The weather, lately, has turned almost sickeningly beautiful. The hills are green and kind of glowing, the sky is a perfect, uninterrupted blue, any flower planted anywhere is practically jumping up and down, screaming for attention. California is, at this moment, a cliché of itself. It is time, friends, to get outside.
But what if you’re not the outdoorsy type? I know there are those of you who would not dream of a hike and yet feel guilty for staying inside when all of nature is flaunting herself so wildly. Sure, there’s the pool, but what if you want a little adventure? Where is your middle ground?
I’m not sure, but it’s possible that what you’re looking for can be found at the Pruneridge Golf Course. California is known for its spectacular, world-class golf courses and this is not one of them, but it’s nearby and everyone is welcome. It’s only nine holes, so you won’t be stuck forever and ever out there, but, still, you’ll have a guided walk through a well-manicured park, with a semi-interesting project to occupy yourself with along the way. And drinking beer as you go seems to be not just permitted but encouraged.
Obviously, this could be mildly offensive to any serious golfers and I apologize if I’ve just casually degraded something you love. Golf, I know, can be an intricate game of precision and balance. But it can also be a relaxing way for laypeople to traipse through an afternoon of sunshine and, if I may, the Pruneridge Golf Course is more for those of us who fall into the latter category.
On a recent blustery afternoon, as our plans for outdoor adventuring were being washed away by the rain, a friend and I decided to drive up through the North Bay for a bit. We took Highway 1, passing through Fairfax and San Anselmo and a couple of other absurdly cute little towns, with no particular destination in mind. We got to Point Reyes and talked about stopping. Because Point Reyes is such a destination spot, and because we had accidentally arrived there, it seemed like a fine enough communal idea to fall into. But we weren’t quite ready, so we drove on a little bit further, really just about ten minutes more, and came upon a place called Nick’s Cove.
Maybe we only stopped because after Point Reyes it seemed like stopping was the thing to do, because there was nothing in particular about Nick’s Cove that was so very different from any of the other roadside places we had been seeing. But it was perfect; a lonely little wooden restaurant, surrounded by an inn and a few vacation homes, with windows overlooking the northern end of the bay. It felt like we had gone back in time. It felt like we were on some remote edge of the eastern seaboard, which we both agreed on even though, admittedly, neither of us knows anything about the east coast except what we’ve learned from literature and movies. We ate fish and chips and drank rose and walked out on a rickety old pier and felt like we were standing on a far corner of the earth. All that and we were home before it was dark.
If we’re lucky, which it seems like we might be, it’ll be raining for the next few weeks. April showers and all that. If you find yourself here on a rainy weekend looking for something to do, give Nick’s Cove a try. Come to think of it, it might even be nice without the rain.
A bit late for Valentine’s Day, but still in the right month for romance, I thought I’d tell you about a sweet little thing to do with someone special. On the surprisingly beautiful Lake Merritt, just minutes away from Downtown Oakland, you can take a gondola ride. The boats are identical to the ones that might exist all over the world but that I, personally, have only ever seen in Venice. The gondoliers even wear black pants with black and white horizontally striped shirts and those funny hats. It’s all very authentic.
Here, even, are a few reasons why riding a gondola in Oakland is better than doing it in Venice: First, there are only a couple of gondolas in Oakland’s fleet and, really, there’s mostly only one out at a time. If you, then, are in that one that’s out, then you’re doing something special. In Venice, where there’s a constant gondola traffic jam, the experience can, perhaps, feel a little less personal. Second, someone told me recently that Oakland has the most temperate climate in the world. Whether or not that’s true, one thing I can guarantee is that’s it’s milder there than in Venice. Meaning that you will never, ever go out in a gondola in Oakland, even on the hottest day of the year, and worry that you’re going to die of sun exposure. Not true of Venice. And, last but not least, as I learned last summer, riding a gondola in Venice costs many, many Euros. Riding in one of Oakland’s copycat gondolas is much more economical. Not that saving money should be a factor when you’re planning your perfect romance, but, then, throwing tons of money away on a generic experience that, in real life, turns out to be a sweaty, tourist trap isn’t so very romantic anyway. It’s better in Oakland.
Last October I saw Leonard Cohen in concert for the first time. Having listened to his music for years, pored endlessly over his lyrics and actually cried watching a video of him singing on my little iphone screen, I did know that seeing him live was going to be a big experience. I even treated myself to an expensive ticket, pretty sure it would be worth it. And still I was shocked by how moving he was. 78 years old and I got the feeling that he’s so in love with life, that, now that he knows there’s not so many years left for him, he’s trying to suck as much of the nectar as he can hold. His voice has gotten so low, and he drops to his knees so often, it’s like the earth is fighting to reclaim him and he just won’t go. And the music, and those impossible lyrics, are so deep and rich and full of pragmatic mysticism and to see their source, this little old man, giving them up with so much generosity and love was, well, humbling and energizing past anything I’ve ever gotten from a live performance of anything. I left feeling that if this crazy world, so full of war and destruction, could also produce Leonard Cohen, maybe everything would be ok after all.
I say all that because he’s coming back to the Bay Area. March 2nd and 3rd he’ll be in Oakland at the Paramount Theater. If you already liked him before this awkward little tribute, or if I’ve piqued your interest at all, go. This tour will not last forever.
Someone asked me recently where to go on a nighttime picnic and, though I never, ever, ever go on nighttime picnics, I surprised myself by coming up with the perfect answer. Are any of you out there more romantic than I am? Looking for a nice spot to go howl at the moon when you have the misfortune of being on unfamiliar ground when it gets full? Well, friends, if you answered yes to either question, I’ve got just the spot for you.
The Lawrence Hall of Science is a great place in it’s own right, an interactive science museum for kids, affiliated with UC Berkeley. It doesn’t deserve to just be the setting for the romantic night I’m creating for you, but life’s not fair and it happens that it’s sitting on some amazing real estate with a very particular attraction. Perched in the Berkeley hills, it’s got a view of the bay that, to quote a friend’s mother, almost makes you believe in god. Not that this is the only place in those hills to get that view, but it is the only place you can get it while sitting on the back of a whale. I guess it’s a great whale, anyway it’s a big whale, built to scale, well worn by years of scampering kids, living in the courtyard in front of the museum. Sitting on it, you are both perched above crazy, surreal beauty, and also a safe 10 feet from a protective wall. During the day it’s amazing and/but you compete with kids for the space. At night, though, and this was my revelation, confirmed by the friend I sent up there, it’s completely un-treacherous access to natural wonderment by moonlight. I might even go check it out myself sometime, if I can be bothered.
Finally, after all these years, I’m remembering to write about Dia de los Muertos in time to tell you to go to it! This has been a huge failure on my part, so, now that I’ve remembered, I need all of you to pay attention because I’m sending you to one of the best things that happens in San Francisco. But it’s a one-day-only thing, though, so you’ve got to get it together and go, OK?
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, for those of you who don’t know, is a smashing together of ancient Aztec practice and All Soul’s Day. It’s meant both to remember friends and relatives who have passed away and also to illuminate the link between life and death. In Mexico it’s a two-day celebration that includes picnics in graveyards and plenty of mescal.
San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos is a carriage of old tradition into the modern world. Every year, a park in the Mission, the city’s Latino neighborhood, is filled with altars made by local artists, and this collection of altars becomes the starting point of a giant procession. Everyone is welcome and many come painted as skeletons, wearing vivid colors, and carrying the mementos of their beloved dead, to parade all night through the city streets. It’s ghostly and celebratory and deeply peaceful. This parade is one of the things that San Francisco comes together to do that shows its eccentric, loving nature in the fullest light. This city this is a place unlike any other, and Dia de los Muertos is a great way to see exactly what that means. It’s on November 2nd this year, and the parade starts at 7pm. Please come out for it!
This month, instead of writing about a particular employee, I’d like to involve you in a little hotel scandal. Or controversy, maybe controversy is a better word. As some of you may have noticed, when both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s got into the playoffs this year, the staff here started showing up in gear devoted to whichever of those two teams they preferred. As I write this, some are still coming in in orange and black. This was not optional, if you were wondering, but decreed from above. Fun, said our dear general manager, good old mandatory fun.
Except, if you noticed the jerseys and t-shirts behind the front desk and the wheel of the limo, maybe you also noticed that your breakfast was being served in the same white shirt and vest as always, your room cleaned in the same old pastels. That’s because the housekeeping and kitchen staffs were forbidden to obey the temporary change in dress code by their respective managers. Carlos, our kitchen manager, is said to have said that those who made the change looked like clowns and he would not permit his employees to disgrace themselves like that. For my part, personally, I can’t really disagree. Still, is this treason?
I saw poor Sammy, who works on the kitchen staff in the morning, but then tends the bar at night, which is not technically a kitchen position. Carlos had told him that he was absolutely not to wear anything baseball related to work, and yet there he was, Sammy, being asked by the general manager why he was heading behind the bar in a tie.
By the time you read this, surely, the Giants will have lost and gone home and everyone will be back to normal. But I thought it might be a fun little peek behind the scenes for you, our guests.
If anyone actually reads this little newsletter, then surely someone out there remembers that earlier this year I told you that the best winery to visit in all of Napa Valley, and maybe the whole world, was Chandon. Well, let’s just say that, as I write this, I am acutely aware of how all these politicians can start looking like such flip-floppy flakes. There’s always something new to learn, but once you’re on record as declaring something to be the truth, it becomes awkward to admit you’ve changed your mind. But, what can I say? I’ve had a new experience and, yes, I’ve got a new favorite!
The Rombauer Winery is elegant and lush. It sits on top of a hill, but instead of the big valley panorama one comes to expect on a winery-hopping sojourn like the one I was just on, what Rombauer gives is a little hillside peekaboo, framed by the trees and flowers of their crazily beautiful garden. This garden, actually, is the star of the Rombauer experience. It’s got a wild and exotic array of colorful flowers, plus tall trees that make it feel more like a forest. There are picnic tables for sitting shaded on its inside, and lounge chairs for sitting on a patio overlooking it. Does this seem too serious? Because it’s also got a few random Christmas trees and some rusty dinosaur sculptures, to lighten the mood a bit. I felt enclosed in an intimate botanical paradise, with just the slightest hint of an eccentric edge.
I do, of course, realize that if it was possible to find a winery I like more than Chandon, it must also be possible that there’s still another winery that I’ll like more than Rombauer. What a strange and complicated world this is. All I can say to you, then, is that you’d better get over to Rombauer before something better shows up!
When my dad was growing up, going to the movies was a pretty big experience. It seems to me that they went in on Saturday at dawn and came out after midnight, having seen the week’s news plus cartoons plus eight or nine features. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I think that what’s true is that it was a pretty magical part of the world, not to mention a huge source of cultural information. Even when I was growing up, going to the movies was something special. VCRs were just sneaking into our lives, but a movie wouldn’t show up in a video store until about six months after its theater release, which is a lifetime in kid years, and, anyway, the gap in quality was enormous. Nowadays it feels almost silly to see a movie in a theater. Everything you want can be pirated off the internet while it’s still in the theater and huge HDTVs make even the big screen redundant. But what about the magic?
Well, let me tell you about San Francisco’s Castro Theater! It’s celebrating its 90th birthday this year, which means that it literally is one of those theaters my dad used to go to. It went through a period of corporate ownership, but now it’s back in the hands of the family that owned it at the start. It’s huge, ornately decorated, with a balcony and a capacity of something like 1,400. There’s an organ that’s played as introductory music, the space that other theaters are now filling with ads. And, now that I’ve at least got you believing that this is a beautiful old theater, let me tell you what’s playing just in the few days following this random day that I happen to be writing to you. Tonight will be a sing-along screening of Grease. Tomorrow there will be a “BFF triple feature”: Clueless, Mean Girls and Heavenly Creatures. The following day it’s an indie animated film festival called Scary Cow. The day after it’s a Muppet Movie/Phantom of the Paradise double feature. Lest you think this is a kids place, next week, which I will skip detailing, seems to have more of a narcotic theme. This is a magnificent, historic relic that’s being programmed with eccentricity and a sense of humor. This is the place to come re-find the magic of going to the movies.
As you may have heard, California is a great place for wine. We try to keep a huge, and constantly rotating, variety here at the hotel, which means that it yours to sip for free every night in our bar. It’s a pretty nice little set up for you, our guests. But, you know, California wines are available, really, all over the world, including where you’re from. What’s special about coming here, to Northern California, when you’ve got a little bit of free time, is going wine tasting, and this month I thought I’d tell you about my favorite winery to visit.
And, no, this is not about my favorite wine. If you’re searching for the best tasting wine, sit in our bar and look. It’s free and you don’t have to have a designated driver. I’m talking about the most fun I’ve had at a winery, and the winery I’m talking about is Chandon. Chandon, of course, starts with a bit more fun because all its wines sparkle, and, you know, the visit lived up to the promise of those bubbles. The grounds are light and airy, littered with interesting and beautiful sculptures. The staff, too, is easy and good-humored, which is not necessarily true of every winery in the Napa Valley. There is a huge hilltop terrace where you can sit with your samples and order small plates from their amazing restaurant. It’s elegant, and yet not the kind of place that’s going to make you feel self-conscious about having maybe just a little more of their delicious bubbly wine than you had planned to drink. When I was there recently, it was with the plan to hop from place to place, wine tasting the way one hears about it being done. We got stuck, though, for hours and hours, at Chandon. It was so endlessly inviting, so exactly the thing we had in mind when we set out on the adventure. My advice to you, skip the rest and head straight for the best.