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.
One of the places that you all are surely going to without my ever having to mention it to you is North Beach, in San Francisco. It’s famous for Italian food, the Beat poets and strip clubs, which I know that you already know. I also know that between all the possibilities that those attractions have to offer, it may seem like you’re not so much in need of another North Beach recommendation. But I recently had such a great experience in North Beach and I feel compelled to share it with you, just in case any of you were ever curious about trying a chocolate stout float and didn’t quite know how to access it. That’s right my friends, beer and ice-cream together in one glass! And while this could very easily go in the direction of a bad frat party stunt, the Rogue Ales Public House uses their own home brewed, thick, dark, rich chocolate stout to make it into a whimsical decadence. It was delicious and my friend and I giggled with every spoonful.
And, just to say, I always get a little squeamish when I recommend a chain to you. I do try, and I think you know this, to be very delicate about the ones I choose. In the interest of full disclosure, though, the Rogue Ales Public House is a chain of micro-breweries. Besides the one in San Francisco, they can be found in Independence and Eugene, Oregon, as well as Issaquah, Washington. Independence is their home base, and if you go there you can visit their barley field and stay at their B&B (beer and breakfast). As for me, I think I can feel pretty ok about not having delivered you into the hands of the corporate devil.
There is a lot of grandeur in California’s nature. Mountains, oceans, cliffs, etc., and over the years I’ve tried to send you to some grand places. This month, though, I want to tell you about someplace that is not grand or majestically beautiful, but quaint and lovely. It’s called Putah Creek. It’s near, but not in, Napa Valley. It feeds into, but is not, Lake Berryessa. When I was there I sat on top of a big rock, of which there are quite a few to chose from, and watched otters. I had never seen an otter before, so for me this was an activity I was prepared to give lots of time to. The otters, it seemed, were also curious about me and so we sat and watched each other. The sky, the rocks and the water were gray and everything else was green. Except for me and the otters, and we were keeping an eye on each other.
Later a man showed up with his son and his dog, to do some fishing. As if it were 1950.
I could imagine there being more people there on a sunny day. There were chalk marks on some of the rocks, so I think people come to climb them. Maybe people swim in the creek and maybe this makes the otters hang out someplace else. But this is what’s nice about Putah Creek. It’s not a place to go witness magnificence and feel small, it’s a delicate little environment where you are just as important as the otters. I liked it there. Maybe you will too.
In the last month two different friends told me that there was an amazing new restaurant in San Francisco that I had to try. Both were so excited to bring me there, each said they had not been to any place quite like it. They both took me to the same place, La Oaxaquena, a miniscule little Mexican place on Mission Street. Since then I’ve taken two friends there, telling them the same things I was told. And now I’m telling you.
La Oaxaquena is an example, I think, of the way that San Francisco can sometimes get a thing exactly right. You have to sift through the clutter of clichés to get here perhaps; oil-less vegan enchiladas that crumble on your fork for $10 at one place, $6 fresh pressed organic ginger-carrot-beet juice that tastes like childhood punishment at the next, but every now and then you get to a gem like this one.
La Oaxaqena’s menu ranges from traditional Oaxacan fare, banana leaf chicken mole tamales being the most popular example, fried grasshoppers the most exotic; to wild hybrids like zucchini pesto mozzarella pupusas. You can get traditional Mexican hot chocolate, to which you can add soy milk or chili powder if you’d like. There are people on Yelp saying that it’s the most authentic mole they’ve eaten since they left Mexico, and others saying that the vegan tofu tamales with collard greens are the best they’ve ever found. Several cultures have melted in the pots in their kitchen and it is so worth the drive to San Francisco to taste the result.
One day, a few years ago, a San Francisco native took me to what he said was the real crooked-est road in the world. Having been taken to down Lombard Street a few times as a little girl, with its perpetual line of rental cars tiptoeing their way down, I was surprised to be shown a street that was at least equally curvaceous, but completely devoid of tourists. We screeched down at a speed he seemed to have been working up to since high school and, in addition to feeling thankful for the continuation of my life, I left wondering how it was possible for this street to stay hidden.
Last week I found another of these guide book gaps, the Glen Park Canyon. Golden Gate Park is, of course, a magical place. Ocean Beach, Baker Beach. San Francisco’s natural offerings are spectacular for sure, and I never thought that I was missing out on anything. But, still, this canyon deserves attention. At the very least because of how well it’s camouflaged.
Glen Park, on the south side of the city, is very hilly and almost entirely residential. Driving to San Francisco from this hotel, you pass through the pastel forest of its houses. Last week I discovered a little gap between two of those hills that has been left almost completely wild. There is a creek, there are huge rocks, the kind that people like to climb. There are a couple of paths. And there are many, many shades of green. Here, for the first time, I felt at peace with San Francisco’s gloomy climate. In the urban version of this city, its ever-present fog and perpetual cold breeze feel like a pointless assault on the senses. In the overgrown wilderness of this canyon, however, a person can really get the idea that a constant cloud cover makes things grow. And grow and grow and grow. If I ever truly make peace with San Francisco, this park will have played a role. Go see for yourself.