Monday, December 13, 2010

Fantasy of Lights, Los Gatos

We hopped in our car Sunday night for what we thought would be a quick drive to Los Gatos to enjoy the "Fantasy of Lights" at Vasona Park. For the past 12 years, the park has hosted this massive show, with 40+ holiday-themed displays you can cruise by from the comfort of your car. As we drove toward the park, we idly wondered what special event might be taking place, given the road closures, traffic control and signage about. Rather belatedly, we realized the light display IS the special event, and the line of cars was everyone ahead of us waiting to enter the park! So a half hour gander to see some pretty lights turned into a two hour round trip, with 45 minutes spent edging toward the park entrance, and another 45 minutes to crawl along the park's road. There is plenty of time to admire each display - and, it should be said, it is an impressive show. The Fantasy of Lights runs through December 31st, nightly from 6pm - 10pm, $15 per car.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day Tripping: Over the Golden Gate

Ok, so we have all gone to gaze at the iconic bridge, and most of us have probably driven, pedaled or walked across it. But what exactly is there to do you do once you cross? Quite a bit, as it turns out. A popular option is to putter about in the shops and galleries of Sausalito (this can also be accomplished as a nice day trip on the ferry from San Francisco's Pier 41).

With spring weather still making an appearance, we decided to cross the bridge and head to Muir Woods, a lovely tract of preserved forest with both paved and unpaved trails crossing through it. (Going in the morning is the best bet to avoid the crowds and buses). After a good hike through the redwoods - the largest over 250 feet and some 1,000 years old - we were ready for some lunch. The Dipsea Cafe in Mill Valley provided a bright and casual stop with a menu large enough to please everyone.

A scenic drive along highway 1 took us to Stinson Beach, a long wide swath of white sand that is one of the best beaches I have seen in Northern California. While it looks lovely from the car window, it is often windy and cool here, so come prepared! On our way back, we made a quick detour into Point Reyes National Seashore to hike down to the lighthouse, which was built in the 1870s, and enjoy the vistas.

We'll certainly head this way again, as there is much left to explore.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fun in the snow

When most people think Northern California and snow, they think Tahoe. And while the Lake Tahoe area certainly offers many great options - Heavenly, California's largest resort; Squaw Valley, home to the 1960 winter Olympics; and the snowboarding mecca Sierra-at-Tahoe among them - it is far from the only show in town. Shasta Cascade, Mammoth Lakes and Central Sierra all offer great winter options for skiing, boarding or just enjoying a winter wonderland.

With so many choices, and just as many opinions on which is the best destination, I won't even attempt to run down them all, but rather point out some great websites to help you decide on your perfect winter get away.

First and foremost, of course, is the weather. Check out the conditions before you leave; depending on your route and destination, you'll also need to know if you will require tire chains or other gear for your car. provides snow and weather conditions at the resorts, while provides detailed highway conditions.

Next up, a little research on what type of resort you want - diamond runs, family friendly, great apres ski, back country or boarding options, or perhaps a bit of everything. At you will find a nice overview of the different destinations, with site specific links. At you will find a very well laid out site providing resort information, conditions, lodging details, reviews and summaries to help you decide which destination will best suit your needs.

The season can start as early as November and runs well into spring, so there is no excuse to get out and enjoy the California snow!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Weekend Getaways: LA

As US transplants, we decided to forgo cooking our own turkey dinner and take advantage of a rare four day break to head south for Thanksgiving. With some trepidation - given the horror stories we had heard of highways turned into virtual parking lots - we decided to explore the northern reaches of LA County.

Leaving Thanksgiving Day early in the morning was a smart choice, as we sailed down the highway. Our first stop was a highlight: the end point of iconic route 66 brings you to Santa Monica, with its truly fabulous, big, white, quintessentially California beach. Lots of scope for puttering about on the pier, the path above the beach or the many shops and restaurants, all in walking distance. For Thanksgiving dinner, we selected I. Cugini on Ocean Avenue. I'd recommend it based on the food and service alone, but they could hardly compete with the jaw dropping sunset we watched from our table on the patio - even the wait staff paused to admire!

Staying in Burbank provided a great base for exploring the area. Next day began with a tour of Warner Brother's Studios - interesting, especially for TV and movie buffs. Good, but not cheap. Hollywood was a short drive (a go-once-because-you're-there type of place) as was the Getty Centre (free, and worth the trip alone for the impressive architecture and setting, even if you are not a huge fan of what's on the inside). The Getty also gets points for its cafe, which offers freshly prepared foods a cut above the traditional cafeteria fare, and for building in some clever tricks to keep kids amused, making it a rare family-friendly cultural destination.

We hit Griffith Park, the country's largest urban park. The observatory at the top (also free) not only provides opportunities to view the sky; as the sun went down and the lights of the city came on, it provided a perfect vista to appreciate the enormous sprawl that makes up Los Angeles.

Our final stop was Malibu, the one place we probably could have skipped. It is quite small population wise, but stretches on for close to 30 miles, with homes strung along either side of the coastal highway (and that's about all there is to it!) This means the beach is not terribly accessible in most places, and views are rare. By the time we did stop at Leo Carrillo State Park, the coastline had morphed back into the more rocky, narrow beach we see in Northern California, and one the park's advertised features - tide pooling - was not nearly as good as what we had found at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. Perhaps if we had timed our visit around a meal at Paradise Cove, with its prime location nestled on the beach, I would have come away with a different impression.

A great weekend, and as we watched the thermometer in our car gradually dip as we headed north, we were already busy planning our next southern California get away. Santa Barbara in the spring sound good?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Useful weblinks part I: Weekend plans

You know there is so much to do....what's the best way to find out about it? Below are a few of our favorite sites to help plan our weekends. Please help us add to the list!

Future posts will focus on great sites for finding the best places for skiing, outdoor activity ideas, wine country links and more.

Bay Area on the Cheap - Heads up on various deals in the Bay Area; everything from discount theatre and sporting tickets to special events.

Stub Hub - A great resource for scoring tickets to sporting events and concerts, this site provides a place for people with unwanted tickets to sell them to those who do.

SFStation - For those who want to know what is going on with the bar and club scene; plus music and restaurant reviews, events and more, check out

SFGate - The site of the San Francisco Chronicle, the city's major newspaper, provides a comprehensive listing of all sorts of events happening in and around the area.

KQED - KQED is Northern California's National Public Radio station, and at you will find a diverse line up of event listings.

Group-On - Deals are emailed to you daily when you sign on to this site - everything from restaurants, events, activities and services, all at a special member discount.

Bay Area Parent
- this magazine, which publishes three versions (San Francisco/Marin/Peninsula; East Bay; and Silicon Valley), also has a wonderful website. An optional monthly email provides a neat summary of family-friendly events and weblinks; the site also offers ideas for birthday parties, child care, kids camps and more.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Monarch Migration

Tens of thousands of monarch butterflies congregate along the California coast to winter each year, and it is a spectacular sight. From mid October through the end of January, they take shelter in eucalyptus groves. Two prime spots for local viewing: Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove Monarch Grove Sanctuary near Monterey.

Tip: make sure you go on a sunny day, or the butterflies won't be flying!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Diciphering the Invitation Part 1

You're here, you've met a few people, and now you've even been invited somewhere - great!

Let's say it is a dinner party at a new friend's home. What can you expect? First of all, as a general rule, Americans tend to be on time, so if a dinner party starts at 7pm, it is quite acceptable to arrive around 7 or 7:15. Gatherings tend to be quite informal and casual dress is the norm, unless the invite explicitly states otherwise. This is particularly true in the summer, when shorts and t-shirts are standard attire for a BBQ get together; during cooler months jeans, pants, skirts and flats are all safe bets.

Guests often bring a small hostess gift - the most common being wine or flowers. And, unless it is a relatively formal occasion, it is also quite common to offer to bring something to contribute to the dinner - perhaps an appetizer, salad or dessert.

A few definitions to help you navigate invites:

Pot Luck - Each guest/family brings a dish of your choice to contribute to the meal. If you end up with 8 salads and 2 desserts, well, that's dinner!

Tailgate Party - A unique US phenomena, tailgate parties generally take place in the parking lots of sports stadiums prior to a game - usually football, but also basketball, baseball or hockey - or a concert. People bring chairs, portable grills and all the fixings to cook up a meal, which, as the name implies, is prepared and eaten on and around the tailgate. Don't let having a car without a tailgate stop you - the real focus is on socializing prior to the event!

Open House - These events usually have a window of time during which people are expected to drop by, rather than stay for the entire duration. They are often held to mark a milestone event - anniversary, birthday, housewarming, retirement, etc. People often invite a broad cross section of people, and the focus is on mingling; finger foods and drinks are generally offered. Rather than bringing a food dish or wine, guests sometimes, depending on how well they know the person, bring a small gift tied to the event being celebrated.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Elephant seals - by appointment only!

One of the great things about living close to the California coast is the front row seat provided to some of nature's most enduring rituals. At various times of the year, you can stand among thousands of Monarch butterflies that winter among the eucalyptus trees, catch a glimpse of the magnificent gray whales as they head to their summer feeding grounds, or watch the spectacle of elephant seals as they come ashore to mate and give birth.

In fact, so many people want to catch a glimpse of those seals that Año Nuevo State Park - one of the best viewing sites along the coast- now take reservations...up to three months in advance! Today is the first day to book your spot, although the first seals won't show up until the middle of December. Pups are born around the new year and by the end of March the beach is empty. You can call the park at 650-879-2025 to make a reservation; or check out for more details.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

About that trip to the California Academy of Sciences...

A week or so ago I mentioned the wonderful Smithsonian Museum program that offers free admission to museums throughout the US for one day each year. We decided to visit the California Academy of Sciences, mainly because I had heard nothing but rave reviews. I had also heard how very popular it was, and how crowded it could get. Well, I can vouch for the latter: we arrived as the doors opened and were faced with a 2 hour wait! We decided to skip the line and bought tickets from the kiosk - perhaps the only people at the museum on a 'free' day who had paid, but with two excited boys in tow we figured it was the only way to keep our sanity.

Maybe I had heard just a little too much hype, but the Academy was a bit of a disappointment to all of us. It has a great aquarium, to be sure, but with the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium just an hour or two down the road, it is hard to compete. The tropical rain forest is well done, but that a few interactive ecology-related installations don't exactly justify the price of admission (about $100 for a family of four). I can't comment on the planetarium, as we had just been to one in Berkley and so gave it a miss.

The Academy of Sciences does offer an interesting twist for the over 21 crowd: "Nightlife", held every Thursday, offers the chance to enjoy music, science, entertainment and cocktails along with the Academy's exhibits. Each week shines the spotlight on a new theme or event. And, on select Wednesdays throughout the year, residents of San Francisco enjoy free entry. Details of both can be found on the website,
So, our verdict: if you have out of town guests on a tight schedule, it is probably a great place to go - you can check off Golden Gate Park, aquarium and planetarium all in one spot, then walk across the concourse and pop into the DeYoung Museum of Fine Art - a highly productive day! BTW, for non art-lovers, the DeYoung has an observation floor at the top of its tower that affords wonderful views of the city. The tower elevators are free and accessible from the lobby of the DeYoung, so its a great detour anytime you find yourself at the northeast side of the park...and I've never waited in line!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where is the Pumpkin Capital of the World?

Half Moon Bay is a great day trip anytime - a wide beach, impressive surf, a sweet Main Street filled with independent shops, and great hiking, coastal walks, state parks and bike paths in either direction along Highway 1. October brings an added incentive: Half Moon Bay bills itself as the "World Pumpkin Capital", and with over a dozen pumpkin farms dotted around the scenic town, it is easy to see why. You'll find a good map at And while there are plenty of traditional options to keep kids amused - hay rides, haunted houses, pony rides and the like - there are lots of options for adults too.

The 40th annual Art and Pumpkin Festival ( will once agian fill historic Main Street October 16 & 17. Arata Pumpkin Farm offers a truly spectacular two acre hay maze that attracts as many adults as kids - and even more after hours, when it can be reserved for a truly challenging moonlit labyrinth. And Bob's Pumpkin Farm provides a respite from the busy activity-style farms with excellent produce, fresh pumpkins to pick, and lovely views of the Pacific (don't believe the map link on Yelp - the farm is actually about 5 miles south of Half Moon Bay, not smack in the middle of the town).

There is much, much more to explore - and, as you may have noticed, it is never too early to get into the Halloween spirit here in the Bay Area! One final tip: go early. By weekend afternoons through October, traffic snakes its way all along highway 92 heading into town.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Launch

Welcome to Community Connections' new blog! We'll offer tips, ideas, and information sharing all aimed at helping you settle in to your new life in the Bay Area. Want to know just how big of a deal Halloween is here in California? Wondering when is the best time of year to visit Yosemite? Need a restaurant with the perfect view and great menu to take your out of town guests? Think March Madness is contagious? We'll talk about all this and more on our weekly posts.

Your input will help drive this blog - we want to answer your questions and cover topics you want to know more about. So please send us your requests and comments.

One quick tip to leave you with: this Saturday, September 25, is Smithsonian Museum Day. Get free entry for two to a number of Bay Area museums - including The Tech in San Jose, the Chabot Space Museum in Oakland and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Go to to print your coupon. We'll be hitting the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park - I'll give my review next week.