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.