Friday, April 23, 2010

North by No Crowds: Adventures off California's Highways

Road Trip. In America, those are magic words. The open road is the American Dream. You can go where you want, when you want, how you want. It’s up to you. You make it happen. To experience America, take a road trip. For the ultimate road trip, make it Highway 1. Here’s what we had to say about this fabled road in 2008:

“There is a saying that a well-loved child has many names. The same can be said about one of America’s best loved highways, State Route 1 in California, aka Highway 1 or Pacific Coast Highway or, as locals call it, the PCH. No matter what it is called, this 655 mile stretch of tarmac, which starts south of Los Angeles in Orange County and ends north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, is the most beautiful, dramatic and inspiring coastline in the United States. That’s a bold statement but I doubt anyone who has driven this road will argue.”

Having already done the LA to San Francisco stretch of the PCH, we were eager to tackle the road north of San Francisco all the way to the Redwood State and National Parks. It’s an area known for spectacular scenery, good food, offbeat residents and no crowds. That sounded pretty good to us, a travelling trio consisting of my husband, our 12-year old-daughter and me.

We had rented a cheap little car (save where you can) but Hertz saw fit to give us a grand luxury coupe. Thanks. This Super Cruiser was way too cool for us. It took 30 minutes and both of us reading the manual just to get it started, but, having gotten over that hurdle, it was smooth sailing – and super fun driving.

We had been warned that some stretches of the PCH north of San Francisco could be both tedious and treacherous so we modified our original idea of a stately drive north. Instead, we raced north on Highway 101 for 5 ½ hours to Trinidad, just south of the Redwood National Park and then spent 5 leisurely days meandering back south. We travelled along the Avenue of the Giants – a 32-mile, 2 lane road under the canopy of the Redwoods, the PCH from Leggett to Albion and then Route 128 through Sonoma wine country to Healdsburg and back on 101 to San Francisco.

The Redwood Coast

Much has been said about the experience of standing under trees that soar 300 feet in the sky that predate the Roman Empire. Muir Woods, an old-growth coastal redwood forest 12 miles outside San Francisco is what most people get to see. It’s a wonderful place but you have to fight for a parking space and share the grandeur with busloads of tourists.

In the Redwood National and State Parks, on the other hand, you can see these wonders of nature in complete solitude. We hiked for hours without seeing anyone. Of the parks in the area, our favorite is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park that has lots of well-marked trails, a visitor’s center, Fern Canyon and Gold Bluff Beach. We also spent a glorious afternoon at nearby Patrick’s Point State Park hiking, climbing rock formations and searching for stones on Agate Beach. The only folks we saw all afternoon were some local surfers. Pure No Crowds bliss.

To stay near the redwoods, we recommend the Lost Whale Inn in Trinidad. The setting is secluded, the views spectacular. Rooms are large and nicely appointed. The breakfast and complimentary afternoon refreshments are generous and delicious. The innkeepers were welcoming and there is something to be said about waking up each morning to the sound of barking sea lions. We were disappointed that the steps down to the inn’s private beach were closed because of damage from winter storms. The innkeepers say they are working hard to get them repaired.

Heading south from Trinidad, we spent an interesting evening in Arcata, long considered Northern California’s (and therefore America’s) most progressive town. It’s part college town, part Cheech and Chong installation and here’s a factoid I just love about the place. Back in 2003, Arcata’s City Council voted to outlaw compliance with the US Patriot Act. Way to go Arcata! If you like Japanese food, Tomo, located in the Arcata Hotel on the plaza serves very good sushi.

We also spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around Ferndale, a wonderfully preserved Victorian village. There are lots of charming houses and some fun galleries and shops. We loved visiting the Blacksmith Shop and Gallery, established in 1979 by Joe Koches, whose goal is to offer the public “the finest collection of master blacksmithing in the U.S.” It’s not stuff that easily fits in your carry on but the shop is happy to ship and the items are beautiful.

The Mendocino Coast

After an impressive drive through the redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants and a spectacular stretch of the PCH, we arrived in Mendocino. The place reminded us of the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts and no wonder, transported New Englanders built it. Filled with saltbox cottages and rose covered picket fences, the town exudes picturesque charm but like Nantucket, is a victim of its own success with high prices and too many shops hawking t-shirts. But with that said, we loved the atmosphere and particularly loved rambling along the dramatic 2-mile stretch of sea cliffs that surround the town.

In Mendocino, we stayed at the Alegria Inn that has an ideal, quiet location overlooking the ocean with private beach access. Because we were travelling with Eloise, we stayed in one of their cottages that had a fold out futon. It also had a wood burning stove, a well-equipped kitchen, a funky Japanese tub and a double bed in a loft. I have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the loft (too old) but everything else, including the helpful innkeepers and excellent breakfast were first class. We also had a very good dinner at the highly rated Café Beaujolais and a tasty lunch at the Moosse Café.

The Sonoma Wine Country

Travelling through wine country with a 12 year old poses a dilemma. As Eloise was neither old enough to drink the wine nor act as the designated driver, we felt it necessary to temper our alcoholic aspirations. Still, it would have been a shame to be so close and not take the opportunity to dip into the world famous California wine scene. Plus, we had heard from lots of savvy travelers that Sonoma was a much more No Crowds appropriate experience compared to Napa – less chi chi and more relaxed.

We ended up heading for Healdsburg, an attractive town that sits at the center of three wine producing valleys. With over 160 wineries within easy striking distance, and a restaurant scene that is starting to give Napa Valley’s Yountsville a run for its money, we thought Healdsburg could provide something interesting for us and something fun for Eloise.

Don’t tell our dentist but the big experience for Eloise took the form of a candy shop unlike any other – except perhaps Willie Wonka’s. Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, on the square in Healdsburg, sells thousands of different kinds of candy. They have candy in there I haven’t seen since I was Eloise’s age. The shop is big fun for any child and an interesting piece of nostalgia for any American parent.

After treating Eloise to a bag of sweets to take back to school we treated ourselves to a visit to the rather glam Ferrari Carano winery, famous as much for its elaborate gardens and villa as for its wines. If the Ewing family from the 80s TV show Dallas had a winery, it would look like Ferrari Carano. Needless to say we had lots of fun.

And then sadly, it was time to head back to San Francisco. Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought about all our inspiring experiences: the magnificent redwoods, the pristine coastline, the sometimes eccentric residents and almost always excellent food and as I had in 2008, I thought how unattractive it was to be envious of your own child. But in the case of my northern Cal son, again, I just couldn’t help myself. This place is too perfect. Come see for yourself.

Photo Credit: Eloise Hedges

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

San Francisco: Best for Big Children

Ask my 12-year-old daughter Eloise about her recent holiday in San Francisco and she might respond with something like this:

“I slept in my brother’s bar, The Roasted Frog, where I played darts and video games all night with his friends from business school. I spent Easter Sunday at the Hunky Jesus competition run by weird guys dressed as nuns and the Bring Your Own Big Wheels Race where everyone dresses up and rides tiny bikes really fast down a really steep hill. One time we went to a garage for breakfast and another time I started the day with salted caramel ice cream. I had some fabulous burritos and went to a Pirate Store and a prison.

Now before someone calls children’s services, let me explain:

  • The Roasted Frog is the bar/pub my son and his French roommate built in their apartment in the Mission, the hood that is part Latin barrio, part hipster hangout with a heavy concentration of cool stores and restaurants and reportedly the best weather in this city of microclimates. Nearby Dolores Park, on a fine evening or weekend, is a great place to hangout and watch the locals ‘do their thing’ which includes playing music, drinking, dog walking, tight rope walking, hula hooping and God-only knows-what-else.
  • The Hunky Jesus competition (now in its 31st year) is a much-loved Easter tradition run by the Sisters of Perpetual Devotion, an interesting group of drag queens dressed up as nuns. It’s weird and fun and reinforces whatever expectations you have about America’s pinkest city. Needs to be seen to be believed.
  • The Bring Your Own Big Wheels Race is SF mayhem and madness at its very best. Every Easter Sunday, hundreds and hundreds of San Francisco natives ride kiddie bikes down treacherous Vermont Street in Protero. (They used to ride down Lombard Street but that got shut down) Think McQueen in Bullit on a bike. Some adventurous souls ride their rubbish bins. They come as super heroes and Easter bunnies. They crash. Their bikes fall apart. The huge crowd cheers loudest for the losers.
  • Everyone should eat Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream for breakfast – it’s that good. Ditto for Tartine Bakery and Cafe (If you can’t stand to wait in line make a reservation at Bar Tartine around the corner) or Blue Bottle for Coffee or La Taqueria for burritos. In fact, the food in SF is ridiculously good almost everywhere. The best meal we had was at trendy Nopa in and old bank building in the area ‘North of the Panhandle.’
  • The Pirate Store at 826 Valencia is, unsurprisingly, “San Francisco’s only independent pirate supply store.” It is filled with all kinds of treasures including great books about writing. All proceeds go towards supporting a literacy and writing skills initiative, 826 Valnecia, started by writer, editor and publisher, Dave Eggers.
  • Even San Francisco natives who scorn most of city’s tourist attractions love Alcatraz Island. A visit to the once notorious prison includes a scenic ferry ride, and a chilling self-guided audio tour where stories of crime and punishment are brilliantly retold. Booking ahead is essential - expect crowds – but the experience is worth it. Also crowded but worth it was the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Actually, everything we did in San Francisco was “worth it” - and loads of fun. My oldest son, the San Francisco resident, put it this way.

“Mom, this is a city for Big Children."

He meant it as a compliment. I think his point was that in this American city of unique neighborhoods, spectacular views, wonderful food (not to mention a comprehensive public transport system and health access for all) you can grow up but you don’t have to grow old.

We’ll be back.

Photo Credit: Eloise Hedges

Idea Credit: Leland Hedges

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Mirage is Real – Desert Elegance in Abu Dhabi’s Back Country

Gary and Lorraine are at it again - this time in the desert.

Question: how do you have a “no crowds” experience at an authentic desert hotel, even when they are fully booked over Easter weekend?
Answer: book a villa! You will barely be aware that anyone else is there.
Anantara, that world class resort management company who brought you the Desert Islands experience (reviewed here a year ago), have done it again. Qasr al Sarab (literally, “castle of the mirage”) has plunked a truly unique experience down smack in the middle of the vast Arabian desert, and have managed to convince discerning travelers to travel 2 ½ hours from the nearest airport (Abu Dhabi) to check it out. Hotel rooms, each with a private open-air dining area, tumble across the dunes like some artist’s award-winning sandcastles. The awesome scale of the desert becomes apparent when you look out your window and see an 800 foot high dune. It’s permanent enough to be known by the locals, but still transitory—the wind is moving it south, inexorably, every year. You really need to be this deep in the desert to appreciate the eternal beauty wrought by wind on sand…and see the genesis of the “Arabesque” curves so common in architecture and design in the region.
Given that this was a special birthday, we thought we’d pass on the rooms and suites, and try out one of the villas that are part of the complex—a 1 bedroom villa doesn’t cost much more than a room, and the private back garden and infinity pool in each one, with the desert and the dunes as the background, sealed the deal. Every detail of the property was carefully thought out, with wonderful local décor, and grace notes like a fully stocked Nespresso machine and not one but two rain showers (one inside, one out). Dinner was good, not great, but a room service breakfast delivered hot by a golf cart-wielding butler and served elegantly on the verandah couldn’t be beat. The croissants, I assure you, had never seen a bubble pack—they were made fresh that morning. The service in every part of the resort was absolutely beyond belief—we figured that there were between 2 and 3 employees for every guest in the hotel…and everyone was very experienced.
Beware, Qasr al Sarab really is in the middle of nowhere…and it’s in the tropics. We drove south and actually crossed the Tropic of Cancer to get there. The 2.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi (4 from Dubai) finishes with a 150 km trek across deep desert (albeit on a paved road). We were singing “we’re on the road to nowhere” and “on the road again”, but finally settled on “I’ve been through the desert on a road with no name”. With a brisk wind most of the way, the sand eddies flowed across the road and drifted in corners in a way that made us flash back to the snowfields of the high alps and Dolomites. When we arrived, we looked jealously at the Abu Dhabi Aviation chopper sitting on the helipad—well, maybe next time. Because there will be a next time—it’s a truly unique place— and worth the drive.
Photo Credit: Gary Ransom