Muir Woods — Too Popular for its Own Good

Muir Woods

I'm taking this week off and again not leaving the City. So we thought it would be fun to recreate the Muir Woods portion of our April staycation. But it was not to be.

We arrived around 2:15 on Monday afternoon and parking was a good 3 mile hike in from the shoulder of the road to the park entrance. I forgot completely that Summer weekdays are a lot more crowded than Springtime weekdays. I've clearly been out of school for too long and don't have babies to remind me of what I am missing out on over Summer break.

So we did what any other intrepid city explorers would do — we popped down onto the nearest trail by where we parked, on Muir Woods Road. that's one of the cool things about the Bay Area's park system– there are always a bunch of trails heading off from any of the parks. In this case, we took the Redwood Creek Trail, to the Heather trail.

California's budget situation has been in the news a lot lately so it wasn't surprising to see that we had a trail closed for renovations that didn't seem to be happening (Miwok Trail), and that both the main trail we were on and the offshoots were overgrown to the point of being nearly obscured by the weeds. I was not prepared for that level of contact with weeds– I lacked both an allergy pill and a walking stick (for pushing past the weeds without touching them). I will be sure to have both next time. And to keep our two excellent trail guidebooks (with maps) in the trunk: Moon California Hiking (Moon Handbooks) and Golden Gate Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Walk, Bike in San Francisco & Marin

If we close down dozens of state parks and cut back on staffing and services for the rest, as has been reported to be the outcome of today's budget agreement, I do wonder what is giong to happen to our trail system. Will it become overgrown and eventually warrant millions of dollars in restorative funds? Or will local citizens take it upon themselves to keep the trails clear? It will be interesting to see what happens.

Staycation Days 2 & 3: Sonoma Valley


Our major daytrip (is an overnighter technically a day trip?) was heading up to Sonoma for a relaxing massage and soak at the Fairmont Mission Sonoma Inn and Spa, and a little bit of wine tasting.

Thanks to the economic downturn, we got a great deal, via the Web, on a suite that had a jacuzzi tub and a balcony, giving us extra lounging possibilities. It was a great room but I have to say its $1500 rack rate (per the notice in the closet) is significantly higher than I would expect given the amenities. That said, thoroughly enjoyed the massage, and the rare treat of Food network on the tv while we ate room service breakfast. Loved Tony Bourdain's tour of Cleveland, including his stop at Lola, the only fine dining establishment I've been to in OH.

Last time we stayed here the mineral baths were nearly deserted. This time, despite it being off season, they were packed, making me doubly glad we had a tub of our own.

Wednesday morning, we packed up and got in the car and headed to Cline and Arrowood vineyards for some serious tasting. These are two of my favorite Sonoma wineries, so rather than hit up a bunch of places, we focused on these 2 for the sake of time and not becoming inebriated (in deference to lunch with my SO's grandma afterwards.)

A standout at Cline was their proprietary blend Oakley 5 Reds. Like the winery employee who poured for us, I wasn't taken with this blend prior to last year. Now I snap up a few bottles whenever I see it — it's a great wine for under $10 most places. And lucky for us it was on sale at 25% off. Some old vine zinfandel and pinot gris also came home with us.

Our visit to Arrowood got off on the wrong foot. This has been my favorite all around winery for a solid decade. I try to make it up there about once a year to buy a case, including a few bottles of their amazing late harvest white dessert wines. There were 3 other couples tasting when we arrived, with only one employee pouring (while another stocked shelves and pored over paperwork behind the counter.)

The other couples had a decade or two on us and as a result, were getting more of our host's attention. When she asked us, towards the end of our tasting, if it was our first time visiting the winery, I told her "No, we come up at least once a year. And Arrowood is my favorite winery, atually." A few moments later, we were offered a taste of the dessert wines and what had been a lackliuster experience thus far was salvaged.

The show stopping wine at Arrowood was the luscious, thick, golden Select Late Harvest White Reisling from Saralee's Vineyard. No words I have can do this wine justice. We bought two bottles, with the intention of giving one as a gift, but we shall see if we are actually able to part with it…

More photos here.

Staycation Day 1: Muir Woods


Every year since I started working, I've taken a week or two off from work in April for vacation. I hate standing in long lines or visiting beautiful places overrun with other visitors, so this has been the best time of year to plan on a trip. I have this week off from work. But for a variety of reasons, including the craptastic economy and a sickly kitty cat, I'm not off on one of my more typical cross-continent vacations. Instead, it's a Bay Area staycation (a stay-at-home vacation).

Although my significant other was looking as though he might stay in bed 'til noon, I managed to hassle him into getting up and out the door for our Marin County trek today.Today's daytime plans were not too ambitious– a leisurely drive up Highway 1 to Pelican Inn for lunch, then on to Muir Woods for a hike.

Thanks to this being a post-rush hour weekday morning, we were at Pelican Inn less than a half hour from leaving home, even with the inevitable Highway 1 roadwork lane closure. The fish and chips with non-mushy peas ( /cry) and the "english dip" roast beef sandwich weren't anything special, but you really could not ask for a place to eat that's any more convenient to the park. And the Fuller's London Pride on tap would have made it a must stop regardless imho.

Post-lunch, we made a short drive to the park's parking lot, then started the walk in. It's amazing how crowded Muir Woods can be even on a weekday. Then again, I suppose many of the families there were on Spring Break and trying to tire out their children…

We did the two-mile loop trail, then headed back into the city, via a leisurely Highway 1 drive.

I often forget just how close we live to Marin County and its myriad hiking trails. We just picked up a couple of comprehensive local hiking trail/day trip books: Moon California Hiking (Moon Handbooks)
and Golden Gate Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Walk, Bike in San Francisco & Marin. This should
provide  some encouragement to get out and about in the greater San Francisco Bay Area more often.


More photos here.

Not So Rustic Camping

Dutch OvenLast weekend, I went camping with my significant other’s family. Although I am not a camping neophyte, I have never camped with them previously so I had no idea that I was in for a weekend of feasting in fresh air.

My normal camping larder includes soy milk and hot cocoa (usually fauchon cocoa packets), marshmallows, McCann’s instant oatmeal, graham crackers and chocolate for sm’ores, hot dogs and buns, and some sort of salty snack, plus beer. This weekend went way past that.

Dutch Oven Peach CobblerThe key to eating well while camping, I’ve learned, is to bring a dutch oven, a camp stove and a big ice
chest (or two). And to keep the fire going at a steady pace to act as a warming plate.

The dutch oven (which I will be asking Santa for) was used to bake cheddar biscuits (bisquick recipe+shredded cheese) and a yummy peach "cobbler." The cobbler topping was yellow cake mix rather than biscuit topping which I had never seen done before. The result was very tasty, and gave the camp an amazing aroma when the lid was lifted after dinner.

Dinner involved hot dogs for the kids, steaks for the grown ups, plus corn, salad, and ravioli with pesto sauce. Breakfast the next day involved scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and mimosas. Definitely not roughing it.

I don’t know that I can commit to a big ice chest full of perishables, but this has given me some ideas for the next time we go car camping.

Birthday Travels

Birthday Travels

It’s my personal policy to avoid working on my birthday at all costs. The last birthday I worked on found me stuck at my desk late, working on cleaning up a crisis someone else created. It reinforces the importance of this rule. Ahem.

This year, with the birthday falling on a weekday, I thought it would be worth it to attempt a trip to Napa* for dinner with friends and some wine tasting. But a broken dishwasher and uncooperative property management, and my significant other’s last minute early next morning meeting conspired against that.

Many phone calls ensued. Eventually, I ended up with part of my birthday free, and we hopped in the car, and sped up Highway 101 in time for lunch at Bouchon in Yountville.

I had been thinking Bouchon would be similar in food and vibe to Balthazar for some reason (presumably from the many write-ups I’d seen of Bouchon, and the many yummy lunches I’ve had at Balthazar.) But it was a lot more low key. And despite being full of tourists, in décor and service felt a lot more like a small town restaurant. The bathrooms under renovation that left a port-o-potty outside for the men, and a fairly unkempt men’s bathroom with a wet floor for use by the ladies, was a poor start to the meal.

We started off with creative and refreshing house cocktails that I didn’t think to write down (birthday girl was concentrating on her sparkling champagne cocktail). As a starter, the salt cod beignets were amazing. They looked just like their Café du Monde inspiration, and had the same textures when you bit into them. Their fried sage accompaniment was a nice touch but the tomato confit didn’t really enhance the crunchy morsels. Overall tho, they left me happily anticipating my entrée.

The boy on the other hand absolutely hated his chilled corn soup. It turns out he only heard the “corn” and “soup” portion of the special. So when he slurped up a large spoonful of the pureed cold soup…he was surprised. And not unexpectedly pleasantly surprised. Oh well.

After really loving my inventive starter, I was prepared to be wowed by my steak frites. It’s my typical comfort food dish, and I had figured they would have a great one. The herbed butter on top was delicious, but the cut of meat, a prime flatiron, was fatty and chewy and the French fries were unremarkable and not as crisp as I like them. I left as much on my plate as I ate. My boyfriend’s Croque Madame was a far better choice.

We finished with profiteroles doused with a not especially flavorful chocolate sauce, and a blueberry infused pot de crème.

Overall, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. For the prices and location, I expected more from Bouchon. After all, they have to compete with Bistro Jeanty right up the street, where I have many outstanding lunches over the years. Our waitress was difficult to obtain service from, and never inquired after the half-eaten dishes were taken from our tables. At most Bay Area restaurants, if you leave even a forkful of food on your plate, someone asks what was wrong with the food. But since the waitress never checked in while we were eating, and was not the one taking away the plates, apparently she did not get the message. And by the time we flagged her down for the dessert menus, I was over wanting to talk about it.

I do have to call out props for their bread. We went next door to Bouchon Bakery and bought an epi baguette to take home.

The rest of the day involved splurging on T Vine zinfandel, Mariage Freres tea and various cooking supplies at Dean and Deluca, plus wine tasting at St. Clement and Cline. Not a bad way to spend a birthday.

* Trying to drive through Napa on a weekend is nearly impossible due to all the traffic the tourism generates. Trying to wine taste at all on weekends is maddening.

The Joys of Food Shopping in Italy

On both my trips to Italy, I’ve primarily stayed in apartments. For me, that decision was made first and foremost to enable me to snatch up the delicious foods I come across over the course of my day. My boyfriend still has fond memories of the white bean pasta dish I threw together one night in Venice. That’s why this Serious Eats post on the top things the writer loves about shopping in Italy caught my eye. Reading this post brought back many great memories, and left me smiling, and looking forward to my next trip…

Visiting Monterey Bay

If you’re trying to get out of the heat, a Summertime trip to Monterey Bay is a great idea. Unfortunately it is one shared with throngs of tourists. This leads to hotels booked months in advance throughout the Summer. So whatever you do — don’t arrive in Monterey without a reservation, unless you can afford the last available suite at one of the resorts.

My recent trip to Monterey involved a stay at the Hotel Pacific, billed as a AAA 4-diamond property within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their website also promised "handcrafted tile bath features separate tub and shower, a second phone and a second television" and "French doors opening to a private balcony or patio."

Some of the above was a bit of a stretch of the truth. Although Fisherman’s Wharf was nearby, the aquarium was only walking distance if you meant that you can pick up the free tram in front of the hotel to get there, or if you were accustomed to walking a few miles per day. Our bathroom had a shower with just a curtain — no tub or even a raised area to keep the water from flooding the floor — and a fold-down seat for the elderly or disabled. No TV, and not at all the luxurious or romantic accommodation we were expecting. The sink being in the main room — not the bathroom — was another odd choice. And that patio? Think an eye-level walled alleyway with only 1 lawn chair. All this at about the same price as staying at a truly luxurious room at the W in most cities. I’d also much rather be able to pay for room service than have to stand around, with children running to-and-fro, waiting for coffee urns to be refilled and the ransacked Continental Breakfast tables replenished. Live and learn. We won’t be staying there again.

As a side note, how is it that a hotel that advertises itself as having conference and meeting facilities does not have a business center or even a computer that hotel guests can use? We forgot our pre-purchased Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets, and were directed to a Kinko’s about a mile away. And that was after watching the desk person print another guest’s airplane boarding passes. That’s not the level of service I would expect from a self-proclaimed "luxury" property.

Once we had our pre-purchased tickets in hand, we parked in the hotel garage and took the free bus to the aquarium, avoiding the $20-$25 parking lot fees for the few available spaces. Having pre-purchased tickets also allowed us to avoid the line of several hundred people waiting to see if they would be able to buy tickets. As always, the facility’s impressive aquariums, and their educational presentation on the deep sea research they are conducting with an affiliated non profit research arm, was well worth braving the crowds.

Next post will be on the glorious food, which was second only to the otters as a highlight of the trip.

Wild About Otters

  Originally uploaded by almostgold

They won’t let you pet the otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so you have to be content with watching their adorable antics through the glass. I am sure it’s safer for all of us that way, but they are just so darn cute..

More substantial post on Monterey coming soon.

Italy: Open for Renovations

Last time I was in Italy, in 2001, it seemed like the entire country was under renovation. From the Medici Chapel in Florence to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, many of the sites I visited were shrouded in scaffolding. The same was true in my June travels through Italy.

But unlike such projects in the States, I was again struck by the fact that their scaffoldings (like the one here seen on the Grand Canal in Venice) were typically covered with colorful representations of what the restored building will look like (or what it looked like prior to the restoration), with a shout out to the corporate or civic entities that sponsored the project.

It came as a huge disappointment though when I walked into my favorite piece of civic architecture — the Pantheon in Rome — shifted my gaze up to the oculus, and saw…scaffolding. Boring utilitarian scaffolding obscuring about 1/8 of the interior, from wall to oculus. And associated roped off walls. All the visitors were basically coralled into the center of the building, unable to get up close to the gorgeous marble walls.

Turns out they spent a little over a year giving the interior dome a good scrubbing. Gone are the dark tobacco-colored splotches. The dome is now more of a glistening honey-sand color, with very few blemishes. It’s gorgeous, if unexpected.