Friday, August 26, 2011

Disney in a Day

If you are here with children of a certain age, Disney is an inescapable stop, and this summer we decided to work it into a trip to Orange County. But with so many other great spots to visit, we didn't want to spend our entire time in line for rides. So we decided to try to do Disney in a day, and I'm happy to report that, with a little advance planning, it is indeed do-able. We decided which rides made our top five list prior to our leaving; arrived at the park half an hour before it opened (you can go through the gates and up Main Street prior to park opening); and made sure we went on a day when season passes were blocked. With the help of Disney's FastPass system we were able to hit four out of our five highlights by 9:30 am! All the planning was worth it, as we then had time to enjoy some relaxing time at the beach. Newport Beach is your quintessential southern Cal beach - miles of big white sand in each direction and a boardwalk full of cruiser bikes. Laguna Beach, just a few miles south, is a totally different experience. The big white flat beaches give way to low cliffs, and the park that follows the coast is dotted with stairs down to various small, secluded beaches. Unlike Newport Beach, the town of Laguna Beach itself is steps from the water and offers a great range of shops and restaurants - we particularly liked the Ocean Avenue Restaurant on, you guessed it, Ocean Avenue.  Our final stop on the way back was the Grammy Museum in LA. We had never heard of it either, but with a couple of music fans in the family this new, interactive museum proved to be a good stop and a welcome change from all the sun.

The LA area is so large, with so much to offer - and such terrible traffic - the only way to tackle it is a piece at a time. Orange County, which must surely be used in all those California travel ads, is certainly a piece worth seeing.

North of the Golden Gate

While Napa and Sonoma may be the first stops that come to mind when you think about a drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge, northern California has much more to offer than vineyards. I mentioned our trip to Muir Woods and Stinson Beach in an earlier post, and this time we ventured farther north, to the funky little town of Mendocino, almost a 3 hour drive north of San Francisco. This part of the coast is wild, windswept and unspoiled. Mendocino is a great spot to spend a weekend with excellent restaurants, many eclectic shops - several of which feature the works of local artisans - and miles of hiking trails in every direction. We chose to camp at Russian Gulch, a small state park two miles north of Mendocino. It's known as a hot diving spot, and is also popular with kayakers and canoeists. To break up the drive on the way there we stopped at the Charles Schultz (creator of the "Peanuts" cartoon) Museum in Santa Rosa, a small museum but one that had enough to interest all ages and a good spot to stretch our legs.

On the way home we elected to drive the Coastal Highway all the way to San Francisco, and it proved to take about the same time as 101 - but much more scenic! The Point Arena Lighthouse was a great stop on the way back, and the views from the top of the 110 foot structure make it worth the climb. With much more to see and do, we will certainly be heading north again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bay area history usually conjures up thoughts of the Gold Rush, earthquakes and perhaps Spanish Missions. But World War II? Not so much. And yet there is an entire network of historical markers linking the are with that period in time. The National Parks Service even runs a website dedicated to the topic: We recently visited the USS Hornet, a WWII era aircraft carrier now anchored in Alameda, just south of Oakland (

An added bonus: downtown Alameda includes several lively blocks of independent shops and restaurants, and with a network of bike paths along the shoreline you can easily turn your visit into a nice little day long getaway. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spring Skiing

Sun, slush and re-fuelling on the patio is what I think of when I think of spring skiing. And with record snowfalls keeping the resorts open through Memorial Day weekend, we thought this was the year to give spring skiing a go. We booked a wonderful condo suite right in Squaw Valley village for a great discounted rate, dug out our ski gear and headed out. At the last minute I threw in our winter jackets, and that proved to be a good move: this version of spring skiing was more like "Manuary" complete snow squalls, full winter gear and even a wonderful dump of powder. Squaw Valley proved to be a great choice with varied terrain to suit all skill levels and enough action in the village to keep everyone entertained at the end of the day. The outdoor pool and sauna at the top was open, and would be fabulous on a slightly warmer weekend...perhaps July 4? Many Tahoe area ski resorts are opening Independence Day weekend for one last blast of skiing (yes there really was that much snow) plus lots of other great activities. Ski and swim in the same day? You bet!


Most visitors to California have Yosemite National Park on their list of 'must dos'. It's so popular that accommodations start booking up a year in advance. But if you have the luxury of flexibility thanks to living just a four hour drive away, as those of us in the Bay Area do, an overnight trip is easy to fit in. Because while the on-line reservations often show the park fully booked months ahead, a generous cancellation policy means spots often open up, so start checking 7 to 10 days before you hope to go, and chances are you will find a spot. Spring is often considered the best time to visit, as the waterfalls are at their best. This year, thanks to a deep snow pack and a late spring melt, the waterfalls are still going strong. A word of warning: Yosemite Valley can get very hot in the summer. While there are some lodge-style accommodations within the park, the majority are either campng spots or 'tent cabins': basically a small wood frame canvas-covered tents, packed quite close together, that can really get cooking in the warm weather. If you spring for a signature tent cabin, you should be lucky enough to have an electrical socket included with your basic beds and small shelf, which not only proves handy for a fan or space heater, depending on the time of year, but also was used, I admit, to re-charge cell phones and our portable DVD players. (For the drive home only; they were off limits while in this spectacular park - although the boys did not even ask to watch them once, there were so many better things to do right outside our door).
We'd heard a few complaints about the quality of food in Curry Village, but found Degan's Deli, a short walk or free shuttle bus ride away in Yosemite Village, to be just fine and surprisingly reasonable to boot. We will certainly be making a return visit to this lovely spot. Hikes range from flat and paved to steep and challenging; there are miles of flat bike trails; ranger shows that were both humorous and educational and many other special activities happening each day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

San Jose Giants - Play Ball!

Baseball: the great American past time. At the major league level, you can catch an Oakland A's or San Francisco Giants game. However, for those trying to learn the game, kids or anyone watching their wallet, there is another option: the San Jose Giants. Entertaining, high quality, and at just $10 for seats that place you a few rows behind home plate, the price is hard to beat! Sitting so close not only helps newbies understand and follow the game - being on top of the action, combined with all the between innings antics, keeps kids and those with only a passing interest in the game happily entertained.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mountain Winery Concert Series

There are many wonderful venues from which to take in concerts in the Bay Area. With the warmer weather, the options broaden to include outdoor venues and one of my favorites is the Mountain Winery. Nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains just beyond Saratoga, the setting is spectacular and the line up is always fun and varied. Just remember to bring a blanket - even the warmest summer days turn into chilly nights in the mountains! Check out

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Weekend Getaway: The Central Coast

When I consulted the travel sites before our trip to the Central Coast, it seemed like a pretty low key place - lots of spots of hiking, biking, enjoying the views and wildlife and, I was surprised to see, eating. Well, turns out it was an accurate summary.

With scenic highway 1 still closed in spots due to earlier mud slides, we headed down the 101 and peeled off at highway 46 which, it turns out, it chock a block full of wineries. You could easily park your car and walk to a handful right off the main road. With kids in tow we skipped this option and headed straight toward Hearst Castle, which is certainly worth a stop. As we were a bit early for our tour (you are wise to pre-book), we drove about three miles past the Castle to a beach famous for its sea lions, and were rewarded with an impressive display: hundreds of sea lions, their fur molting, flipping sand over themselves, wiggling about on the beach and making the occasional bellow.

Following out highlights tour of Hearst, we got our fix of highway 1, driving less than an hour down to Avila Beach. About five years ago a major oil spill led to a massive clean up of Avila Beach, including the rebuilding of the entire 3 block beach strip and all new sand being trucked in. The result is a charming, low key spot, perfect for hanging at the beach, walking on the pier, grabbing a bite to eat on a patio and generally relaxing. About 10 miles down the road is the larger and in our opinion not nearly as enticing town of Pismo Beach. In summer the Central Coast tends to be fogged in for a good chunk of the morning, so unless you like to sleep half your vacation day away, it may be best to visit other than in July or August. We had lovely sun and temperatures, but if the weather did not co-operate there would not have been a great deal to amuse us, as most things are centered on the outdoors.

For our final day took a short drive to Morro Bay, perhaps best known for the enormous rock that greets you. sitting just off the coast of this small fishing village. If you drive out to the rock, you may be lucky enough to find the tiny, perfect beach at the end of the road completely deserted. The Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, part of Morro Bay State Park, is also worth the detour.

As for eats, we were three generations and still managed to find choices with which everyone was happy: the Galley Seafood Grill and Bar and the Bayside Cafe both served up great food and views in Morro Bay, while Del's in Shell Beach had lovely pastas and pizzas. So the Central Coast served us up a little history, a little nature, a lot of sun and some good noshing - no complaints here!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Geek Silicon Valley

While many things may spring to mind, Geek Silicon Valley is actually the title of a book. It is a good read for anyone interested in getting a handle on how Silicon Valley came to be. Organized geographically, Geek Silicon Valley travels from San Francisco to San Jose, and all points in between, stopping to highlight the whos and wheres that made Silicon Valley what it is today. Easy to read and somewhat quirky, author Ashlee Vance covers not only the current heavy weights, but many of the little start ups that new ground but never quite became household names.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Piers of SF

Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf are what usually come to mind when you mention the piers in San Francisco; or perhaps Pier 33; where the ferry to Alcatraz departs. But starting just past AT&T Park on the Embarcadero and sweeping all the way around to Chrissy Field, just shy of the Golden Gate Bridge, the piers of San Francisco are in fact many and varied. Yes, some are now parking garages, but from food to fashion to history to outright tourist kitsch, the piers offer a bit of everything. Tucked away along Pier 45, for example, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien and the submarine USS Pampanito are both well worth a tour. Just to the west, the Hyde Street Pier is part of the city's Maritime National Historic Park tells the story of Pacific maritime history; Pier 24 by the Bay Bridge houses a contemporary photography gallery; the Ferry Building near Pier 14 has shopping, dining and a farmer's market; Pier 7 is a picturesque fishing get the idea.

While the food choices can be overwhelming, especially in the Fisherman's Wharf area, I would recommend the tiny Hollywood Cafe for a tasty and casual breakfast or lunch, and after a day of wandering, a well deserved ice cream at Norman's in Del Monte Square, in the old Cannery complex, certainly hit the spot.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sipping and cycling in Sonoma

A visit from my parents opened the door to a rare weekend getaway sans kids, and my husband and I grabbed the chance to explore Sonoma. While Napa may be the larger and better known, Sonoma appealed to us precisely because it is still smaller and a bit quieter. The area itself incorporates several wine growing regions, but we decided to keep things small scale and, using the town of Sonoma as a base, cycled our way around a few of the many local wineries. We took our own bikes but they rent for about $25 a day, and the quiet, fairly flat back roads connecting many of the wineries make Sonoma a safe place to cycle.

The old town of Sonoma itself is centered on a square, around which are clustered a number of lovely restaurants, shops and a couple of hotels. We stayed about a mile outside the downtown at the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Spa & Resort, which I would certainly recommend. Fortified with a great breakfast from the Sunflower Caffe - which has a charming, private back patio - we headed off to sample some wines. Cycling in between was a great way to break things up; we saw another group touring by Segway and others with rented vans and limos. With many wineries offering sample flights of six wines, an alternative to driving is a good plan. Sipped out after six hours and four wineries, we headed back to the Lodge where they were offering...complimentary wine sampling! We gave it a pass and instead relaxed by the fire. Dinner was a highlight: the Harvest Moon Cafe is a tiny restaurant in Sonoma that specializes in local, seasonal fare and our meal lived up to its reputation.

A change of pace was called for the next day, and many options that are not wine-focused abound: the area has wonderful hiking; charming little towns and villages; a 400 acre wildlife preserve known as Safari West; the Petrified Forest; its own "old faithful" Geyser - all of which we certainly would have hit if we had the children with us. And, there is always the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets when the skies turn grey. All this about an hour's drive north of San Francisco...we will no doubt be returning.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gardens Galore

Signs of spring are all about, and now is a perfect time to pay a visit to one of the many Bay Area gardens.

High on many people's list is Filoli (, a Georgian country house with a magnificent 16 acre English Renaissance garden, located in Woodside. The website provides a month by month breakdown of what will bloom when, so you can plan your visit around your favorite flowers. In Palo Alto, Gamble Gardens is open everyday for free self guided tours; Gamble also puts on many special events, including a family Easter event and a spring tour of outstanding gardens within private Palo Alto homes. You can find details at

In Menlo Park, Sunset Magazine opens its test gardens to the public for free. The test gardens are zoned into four areas representing four different climate regions of California, and each time the magazine changes its gardening feature, you can go back to tour the new 'sets'. During the June 4-5 2011 weekend, Sunset Magazine's grounds will be alive with special events and demonstrations as part of its Celebration Weekend.

In Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the Conservatory of Flowers offers a peek at rare exotic plants and flowers, and until April 11 the Conservatory's Garden Railway event is on-going; you'll see model trains and trolleys traveling about a miniature display of specialty gardens. Golden Gate is also home to a Rose Garden, Japanese Tea Garden and botanical gardens - and of course much much more!

If you love roses, the Heritage Rose Garden ( in San Jose features almost 4,000 plants of more than 3,000 varieties of heritage, modern and miniature roses. Roses are at their peak through the end of April, and each year the volunteer-led garden hosts a spring festival the last Saturday of April.

Hakone Gardens in Saratoga offers a totally different experience: its an authentic replica of a Japanese Samurai or Shogun’s estate garden, designed by one of the descendants of the imperial gardening family members. It makes a lovely day outing combined with lunch in historic Saratoga Village, or a visit to one of the state parks farther up the highway 9.

Finally, a California garden tour would not be complete without a cactus or two, and Stanford's Arizona Garden is a little known example. Originally planted in the 1880s, it fell into decades of neglect before restoration began in in 1997. While this volunteer-driven work remains on-going, you can currently view some 500 cacti and succulents.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Winter whale watching

We've blogged about great places to check out the butterfly migration and the elephant seal pups, and now we can add whales to the mix. From December through April, some 15,000 gray whales head south from Alaska to Mexico, where, being the smart mammals they are, they give birth in those warm waters and then start the long journey back north. Then, in the summer, blue whales and humpbacks cruise the waters. While various tour operators provide the chance to get up close on their boats if, like me, memories of a rough ocean voyage have permanently dampened your enthusiasm for whale watching tours and the like, these enormous creatures can also often be spotted from shore.

A couple of great local vantage points:

Point Reyes Lighthouse at the western edge of Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. This is a great place to watch the gray whales migrating south in December-January and then heading north again in March. (With or without whales, the Lighthouse and its Visitor Center, located at what is considered the 2nd most foggy spot in North America, is worth a stop on its own.

Monterey: Here the whales come close enough to shore too see with a good set of binoculars. Or, Fisherman's Wharf is chock full of operators offering boat tours. December-March is the time for the gray whales, and July-September for the blues and humpbacks.

Santa Cruz: Like Monterey, tour boats can be booked, this time from the Municipal Wharf.

Half Moon Bay: Chose between binoculars at the (very nice) beach or various tour operators offering boat trips; depending on the year they boats may go out year round or just during the peak December to April time span.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Spring at the Farm

It's easy to forget that farming once drove the economy of Silicon Valley. Although almost every community hosts a weekly farmer's market, actual working farms are not a common site while cruising along the 280. (For a good list of local farmer's markets, check out

However, there are a couple of local gems make themselves open to the public, and these are always a hit with both kids and folks looking for wonderful farm fresh produce, or just some time in the open space.

Along with its regular programming, Mountain View's Deer Hollow Farm offers three special days Spring Farm Tours for 2011: March 19, April 16 and May 21. Visit the animals in their pens, meet the newborns and pop in to the Nature Center. For details, go to

With morning and afternoon farm tours, and programs such as Milk Mania and Cow Wow, Hidden Villa in Los Altos is also a fun spot for children to get some hands on experience down on the farm. Check out the programs at

Weekend Getaways: Skiing in the Sierras...and driving with chains

Our California 'winters' make it easy to forget that a snowy weekend getaway is as close as a four hour drive, but make no mistake: the Sierra Nevadas are currently buried in snow. All that rain the past week has meant several feet of new snow in and around Tahoe, and we went to check it our for ourselves this past week. Most resorts have excellent learn to ski and advanced level lesson programs for both adults and kids, often complimentary or very low cost when you rent equipment. We chose a lodge close to the Donner Summit, which is the first ski area on your drive from the Bay Area, and it took about 4 hours to reach the parking lot. Going all the way to Tahoe you can add another hour, depending on the weather.

We were hit with about five feet of snow over our three night stay, and saw more than a few people who had left home clearly unprepared; picking their way through the snow in running shoes and in one case, shorts!

While our drive in was clear, coming home it was a bit snowy, and this meant tire chains, a new phenomena for us. It is mandatory to carry chains in your vehicle at this time of year (unless you happen to have a 4 wheel drive with snow tires), and signs on the highway indicate when chains must be put on. There are pull off areas along the side of the road for their installation. People also appear magically on the roadside when chains are required, and for about $30 they will be happy to install them for you. Not a bad idea unless you know what you are doing, and when it is dark and hailing out, $30 seemed like a great deal. When the chain requirement is lifted, the same routine begins all over again. Although taking them off is much faster and simpler, be prepared to get rather wet and dirty - the snow had turned to brown slush on the road by the time we had the OK to remove ours, and it was a bit of a messy job. (A bag to put your dirty chains in is a must). However, since we were now able to go faster than 25 mph - which is the speed limit for most cars with tire chains - we were happy to remove them. All this made the trip home take about 6 hours, so make sure you check the weather ( and the road conditions ( before you set off.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Feb 6th - mark your calendar

Whether you're a football fan or not, it's worth making note of Sunday, February 6th. Yes, it is Super Bowl Sunday, pretty much the biggest sporting day of the year here in the US. (Last year's game drew a record shattering 106.5 million TV viewers.) People will gather in restaurants, bars and homes to watch the Green Bay Packers take on the Pittsburgh Steelers and while the game itself is of interest to many, it is, quite simply, a uniquely American event - the pre-game show, the half time show, the hype, the food, the buzzed about ads. The NFL's website ( will bring neophytes up to speed quickly so you can join in the water cooler talk.

If however, football is just not your thing, Super Bowl Sunday is also a great day. Why? Because with everyone hunkered down in front of the big screen, there are no crowds. So if you've been meaning to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences or any one of a number of other popular, touristy spots, Feb 6th is the perfect day to go! Last year we hit the Exploratorium in San Francisco and practically had the place to ourselves.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Half Moon Bay

Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we ventured across highway 92 to Half Moon Bay this weekend, and were rewarded with a stunning day at the January! At this time of year, the Half Moon Bay area is perhaps best known for the Mavericks Surf competition, which draws an international crowd of top tier surfers to its beaches each February. It was not hard to understand why - the surf was incredible even on a sunny and calm day. But do not be deceived, the currents are extremely strong and anything beyond dipping a toe in the rather chilly waters is not recommended.

Happily, there are a great many other ways to stay occupied: the large sandy beach offers a wonderful spot to play, read or wander; there are trails for walking and biking along the coast; we took advantage of the BBQ grills and enjoyed lunch overlooking the beach at Half Moon Bay State Beach, which also has a small Nature Centre to explore; and, of course, there is Half Moon Bay itself, with its charming old Main Street of shops and restaurants. On our drive in we stopped at one of the many produce stalls and picked up some local honey.

We ran out of time (and energy!) to check it out this trip, but about 5 miles north of Half Moon Bay is the community of Moss Beach. The Moss Beach Distillery provides a lovely spot to sit and watch the sunset (they even provide blankets and a fire pit for those hardy enough to sit on the patio!)

Tip: If you don't have too much gear to lug, park on the road, walk to the Half Moon Bay State Beach and save yourself $10 for parking. Or even better, purchase a State Parks pass and save all year long!

Friday, January 7, 2011

State Parks sampler pack

So many parks, so little time. California has more than 200 state parks, and it would be a shame not to visit at least a few. The California State Parks Foundation makes it easy with several levels of membership, which include some great benefits not available when simply purchasing a pass from the State Parks website. I bought our family a sampler pack - a great deal at an introductory rate of just $25, this provides entry to any 7 parks, plus discounts on camping and other materials.

Check out

Rainy Day Ideas - Kid Friendly

From April through October, our family really tries to spend as much time outside as possible. But the rainy season offers up perfect opportunity for us to shift our focus to the many indoor attractions on offer in the Bay Area.

Our two boys (ages 7 & 9) love the Exploratorium in San Francisco for all the hands-on activities; Zeum's claymation gallery was a huge hit; and our membership to the Tech in San Jose has been a good investment. The relaxed atmosphere at Berkley's Lawrence Hall of Science seemed to encourage our kids to take their time, and we spent the better part of the day at this small gem.

For the six and under set, two well-regarded children's museums - the Discovery in San Jose and the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito provide good indoor diversions. The Randall Museum in the City and Palo Alto's Junior Museum and Zoo are both small and geared to the pre-school set; the Palo Alto Children's Theatre is right beside the Museum.

Next on our list - the Museum of Children's Art ( and, just down the street, the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California (, plus the Chabot Space and Science Center (

Dine About Town 2011

Just in time for a post-holiday pick me up, the 10th annual Dine About Town is set for January 15-31st. San Francisco is known internationally for its food scene, and Dine About Town provides a perfect opportunity to sample some of the city’s best restaurants at great prices: 2 course lunches for $18 and 3 course dinners for $35.

Taste SF’s website ( provides a handy breakdown of the 90+ participating restaurants by cuisine type, and can also be sorted by neighborhood. Hot spots book up early, so make your plans now!