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.
One of the understandings that I have with our beloved general manager is that I should try not to use this space to tell you things you’ve already heard a million times before. Fisherman’s Wharf, for example, is a perfectly nice place to be, especially if you like crowds, but we don’t feel a big need to take responsibility for you getting to it. Thousands of people find their way out there everyday without our help and you probably could too.
But I can’t help myself this time, I’m breaking the rule! I am speaking now to those of you who come here on business and have weekends off. Do you understand how very close you are to Yosemite when you’re here with us? Do you know that it’s more beautiful than any photo ever taken of it?
So often the most famous tourist attractions leave me humming Peggy Lee’s classic depressive ditty, “Is that all there is?” Maybe you can relate. Lots and lots of pretty cool things have been so diluted by crowds and merchandise and deep-fried edibles that the only possible experience one can have is generic tourism and the sense that there’s no wonder left in the world. Yosemite is so different! Yosemite is grand enough to swallow all its visitors, to let each individual guest revel in the magnitude and magnificence of its glacier-cut valley, to let every single person have a private experience of nature.
Forgive my exuberance. I’m just back from a week in that shocking valley, having not been in a couple of years. It’s better than anything I could write about it. Better than anything even John Muir could write about it. It’s better than any photo Ansel Adams ever took of it. You must go!
When I was in high school, sometime around my junior year, the school started offering yoga as a PE option. My Midwestern mother was horrified and forbade me to take it. There was no way, she said, that her daughter was going to turn into one of those “flaky Californians.” After yoga would come tofu, then astrology, and this was a slope she was not going to see me slip down. I laughed, signed up, and found myself being taught, from a book, by the same elderly woman who taught badminton and volleyball. I did not get the point of yoga from her classes, to my mother’s relief.
But this is California, after all, and I eventually found the real thing. Rusty Wells is his name. Tall and lanky, with a sleepy smile and a Southern drawl he teaches a difficult class that anyone, at any level, can be comfortable in. His classes are sweaty and hard and meditative and fun and all of this because of the strength of the guide. He creates an experience, makes the bliss of yoga accessible to anyone who is willing to show up and try. He’s a real San Francisco treasure, as evidenced by the classes that fill to capacity nearly every day of the week.
Now, I’m aware that I might be writing to a few experienced yogis and yoginis out there. I feel your skepticism and to it I say, just give him a try. You’re probably looking for a nice class to take when you’re here with us anyway, so what’s there to lose? Maybe it’ll be the good enough, though not quite authentically perfect, thing you wanted. I kind of think it’ll blow your mind, but who am I?
To everyone else, I say, this is a real California treat to give to yourself. It’s accessible and powerful, a strong experience to break up the dullness of business travel.
He teaches at different places in the city, the best thing to do is visit his website: rustywells.com. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Jack London, famous adventurer and author, invested enough of his life in the Bay Area to have a square named after him. Interestingly, the section of Oakland that bears the name of the man who wrote The Call of the Wild, is a place of respite in a city that is known as an urban wilderness. Is this irony? Maybe, but it’s certainly the bitter kind if it is. Oakland has been immortalized in recent years by rappers like Eazy-E and Tupac as a place of gang warfare and merciless violence, and there are statistics to support every word of it. Just this year, a New Year’s Eve shooting led to days and days of riots.
But Oakland is not a wasteland. There is a thriving arts community and quite a lot of natural beauty, and Oakland deserves visitors. Jack London square is a good place to start. It’s right on the water and so, although it’s kind of a haven for big chains, the very unique local scenery can assert itself loudly enough. From there, you’re a short walk to downtown Oakland, a bit longer walk from lovely Lake Anza, and practically already at Yoshi’s, which does not need my help getting known as a place for world class jazz and blues.
It’s taken me a lot of months of suggesting places to go in the Bay Area for me to tell you to go to Oakland. But the time has come. Go to Oakland, have lunch at Jack London Square, and then stay and look around a little bit.
Here is yet another in all the many ways to divide people into two groups: those who relax through activity and those who relax through inactivity. My boyfriend, for example, when he’s been working too much and feels depleted and stressed out, wants nothing more than to wake up at 4am and spend 12 hours climbing the nearest mountain he can find. My mother, by contrast, would spend that same day in bed watching re-runs of Law & Order. They both seem equally refreshed the following day. Having now accompanied both through several of each of these “rest days,” I notice one advantage that he has over her, namely, that he takes in views of spectacular, nearly untouched nature while she sits and watches one murder after another. But what’s a hard working lady to do if the only way she can get the rest she so deserves is by, well, resting?
The answer is Muir Woods! This park is home to a large stretch of California’s old growth redwood trees, some of which are up to 2500 year old. This type of tree is the tallest in the world and third on the longevity list and can only be found on the California coastline (well, and stretching up a little bit into Oregon, too, but the point remains). This, then, is a genuinely rare natural spectacle and I mention it here because of its accessibility. You just drive right in, park your car and the trees are there. There’s a well-maintained, flat path, clearly marked with small wooden fences and, just on the other side of those fences, are some of the oldest, tallest trees in the world. A motivated person could hike further in, it’s true, but there is no special prized attraction waiting for him at the end, it’s all right there at the very beginning. It’s not quite as easy as Law & Order, I know Mom, but, really, it’s not so very much harder either.