photography

March Mendocino Mini Vacation

 

Harbor House Inn, Oceansong Cottage, Highway 1, Elk
view from Harbor House Inn, Oceansong Cottage, Elk, March 27, 2012


Living in the City, you easily forget how dark night can be. Driving South on Highway 1, at 10 p.m., blasting the Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album and singing along…and realizing there are no lights other than those from your headlights. Back at the cottage, even standing out on the deck, the ocean is lost in the darkness. But the roar of the waves breaking against the rocks in the cove reminds you it’s there. Temporarily out of sight but still within reach, should you be so foolish as to try and brave the treacherous path down to the black sand beach in the pitch black dark.

The picture window that so perfectly framed the ocean view and the keyhole rock it crashes through is now a mirror. The reflected light from the glowing apple on my laptop illuminates my face as I type type type away.

waterfall next to our cabin in ElkThis is the escape from the every day I needed. No Internet. No television. And not too many people.

Our little cottage at Harbor House Inn, with the amazing view, was $100/night cheaper than its neighbor thanks to a slope to the floor. The ocean is trying to reclaim this patch of land or so it seems. But the pitch isn’t so steep that it’s a bother, so yeah us for getting a good deal. And in case you are wondering, the bed has been adjusted for the slope, so there won’t be any accidental rolling out of bed.

Since we were staying at the Inn during the off season, dinner was not included, thus our first night’s meal was at Ledford House, up Highway one just past the 128 junction. A pleasant ocean-facing dining room, with a piano player. The duck pate starter was very good, as was L’s leg of lamb. And I have no complaints about my steak au poivre with asparagus. About midway through dinner, I thought I heard a familiar pitiful wail. After hearing it a few more times, and determining that yes I was hearing a sorrowful cat lamenting how very hungry it was, I spotted the calico kitty at the door of our dining room. “She thinks she’s an indoor cat,” our waitress remarked after seeing we’d spotted the little beggar, then shooing her out the door. “And she’s not starving, either!” Clearly this was not the first time for these antics.

Exploring Mendocino County

Our first full day in Mendocino County started with complimentary breakfast at the inn (omelet with mushrooms, asparagus, and caramelized onions and a side of bacon), where to our dismay we started seeing raindrops spatter the picture windows. Undeterred by the light rain, however, we headed out to Ross Ranch where we’d reserved a couple of hours of horseback riding through the redwoods. This turn of weather reinforced my purchase of a new rainproof jacket and then some.

I should point out that the horseback riding was L’s idea. Those of you who know me personally IRL know that despite the many years I spent tearing around on my bicycle, I have had horrible balance for the past few years. So the idea of mounting a huge horse and tooling around steep backwoods inclines would not have been the first leisure activity that I would have suggested. Thus I bucked up, signed the waiver that pointed out all the ways in which horseback riding could be very dangerous and possibly maim me, and off we went.

My horse was a pro. What I mean by this is he figured out pretty quickly that he had a first time city slicker rider on his back. And thus, every time he saw some nommable greens—or some branches that were just above his head—he headed for them. After a while, I got the hang of reigning him in and reminding him that I was the dominant one in charge, thank you very much. I was faking it, mind you, but he seemed to buy it and was mostly well behaved. Other than trying to eat my shoe when we stopped for a break at the midway mark.

That’s when the rain started to get a little more aggressive, even within the protective redwood canopy, prompting me to pull up my hood, and we ended up getting back to the ranch a littler earlier than scheduled. Since my jeans were soaked, and I was pushing my luck as far as my ability to stay upright and in charge on this horse, that was OK by me. I should have taken a photo of our horses once we dismounted, but the moment escaped me. And clearly, there wasn’t any opportunity for me to take photos while we were riding.

After changing into dry clothes, we ventured back onto Highway 1, this time headed to Fort Bragg. More specifically, headed to North Coast Brewing Company. Because I definitely deserved some strong beer as a reward for my equestrian efforts. It had been more than a decade since I visited the tasting room, but the food was as tasty as I remembered, though the portions were even more hearty than I remembered. I should have done a tasting set like L (he did 4 tasters), but I wanted an entire goblet of the Brother Thelonious dark Belgian style ale all to myself. I have a real weakness for dark Belgian style beer (hello Maredsous!)

Finally giving in and accepting the fact that the rains were not going to abate, we headed back to the Inn, where we spent the evening drinking wine (picked up from wine tasting on Highway 128 on the way up on Wednesday) and playing Scrabble and Monopoly.

A Trip to Mendocino Proper

image from www.flickr.comFriday’s plan was to finally make it into the village of Mendocino. But first, we stopped at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and spent a few hours walking through the gardens and out to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Thanks to the persistent light rain, there was only one other couple out on the paths with us, so it felt as though we had the place to ourselves.  One item to note: we never did figure out why there were numbered metal quail all over the property. They weren’t map points or anything obvious. I imagined a secret, members-only audio tour might make use of them.

After the gardens, we drove in to Mendocino, parking in front of Café Beajoulais where we had a leisurely lunch. L had a lovely spring greens salad with a perfect mound of baked Laura Chenel goat cheese, and a burger with white cheddar and avocado. I started off with a duck leg confit, and had a baguette sandwich of brie, bacon, and chicken. Very tasty food, though everything from getting seated to having our orders taken seemed to take much longer than you would expect. Only later in the day did I realize that the somewhat harried state of our waitress was likely due to her acting as hostess, waitress, busperson and cashier for the entire restaurant, which had 8-9 tables active while we were there. Yikes!

Our walk through the tourist shops of Mendocino was over fairly quickly – it’s actually a pretty small area. I was tempted, very tempted, to purchase the Jedi’s Path at the bookstore (to better know the enemy since my allegiance goes to the Sith, in SWTOR at least.) But I remembered my vow to stop buying books, so I didn’t pick it up. I’ll wait until I sell a few books back to my local used bookstore and make room on the shelves.

Our final night’s dinner was at the Bridget Dolan's Public House in Elk, just up Highway 1 from the Inn, which was suggested to us by a tasting room person at Navarro. In addition to great service and a nice selection of local brews on tap, they had mini chimichangas on the appetizer menu. Can you imagine? Of course we had to have them and they were delish.

Overall, the rainy weather did but a damper on some of the hiking and exploring we had planned, but we did make the best of it. And I returned home relaxed and recharged and that was definitely the larger point of it all.

Mendocino County Resources

Lodging:

Harbor House Inn
5600 S. Highway One
Elk, CA
(800) 720 7474 

Food & Drink

Bridget Dolan's Pub
5910 S Highway 1
Elk, CA 95432
(707) 877-1820

Cafe Beajoulais
961 Ukiah St
Mendocino, CA 95460
(707) 937-5614

The Ledford House
3000 N. Highway One
Albion, CA 95410
(707) 937.0282

North Coast Brewing Company
55 North Main Street
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-BREW (2739)

Activities

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
18220 North Highway One
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964.4352

Ross Ranch Horseback Riding
(707) 877-1834


My, What a Huge Bee Hive You Have

bee house, Sonoma, California

It's interesting what catches our eye from the street. I didn't notice this house when we passed on the opposite side of the street; I was too intent on trying to guess which tiny street we should go down on our way to the Bartholomew Park tasting room at the end of a maze of narrow roads in Sonoma.

On the way back past, we drove past initially as well, but I had L stop the car and back up. You see, the motion had caught my eye. What was the cloud in front of the house? As I was peering out the window, trying to decide if this was a plague of locusts or a swarm of bees, a local stopped to chat us up.

"$1.2 mil…" was how he started the conversation. After we'd all stopped laughing, I asked if the flying insects were bees, which he confirmed. "They live in the walls," he said. "This is the first warm day we've had so they've gotten all riled up."

The man went on to tells the place had been vacant since the 50's or 60's. It's always surprising to see that in wine country -- it feels like every piece of vacant land get planted with grapevines. But can you imagine what purchasing this house -- now a giant beehive -- would entail exactly? You'd need a bee expert to supervise the removal of the bees, and then would have to get permission to demolish the house (because you wouldn't want to inhabit a giant beehive and you can't exactly show the bees your deed of sale and ask them to please not come back into the walls/house.

And thus, this beautiful piece of property sits vacant, occasionally flaring up into a David Lynch-worthy piece of wonder like this, to enchant passers-by.

P.S. more pictures of the house in my Sonoma set on flickr.


An Ode to my Neighborhood: the Richmond District

Dragon Fruit for sale on Clement Street

About 15 years ago, I moved out to the Richmond District, a part of San Francisco my friends referred to as "the fogbelt" or "the 'burbs." At the time, I thought it would be a short stay, until I found a place I liked in a hipper neighborhood with more to do.

Instead, this neighborhood really grew on me. It's one of the most neighborhoody feeling San Francisco neighborhoods, to me. There's a nice mix of younger couples and older Russians who've lived in the Avenues for decades. That's why we have an Asian produce market next door to a Russian deli, with a good sushi place across the street.

It's truly a foodie (and cook's) paradise.

I am able to walk up the street to do my grocery shopping on the weekend. I start at the natural foods store 10 blocks away, stop in at the great little wine shop, and almost always stop for fresh hummus at my favorite European market. The City's best bagel place is out here, as well as the best margaritas. And all this is a big part of why I've never left.

Yes, other neighborhoods have cooler restaurants and tons of hip little stores. But I like my neighborhood's inexpensive but good eats, and its relative safety. I can't really imagine moving to a neighborhood that doesn't have a couple dozen great restaurants, a half dozen markets, a wine shop, an amazing new and used bookstore, a movie theater, and several ice cream shops all within a nice walking distance. Having a wealth of resources right outside your doorstep is the whole point of City living, isn't it?

Yesterday, I took a walk down Clement Street, in search of lunch, and took a good number of photos. My intent is to do some posts here soon to give a local's view on what makes this neighborhood such a great place to live. Stay tuned.


Christmas is in the Air...and on top of My Bookcase

our wee tree
This is our wee fake Christmas tree. You may notice that it looks somewhat similar to, but significantly smaller than, our previous fake Christmas tree.

This is due to our interest in not boarding the kitties for the holiday season. Last year, it was all to clear that putting up our tree would be an exercise in frustration. We envisioned kitties chewing on the tree limbs and batting around the adorable woodland animal ornaments. We'd been holding out hope that somehow they would have settled down in time for Christmas, but they didn't, and thus: no tree.

Christmas just isn't as fun without a tree. So this year, we got prepared.

First, we moved our five-foot tall skinny bookcase into a good spot, without any kitty accessways onto it. Then, we purchased a teeny tiny mini tree at the Macy's pre-season holiday sale.

We put up our tree immediately following Thanksgiving. The results are seen here.

Given our limited space, we couldn't use our previous santa claus tree topper (it would have dwarfed this little tree.) Instead, we had my Hello Santa Kitty take the place of honor at the top of the tree.

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Next weekend will be my big weekend of baking. This year's plan includes Merry Christmas Cookies, Chocolate shortbread, and red velvet cookies. Oh! And double chocolate pistachio biscotti too. I'll be bagging them up to take to work. It's going to smell heavenly in our apartment.

The holiday shopping was incredibly easy this year, with almost all of it done online again. I do need to go pick somethings up at the Ferry Building, but other than stocking stuffers for L, I'm done. Which is good because San Francisco is awash with shoppers. I do need to head down to Macy's to take pictures of the SPCA kittens in the windows, but other than that I am trying to stay clear of Union Square until the New Year.

I bought holiday cards but am somewhat undecided about actually sending them out this year. It is starting to feel like a dying tradition. I send out a ton but only see a dozen or so come back this way. Doesn't anyone else love paper as much as I do? I will probably get to writing out cards between sheets of cookies going in and out of the oven next weekend.

Incredibly busy here. But happy.

xo


Scotland Trip Part 2: Edinburgh

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It was hard to pack up and leave Glasgow after having such a fabulous time there, but with our limited amount of time for this journey, and our desire to see Edinburgh as well, that's what we had to do.

We hopped on a train which got us to Edinburgh in about an hour or so. I can not express strongly enough how much more pleasant it is to travel by train from place-to-place, versus air travel these days. And the sightseeing from the windows is always interesting,e specially when you aren't able to do day trips, as was the case on this trip.

We stayed at another Radisson Blu, located a short walk from the train station, and in the midst of the Royal Mile. This made for an easy point of reference as first-time visitors to Edinburgh, but if I returned I'd probably pick a place not situated in the midst of the tourist area to have some more peace and quiet.

We unpacked and caught our breath, then headed out for a walk through New Town, on the way to dinner at Dusit. Located down a windy alley between Hanover Street and Frederick Street in New Town, Dusit was more upscale than SF's typical thai restaurant. Have I mentioned that one of my cardinal rules is I must live no farther than 2 blocks from good thai food? If I was moving to Edinburgh, this would be my thai food beacon, based on its rendering of my standard order: Satay Gai and Gaeng Massaman (beef). The Pad Kraprao with duck and the flatbread for soaking up the leftover massaman curry were also excellent. A very good start to this part of the journey.

As we meandered back to the hotel, I saw the perfect pair of ultra girlie fingerless gloves in the window at White Stuff, and made a mental note to stop back there to look at them first hand.

Day 1 of Sightseeing

We dutifully headed up the Royal Mile on our first day of sightseeing, stopping in at the Cathedral of St. Giles en route to Edinburgh Castle. I don't have any photos from that church as they required a 3.50 photography fee, and frankly, the interior was nowhere near as amazing as St. Mungo's.

They were setting up some sort of scaffolding for erecting bleachers in front of Edinburgh Castle, causing me to remark it was starting to remind me of our trip to Venice -- scaffolding and cranes everywhere! This made photo taking more difficult here than in Glasgow, and is reflected in the smaller number of photos in my Edinburgh flickr gallery.

I was somewhat expecting the exhibits at the Castle to be on par with the Tower of London, and thus was a little disappointed. There were very nice expansive views of the city at least, which partially made up for that. We did more walking around in Old Town, and then headed to the National Gallery of Scotland.We skipped the Impressionist Gardens special exhibit since we'd just seen an expansive Impressionist exhibit at the DeYoung and had plans to see its sequel upon our return.

We made it back to White Stuff where I snapped up the adorable fingerless gloves I'd seen in the window (they will be perfect for keeping my hands warm while typing at work.) Unfortunately they didn't have any of the too cool owl tea cozies from their window display for sale -- I definitely would have brought some back for Christmas gifts. Oh well.

The rain showers started after our shopping excursion, but we could see Harvey Nichols across the square so we made a break for it. As we sat and had a cocktail and a snack for a late lunch, the sun came out and gave us a great view from the Forth Floor restaurant. It eventually got to be so hot and sunny, in fact, that I had to have the shades pulled down. I think I may be the first visitor to Scotland to get some freckles from the sunshine! Haha. Somehow I managed to avoid the many temptations in the pantry displays, and headed back to the hotel empty handed.

Since L's birthday coincided with our journey back to London in the midst of this trip, I'd done some homework to find a great restaurant to celebrate in early. I decided upon The Grain Store since they were known for their use of local game and produce. Up a flight of stairs in a windy alley, the Grain Store was candle-lit with dark wood and heavy chairs giving a definitely romantic, old world feel. We shared a pork terrine starter, and I had a perfect venison main course, served with a fruity wine sauce that had a medley of berries and some thin apple slices. L's lamb was also impeccable. But I think the true star was L's dessert -- a peach tart composed of one perfectly ripe small peach half wrapped in a pastry shell. Simple and yet so tasty. Not that my cheese plate with homemade oat cakes wasn't good mind you, but his dessert was perfect.

Day 2 Sightseeing

Before heading out to Holyrood House, we stopped for breakfast at larder, around the corner from our hotel, on Blackfriars Street. Having slept in some, we were there in that strange time between and early lunch and a late breakfast, so I decided upon the special lamb burger. In addition to the cafe offerings, they also had a small deli and bakery selection to go. If our customs rules had allowed for it, I would have brought home some of the venison sausage and some cheese. Sigh. I forgot to write down the name of the producer of the phenomenal unfiltered pink lady apple juice I had with my meal. I wish we had more artisanal juice makers making unconventional apple choices here in Northern California. But at least we have Gravensteins.

On the way up the street to Holyrood House, L caught me gazing at a pretty blue kilt, and we agreed to check it out on the way back (On the way back past it I tried it on and L bought it for me as a present. This means I have to replace my black knee high leather boots sooner rather than later.) Given the shopkeepers on the street's distinctions about these things, I should note that this was an officially sanctioned tartan kilt by Locharron, not one of those silkscreen tourist kilts all kitted up with corset strings that we kept seeing everywhere.

I made an executive decision to *not* stop in at Unknown Pleasures. I was afraid of several things. Firstly, I am not sure I could have spent less than an hour there obsessively looking through all that vinyl, which can be very boring for the not-obsessed-with-records person with whom you are traveling. Secondly, I was worried I would find some must have records that I would then tote around for the rest of the day and then have to fret over through security and the overcrowded overhead bins. I'd done that my first trip to England and believe me it got to be tiresome for all involved parties to have me hissing "be careful! I have records up there!" every time they slung around their bags. I knew the chance of finding too much to carry home was high having ordered vinyl from them via mail order back in the day.

We arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse with muted expectations based upon our previous day's experience at Edinburgh Castle. We were very pleasantly surprised, however. Despite this palace being the Queen's official residence when she is in Scotland, there were quite a few public rooms you were able to tour. It was especially interesting to linger in the rooms of Mary Queen of Scots, and look at all the ephemera therein. But the real highlight for me was the ruined Abby, which comprises most of my Holyrood House flickr gallery.

Tired from all the walking around the Palace's grounds, we stopped at Clarinda's Tearoom for a pot of Lady Grey tea and a big fluffy slice of cake with whipped cream filling. The sideboard here was crowded with some amazing looking cakes, but I am sure we made the right choice.

We'd intended to see the surrealist exhibit in the late afternoon, but after walking over to the main galleries, we learned that the free shuttle to the modern art gallery from the primary National Gallery location had been suspended, and the city bus to and from was only running once per hour and decided to forgo it. Thus, we hailed a cab and headed to the Royal Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.

The Gardens were an excellent place to spend the afternoon. We saw many fat little squirrels (and a number of people feeding the little guys which explained their roundness). And we also came to see that this was kitty paradise. While making our way through the greenhouses, we came across an adorable black and white cat, who had apparently strolled in after some other patrons. "Hello there kitty!" I said to him, and he walked up and nuzzled my arm, with a big kitty smile, letting me know he was very pleased with his maneuvering inside. After some persuading, the couple who let him in were able to get him to go back outside. Personally, I thought to myself that this was a very clever cat, heading inside to the balmy 80-degree greenhouse to bird watch.

For our last dinner in Scotland, I decided I wanted some good old pub food. And thus we ended up parking ourselves at the Bank Bar pub next door to the hotel. I had a pint of Caledonian and some crispy and satisfying fish and chips, while L had a burger. Nice to have some comfort food after a day with so much walking.

Two days never seems like enough to explore a new city, but I do feel as though we got a definite taste of the flavor of Edinburgh regardless.


Scotland Trip Part 1: Glasgow

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Typically, when I'm headed to a city I've never previously visited, I arm myself with travel books, and google searches for slow food suggested places to visit in that city. But for this part of our Scotland trip, I additionally had a secret weapon: I've been reading about things to do and see in Glasgow -- courtesy of friends who live there -- for a solid decade. Thus, our two full days of exploring Glasgow were a little off the beaten path. Thank you to Lis, Dave and Karina for having shared so many slivers of your city with me over the years.

 Day 1 of SIghtseeing

We hopped on the underground after a 5-minute walk from our hotel, Radisson Blu Glasgow, headed to the West End. We'd chosen the hotel based on its proximity to the Central train station, the underground, and the train station we'd be using to travel on to Edinburgh, and our having had a great stay at the Radisson SAS Blu in Rome a few years ago.

We exited the underground loop at Hillhead station where we met up with our friends Karina and Dave who proceeded to be our most outstanding tour guides for the day. Our first stop was one of my most anticipated sites to see in Glasgow, thanks to its frequent mentions on Facebook: Auntie M's Cake Lounge. Decked out with retro furnishings, Auntie M's is an ideal place to start a Sunday morning with some tea or coffee and a slice of some of the most decadent, delicious cake you can imagine. Both the chocolate orange and the brown sugar cake were excellent. As we prepared to leave, the proprietress asked where we lived, and turns out she's also from San Francisco! Which brings me back to the question I posed on Sunday: Why don't we have a cake lounge like Auntie M's in SF?

We poked our heads into some of the other shops in De Courcey's Arcade, then started our wander through the city. As per usual, I took many many photos of interesting architectural details as we walked around the university and over to the Kelvingrove museum. You can view those in my Glasgow album on flickr.

  Glasgow

We spent several hours strolling through the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum's eclectic collections. And lucky for us we happened to be there during a choral and organ program, so we were able to see its impressive organ in the main hall in action.

After the museum, our walk took us up to a primary shopping street where I got to explore a Waitrose supermarket. Yes, I travelled for hours via airplane to Scotland and am publicly admitting to having been excited about having visited a supermarket. The foodie in me can't help it!

I'd read a few issues of their magazine thanks to Fog City News' amazing selection of imported cooking magazines, and had hoped to be able to take a look at one of their markets. It turns out they're sort of a combination of whole foods' gourmet and organic food and selection with a trader joes like emphasis on prepared and packaged foods for convenient meals. If I lived in the UK I can tell you I'd definitely be having them home delivered. No pix from the market, I'm afraid, as I can never tell where I can or can't take photos and have been previously chewed out for taking photos in shops in England.

We stopped to rest our weary feet at the Botanical Gardens, making sure to stop and see the remains of the overgrown undergrown rail line that ran through the area. We also poked our noses into quite possibly the most packed junk shop I've ever seen. I was glad I didn't have a large handbag with me, as I would have been afraid of braking something or starting an avalanche. We just don't have that sort of old school shopkeeping in the States.

This wander through a day in the life of Glasgow's West Ender made me feel a kinship with this city. I'd srt of expected it to remind me of San Francisco as far as being an active, vibrant city full of people going about their business, and that is pretty much how I felt by the time I got back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 2 of Sightseeing

The other primary spot I wanted to visit, again based upon having heard so much about it and seen photos of it, was the Glasgow Necroplis and St. Mungo's cathedral. I took so many photos between the two places I created a separate flickr gallery for them.

  Necropolis

We spent hours exploring the cathedral and the necropolis. I was struck by how much plant life perservered to grow in unlikely ledges in the Necropolis. Several photos show flowery weeds sprouted from the tiniest speck of dirt in a granite groove. As per usual, my favorite monuments were those with weather beaten statuary of some sort. But my favorite photo from the necropolis was of crosses against the bold cloudy sky.

I was truly impressed with St. Mungo's stained glass. On a whole it was some of the most visually interesting and modern feeling stained glass I've seen in a church. And some of it, such as the depictions of various family crests, unckuding a ship's mast on top of a knight's helm, were even quite humorous.

We wiled away the afternoon walking around the city center, stopping in at some vintage stores (L found a cool short sleeved shirt he bought). Our one record store excursion did yield some Jesus and Mary Chain records, but not ones I needed to complete my collection. Which is not surprising given that all I need to complete it at this point are a few limited edition 7" gatefold sleeve editions.

We headed back to the West End for dinner, stopping in at a bookshop with literally 2-deep stacks of books in front of each shelf. Not a place to go if you were looking for a specific book, but the kind of place you could easily spend several hours browsing through and coming home with things you'd never even thought about previously. I resisted the urge to buy some books on Roman architecture, reminding myself how heavy my bags were without lugging home picture books.

Our dinner destination was Stravaigin, a restaurant specializing in using Scottish produce and game, proponents of the "eat local" premise that makes me happy, but with a "think global" spin. I had an excellent mushroom and goat cheese ravioli starter and a main course of morroccan chicken. Unfortunately, I had to forego a cheese plate for dessert as I needed to save room for whiskey at Òran Mór, a bar and restaurant nearby that was housed in a former church. (We drank Isle of Jura if you are wondering.)

After two full days of walking the city, I felt as though I had seen everything on my must-visit list, and would efinitely need to plan another longer trip to spend some more time in the Glasgow, and to use it as a home base to explore the countryside.

Next up: Edinburgh.


Questions I Have Thanks to Recent Travel

  pond at the Edinburgh botanical gardens' greenhouse (but no frogs)

Whenever I travel, I come home with many many photos, tons of interesting experiences, and inevitably, all sorts of questions that occur to me. These are a few that got stuck in my brain during our trip to Scotland...

  • Why would a group of Brits, with all the beer options available to them, bring a six pack of Budweiser on a train? Really, why? Fullers makes so much better beer. I will never understand this one. Note that of course they'd brought 2 other 6-packs of beer with them as well. But still.
  • Why does a self-proclaimed 4-star hotel tell you in its room guide to order off the room service menu, then not provide a menu in the room, then not answer the room service phone #? Right, because they are updating the room service menu but don't have new ones printed yet. Note that we also then played round robin phone tag until we finally got ahold of someone in the restaurant who brought us up... the old room service menu.
  • Why is it that I can't ever take a walk while traveling to any city type place without being stopped and asked for directions? I think it must be the international city dweller uniform of mostly black clothing. I'm usually able to do OK at providing the requested directions, but this time around I was not able to provide walking directions to the British Museum from Euston station, having only just arrived in that neighborhood for my first time a short time earlier.
  • Why are all the lifts perpetually unavailable, or non-existant? I take for granted that the ADA makes the US a very traveler-friendly place. But after a week of schlepping around via trains and having to haul my bags up and down countless flights of stairs, I shall never take a well-placed ramp or elevator for granted again.
  • Why do all the eggs have such rich orange yolks in the UK? And why do only our occasional farmers' market eggs in the States match them?
  • Why do countries issue blanket "terrorism alert" statements like this one? Can it help do anything other than give anxiety to those travelers already abroad?
  • Why is it that only in the UK do restaurants serve a reasonable amount of milk with my coffee and tea? I swear in the U.S. it's always thimbles full of milk, or those play tea set sized cream cups at best.
  • Why don't we have a cake lounge like Auntie M's in SF? You'd think we would by now. Loved its completely inviting, homey, laid-back 50s vibe. And the cake! The cake! Delish. I had a chocolate orange cake that was truly fabulous.
  • Why is it that in the U.S. we think the transportation solution for a greener environment is hybrid cars rather than green/extensive public transportation networks? You can easily live in a European city without a car, getting around from place to place via transit or longer haul trains. Ever time I try to fathom how to get from San Francisco to a conference in San Jose I wonder why we haven't invested in a comprehensive rail network that can get us around the Bay Area more easily. And please don't mention BART -- if you live in the Richmond or Sunset districts, you're looking at taking a half hour bus ride to get on BART, and still having to change to CalTrain and walk a mile to get somewhere. Blergh.
  • Who thought it was a good idea to place a noisy water heater in the wall next to the bed's headboard at the Radisson in Edinburgh? Ah the joy of staying in an old building. I think the solution to this, however, would have been to drink more whiskey, yes?
  • Where are all the cats? Italy has them everywhere. And I saw them in Paris too. But there were too few cats this trip. One in Glasgow at the junkshop door, a ginger, who was muddy and couldn't be bothered with us; the black kitty who got himself let into the greenhouse in Edinburgh; and the white and black tomcat stalking the squirrels at the Edinburgh botanical gardens. I bet it is some sort of conspiracy led by all the birders, nod.

SF Zoo Outing

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I've been remiss in not posting about this sooner. Especially since we have such great photos from this excursion.

I invited my childhood BFF and her two fabulous youngsters to come spend the day in the City, to go visit the San Francisco Zoo. I hadn't been there since I was about 6 years old, to the best of my memory.

Since it was lunchtime and we were all starving, our first stop was the Beach Chalet restaurant. Since they don't often get into the City, we thought it would be cool to have lunch with an Ocean Beach view. I was pleased that I was able to get the little ones to try the hummus.

"What's that," asked Spencer.

"It's dip," I replied.

"What kid of dip?" he asked.

"Bean dip. Garbanzo beans. You'll like it," I assured him.

I should note here we ate every last crostini and polished off the bread plate as well, leaving no speck of hummus uneaten.

After that, we headed to the zoo, and spent the remainder of the day checking out all of the exhibits, which ended up being quite a bit of walking for the kids. Once everyone was tired out, we sought out the only open snack bar (Only 1 snack bar open on a Summer day? Really?) Unfortunately, only 1 open snack bar means one thing: Seagull mayhem.

If multiple snack bars are open, you don't have the entire flock of seagulls (no, not *that* Flock of Seagulls) concentrated in one place, with their beady little eyes trained on your hot dog or churros or ice cream. But I was prepared for those sneaky little bandits, and kept them chased off from the teeny tiny toddler level table we sat at.

I was impressed with the improvements to the living conditions of the animals. On the whole, they had so much more room to spread out and run, play, and enjoy the day's limited sunshine. They don't have the luxury of all of San Diego Zoo's space to spread out, but it is still a major improvement over the concrete enclosures I remembered from my childhood.

The only bummer of the day was most of the big cats were hiding or sleeping. We nearly missed out on the lion that graces this page, as he was lazing about in the far back of the enclosure. But once he decided there was a large enough audience awaiting his presence, he slowly sashayed out towards midfield, and gave us all a good pose.

At closing time, we packed up and took Erika and her family back to BART and vowed to have another outing soon. I think a visit to the California Academy of Science might be a good next visit. I wish they lived closer so these wouldn't de such rare events.

A few favorite photos:

image from farm5.static.flickr.com

image from farm5.static.flickr.com

image from farm5.static.flickr.com


Kittens: One Year Later

It's been a little over a year since we brought home our kittens Marcello and Bolvar. And in that time, they've truly developed their own personalities -- and their own flavor of sibling rivalry.

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Marcello remains as handsome and charming as his namesake. His key traits are his aggressiveness and his playfulness. And the fact that 99.99% of the time he is about to do something very naughty.

What do I mean by naughty? Shredding the notes slipped under the door by our property manager and then soaking them in the water dish for good measure naughty. Drowning grey mousey in the water dish naughty. Luckiy for him the naughty is balanced with his sheer joy of playing.

Although he can entertain himself for hours chasing light beams from the window around the living room, his favorite game is fetch. He'd fetch a flippy toy or a mousey for a half hour if you had the patience for it. He murps and runs and retrieves the toy, running it back to you with immense pride.

Much of the aggressiveness comes out towards his formerly BFF, his brother Bolvar. Gone are the days of the two snuggly kitties on the chair. They are engaged in a full out battle for dominance of the household. And the war is typically started by Marcello walking up to his brother and giving him a slap (or three) in the face. It'w one of the funniest interactions to witness. Especially once Marcello runs away murping, after Bolvar takes the bait and comes after him.

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Over the past year, Bolvar has really come into his own. Gone is the somewhat passive, teeny kitty that would get pushed aside at the food bowls. He's now the bigger of the two, and a real chowhound (every kitty gets his own dish here, and there's no stealing each other's food, thus his bulking up.)

He's nearly as handsome as Marcello, save for a big raised scar across his nose, which we think came from one of his boxing bouts with his brother. Bo's the lover of the pair, always coming up to us looking for pets and chin scratchies. And frequently lolling on his back for belly rubs and gentle wrestling.

He tries every so often to vocally communicate with his humans, sounding off with the most pitiful wails if we are 15 minutes later than usual with dinner time. But his most common sound is that of purring. At about the time my alarm should go off each morning, I am instead awoken by PURRPURRPURR in my ear. I've never met a kitty whose motor sounds as loud as Bo's. And if you pet him...it gets even louder!

These little guys have helped immensely in replacing the void left by Mister Bill.

P.S. for more kitty baby photos, check out their flickr album. I can't believe they were ever so tiny...


Marin County Fair Recap

  Llamas at the Marin County Fair

For me, it's simply not summertime without at least one county fair visit. Typically, our fair of choice is the Sonoma County Fair, but this year we decided to mix things up a bit with a trek to the Marin County Fair instead.

Overall, the fair seemed a little bit smaller than the other ones I've attended, which probably makes sense given the cost of the land in Marin County versus everywhere else. But this fair had stormtroopers, courtesy pf being in ILM/Lucas Ranch's backyard. How many other fairs can boast that? I was also seriously impressed with their culinary competitions -- and I am inspired next year to enter some of my own creations. Specifically, some baked goods. Unlike many other fairs which limit entrants to the local county, Marin's are open to any California resident. Huzzah! Now to decide what to bake...

In addition to taking a gander at all the adorable farm animals, we did a serious once over of the food vendors, because fair food is serious business. As we entered, we saw a few small ubiquitous fair food vendors, including funnel cakes, but we kept moving through the crowds until we hit the permanent structure housing the "Marin Food Court." I had a hunch that much like the fairgrounds in the central valley, the permanent structures would house local ethnic and civic organizations for whom the fair was a primary annual fundraiser. And I was right!

Although there were some of the expected fair food staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers, this being Marin County, there was also a self-billed "healthy gourmet vegetarian" food stall as well. Which seemed to be where the Perry Farrell-lookalike had gotten his food from. We settled on the Greek orthodox church's gyros stand, and some lemonade from the lemonade stand. And I couldn't have been happier. Well, unless I'd had a Lagunitas Farmhouse Ale. But that's a Sonoma County Fair thing.

Overall, a nice way to pass a couple of hours. But I miss the Stanislaus County Fair's linguica. I think we may need to make that next year's fair pit stop.

You can see more pix of cute fair animals in my Marin County Fair flickr set.


Sonoma County Fair

Barring some sort of catastrophe (like the year the car died), I've gone to a county fair every year for as long as I can remember.

I love the funnel cakes, the regional ethinic foods, the livestock, and the exhibits. I can't explain why, but it's just an intrinsic part of summer for me.

Yesterday's trek to the Sonoma County Fair was my third trip to that particular fair. Last year, we weren't able to go until a weekend day midway through the fair, and missed out on most of the small animals. So this year, we planned ahead and went up on a weekday that coincided with some of the animal showing.

As my fair photo gallery shows, we saw lots and lots of cows and bunnies.

I had personally been excited about the fair's Sustainable Sonoma exhibit. As a slow food proponent, and frequenter of farmers markets, I was excited at the prospect of seeing some local growers and producers at the fair and giving folks some ideas on how to think more locally. Unfortunately, the reality of the exhibit however did not meet my expectations.

Set in a tent off to the side of the main entry hall, it featured a lot of unmanned booths (like the Sierra Nevada table that had some brochures and some keychains on it), a table with a little bit of produce and some olive oil, and a gentleman giving out samples of hummus and veggie spreads, some art made from recycled items, a booth on sprinklers, and a few other booths selling various art.

I had expected a vibrant and fun expression of the eat local scene, yet this felt more like a green themed extension of the entry hall concessions. I mean, there wasn't even a copy of the Sonoma Farm Trails map! If we lived in the area, I would be looking around now to sign up as a volunteer to curate the tent for next year in a way that made folks proud of their local purveyors and help them understand how they can grow fruits and veggies at home, etc.

But that is a minor complaint from an otherwise lovely day at the fair.


Kitty Babies

On Sunday afternoon, we got to go pick up our new kitty babies. We arrived with our kitty carrier and were pleasantly surprised that our adventurous boys (following resident kitty Rosie's lead) climbed right in, ready to go.

On the short drive across town, the kitties were silent, except for one squeak after about 10 minutes. The boys spent a solid half hour running around checking out all the nooks and crannies in the apartment, only finding three teeny crawl spaces we had not anticipated, all of which were easily blocked.

Born in March, and abandoned in a box with the rest of their litter in the Central Valley, the boys are now at the super high energy stage of kittenhood. They need at least two rounds of feather-on-a-stick per day to tire them out. And I don't mean just 10 or 15 minutes at a time either.

Sunday night, I stopped after about that long to write a quick email. I hit send then swiveled my chair around to find both boys at my feet...and with the feather-on-a-stick in Bolvar's mouth. He made sure I understood that it was still playtime now, thanks.

It's interesting to watch how they interact. Despite their youth, they are already bonded and spend much of their time together. In addition to the vigorous wrestling matches that break out after feather play time, they run laps up and down the hallway and take turns washing each others faces at bath time.

We are already getting a sense of their individual quirks. Bolvar is our hunter gatherer. From bringing me the feather toy when playtime is not long enough to bringing us the miscellaneous cord he finds behind our desks or bookcase, he is always looking for the next shiny object to bring us. And when he catches the feather toy, he restrains it with both feet and bites it.

Marcello, tho he does carry around his favorite mousey, is more of a lounger than a hunter. His naps are longer and more stretched out across the sofa. He makes eyes at you as he tries to fight back the napping urges. He's the first one on the bed at bedtime, planting himself at my feet.

Overall they seem to have settled in pretty quickly, making themselves at home. But don't just take my word for it -- I think this photo of Marcello speaks for itself...


Staycation Days 2 & 3: Sonoma Valley

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Our major daytrip (is an overnighter technically a day trip?) was heading up to Sonoma for a relaxing massage and soak at the Fairmont Mission Sonoma Inn and Spa, and a little bit of wine tasting.

Thanks to the economic downturn, we got a great deal, via the Web, on a suite that had a jacuzzi tub and a balcony, giving us extra lounging possibilities. It was a great room but I have to say its $1500 rack rate (per the notice in the closet) is significantly higher than I would expect given the amenities. That said, thoroughly enjoyed the massage, and the rare treat of Food network on the tv while we ate room service breakfast. Loved Tony Bourdain's tour of Cleveland, including his stop at Lola, the only fine dining establishment I've been to in OH.

Last time we stayed here the mineral baths were nearly deserted. This time, despite it being off season, they were packed, making me doubly glad we had a tub of our own.

Wednesday morning, we packed up and got in the car and headed to Cline and Arrowood vineyards for some serious tasting. These are two of my favorite Sonoma wineries, so rather than hit up a bunch of places, we focused on these 2 for the sake of time and not becoming inebriated (in deference to lunch with my SO's grandma afterwards.)

A standout at Cline was their proprietary blend Oakley 5 Reds. Like the winery employee who poured for us, I wasn't taken with this blend prior to last year. Now I snap up a few bottles whenever I see it -- it's a great wine for under $10 most places. And lucky for us it was on sale at 25% off. Some old vine zinfandel and pinot gris also came home with us.

Our visit to Arrowood got off on the wrong foot. This has been my favorite all around winery for a solid decade. I try to make it up there about once a year to buy a case, including a few bottles of their amazing late harvest white dessert wines. There were 3 other couples tasting when we arrived, with only one employee pouring (while another stocked shelves and pored over paperwork behind the counter.)

The other couples had a decade or two on us and as a result, were getting more of our host's attention. When she asked us, towards the end of our tasting, if it was our first time visiting the winery, I told her "No, we come up at least once a year. And Arrowood is my favorite winery, atually." A few moments later, we were offered a taste of the dessert wines and what had been a lackliuster experience thus far was salvaged.

The show stopping wine at Arrowood was the luscious, thick, golden Select Late Harvest White Reisling from Saralee's Vineyard. No words I have can do this wine justice. We bought two bottles, with the intention of giving one as a gift, but we shall see if we are actually able to part with it...

More photos here.


Staycation Day 1: Muir Woods


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Every year since I started working, I've taken a week or two off from work in April for vacation. I hate standing in long lines or visiting beautiful places overrun with other visitors, so this has been the best time of year to plan on a trip. I have this week off from work. But for a variety of reasons, including the craptastic economy and a sickly kitty cat, I'm not off on one of my more typical cross-continent vacations. Instead, it's a Bay Area staycation (a stay-at-home vacation).

Although my significant other was looking as though he might stay in bed 'til noon, I managed to hassle him into getting up and out the door for our Marin County trek today.Today's daytime plans were not too ambitious-- a leisurely drive up Highway 1 to Pelican Inn for lunch, then on to Muir Woods for a hike.

Thanks to this being a post-rush hour weekday morning, we were at Pelican Inn less than a half hour from leaving home, even with the inevitable Highway 1 roadwork lane closure. The fish and chips with non-mushy peas ( /cry) and the "english dip" roast beef sandwich weren't anything special, but you really could not ask for a place to eat that's any more convenient to the park. And the Fuller's London Pride on tap would have made it a must stop regardless imho.

Post-lunch, we made a short drive to the park's parking lot, then started the walk in. It's amazing how crowded Muir Woods can be even on a weekday. Then again, I suppose many of the families there were on Spring Break and trying to tire out their children...

We did the two-mile loop trail, then headed back into the city, via a leisurely Highway 1 drive.

I often forget just how close we live to Marin County and its myriad hiking trails. We just picked up a couple of comprehensive local hiking trail/day trip books: Moon California Hiking (Moon Handbooks) and Golden Gate Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Walk, Bike in San Francisco & Marin. This should provide  some encouragement to get out and about in the greater San Francisco Bay Area more often.

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More photos here.


slowfoodnation (better late than never)

HoneyIt's taken me a while to mull through what I wanted to share about slowfoodnation weekend that I hadn't already seen at many other blogs during the event.

A week or so after my birthday, I decided to splurge and buy tickets for my boyfriend and I to go to one of the tasting sessions at Fort Mason. Tickets, at $65 each plus fees, were more expensive than most of the wine tastings I've attended at Fort Mason by $10, and more expensive than any concert I've seen to date (even those Bauhaus Ressurection Tour tickets way back when were cheaper.)

As a former slowfood member, I would drool when I would receive the notices about the Italy tasting events and dreamt of some day planning my vacation to coincide with them. I was hoping this would live up to the idea I had built up in my head about what such an event could be. Did it? In short -- no. I was disappointed. But I do see a lot of potential there, that I hope is tapped if they decide to move forward with another slowfoodnation event.

Pizza The Pros

  • Amazing Pizza. That pizza you are looking at here is in my top 5 most perfect crusts ever list. It was thin and crispy and delicious. And made in an oven that appeared to be built on site for the event, with pizzas assembled by an amazing crew of volunteers. It was worth the half hour wait, especially since we had delicious Magnolia Brewpub cask conditioned beer in hand.
  • Lots of Learning. The honey, coffee and chocolate tastings were tasty, fun and informative. The folks we talked to who were manning the counters in these three areas clearly had passion for their subject matter. I had never really thought about how the time of the year would affect the way the honey would taste, so it was cool to be able to taste three examples of honey from the same bee colony from Spring to Fall. And the cupcake, as seen in the photo at the top of this entry, was the perfect tiny accompaniment.
  • A Visual Feast. Throughout the Pavillions, the eye was engaged with all sorts of food ephemera and lots of educational content.

The Cons

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  • Lack of Organization. We came through the gates and were handed our slowbucks (which we thought at the time we would surely run out of) and a flimsy map that showed where each pavillion was located. And that is it as far as takeaways from the event. For $65 it would have been nice to have been able to have taken home educational materials of some sort -- be it a flyer on sustainable raised coffees, or a CD-ROM (or heck even a special URL for downloading) with the content from the educational displays. Some exhibits had interesting informative folks walking you through the flight you were tasting. Others -- including the salumi and the ice cream -- gave you no information about the food you were sampling other than what it was on a basic level. No details on the trends or philosophies behind the producer or the food item.
  • Excessively Long Lines. I never got to read all the cheese-making educational content, and did not get to scope out the cheeses that were being samples because I couldn't handle the though of standing in a line that stretched the length of the display, then half the width of the auditorium and out the door and down the side of the building to the front.
  • Poor Wine Tasting Organization. You could only fight to the front of the meade/sparkling wine area; the rest were unreachable thanks to the cocktail rounds blocking the lines and immovable people who camped at the bar, never stepping back for anyone else to obtain a taste as well. I asked our bartender 3 times for a wine on the list that he said they did not have; my boyfriend finally pointed at the bottle in front of him. We then had the tiniest pour ever of said wine, which the bartender did not know anything about. It was the least informative or accessible wine tasting I have partaken in at Fort Mason. They really should not have bothered.

I expected to leave this event excited about local producers and foods. Instead I had sore feet, went home with many slowbucks unused, and ordered a pizza from Pizza Orgasmica because I was starving after spending hours around so much food (and receiving such tiny tastes of it from the few pavillions in which I could actually suffer the lines.)

I was also disappointed with the attendees. Overall, they were unfriendly (like the couple who rode the bus to the event with us, then couldn't even return a smile when we ran into them inside), and rude (the lady who was saving 5 chairs at a table for her friends in line and wouldn't let us sit there for the 5 minutes it would take for us to eat our tiny salumi tastes.) We did chat with one couple after we finally found a seat; they were aghast at the fattiness of the mortadella slivers my boyfriend had (and was not eating) and were deciding against waiting in that line.

I left feeling even more disconnected with the local slowfood movement. I let my membership lapse after a few years due to the only SF convivium events tending to be last minute (a few days in advance usually), incredibly expensive dinners. I had expected the SF chapter to be ripe with informative educational lectures, farm tours and volunteer opportunities, and fun tastings. I was hoping slowfoodnation would deliver on that. Maybe next year.


Visiting Monterey Bay

If you're trying to get out of the heat, a Summertime trip to Monterey Bay is a great idea. Unfortunately it is one shared with throngs of tourists. This leads to hotels booked months in advance throughout the Summer. So whatever you do -- don't arrive in Monterey without a reservation, unless you can afford the last available suite at one of the resorts.

My recent trip to Monterey involved a stay at the Hotel Pacific, billed as a AAA 4-diamond property within walking distance of Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their website also promised "handcrafted tile bath features separate tub and shower, a second phone and a second television" and "French doors opening to a private balcony or patio."

Some of the above was a bit of a stretch of the truth. Although Fisherman's Wharf was nearby, the aquarium was only walking distance if you meant that you can pick up the free tram in front of the hotel to get there, or if you were accustomed to walking a few miles per day. Our bathroom had a shower with just a curtain -- no tub or even a raised area to keep the water from flooding the floor -- and a fold-down seat for the elderly or disabled. No TV, and not at all the luxurious or romantic accommodation we were expecting. The sink being in the main room -- not the bathroom -- was another odd choice. And that patio? Think an eye-level walled alleyway with only 1 lawn chair. All this at about the same price as staying at a truly luxurious room at the W in most cities. I'd also much rather be able to pay for room service than have to stand around, with children running to-and-fro, waiting for coffee urns to be refilled and the ransacked Continental Breakfast tables replenished. Live and learn. We won't be staying there again.

As a side note, how is it that a hotel that advertises itself as having conference and meeting facilities does not have a business center or even a computer that hotel guests can use? We forgot our pre-purchased Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets, and were directed to a Kinko's about a mile away. And that was after watching the desk person print another guest's airplane boarding passes. That's not the level of service I would expect from a self-proclaimed "luxury" property.

Once we had our pre-purchased tickets in hand, we parked in the hotel garage and took the free bus to the aquarium, avoiding the $20-$25 parking lot fees for the few available spaces. Having pre-purchased tickets also allowed us to avoid the line of several hundred people waiting to see if they would be able to buy tickets. As always, the facility's impressive aquariums, and their educational presentation on the deep sea research they are conducting with an affiliated non profit research arm, was well worth braving the crowds.

Next post will be on the glorious food, which was second only to the otters as a highlight of the trip.


PHOTOS: New DeYoung Museum

Although the museum doesn't officially open until October 15, the cafe and bookstore have been open for a few weeks to give the curious (and the impatient members) a chance to take a look around. Although most of the artworks inside retain their packing shrouds, the Goldsworthy rock installation in the entrance to the museum is in use, and the Richter photo mural in the lobby is viewable.

The parts of the museum that are currently open were teaming with people this afternoon. Word has started to get out that there's finally a good place to make a pitstop in the midst of a stroll through Golden Gate Park. The cafe prices are in line with the former cafe, but the light-filled space, with its glass lollipop shaped lights and tinker toys structure chairs, are worlds beyond the former museum cafe.

I was pleased to find the Izze's pomagranite as an alternative to soda, but vexed that their only ice tea was bottled or from the soda fountain. And although our chocolate mousse cake was inexplicably dry, I would go back again for food because the sandwiches on airy artisan bread looked so tasty...