Thursday, November 15, 2012

Free days at SF (and beyond) museums

San Francisco is a city full of museums, large and small, catering to pretty much every age and interest imaginable. While a few are always free - for example the Cable Car Museum, the Chinese Cultural Center Gallery and San Francisco Fire Department Museum - others have certain days or times when they waive or reduce their usual entry fees. 

Tuesdays are a particularly popular day, with the first Tuesday of each month free for the Cartoon Art Museum, the de Young, Legion of Honor and Museum of Modern Art. The first Wednesday of the month can find free admission at the Exploratorium and Bay Area Discovery Museum.

For those who prefer the outdoors, there are free guided walks offered by the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens as well as an enormous variety of nature walks offered by county and state parks.

Outside of the city, both Stanford and Berkeley have free museums on their campuses, and the Museum of California in Oakland is free the second Sunday of each month.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and programs are no doubt subject to change, so please double check before you head out to sample and enjoy!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Defining the Bay Area

Every region has its lingo, and the Bay Area is no different. People routinely refer to East Bay, the Peninsula, South Bay...but what exactly do they mean? Here's a quick overview to help you sound like a local.

Peninsula - Area code 650. Includes anything south of San Francisco down to Mountain View. This area is east of highway 280, on the west side of San Francisco Bay. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

North Bay - If you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you are in North Bay. Mostly Marin County; shares the 415 area code with San Francisco. Farther north is Sonoma County.

East Bay - Once you head east over one of the three bridges (Dumbarton, San Mateo or Oakland/Bay Bridge) that cross San Francisco Bay, you are in the East Bay. Oakland, Fremont and Berkeley are all East Bay. Mostly area code 510. As you move further inland from the Bay, south and east of Oakland, there is an area sometimes referred to as the Tri-Valley region. It includes the cities of Pleasanton, Dublin, Livermore and San Ramon.

South Bay - Anything south of Mountain View, up to and including San Jose and Milpitas. Generally area code 408. Mostly Santa Clara County.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sunday Streets

Looking for a new way to explore San Francisco's many and varied neighborhoods? Check out Sunday Streets ( On specific Sundays from March through October, different San Francisco neighborhoods close their streets to cars, encouraging people to explore on foot or bike. Various activities, demonstrations and shows add to the mix. From the Western Addition to Chinatown, Sunday Streets offers another great way to discover the city.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Big trees. A lot of really big trees. When you go to Sequoia National Park, that is what you will see. And, to be candid, not a whole lot else. There are a variety of hikes, from paved little trails to all day adventures (the quick but steep trek up the 'stairs' of Moro Rock was our favorite), a small museum and a visitor center. And while the giant sequoias are absolutely awe inspiring, once you have seen a few the wow factor does begin to fade .  After a couple of hours my son, generally a happy hiker, wondered "Are we going to do anything today but look at big trees?"

Luckily, Sequoia shares an east-west boundary with another impressive national park, Kings Canyon. The two play off one another, with the dense forests of Sequoia giving way to the jaw-dropping sheer cliffs and lovely water falls of Kings Canyon. Sitting almost at the border of the two parks in Grant Grove Village, which has a visitor center, restaurant, small grocery store and Ranger Station. Lodging options include a camp ground, a cluster of small, basic cabins or for those who prefer a few more creature comforts, John Muir Lodge. We opted for the cabins which, as our guide book said, are one step up from camping. They do have electricity, a small desk, two double beds and your own covered patio with a picnic table and nifty little outdoor stove.

California is a state of micro-climates, and these parks are no exception. As Grant Grove is at an elevation of about 6000 feet, temperatures were lovely. However, at either end of the two parks, it can be a different story. Entering Sequoia at the Foothills Visitor Center, the car dashboard read 104 degrees at 4pm - not exactly hiking weather. And, after a night up at Grant Grove we descended into the Canyon, losing about 3000 feet in altitude and gaining about 15 degrees in temperature. Taking the time to follow Kings Canyon Scenic Byway almost to Road's End is well worth the drive. A stop at Zumwalt Meadows made us feel we were in a mini Yosemite, but without all the people. We hiked two miles to the Roaring River Falls and saw a grand total of one other group (and one baby bear cub!) the entire time. We also stopped at Cedar Grove Lodge for some picnic supplies - from our quick stop not a place I would recommend for either eating or accommodations. Although other stops - including Grant Grove and Lodgepole - offer better food selection, your best bet, for both price and variety, is to load up on supplies before you even enter the park.

After a hot day on the trails, Hume Lake offered a welcome respite. One end of the lake is very busy, as there is a large, private camp. We drove a bit father and took a short path down to a shady spot at the far end of the lake, where our boys had a great time swimming, jumping off logs and exploring on the rocks.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bay Area Parent - pick up a copy!

When we first moved to the South Bay, I found this magazine to be a great resource to help me get up to speed on whats what from a parent perspective. Its free, available at many local libraries, malls and community centers, and has articles that run the range from toddler tantrums to college applications. Published monthly, the magazine offers Silicon Valley, Peninsula/San Francisco/Marin and East Bay specific editions, so you get useful, local information and tips.

Another useful link is Bay Area Kid Fun. Sign up to receive their regular email highlighting kid-friendly events across the Bay Area. It is a great way to get out and explore new places, and the variety of offerings - plays, music, sports, special events - never ceases to amaze me. They also provide links for summer camps, pre schools, birthday party places, kid-friendly name it! Check out

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Farm fresh

Living in Silicon Valley it is easy to overlook the fact that California is the nation's agricultural powerhouse, leading all other states in farm income. Over 400 crops are gown here, from almonds and avocados to peaches and pistachios, and you can find many of them at your local farmers' market. Now is a great time to visit a market, with so much fresh produce in season. Most towns have at least one weekly, often year round market - check out the listings at the California Farmers' Markets Association (, if you want to be sure you are buying direct from a farm. There are also many other legitimate markets, you can simply search on line for a selection near you.

Another option is 'pick your own'. Many farms and orchards cater to the 'u pick' crowd, some with activities to entertain the kids when the novelty of gathering their own fruit and veggies begins to wear thin. The site provides suggestions of where and when to go, as well as tips on canning, freezing and cooking with your bounty. Bon appetit!

Beating the crowds at Yosemite

The first time we visited this National Park, the novelty and the scenery managed to combine to outweigh a fact you otherwise cannot ignore: it is a very narrow valley with a lot of people. And all those people want to see and do pretty much the same thing, at the same time, and stay within a small couple of square miles. So when planning a return trip this spring we decided to try something a bit different. While the areas in and around Yosemite Village and the forest of yurts in nearby Currey Village account for the most foot traffic, it is a very big park. And making the effort to go just a few miles off the beaten path is worth it.

We tried a night at a yurt at White Wolf Lodge, and loved it. With just 26 yurts and 4 cabins, White Wolf is a cool oasis above the valley floor and provides easy access to some fabulous vistas and impromptu hiking. By that I mean that rather than taking your place in a stream of people marching along a marked trail, (although there are many marked trails and far fewer people, so that is not a bad option) you also have the opportunity to simply spot a good looking piece of rock, pull over and start climbing. You can pretend, as our kids did, that you were discovering a new spot and give it your name. You can visit mountain lakes, meadows, sequoia groves, creeks and mini domes. True, you don't have all the dining options of the Valley, and accommodations are pretty much limited to camping and yurts, but the sense of exploring something new and different; of truly getting away, are well worth it. And with no cell coverage, it is the perfect place to bring an overworked friend or spouse for a forced withdrawal from their electronic tethers. Don't get me wrong, we're glad we hit the highlights around Yosemite Village on our first trip, but there is much more to see and do. A ranger told us the average visit to Yosemite lasts just four hours, and that is a shame as the park deserves much more!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Memorial Day...what is it all about?

The last Monday of May is Memorial Day. Many newcomers wonder what exactly are we marking with this holiday. It is a uniquely American event, first observed to commemorate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. It is now both a day to remember Americans who have died in all wars and armed conflicts, and an opportunity for more a general expression of memory, when people visit the graves of family and loved ones. Towns host military-themed parades with marching bands, or present fireworks. For many people, however, Memorial Day simply marks the official kick off to summer - a great excuse to host a BBQ or hit the beach. However you chose to spend it, enjoy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reserve America...and do it early!

California offers an incredible variety of camping options. From the coast to Lake Tahoe, Death Valley to the isolated northern stretches of the state, there is a site for everyone....or so it might seem until you actually try to book one. This past weekend, as I furiously searched the Reserve America website for some - any - Memorial Day weekend option, I realized I need to think a bit farther ahead. Reserve America is a great site - you can put in a zip code, a park name, amenity requests or a combination there of and it will - ideally - provide a list of private and public, state and federal camp grounds that meet your criteria. However, the best spots often involve serious pre-planning. You can generally reserve about six months in advance so, as I have now learned, if you want to camp at Sunset Beach in late May, you better be at your computer November 1st at midnight to nab your spot.

The good news is that cancellation fees are nominal if they exist at all, so checking the site regularly a few weeks prior to your planned trip can sometimes land you a spot. This is true even for Yosemite, which books months in advance for peak season, but often opens up if you check again about ten days before you hope to go. The other piece of good news is that many camp grounds do not take reservations, or set aside a section on a first come, first serve basis, so if you don't mind taking your chances and getting up early, you have a decent shot at nabbing a spot. And, while it can be chilly, Northern California is chock full of camp sites, and the crowds are much thinner than the rest of the state, making it a good choice for last minute plans.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A visit to the de Young

A rainy week with guests to entertain found us at the deYoung Museum last week, the first time I had been to just visit the museum, not a special exhibit. The art museum is located in Golden Gate Park, and going during the week (or, I presume, early on a weekend) means four hours of free street parking, which was a nice bonus. The museum has a full range of free, docent-led tours, and we decided to take advantage of one - a great decision. Our guide, Suzanne, took us through several galleries, stopping at one or two key pieces in each. In a little over an hour we covered part of the American, African and Oceanic galleries. Suzanne was the perfect combination of knowledgeable while also be very accessible and friendly. After taking in about all my mind could process, we stopped for some lunch in the museum's very nice cafe, then headed up the de Young's tower for a view of San Francisco and area through the clouds. I noticed a family-oriented docent tour on the list, and we will no doubt be back on another rainy day to check it out. Your entry to the galleries also includes same day admission to the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum's other location, the Legion of Honor, which is in nearby Lincoln Park, so a well planned day could certainly include a stop at both.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Summertime is grill time

Summer is coming - time to brush off the barbecue cover and get grilling! To many ex-pats, this is a uniquely US phenomena, associated with hot dogs, hamburgers and loads of ketchup. And traditional barbecuing - cooking meats, generally with some sort of sauce or rub, over low indirect heat for a long period of time - did indeed originate in the US south. But barbecue has evolved into so much more than that. From tiny portable grills you can use on your deck or take to the park to enormous professional grade outdoor kitchens, barbecue is a wonderful way to prepare a meal for two or twenty, and an easy way to entertain. Moving well beyond the basics, you can prepare anything from veggies to desserts on the grill - we've even had our Thanksgiving turkey cooked on it rotisserie style. That is a big bonus on a hot summer day, when the last thing you want to do is turn on the oven. There are many good, basic BBQ cookbooks to chose from, or simply search recipes and tips on-line. The head outdoor chef in our house particularly likes Weber's Big Book of Grilling.

If you live in an apartment, check with your leasing office; most do allow small BBQs on decks and patios, but there are exceptions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Aquarium of the Bay

We recently took out an annual membership to the San Francisco Zoo - partly because after two trips it more than pays for itself, and partly because the zoo membership offers discounted admission to a variety of other spots, one being the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco. With a week of grey weather and visitors to entertain, we decided to give the aquarium a try.

After holding a membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year, I was perhaps not in the best position to evaluate, as comparing the two if really quite unfair. The Monterey aquarium is an amazing facility, one of the best in the world, and can easily consume an entire day. San Francisco's version, by contrast, is a about a one hour walk through. It has some nice features but for my money, I would certainly pay a bit more and visit the Monterey Aquarium. However, since we paid half price I was quite satisfied with our day. The aquarium is a not for profit, aimed at educating and advocating for our oceans and the life they support, and keeping this in mind helped keep my experience a good one. One bonus - we purchased the optional movie ticket ($3), and they let us stay and watch as many of the rotating series of 20 minute films as we liked - everything from cartoons about saving the ocean to the lives of sharks to the rebuilding of the Bay Bridge. The location is great too - if you are entertaining guests and making the obligatory stop at Pier 39, the aquarium offers a calm respite from the frenzy of the area.

We decided to skip the crowds and walked down to the Ferry Building for lunch afterwards - a great option anytime, but especially when you have a variety of palates you are trying to please.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Living in an Earthquake Zone

While most don't give it a passing thought on a day to day basis, we are all well aware that we are living in an earthquake zone. So it's only smart to educate yourself, take a few basic precautions, and be prepared...just in case. There are a few simple things anyone can do. One is to pick up a copy of the US government publication "Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country". It provides some great tips you may not think about if you have never lived in an earthquake prone area -  things like securing your hot water heater and book shelves, making sure you store your bleach separately, and to avoid hanging pictures and light fixture directly above the beds. You can also pick up a grab and go emergency pack, or make you own. We have one stored in each of our cars as well as our home. Other things we've done to help feel a bit more in control? A family meeting spot, an out of state contact person and an old pair of shoes and a flashlight tied to the foot of all our beds; you do not want to have bare feet in the aftermath of an earthquake! We hope to never use any of it, but a few small steps are worth the effort.

The publication can be found on line at; for other useful links check out

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Big Sur

It is an iconic drive, and for good reason. Coastal highway 1 south of Carmel provides spectacular views around each winding bend in the road. There are dozens of pull over stops, official and not, from which to hop out and drink in the view. If you are a runner, the Big Sur Marathon is considered one of the top races in North America. Hikers, nature lovers, foodies and those who excel at doing nothing at all will all find much to love about Big Sur. One must-stop destination: Nepenthe. It has a restaurant, cafe and shop but what it has most of all is spectacular views. Sitting outdoors having a bite to eat while gazing at the Big Sur coastline is one of my favorite memories from this past summer. Although a do-able day trip from the South Bay, to fully appreciate the Big Sur vibe, plan to stay a night or two. Accommodation options range from tent camping to luxury lodges, and everything in between.

Your private beach awaits

One of the best kept secrets of the Bay Area is, in my opinion, the coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. While those two places are great destinations in themselves, I much prefer the pleasure of discovering the many small coves and beaches that dot the coastline in between. And you don't have to be terribly intrepid to make a discovery. Simply head along coastal highway 1, and keep your eye peeled for a small path, a particularly wide gravel shoulder or a small gate. Pull over and take a peek. Chances are you have found a path to the coast. Some are steep, some flat, some go through sand dunes and some have small boardwalks to help you navigate through whatever vegetation is about, but all lead to spectacular views and, in my experience, little or no one to share them with. This is when you pull out your camera and get that wide angle shot of you on your private beach. With a blanket, a good book and a picnic lunch there are few better ways to enjoy a sunny day.