Does it seem to you like I write too much about things to do in San Francisco? Because it seems to my boss, our general manager, that I do. I am, in fact, openly discouraged from finding new things for you to check out in, as she must grudgingly admit that everyone around here calls it, “the city”. There’s so much around here that isn’t San Francisco, she insists time and time again, and, anyway, everyone will always go there without us telling them to.
The thing is, I don’t even disagree with her general position, but what am I supposed to do about the particular things that I feel a moral obligation to share with you? Yesterday, for example, I had two scoops of ice cream on a cone, one salted licorice and the other black sesame, and I think my life was changed by the experience. Un-sweet ice cream was already a revelation, but to get to go even deeper into those complex flavors was, and I’m sorry to sound insane and, no, I haven’t forgotten that I’m talking about an ice cream cone, but it was moving. Seriously. I kept telling my friend how lucky I was to have it in my mouth.
You’re curious, aren’t you? You’d defend my decision to write about this, I think. Especially after you’ve been to Humphrey Slocombe and seen for yourself.
Eucalyptus trees are weeds. They’re not indigenous to California, but they’re everywhere. And they’re tall and they’re strong and where they decide to grow, other things die.
They’re also very beautiful. Majestic yet they’ve come to tower over much of our coastline. Their distinct smell reaches further, even, than their spindly branches and to take a hike in Northern California is to bathe yourself in the refreshing shade and scent of eucalyptus trees.
We’re supposed to hate them. We’re told to look down upon whatever Australians infected us, and to mourn the loss of the native flora and fauna that couldn’t hold their ground. But I defy you to take a walk through the trails of San Francisco’s Presidio, for example, as I did just now, and not fall in love with eucalyptus trees by the end of the day.
And, anyway, if I’m going to start hating non-indigenous things whose occupation of space led to the death of native populations, I think I’ll start with skyscrapers.
There’s a bit of an anomaly in our little neighborhood, maybe you’ve noticed it. Tucked neatly away between the apartment complexes and mini-malls that make up this Sunnyvale-Cupertino borderland that we inhabit, there’s a little cherry orchard. In a way it’s so unusual that you could almost miss it, mistake it for a park or the tree filled entrance to yet another cluster of town houses. But it’s a real orchard, one of the last of its kind. It’s owned by the Olsen family, who’ve been growing here for generations, since the days when all their neighbors were in the same business. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, even here in this newsletter, about this valley’s fertility in the days before silicon. Well, the Olsens have been here since then and, unlikely though it may seem, they’ve got no plans to leave.
What this means for you is that some really juicy California delicacies are just around the corner from your home away from home. The Olsens have got a shop, open yearly, stocked with locally grown fresh and dried fruits and nuts, fresh baked pies and other sweets. You’ll find perfect treats to munch on poolside and ideal souvenirs, plus you’ll be supporting, well, the survival of a local endangered species.
I guess I’m kind of a cynic, but for all the years that I’ve been hearing that there are buffalo in Golden Gate Park, I’ve always thought it was an urban legend. I never bothered to look it up and I never tried to investigate. No one I heard it from ever talked about having seen them, they just said that they were there, and I was a salty dog and scoffed at their naivete. Imagine my surprise, then, yesterday, when I came across a whole field of buffalo at the far end of the park!
To be fair, what I had imagined that all those people were reporting for all those years was that wild buffalo were roaming through the park, like the wild boar that really, truly do wander, and sometimes charge, through Berlin. What it turns out is that there are a handful of buffalo that live in a not stifling, though not overly expansive, pen at the ocean end of Golden Gate Park.
What is this a recommendation for, though? The buffalo are grand and sad, remarkable and irrelevant, and not worth a full day’s excursion. And I promise that this is not some trite warning against cynicism. Me, I was reminded how of rewarding it can be to go below the surface, and maybe that’s a good reminder for all you travelers too. Perhaps it’s better to acknowledge that you can’t see everything and so to choose, instead, to see all of any one thing. And Golden Gate Park isn’t a bad place to start.
More likely than not, the reason you are coming to this hotel has something to do with technology. The Silicon Valley, as we all call it now, has, for my whole lifetime, been only that. Apple was born just before I was, so I’ve only ever known this place as a big suburban sprawl that was, and is, changing the world. But before Apple, and me, there were orchards. This entire valley was covered with fruit and to grow up here was to live with other people’s nostalgia for trees. When I was a little girl, there were still cherry trees in someplace in San Jose, but they’re all gone now.
To get a little glimpse of what it must have been like, you can go to Casa de Fruta. It’s about an hour south and it’s a warm, friendly place to go feel a bit of California’s past. I will not deny that it’s set up in a somewhat cheesy, touristy kind of way. In addition to a fruit stand and a restaurant, there are weird little “attractions” and everything there is called “Casa de something or other”. “Casa de Restaurant,” for example, or “Casa de Choo Choo and Carousel”. Still, what they are doing, by means of these marketing strategies, is keeping a real, functional, family orchard alive well past its natural expiration date. Plus, tucked away as it is, southeast of Gilroy, en route to nowhere, it may be touristy, but it’ll never be overrun with tourists.
It’s a nice, quiet place to touch this agrarian part of California that doesn’t get as much attention as beaches, mountains, movies and computers. And a good place to stock up on the dried fruit and nuts that make such good gifts for family and friends.
California’s wineries were built in the days of martini lunches. Men, and the occasional lucky lady, going out to lunch at, well, lunchtime, having multiple martinis and then returning to finish their workday. And may I remind us all that this was long before the advent of the designer martini and whereas today yours might be softened with a splash of this or that fruit juice, the old-school style meant you were just drinking a glass or two of gin. Scary to think of the “work” that followed, for sure, but how about just the simple fact that all of those people were driving to and from those lunches!
But, so, the famed Napa Valley wineries, and the idea of day long wine tastings, were born in this same era. It’s a beautiful valley and really super lovely to drive from one to the next, sampling a few things at each. Except after a while you start to realize that that stuff’s alcoholic! Which even might seem ok-ish, until you, our guests, realize that you and your rental car need to be thinking about the two hour drive from the Napa to the Silicon Valley.
My suggestion? Mt. St. Helena! It’s the highest peak in the wine country. It features a wide, very well maintained path all the way up to its not-actually-really-so-high summit, perfect for wobbling your way up with very minimal risk of twisted ankles and the like. Plus views along the way that are (sorry I can’t resist) sobering. It’s the perfect way to round off a round of wine tasting.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for my entire life and what I’m about to tell you, you bunch of tourists, strangers and aliens, you very well might already know. Somehow, this is how the world works. I haven’t read any travel books about the Bay Area, I feel my way around and have learned most things because someone showed them to me. You, on the other hand, are coming to a new place and want to be sure to see whatever’s worth seeing while you’re here, so you buy a book that gives you all the highlights. To me it seems like what I want to tell you about is not really common knowledge, and that makes me want to share it, but I do know that I run the risk of sounding like a big dork getting all excited about something half of you have already been to and the other half just haven’t had enough time for and/or interest in yet. The thing is, I don’t know how I spent the last 30+ years here without knowing that one of the largest Rodin collections outside of Paris, 200 works in all, is just up the street, on the Stanford campus to be precise. The Gates of Hell are there. The Burghers of Calais are there. The Thinker should be there, except it’s on loan until next year. There’s a sculpture garden, open 24 hours a day and lit at night. There are free, guided tours three times a week. I was so happy to learn about this!
I guess even if you’ve known it was there all along, you can at least agree with me that’s, on the list of Bay Area treasures, this is a pretty great one.
Not so long ago I sat atop the Bay Area’s highest peak with a man with no legs. He’s a great guy who’s done amazing things, but this is not a story about a superhuman physical feat. It’s a story about how you can get to 0.3 miles from the top of the highest mountain in the Bay Area in a car. The man I mentioned was carried up the well maintained and not particularly arduous remaining third of a mile by a smiling friend who didn’t even break a sweat.
Let’s face it, hiking is not for everyone. While some people find the physical work of it energizing, others find that it taxes the little scraps of life force they have left after a hard week’s work. The problem, in a lot of cases, is that to get to see some Mother Nature’s real treasures, you’ve got to take a pretty long walk. Uphill, generally. Sometimes in either extreme cold or heat. And so a lot of people resign themselves to only seeing the world’s spectacular views on TV or in books. It’s all of you that I’m talking to. Go visit Mount Tamalpais! It offers a legendary view of ocean, mountains, bay and more, for the same amount of effort it takes to climb the stairs to the top floor of this hotel. (Regulars will remember that we only have four floors.)
There are some places that I only go to when I just can’t get out of going, places I would never think to want to go to and that, when someone else suggests them, I think of excuses to get out of going. The Buena Vista, in San Francisco, is one of those spots. Tucked neatly away in the part of town that’s hardest to get to and most filled with soul-less tourist traps, you spend at least a half an hour parking the car for the privilege of squeezing into the always crammed bar and eating the most average of all average food. For years this was my only experience of the famed Buena Vista. I would get dragged in at least once a year to celebrate the birthday of one or another member of my family full of Buena Vista aficionados, and I would turn up, eyes rolling and patience tried before I even stepped in, sure that fit was not possible to have a good time there.
And so I was there yet again this last weekend, for my father’s birthday this time. But, for once, I had a really different experience! Why? Certainly the Buena Vista didn’t change at all. They’ve been serving the same Irish coffees and Ramos fizzes for 58 years. The same man has been behind the bar since before I was born. And the bay view out the giant picture window is unchangeable. Somehow this weekend, though, all that enduring, living history stuff started sinking in. I’m writing to you now from a computer that is dying because it was built to be replaced. I ate lunch in a big chain that survives by making sure it is on top of all the most current “health” fads, and may not last long into the future anyway. The Buena Vista is not temporary and, this weekend at least, that felt really good.
I will say, though, that a not small part of my change of heart probably had to do with having drinks only. The Buena Vista’s Irish coffees are timeless and irreplaceable, the omelet only reminds you that you can eat really well in San Francisco without nearly so much hassle. Sorry. A bit of that old cynicism just won’t let go.
When I was growing up and said that I would like to live by the beach someday I had a very specific picture in my head. A small town, where everything you want is in walking distance. Lots of small shops selling bathing suits, loose linens and brightly colored candies. One story, pastel houses just across the street from the Pacific Ocean, so you can always hear the waves crashing. Waterfront restaurants serving fresh seafood and pizza. Mountains always visible, except in the morning when the fog is too thick.
That description seems like it should fit Santa Cruz. It almost does, maybe it used to. But Santa Cruz is too big. It’s too much the place that everyone who isn’t from around here hears about and goes to. It was too much the quintessential Northern California beach town for too long, I think, to get to stay that way. But just a tiny little step further south is tiny little Capitola, which I have just described to a T. Over the years, while Santa Cruz got bigger and dirtier and Aptos got fancier and smugger, Capitola has managed to stay tranquil and humble. It’s still a little funky, though not the hippie kind of funky that brings ideas of dirty tie-dyes, body odor and patchouli. More like the kind of place where you can be served in a restaurant without shoes, should you happen to have left yours on the beach.
On a more serious note, though, one noticeable change to Capitola in the years since it impressed me as the ideal place to spend eternity, once I’m ready for eternity, is that it’s coastline has receded. The wide, luxurious stretch of beach from my childhood memories has withered into a little fingernail of sand. Still enough to spread a towel and relax in the sun, but not quite enough to keep believing that Capitola will get to exist forever. Not that you have to run to catch it, it’ll certainly last all of our lifetimes. More like just a reminder not to count on eternity.