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 (www.filoli.org), 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 www.gamblegarden.org.

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. www.sunset.com.

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! www.golden-gate-park.com.

If you love roses, the Heritage Rose Garden (www.heritagerose.us) 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. www.hakone.com

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. http://www.nps.gov/pore/historyculture/people_maritime_lighthouse.htm

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.