walk the quarter-mile long fishing pier. Then roam your way back further inland through grassland trails and tree covered paths.

Though the trails at Point Pinole aren't as extensive as other parks, its history is. The hiking trials, grasslands, and eucalyptus forest were once the home of Giant Powder Company – a dynamite manufacturer. At the time, it was the only company in the U.S. allowed to use Alfred Nobel's patent for dynamite. From 1880 to 1960 – during which a company town complete with a dance hall, saloon, and bocce ball court were built and the company was acquire by Atlas Powder Company– 2 billion pounds of dynamite were produced.

Today, little is left of the once thriving industry that helped fuel war machines and made construction safer. But a few sites of interest invite hikers to remember what once was. Off the beaten path lies a dynamite blast and burning bunker. While its high embankments and circular form give clue to its former use, grass has since overgrown it and a picnic table lies at its center...a quaint place for a picnic though a little unsettling if you ask me! And for the more mechanically curious, an original powder press is on display.

The once bustling, busy, and booming peninsula is now a peaceful and quiet hiking retreat.  But there is still potential for some bang-up jobs on-site...congrats on your 3rd place standing at the Nitro Trail Run, Brian!

08 August 2010

Bay Area Hiking: Del Valle

While many visit Northern California for its wine, city tourist attractions, or the famous Hwy 1 drive, often left out of of the mix is the hiking which is second to none. Despite the thousands (yes, you heard me, thousands) of trails tucked in-between communities throughout the Bay Area, locals and tourists alike often overlook this past time opting for more "tourist worthy" activities. My next couple of posts in-series will highlight some of the Bay Area's "hike worthy" destinations.

Del Valle Regional Park is most known for its water sports.  On any given weekend, trucks with boats in tow and SUVs with kayaks atop can be seen heading toward the Del Valle Reservoir entrance on Mines Road. But while the dammed Arroyo del Valle river provides ample area for boating, 28 miles of hiking trails are also found here.  For hikers, avoid the watersport fanatics and find a more peaceful hiking experience at the Arroyo Road entrance.

Del Valle's East Shore Trail wins the award for immediate gratification. A short (yet steep) 15 minute uphill hike brings you to views that will blow you away. A picturesque panorama of both the Livermore and San Ramon valleys causes even the most earnest hiker to stop and pause. Rolling hills dominated by Mount Diablo, green trellised vines waiting for harvest, and one of the most beautiful golf courses in the country are just some of what you'll see. Turn around from this view and another awaits: the Del Valle Reservoir, lush with green trees and placid water which looks best as the sun sets.

After being blown away by the view, continue along the moderate 4-mile loop winding through hills of golden hay. Then catch the Heron Bay Trail to bring you close to the water. Fenceline blocks shoreline in most places, but look for the sporadic gates which allow foot access to rocky beaches and the reservoir itself.

While Del Valle hiking sits in the shadow its watersports arena, the hikers know better! Del Valle is a view-worthy hiking destination.

04 August 2010

Visiting the Google Campus

After blogging about Apple and Craigslist, it seems only appropriate to continue with my technology topic trend. And what better way than to feature Silicon Valley's Internet giant – Google. (Thanks for hosting me Eva and Alex!)

Unlike other company campuses, Google's errs more toward the university type. Just walking around Google grounds, you can't help but be transported back to college days yourself. Buildings surround open public areas where jean-and-T-shirt–clad employees can mingle, read, play volleyball, or just waste away the lunch hour. Walking and biking are the preferred forms of inter-building transit...Google even provides community bikes to do so! Even the cubicles reminded me a bit of dorm rooms, each expressing their share of individuality as well as college-style clutter. (I'm a firm believer that clutter breeds creativity...or vice versa.)

And then there's the food...college cafeteria style it is, but college cafeteria quality it is not. Self-serving and self-bussing is still the norm, but the selection of food is a far cry from college cuisine. From Asian soup–noodle bar to sushi to Indian and even vegan cuisine, there is something for everyone's tastes and tendencies. And for those who are cafeteria-food traditionalists, burgers and pizza are still to be found (though the burgers today were buffalo and my pizza had more cauliflower than cheese).

But more than nostalgic, Google is revolutionary. From its start in 1998 to its searching-made-simple claim to fame, Google has set the bar high for competitors from the beginning. And for employees Google has continued to be a pioneer, breaking the rules of corporate America. Twenty percent of employees' time is allotted for their own personal projects, encouraging not only creativity but self-controlled variety in the workplace. In addition, it's not the subordinates (if you can even use that term here) vying for the top positions. Bosses are the ones working to impress in an effort to attract a successful team. And if you don't like your boss, you can fire him or her and find a new one.

For those of us not lucky enough to wear PJs at work or bring our cocker spaniel to the office, we can still reap the technological benefits of what the Googleplex phenomenon has nurtured – Gmail, Google Maps, and of course my favorite:

31 July 2010

Craigslist Crack-Ups: Part 2

And here are some more favorites. The treasures just keep on coming:

Do you need a suit  I have a decent Olive green suit. Comes with a green shirt and tie.
  • Calling all incredible hulk look alikes...this offer won't last long!

Wedding/Party supplies, includ. fresh unopened 1/2-&-1/2 Left over from a wedding, we will happily give away about $50 worth of party supplies:
- 3 pints HALF 'N' HALF for coffee, unopenened; never taken even out of the fridge!, dated Aug. 3 so it's still just fine!
- 1 large roll of white paper STREAMERS, still rolled up (unused)
- approx. 35 "deluxe" plastic WINE GLASSES (need washing)
- approx. 35 "deluxe" plastic FORKS that look like silverware (need washing)
- 5-10 each "deluxe" plastic SPOONS & KNIVES that look like silverware (need washing)
- 1 pkg. of 8 disposable ASHTRAYS
-2 antique-look aluminum VASES, about 14" tall
  •  Looks like they pulled out all the stops for this celebration. Truly, a wedding is not complete without disposable ashtrays.

veggie oil I've got two 5 gallon jugs of used oil to give away. I haven't been driving my car as much as normal due to injury. This is good quality oil for making biodiesel or filtering for straight vegetable oil cars. First to respond gets it.
  •  Again, only in the Bay Area...

Mannequin Legs great for an artist or someone who likes legs!
Free Mannequin Legs! Pair of mannequin legs from a vintage mannequin. My mannequin Lola is pretty, tall and vintage. She's a part of my life now so I can't part with her head/torso, however, her legs are taking up a lot of room in my small apartment. The legs are connected at the pelvis by a bar, but can be used as two separate legs as well. Lola stood around 6' tall as a full mannequin, so the legs are full size. The feet are cute, they remind me of gelfling feet from The Dark Crystal. There's a gap between the big toe and the rest of the toes to allow for sandal or thong display.
  • Thanks god they included a close up pic of the toes. That could make or break the deal.

28 July 2010

Craigslist Crack-Ups: Part 1

For those who are not privy to the craigslist phenomenon, it's truly a wonderful thing. Started right here in the Bay Area in 1995 and since expanding to over 700 cities worldwide, craigslist is the ultimate online garage sale. People can post their trash and their treasures online for free in hopes of finding a home, making some cash, or just getting rid of some of their junk.  And while I use craigslist myself for personal shopping, it also provides me with hours of entertainment.  Check out some of the most recent craigslist posts:

broken concrete "clean"  free broken concrete peices for you come and take one and all i dont care no emails just come and get it
  • Alright, now I'm sure there are plenty of good uses for broken concrete. I just can't think of any right now. And apparently the fact that the concrete is clean is REALLY important, too. I mean, did this guy miss the third grade punctuation test or something? he needs to retake the third grade really "bad" maybe he was too busy giving away clean concrete to pay attention in class.

YOU take it to the recycle place I am remodeling my house. I've tried to save what I can from the landfill but just don't have the energy to take it to the recycle place. I have various scrap metals and two window panels from the sliding glass door I replaced. If you want it, please come get it, but please take it all.
  • Only in the Bay Area would this fly. Getting someone else to do your dirty recycling. Within an hour I bet he had all sorts of Go-Greeners begging to help him recycle. Seriously, if you have the energy to remodel your house, you can take your own trash to the recycle center.

Free horse manure (Sebastopol) FREE Horse manure. We can load. Please call to set-up a pick-up time. We would appreciate a little money for the cost of diesel for the tractor but not requied. By appoitment ONLY!!
Free Wool Free wool from 7 just shorn sheep - great for crafts; spinning or what have you! Just call to make arrangements to pick it up in S. Sebastopol.
  • I think someone needs help cleaning up their farm.

Free Wood from Closet - damaged Our Closet fell down and broke. Have the wood if you need it. You will need to pcik it up.
  • What the....

24 July 2010

The Apple Revolution

I have always been an advocate for Apple products, even during pre-iMac days when everything was PC. For me, it has always been Apple all the way. So you'd think now that we live near Apple headquarters my loyalties would have taken off. Well, let's just say I've been going through a technology dry spell, and my hiatus from the I-world became all too apparent last week.

A friend in Singapore asked if we could pick up his new iPad and send it to him (it won't be available there for another couple of months). Upon its arrival, I made my first trip to an Apple Store since returning home from Singapore myself. Among the counters of curious consumers playing with MacBooks and iPods, I began to scan the store for the sales counter...hmmm. Nowhere to be found.

So I head to the only logical place, the Genius Bar, where other consumers had formed a line. This must be the counter where I pick up the iPad, I thought to myself. But as I stood in line, I noticed everyone in front of me had used products in hand...hmmm. No new products being handed out here.

Finally I stop a pleasant fellow in a blue Apple T-shirt, tight jeans, red espadrilles, and wild curly brown hair that was a little too long. His look and his layed-back easy going attitude (as well as his dress) epitomized the Apple-tude.
"Can I help you?" he asked and I explained that I couldn't find the counter to pick up my iPad. He led me to one of the display computers, asked for my e-mail address, clicked a couple of buttons and said he'd meet me back there in 3 minutes. OK? So where do I check out, I wondered, but I didn't say anything.

Three minutes later he arrives with iPad in hand. I hadn't paid for it yet so I asked where I could process my order. Right here, he said...we were standing in the middle of the Apple Store, no cashiers to be seen. I trusted he knew what he was doing so I handed him my credit card. At that point he grabbed what I think was his iPhone, swiped my card down the side, then asked me to sign on his iPhone screen. Viola! Transacation complete.

Seriously, I feel a bit un-California to be surprised by this.

***Thank you Apple for letting me "borrow" your logo image.

20 July 2010

Heavenly Highway 1

The term God's country had little relevance to me...until we drove the historic Highway 1. From Cambria to Monterey, this stretch of highway truly feels a bit like heaven.

We started our trek from Paso Robles, heading west to the coast. While the crown jewel is the coastal drive, the "getting there" wasn't bad either! Winding roads through hills that keep the cool sea air from blasting Paso; vineyards and wineries leading the way; and morning fog making for an eerie
proach to the quaint town of Cambria. Could it really get any better than this?

Whether starting in Cambria (as we did) or elsewhere along Highway 1, this lazy vacation town is a must-stop. The main strip of downtown boasts quaint shops and bistro-gourmet dining. Try Indigo Moon for a bountiful brunch experience. Live music every Sunday, outdoor garden seating, and copious cuisine make this stop more than worthwhile. And the food is fresh and affordable! Eggs Benedict served atop crab cakes instead of muffins; fish and chips that put its competitors to shame (I think they fried the entire fish for this dish!); and thick, juicy, gourmet burgers served with a side of sweet potato fries...there is a little something for everyone here.

Continuing north back toward home, the road takes you down, up, and up-close-and-personal with the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Winding along mere feet from sea level and climbing up for beautiful views are what this drive is all about. Try accessing the fireroad across from Ragged Point for some killer panoramas and a good hike (4 miles gaining 1,700 feet gives even the in-shape a workout). Or for the tourist in all of us, visit the Hearst Castle (media mogul William Hearst's
picturesque mansion) in San Simeon.

From Ragged Point (a good pit stop along the way), Big Sur starts to dominate the east side of Highway 1. All along the way, hiking trails invite the adventurous, and viewpoints invite the rest. But for hikers and non-hikers alike, one trail is a must for everyone...the McWay Waterfall Trail. A mere .6 mile stroll along boardwalk takes you to Big Sur's most distinctive photo-op – an 80 foot waterfall cascading into the ocean.

Continuing north takes you to the heart of Big Sur and toward Carmel and Monterey. But for a quick dinner stop away from Carmel crowds or Monterey mayhem, try Big Sur Roadhouse. Though the happy hour was what led us in, the California-Latin cuisine kept us there. Some of the freshest tortilla soup I've ever had – chunks of veggies and delicate broth served with homemade tortilla chips.

With outstanding food, outstanding views, outstanding hikes, and fewer crowds than you'd expect, Highway 1 is truly a bit of heaven right here in California.

17 July 2010

Paso Robles: The West Loop

While the East side offers hours of entertainment, Paso’s West side story is just as tasty. Might I suggest our West loop for a delectable day of wining.

Wild Coyote: Approached by a winding road and nestled among the hills, this winery is a Santa Fe-styled surprise. Complete with adobe-walled tasting room, pottery peppered hills, and even a teepee out front, the tasting experience here is hard to beat. And while the wines were a bit disappointing the views were not. Wild Coyote wins for the best Paso

Halter Ranch:
A ranch style farmhome houses the Halter Ranch tasti
ng room, and tours of the vineyards and restored 19th-century barn are available. Don’t leave without trying their Sauvignon Blanc. Aged in stainless steel, it still has creamy characteristics from being aged sur lie.

Le Cuvier: The service in this winery is top-notch. Each wine is paired with tasty tapas-styled treats in a casual barrel room atmosphere. If you like oak, this is the place for you. Some of their wines have laid in oak for over 3 years!

The wine industry certainly is one big happy family. And you’ll know this the minute you walk into Tolo's red farmhouse. Set in the winemaker’s kitchen, you’ll be poured wines from behind his kitchen counter. Not only that, his next door neighbor at Tablas actually trained him in all he knows. Yep, one big happy family.

The biggest presence in Paso also gives the biggest first impression. Beautiful grounds, nice views, isolated atmosphere, and a grandiose tasting room all add to the wine tasting experience here. Specializing in Bordeauxs but making a little of everything, this region-wide wine distributor still manages to keep quality high.

Four Vines:
Did I just walk into an 80s bar? With wine pourers punked out in torn black T’s, you can’t help but feel a bit like a rock star yourself. And the red Chihuly-esque chandeliers oddly complement the wine room decor. The best part though? You get to keep the glass. (I chose the “Zin Bitch” glass.)

Touted as the oldest family owned winery in San Luis Obispo County, Rotta has produced wine since 1908. While their reds and whites are good, the dessert wines are the real winners. Try Black Monukka for a sweet treat. Rotta is the exclusive producer of this rare, cognac-esque dessert wine.

10 July 2010

Paso Robles: The East Loop

Highway 101 conveniently divides Paso Robles into two side – East and West. Though I found both to be separate but equal, many visitors claim allegiance to one or the other. For a day of tasteful entertainment, might I suggest our East side loop. Make the Highway 46 drive to Tobin James first. The drive out, a bit urban to say the least, puts you in perfect position to mosey your way back through more appealing scenery.

Tobin James:
Is this really a winery? From the outside it looks like a fancy truck stop; from the inside, a Texas honky tonk with wood floors, long bar, and beer taps (I think they're just for show). This tasting room gets an A+ for atmosphere, making everyone feel relaxed and right at home. Try their Late Harvest Zinfandel for something hard-to-find elsewhere.

Rockin' R:
One of Paso's newer wineries, it is quality not quantity here. Only offering 3 wines for tasting this stop is still well worth your while. Rockin' R offers excellent blends...with a catch! While the wines bear names like "Pink Freud," the varietals used remain a secret. Join the wine club and try your luck at guessing. Dinner for 2 and two bottles of wine await the winner.

A truly elegant experience. White table clothes coupled with French-Reggae music complement the wines beautifully. Though prices are a bit above Paso cost standards, they are well worth a splurge. Try their Syrah (one of the best I've had!) or their creamy Sauvignon Blanc. Both are sure to please.

Rhone blends for everyday drinking...and wigs. Yep, you read right. Wigs in psychedelic colors (including a Marge Simpson mock-up) are just waiting to fuel the wine-tasting fire. What could be better than wine tasting with wigs?!

While the wines aren't my palate's preference, the tasting room is a no-miss. Beautiful landscaping, an iron gate, and huge animal sculptures welcome visitors to the tasting room grounds. As an added bonus, pistachios are grown on property and can be purchased in the tasting room.

Pear Valley:
Beautiful views! Did I mention Pear Valley has beautiful views? Try some of their Rhones for a pleasant surprise at a pleasant price.

Here, we found a little bit of home in Paso. The winemaker is a former employee of Livermore's Concannon Vineyard (right across the street from where I currently work). A beautiful tasting room, friendly staff, and Livermore-style wine. Their Sangiovese is a must try!

Falcon Nest:
While the tasting room is a bit shabby and the owners a bit unconventional (the winemaker-owner walked in with a rifle!), if you like big, oaky wines Falcon Nest is the place for you. These wines are how I imagine the Old World wines once were.

07 July 2010

Passing Through Paso

For those making a trip along historic Highway 1, Paso Robles is worth a pass through. Located almost equidistant from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Bakersfield (and just 20 miles east of the coast), Paso Robles is an ideal long weekend destination for California residents and visitors.

Yuppies from L.A.; hikers from the East Bay; computer geeks from Silicon Valley; blue collar Bakersfield residents; and of course a bit of redneck from the surrounding smaller towns, Paso is a crossroads for the eclectic.
Even the locals – farmers, winemakers, and migrant workers among other populations – add to the unlikely mix. But regardless of population and visitor diversity, they all come for one thing – WINE!

One of the lesser known wine regions nationwide (but touted and revered by locals), wining and dining is what folks come here for. Zinfandels and Rhone varietals are must tries, as well as Sauvignon Blanc (some of the best I've tasted in California!). You'll pay reasonable prices for outstanding wines, and with over 100 wineries to choose from you are bound to find something that titillates your palate.

While I like to give credit where credit is due (Napa's Cabs are hard to beat), Paso Robles kicks the pants off of Napa's culinary options.
Unlike Napa's options which include break-the-budget high ends, less-than-spectacular low ends, and Rutherford Grill (yep, that about sums it up), Paso's restaurants and bars frame the main square and offer quality cuisine that anyone could afford. Like the diversity of Paso's residents and visitors, happy hour honky tonks and bistro-gourmets neighbor high-end french restaurants and "exclusive" uppity clubs. For every palate (and every budget) there is a little something for everyone in Paso.

27 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Berlin

It only seems appropriate that our final stop on this Jewish Plight series should be Berlin...where the Final Solution saw its final days. In particular, you can visit the site of Hitler's bunker hide-out. Until a couple of years ago, the site was not even marked for fear it becoming a Neo-Nazi shrine. Today, though not well publicized, the site of the bunker is marked and can be visited at the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße.

The bunker itself is where Hitler spent his last days. Less than a month after marrying long-time companion Eva Braun in that bunker, they both committed suicide there...a final testimant to Hitler's defeat. Today, the non-descript site has a parking lot, a small grass plaza, and apartment buildings surrounding it. And according to our tour guide, the only commenmorative rituals that happen here are dogs doing their business.

Just down the street from where Hitler and his "plan" met their ends is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews...a assemblage of concrete slabs varying in height and placed linearly over a 5 acre plot. In the corner of the memorial, you can enter an underground museum which highlights the personal stories of many of those who lost their lives. Poignant, moving, and not for the faint of heart, the museum brings to life real stories of separation, torture, and death.

But the memorial brings to question how much a nation should commemorate its tainted past. For some, perhaps it symbolizes the German people embracing and facing their history...both good and bad. But as Martin Walser points out, the memorial is a "ceaseless presentation of our shame." In that same vein, should memorials intend only to commemorate the good or can good come out of commemorating the bad as well? I'll leave that for each of us to decide.

24 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Prague

In the shadow of Poland's plight during WWII are the struggles of its close by neighbors: Bohemia and Moravia. Now the Czech Republic, its Jewish history is just as rich and tragic as Poland's, and the commemoration of the Jewish plight is some of the best in Eastern Europe.

The Jewish Museum in Prague spans 11 buildings, all of which commemorate, celebrate, and remember the fight and plight of the Jewish communities there. Perhaps the most moving of all the buildings is the Pinkas Synagogue. Following the Holocaust, extensive research commenced to find the names, birth and death dates, and hometowns of all Bohemians and Moravians who died in Nazi concentration camp Terezin. Almost 80,000 names, in red and black, were painstakingly written by hand both as a record of and memorial to those lost during the Holocaust.

But perhaps the most saddening part, other than the sheer number of names, is that this is the second version of the memorial. The original was completed in 1959. But with Israel's victory in the Six-Day War and the anti-semitic sentiment of the late 1960s, all the names were removed by the communist government. After extensive restoration, the current version was completed in 1996. For many (including Madeleine Albright who found proof of her grandfathers' fate) this is the only record of what became of loved ones and families separated during Nazi occupation.

But it is not just tragedy that is remembered here; it is also Jewish tradition. You see, not only is the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) immaculately preserved, many Jewish artifacts pilfered during WWII were kept and stored in Prague by the Nazis themselves. Their intention? To erect an "exotic museum of an extinct race" once their Final Solution came to fruition.

Though their Final Solution was squelched, their intent for a museum was not, and took on a much different form than intended: one of the best preservations of a brave and thriving people! Included in this preservation is the immaculate Spanish Synagogue designed in Moorish architectural style with Arabic patterns covering its interior walls (if you didn't know better you'd think you were entering a mosque). Also here is Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery – a mishmash of headstones dating as far back as the 15th century. According to Jewish law, tombs cannot be destroyed nor gravestones removed. So when land become impossible to purchase, new layers of dirt covered old ones and ALL tombstones were crammed on top.

For Jewish history and commemoration of tragedy and tradition, the much overlooked Prague definitely deserves a lookover.

20 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Auschwitz-Birkenau

While I hate to say that a WWII death camp is a must-visit, Auschwitz truly shows just how heartless, horrible, and extensive the Nazi's "final solution" was...something you can't experience from reading books or seeing pictures. Named for the town of Oswiecim in which it stands (Auschwitz is its German name), Auschwitz was divided into three camps (I, II [Birkenau], and III) and was the largest in the German camp system.

When visiting the Auschwitz complex, some say to visit Auschwitz I if you are short on time. After all, there is much more to see there: buildings completely reconstructed, artifacts stolen from the Jews and compiled (glasses, fake teeth, even hair shaved from prisoners), and a concise history that helps tell the story of life in the concentration camps. In Auschwitz I, prisoners were kept alive, experimented upon, or forced to work under impossible conditions. In Birkenau, however, all that existed was death and those who worked for it.

The first thing you see upon arrival to Birkenau is a dominating, red brick watchtower and gate. From the outside, it appears like a grandiose entrance way, much the same as Brandenburg Gate or the Arch de Triomphe might seem. And perhaps this is how Himmler saw it as well. But as you walk through and see what hides behind its facade, feelings being to overwhelm and the void on the other side overtakes.

To the left and right are open fields, where the prison buildings once stood. Now it is a half mile of emptiness on each side. To the front, a single railroad track (ominously foreshadowing that people come in but not out) leads 1.5 miles ahead, terminating at the crematoriums (5 in all). This is where 1.1 million people were never given a chance, chosen not for who they were but for who they were not, and killed systematically...banefully...inhumanely.
And making the walk from entry to crematory makes it all the more real.

The crematoriums are gone; the prison buildings are destroyed. Now all that remains is the gate, the tracks, and the feeling of hollowness that Birkenau's massive expanse leaves behind.

17 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Krakow

While Warsaw saw the most physical destruction during WWII, Krakow's Kazimierz district and its Jewish history is probably the most familiar. It's proximity is not only the closest to well-known Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, but it was also home to the Jewish savior made popular Steven Spielberg: Oskar Schindler.

Schindler's enamel factory, now a museum, lies just outside Krakow's Jewish district. Here, hundreds of Jews were employed
under the auspices of "necessity to the war effort" and saved from the gas chambers. As depicted in the film, Oskar Schindler's original motivations were monetary. But as the war went on and more Jews were employed, his loyalties shifted to his workers despite their Jewish ethnicity. Taking a walk in the Kazimierz district, you might encounter scenes where Schindler's List was filmed. (These pictures are from the scene where mother is separated from daughter while trying to hide from the Nazis, then reunited under these stairs.)
But more disheartening than the extermination of the Jews and the risk Schindler took in their protection is the lack of a Jewish community here today. After the war, anti-semitism continued to thrive through the late 1960s. Following the Six-Day War between Israel and the Egypt/Jordan/Syria region (in which Israel came out victor), anti-semitic tensions continued to escalate in Poland and finally culminated the following year. Massive student protests, sparked by censorship of Poland's national poet of Jewish heritage, ended with more than 2,500 arrests. Jewish organizations were shut down, Yiddish was banned, and most Jews
by then had emigrated out of Poland.

Though anti-semitism does not thrive overtly, the residual effects are still apparent. The Jewish population was decimated by discrimination and people still hide their Jewish heritage. In fact, it is not uncommon for daughters and sons to discover their true heritage only as a final revelation by their parents on their death beds. Even today many Jewish Krakovians feel compelled to hide who they are.

15 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Esperanto

Given my personal interest in languages and culture, it seems only appropriate to mention L.L. Zamenhof as I follow the Jewish plight across Eastern Europe. For those unfamiliar, Zamenhof is the creator of the Esperanto language who found his home in Warsaw.

Born in Poland (formerly the Russian Empire) in 1859, Zamenhof grew up keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. His childhood town was home to four major ethnic groups (Jewish, Polish, German, and Belarusian), between which ethnically fueled quarrels often arose. In addition, from the year of his birth until 1905, anti-Jewish pogroms ran rampant in the Russian Empire. These factors not only encouraged Zamenhof to join the Zionist movement for a time, but no doubt inspired his pursuit of a language which everyone could easily learn and speak. In his view,
"the main reason for the hate and prejudice lay in mutual misunderstanding, caused by the lack of one common language that would play the role of a neutral communication tool between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds" (wikipedia.com). Esperanto was Zamenhof's response to this age-old conflict – it was intended as a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures.

While Zamenhof himself wasn't around to see the horrors of the holocaust, his children were – Adam, Sofia, and Lidia all died during the holocaust. And their Jewish heritage was not the only factor that may have played a role in their persecution.
Hitler (as well as Stalin and other totalitarian leaders) saw Esperanto as a language of conspiracy and even wrote to this effect in Mein Kampf:

"As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must speak their languages whether he likes it or not, but as soon as they became his slaves, they would all have to learn a universal language (Esperanto, for instance!), so that by this additional means the Jews could more easily dominate them!"

Despite the persecution, Esperanto still survives boasting more than a thousand native speakers and hundreds of thousands of fluent speakers (some estimates as high as 8 million) worldwide. But more important, Zamenhof's pacifistic philosophy of tolerance survived the holocaust and continues to live on through the Esperanto language.

08 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Warsaw

Modern-day Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin appear like any other cities in today's worldwide spectrum. They all tout successful tourist industries, beautiful architecture, blossoming economies, and heartbeats that distinguish them as unique in their own regard. But what sets them apart from others, and unites these 4 cities as one, are their tragic connections to WWII's holocaust and the atrocities experienced by each. My own exploration, education, and reflection began in Warsaw...

Walking through Warsaw today, it appears like any Eastern European city. Impeccable public transit, modern shopping malls, and new buildings flanked by socialist architecture of bygone days. But be careful...a tourist could easily flit around this city visiting Old Town, the Royal Walk, and Palace of Culture and Science and leave none the wiser to Warsaw's poignant past. But here in this now modern and beautiful city, the plight of the Jews was by far the most tragic.

Of the ghettos established by the Nazi regime, Warsaw's was the largest. Nearly 30% of Warsaw's population (~400,000 people) was forced into an area less than 3% the size of Warsaw. Conditions were difficult, disease rampant, and starvation and random shootings an everyday occurrence. Though buildings of the ghetto were mostly destroyed as Warsaw was "razed to the ground," the site of its Umschlagplatz (literally "reloading point") can still be visited today. Here, nearly 300,000 ghetto residents in just under 2 months
(about 7,000 each day) were gathered, loaded on trains, transported to Treblinka death camp, and killed in gas chambers.

While some met their untimely death at Treblinka, the more influential and dangerous faced interrogation at Gestapo headquarters. The headquarters was located in the basement of Poland's current-day Ministry of Education building, and today appears
much as it did during Hitler's reign. Bench rows set up like a train (flanked and one behind another) is where Jewish "conspirators" would sit for days not being allowed to sleep. During interrogations in the rooms nearby, music would play from a wireless radio outside the "train room" door. This would muffle speech, screams, and other sounds of torture and death from those awaiting the same fate. At the end of the WWII, 5.5 tons of cremation ash was found in the Gestapo headquarters building.

While often we hear about Nazi atrocities such as these in discussions of the holocaust, one thing rarely brought to life are the circumstances perpetuated by the Russians during the Warsaw Uprising (which I find to be just as cruel and inhumane as the gas chambers). Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which occurred a year earlier, this 1944 resistance movement intended to free Poland from Nazi control. Knowing the Red Army was within range to help liberate Warsaw, the Polish Home Army led attacks on their Nazi occupiers on Aug 1.

While the uprising intended to hold the Nazis in check for mere days until Russian help could come, the Polish defenders bravely fought until their eventual surrender 63 days later. The Russian Army, wanting Warsaw under their control, stopped at the gates and waited for months until Polish defeat. After all, it would be easier to control a defeated people than one which had succeeded. When the Russians final entered Warsaw, 85% of the city was destroyed.

What you see today in Warsaw is a symbol of strength. A city rebuilt, a city pride that can't be extinguished, and a city which remembers. It is our duty as visitors to remember, too.

*As usual, I thank wikipedia for historical background information.

01 June 2010

A Museum City

A trip to Berlin is not complete without a day (or ten!) spent museum hopping. With more than 170 to choose from, and even more that are privately run, Berlin is home to some of the oldest, largest, best-preserved, and out-of-the-ordinary artifacts in the world.

Most renown is Berlin's Museum Insel...an island in the Spree River consisting of five museums. During Berlin's division the island lay on the East side of the city. Only recently has it reopened in full with the completion of Neues Museum in 2009 (destroyed in WWII). From the Nefertiti bust to papyrus, Neues Museum houses one of the most extensive Egyptian collections outside of Cairo.

While Neues Museum is sure to please, the crowned jewel of
Museum Insel is the Pergamon Museum. Named for the full-sized Greek alter it houses, this museum makes ancient ruins and the stories they tell come to life...in life size! The first room you enter puts you up close and personal with the museums namesake. Found in present-day Turkey's ancient city of Pergamon, the altar spans almost 40 yards across and the front stairway can accommodate the multitudes of visitors who must climb up and through it for museum access. And if the first room does not inspire awe, the subsequent rooms will. From the grandiose Market Gate of Miletus to Babylon's colorful Ishtar Gate and Procession Way, the Pergamon Museum is "awe"some to say the least.

But even a wander off Museum Island will not disappoint. Gemaeldegalerie am Kulturforum houses such talents as Rubens, Raphael, and Rembrandt. And for music lovers, Berliner Philharmonie has some of the best acoustic in the world. There is even a Currywurst Museum which celebrates the best and "wurst" of Germany's most popular sausage.

For intellectuals, museum-nuts, and those merely looking to be entertaind, the museums of Berlin should not be missed.