We booked our early spring trip to Yosemite, in Mid-March, to see the big water and wild flowers. But there was still snow on the ground in the valley and it was cold and rainy. Every year is different. So, we punted and cancelled our reservation. If you cancel a week in advance there’s not charge.
We picked this weekend, late April, to go. The falls are going crazy and the dogwoods are in bloom. Perfect.
You may ask, how we able to get a reservation. Isn’t Yosemite booked well in advance? The answer is, of course, yes. But just as we cancled a week in advance, all year long people make reservations months in advance. Life happens and they have to cancel. So start checking daily, several times a day, about two weeks before the dates you want. And don’t pause, rooms appear and disappear in minutes and you don’t have a room until you complete the reservation process. Why two weeks? If somebody has a week booked and cancels a week before they were to arrive their last day, two weeks later surfaces.
Be diligent and book one day at a time if necessary. We stay in the lodge but there are tent cabins and camping if you’re up for that and it’s certainly less expensive. Good luck
When faced with adversity on the road, always be nice. Firm is OK, but never angry. By and large the person in front of you has only limited ability to help you. But they don’t have to use even that limited ability if you’re rude. We have many stories of how people have gone way out of their way to help when we’re pleasant.
We were heading home from a trip to Europe, on the last leg back to the Bay Area, with a stop in Frankfurt. The flight from Rome had been delayed but we still had a good shot at making the connection. The flight attendants asked passengers who had plenty of time for their connections to stay seated so those of us who would be rushing could make a break once we arrived at the gate. We collected our carry-on and the adrenalin was pumping. We landed and then … sat on the tarmac for an hour. There was no available gate. We watched out the window as what we imagined was our flight left the gate. Then, we had a gate. Finally, we sadly trudged out of the plane and went looking for the dreaded “transfer desk”.
You normally saunter past that desk without a thought, which is either vacant or packed with anxious travelers. When I see the alternately animated and dejected crowd there I think, “Oh, Zen practice time for them.” Well, this time, we were they.
We ended up behind a well-dressed middle-aged man who was very agitated. He was almost yelling at the agent. “This is simply NOT acceptable! You have to fix this! I must get home on schedule for important meetings! I am a very important customer of this airline!” He went on and on, hardly giving the agent a chance to talk. In the end he stormed away, grasping a hotel voucher and a reservation for the flight the next morning, “You believe me, the management will hear from me about this terrible service.”
We stepped up while the agent girded herself for the next onslaught. We really didn’t have any onslaught in us. Our first words were, “This must be an awful day for you. Yikes, that last guy was some piece of work.” She smiled and relaxed some. We commiserated a little. We told her we knew that there was only so much she could do, but if there was any way at all that she could get home that night, we would be really grateful.
She said, “There isn’t really much I can do,” but then she paused and started tapping her keyboard examining screen after screen. We looked on hopefully. After a few minutes she leaned just a little closer and in a quieter, slightly conspiratorial voice, said, “You know, there is a flight to LA that shows as closed, but I happen to know that it hasn’t actually left yet, and there are a couple of seats.” She certainly had our attention. “If you’re willing to run and don’t care if your baggage is with you, I think I can put you on that flight. Once you’re in LA there are plenty of seats to get to San Francisco and that will only take another hour or so.”
We quickly agreed, breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked our angel/agent profusely. We were going to make it across the pond. She quickly issued the paperwork with instructions to the gate far across the terminal; we headed out at a trot, carry-ons flopping. Well, for the first bit, we did some serious trotting, then slowed a little, alternately walking quickly, and jogging. As we turned down the last concourse, we saw two gate agents running toward us, calling our names. We met them and they ushered us to the gate, checked us in and we found ourselves standing in the airplane aisle panting and sweating lightly with an entire planeload of seated passengers looking up at the flushed couple who had delayed their departure. Those in First Class were, of course, less concerned as they had simply opted for a second glass of champagne.
The rest of the flight and the connection to SFO were uneventful, though we did toast the ticket agent several times. We slept in our own bed that night, which is more than the very important man in front of us in the line could say.
In February 2018 we spent ten days in Oaxaca, studying Spanish, making new friends, learning about Oaxaca and, of course, enjoying Oaxacian cuisine and mescal. We really can’t recommend this trip enough.
Weather in Oaxaca – November – March is cool and dry. April & May are hot. May- October is the rainy season.
Our crew – The best part of the trip was all the people we met. The breakfast club – Mark, Gail & Ron with whom we shared breakfast and great conversation each morning in the courtyard of our airbnb Out classmates, Muriel, from Montreal, who became hermana de Susanna, Rosie, a young woman from London, and Amr, an Egyptian civil engineer, immigrated to Boston.
Over the week we shared our life stories, acted out dramas in class and talked among ourselves, in Spanish and English and Quibecois.
Neither of us spoke much Spanish. We had “mas cerveza y donde es el baño” down cold and have navigated travel in Spain. We used our Michele Thomas language CD’s and DuoLinguo, a free online language course. That preparation was enormously helpful and we were spared having to be exiled to the very lowest level class.
Our classes were excellent. A group of five well matched in skill level. Our teacher, was patient and easily improvised from the curriculum. At the end of each morning, we sat in the garden conversing in Spanish, consolidating what we had learned that day. There’s an option, to live in a home stay so that you were immersed in Spanish all the time.
Jardín Ethobotánico de Oaxaca– In the 16th century the Dominicans built a monastery next to the Temple Santo Domingo. President Bonito Juarez, a Oaxacan, nationalized church property in 1872. Until 1993 the Dominican buildings and the adjacent was military fort. The government had planned to convert the site into a convention hotel and parking lot. But famed artist Francisco Toledoand other Oaxacans resisted, and in the end won the day converting the monastery into a museum and library and an extraordinary ethobotanical garden that links the 10,000 year old human and plant history of the Oaxacan region.
We were fortunate to have the founding director, Alejandro de Avila, as our tour guide. We couldn’t help but be inspired by the passion and enthusiasm for his mission to use the gardens to explain and confront the subjugation of the precolonial people and, at least in some small way, undo the damage, through education and political and legal action. He’s the angriest botanist I have even encountered. You cannot wander but must take the tour. There is only one English tour each day and they last two hours.
The valley of Oaxaca, actually a series of interconnected valleys is surrounded on all sides by high rugged mountains. It seems physically and emotionally cut off from the rest of Mexico. Oaxaca is the center with dozens of small separate towns throughout the valley. Each pueblo has its own nature, culture and often language, The Oaxacans are fiercely proud of their city and the surrounding pueblos. While many of the wealthy are decedents of the Spanish and French colonizers, many of the people that one encounters every day are decedents of the Zapotecs or one of the other first nations communities. There are at least 16 languages spoken in the valley as a first language in their communities. Not so far under a calm exterior, there remains a generational anger at the Spanish and French colonizers with a sense of underlying pride and patience that the first nation cultures will remain and flourish, perhaps after the Spanish legacy fades. After all, the Zapotec culture was dominant for 500 years and even though it was eclipsed by the Spanish the culture it has endured for another 500 years, experiencing something of a reinassance in the ethnic arts of the community.
En Via– This is a tour not to be missed. En Via is a non-profit micro- lending group that provides direct support to local women artisans of all sorts but primarily weavers. The tour, while more expensive than the mediocre commercial tours is actually the source of their lending fund. We were welcomed into a Oaxaca that most tourists are not often lucky enough to visit, exploring outlying villages and meeting met women artists in their homes. On our trip, we ended at the home of a weaver on a distant mountain top.
Group tours –
There are a lot of commercial tours but from our small sampling they were quite disappointing. From our US perspective, everything in Oaxaca is very low cost. We recommend that a tour is great place to splurge, especially if can share the cost. For the sights just out of town like the Saturday market, take a cab. Find a way to get toEl Rey del Matatlàn, a mescal distillery and tasting room. http://www.oaxaca-mio.com/elreydematatlan.htm
Monte Alban – Monte Alban is a vast temple complex at its height for almost 900 years until it was mysteriously abandoned in the 8thcentury. You can hire a private car that will take you there, wait and bring you back for a reasonable amount. Hire one the English speaking guides, you can design your own tour. Ours took us on a unique route through the vast temple, discussing the history and the spiritual basis of that ancient culture that still persist today and a little of his own personal history.
Restaurants – Here are a few places from our first visit.
La Biznaga – Locals keep referring this even with their warning, good food at a good price but the service isn’t so hot. Don’t be in a hurry and you’ll enjoy it.
Zandunga – Restaurant and Mezcal bar pretty room, relaxed and good food. Have the green or black mole.
Los Danzantes – Sophisticated and interesting. Beautiful room. A little more expensive than the previous two.
El Restaurante Casa Oaxaca – May be the most expensive place in Oaxaca but that’s relative. We tried pretty hard and it was almost $100 for two including drinks and tip. Beauitiful rooftop terrace for late evening dinner.
In December of 2018 we made a brief five day return trip to clebrate Susan’s birthday. This time no Spanish classes, just relaxing and enjoying the city.
Casa Oaxaca – In celebration we stayed at the Casa Oaxaca, just a few blocks from the Temple de Santo Domingo in the middle of the city. Casa Oaxaca is a very small, nine, room hotel, that occupies a 15th century building that until 20 years ago had been a private home. It has an unassuming facade, with hardly a sign that we have passed by without noticing before. Passing through the front door you find a the building arragnge around a large courtyard. Our room was one of the suites, wonderful with a view to the west over the pool and the sunset. The accommodation and service are really first class. They serve a very nice breakfast on the courtyard each morning and also have a very good quite restaurant.
Stinson Beach is only 90 minutes from Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco in the mist to the south and the hint of San Pablo Bay to the north. Through Mill Valley and up an easy mountain road 1,600 feet on the shoulder of Mount Tamalpias, then down through pine and then oak forest. Rounding a curve and breaking free of the trees, the 3-mile curve of Stinson Beach emerges, backed by a vast saltwater lagoon and ending in the Bolinas headland and the 110-square mile Point Reyes National Seashore beyond.
Regardless of the season the sky can be filled brilliant sun with the barren rock of the Farallon Islands clearly visible 25 miles off-shore or the end of the beach and lagoon only hinted at through the fog.
I’m sitting looking out on the sunny beach, sitters, runners, walkers, ball players, surfers and the happiest dogs on the planet; what you would expect from a California beach. But it’s cool, and breezy. Waders, no swimmers, the water’s in the mid 50’s, even the bravest only dash in and then quickly out.
Other days it can be overcast and foggy, windy and cold. Stinson is a walkers’ beach. Check in advance for weather and tide. The best walking is a couple of hours either side of low tide when you are greeted by a broad expanse of flat hard sand. Don’t let the cold or fog or even rain deter you, they can be the best days. Come well equipped, dress in layers. You may only stay couple of hours but it’s well worth the trip.
A few days ago, after our 6am walk to catch the low tide, our coats were fog soaked. I saw something I had not noticed in all those 30 years. Most times the beach covered by tracks in the sand, people, dogs, sandcastles, big and little holes, driftwood, shells and rocks. Today was different, I was almost the first person on the early morning beach, hardly any tracks at all. I came across almost unnoticeable faint curlicue tracks in the sand. I followed one which started in a hole in the sand and ended in a 1” long sand crab rolled over in its back feet wiggling in the air. Where were they going? What turned them all over on their backs? Was this a strange suicide dance? Would the rising tide save them or would they die as the sun rose? Not so long afterward, walking back the beach was the usual array of tracks but those faint crab tracks were still there. They have always been there, unnoticed.
I’ve walked Stinson Beach for over 30 years and spent almost every Christmas Day here. In 1996 I made the miscalculation of getting my 12-year old daughter a surf board for Christmas, never thinking that, of course, I would have to take her surfing Christmas morning. The memory is great and the aching brain freeze when my head went in the water has mostly, but not completely faded.
When you come for just the day, by sunset you’re often gone, or if you wait until the sun dips below the horizon, you smile, even cheer, and then head home, missing the final gasp of light into pure darkness as the stars, one by one appear.
This is for those who can stay the night. But even for those most most are tucked into their houses talking, finishing up dinner, doing jigsaw puzzles or watching television as if this display were not happening or as if it were to common to be remarkable.
An almost silent jet, glides overhead, low enough to remind you that you are close to a city, not at some isolated outpost. Against the fading light of the lingering solstice sunset, the lights of a fishing boat, sheltered behind the Bolinas headlands, waiting for an early venture. Whipped up by the afternoon wind the ocean has laid down, with only a light breeze and the underlying surf, a background song churned up from some Alaskan storm. Most of the day’s footprints erased leaving only water-like rills and the paths of those few who linger. The cool dry sand soft underfoot. Another soul walks out of the dark then then gone.
Why do so few choose this. There should be crowds, or at least hushed knots of viewers, perhaps huddled around small fires against the chill. vendors selling hot chocolate.
There’s a race for the light to fade enough for the starlight to arise in its full display before the just past full moon rises, flooding the sky with its light and erasing the brilliance of the Milky Way. This night the full moon wins rising over the hills.
Am I the only one tonight? I should grab a blanket and sleep out here keeping the vigil. But in the end, I will choose a hot shower and a warm bed, leaving this scene unseen by man this night as most nights. Showered and brushed, I venture out one last moment to absorb the night leaving my moon-cast shadow on the wall. Then to bed with the surf sounds in my ears.
The winter night I took my 8-year-old daughter owling in the woods through hip deep snow, acting out one of her favorite books, Owl Moon. The first time Susan and I made it to the top of Nevada Falls together and again the first time we did it after she survived cancer. A perfect dogwood in bloom in a shaft of sunlight against a dark forest. The blue of the sky at 10,000 feet. The voice of the wind in the high country in it’s different moods through the trees, in the meadow or across the expanse of bare granite above the tree line. The granite in the valley, in the high country, changing color constantly, wet, dry or dusted with snow, from dawn through the middle of the day through sunset and later under a full moon. Waking at dawn at a high country lake tinged with mist, stirring up the fire for a cup of coffee and sitting as the sunrise warms me. The granite and the water, the granite and the water, the granite and the water. There are a lifetime of new visions.
For us, visiting Yosemite is a life-long adventure which has evolved over 40 years, from our mid- twenties to our seventies. Our fortune is that we live about 3 ½ hours from the park. We have come here at least twice a year for 15 years and countless more times since the 70’s.
This is a love letter to Yosemite and as with all long term relationhships you have to acknowledge the bad and the good.
I’ve included a lot here, but it’s too big a task to ever really finish, so I am going to post what I have, list other things and add more stories from time to time.
Hey! What happened to the names?
I’ll make a long story short but look at this site if you want to hear the whole gruesome tale.
A few years ago the concessionaire, Deleware North Corporation (boooo!), lost out on the periodic bidding for that position. The concessionaire actually owns the improvements and buildings during their tenure. In the dead of night, they secretly applied for and may have secured the rights to many of the place names in the park. As part of their exit, they demanded $51 million from the Park Service for the names and other intellectual property. Of course, the Park Service disagrees and the issues in litigation but, to avoid a claim, the Park Service simply changed the names. They had counter-offered $3.1 million without agreeing that they were required to, but Deleware North (boooo!) declined. With the name change, it’s arguable if the old names now have no value at all, so there DNC!
The Awhanee = The Majestic (a pretty stupid choice)
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls = Yosemite Valley Lodge (better)
Curry Village = Half Dome Village (the Curry Company was the historic operator of the facilities before the Feds thought that the private sector would do a better job, which they do not)
Wawona Hotel = Big Trees Lodge (meh)
Badger Pass Ski Area = Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area (I guess)
Yosemite National Park = Yosemite (they’ve even tried to take the name of the park)
I can’t help it but I often use the old names which in a decade will be forgotten by all but the olds.
The lodging isn’t so important. Yosemite is about granite, water, trees and magical blue sky. Arise early and get out in it.
Each of these has it’s pros and cons and, as I have mentioned in other posts, we are not campers.
We don’t avoid the Majestic Hotel just because it is between $475 and almost $600/night and meals can run $100/day/person, though that is certainly reason enough to stay away. It’s just too fancy. That’s not what we come to Yosemite for. The Yosemite Lodge is about $250/night, which is manageable for us, but, of course, we only need one room and stay for a couple of nights. A weeks stay with two rooms for a family is a lot. If that’s a stretch, a heated tent cabin is $140, with a hike to the bathhouse. In the winter, early spring and late fall it’s quite cold. It’s all a matter of perspective. In my youth, I would go snow camping. Tent cabins are much more comfortable in the summer. I have fond memories of trent cabin stays, both as a kid and young parent. Those are the choices in the park, nothing perfect. Weekdays are always easierto secure a room than weekends or holidays. Book early, even if you aren’t sure. There is free cancelation up to a week before you arrive. That’s also your best chance to pick up a last minute room.
Make the choice and get on with Yosemite. Park your car and, aside from trips to the far reaches of the park, don’t get in it again. Walk or take one of the shuttle busses or both. You can’t see it all, so relax and just enjoy what you do see. It takes a lifetime to see it everything in every light and season.
Then there’s the food. News flash! We arrived at the Yosemite Lodge in late March 2018 to find that the awful old cafeteria had been replaced with the newly opened Base Camp Eatery. There are three separate sections. Build-your-own entrée with a variety of meat, rice/potato, and vegetable options. A far cry from the dismal cafeteria food. There is a burger hot sandwich station with touch screen ordering. And a pizza/salad section. Many things are cooked to order. On our first try, it was quite good. The staff was enthusiastic and professional with a manager hovering over the whole scene. It was the first week and they were working out the kinks, but it holds great promise. Not sure how well it is working out though. We returned in November. Here’s my TripAdvisor review.
Added to that, is a large Starbucks which is opened from early to late and clearly set up to deal with the mid-summer crowds. It feels a little sad that I am enthusiastic about a Starbucks, but that’s how far they had fallen.
There is also the Mountain Room restaurant which is fine, not special, and a little pricey. But you’re not here for the food either. We ran into people staying at the Majestic who were eating at the lodge and quite happy.
I’m afraid that Half Dome Village still has the old cafeteria which is only open April – Sept, making a winter stay there a challenge.
Yosemite Valley hikes
No matter how crowded it is, go up any trail for 20-minutes and you quickly shed many tourists. Hike up for an hour and almost everybody disappears. Dress in layers and take plenty of water.
Lower Yosemite Falls – 1 to 1.5 miles round trip, almost flat. The trail to Lower Yosemite is full of tourists. But if that is the most hike you can do, I’m glad such an amazing place is available. If you just arrived, late in the day, why not take the short stroll. We almost never miss it.
Keep going on the trail after you stop to enjoy the falls, and a little further on there is a right turn to the site of John Muir’s cabin, now gone. Not so many people go here. When the falls are running full, the area is a maze of rushing creeks that have escaped the main river. Sit and enjoy the falls and the magical color of the river and imagine what it must have been like in Muir’s day.
Valley Loop Trail – Short hikes to over 10 miles. Almost flat to 300 feet. It seems like the big climbs are alwasy calling to hikers but there are so many trails meandering around the valley. One can easily hike 5 to 10 miles in a day. The good news is that you aren’t often too far from a shuttle stop if your legs or feet give out. If your hiking experience is at sea level, remember even in the valley you are at 4,000 feet. Pace yourself, it does make a difference.
One loop: From the Lodge, to the Village, to the Majestic Lodge, to Mirror Lake, to Happy Isles, to Half Dome Village and home. about 5 miles, 200 feet, mostly the trail to Mirror Lake.
One cool afternoon, stopping along this loop past Mirror Lake, we took a break, sunning on a slab of granite under the looming south wall of Half Dome.
As we sat quietly on the near deserted trail, we heard a click click click of small rocks falling from the rock wall. At first we wondered at the rare event only to hear another and another and another. We have learned that the rock walls are in constrant motion, triggered mostly when the hot sun expands the stone loosened by the winter ice. It’s aways in motion, but like many things, you have to stop and listen.
East Valley Circuit to El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls – You can take short hikes to walk over 10 miles and hitch a ride on a bus if you get tired. It’s almost flat. This is a much less traveled circuit. Leave from Yosemite Lodge and either walk through meadows along the Merced River or on a path, more directly following the south road. Both eventually lead to the bottom of El Capatian. Stand in the meadow by the road and watch the climbers. Then take the trail across the river and continue about 2 miles to Bridalveil falls. You can return by the same route or follow the trail along the south road though the trails along the river are less well marked.
This is one of our favorite hikes, hard but not impossible. Take the bus to Happy Isles. You could walk, but by the end of the day you will be glad to have saved some steps. I won’t repeat the details in the link above. Even in our 50’s we almost always took the somewhat longer and less steep trail to Nevada Falls and skip the Vernal Falls. The steep rocky swithcbacks can be hard going up and down and the “mist” trail can be like a hurricane when the river is runing full. Just how many waterfalls do you need in a day. Make sure you leave time for the hike plus an hour or more to relax at the top in the sun. Here is a family wegsite, Earth Trekkers, that does a good job of describing the details of this hike.
If you still have some energy you can continue your day hike to Little Yosemtie Valleya half mile and another 200 feet beyond Nevada Falls. The Merced river meanders through this beautiful glacial valley. This is the jumping off point for the Half Dome hike and camping requires a wilderness permit.
Half Dome – The ascent of Half Dome is quite a production these days, requiring a permit granted through a lottery. From the valley it’s 16 miles round trip with a 4,800 foot elevation gain. The last 400 vertical feet are made by climbing between two steel cables, which are only up from spring, when the snow allows, to no later than mid-November. This hike/climb is well beyond me these days, even with an oernight stop at Little Yosemite Valley. I’ll admit to never doing the hike but did have some frineds in the early days who would leave in the dark and, drive up from the Bay Area, do the ascent and drive back that night. For more enlightening advice read The Hazards of Half Dome.
Upper Yosemite Falls – 6.0 miles round trip and 2,000 feet climb. This leaves from just beyond the back-packers campsites, behind Yosemite Lodge. The first mile rises 1,000 feet which tough. I always pause on the trail as I break out of the forest, at tree top level, for the first panoramic view of the valley and a unique prespective. The rest of the trail is only another 1,000 feet over almost 2 miles.
Glacier Point & 4 mile trail – The views are spectacular but can be pretty crowded in the summer. You can hike up, a 3.200 foot rise, a 7 of 10 hike or take the bus up and hike down, a 4 of 10 hike. Of course you can simply drive or bus each way.
Snow Creek Trail – Dubbed one of the park’s more sadistic trails and not on most “tourist” maps.
Pool on the granite cliff over the Awaniee – More than twenty years ago we were directed to a pool in a crevasse on the granite wall, just above the treeline, somewhere above the Awanhee Hotel. It was noted as the only nude beach in Yosemite, and it was. It’s hard to find and when I ask staff, they just shrug. It’s for those who know . But if you get back from the granite wall and find where the informal falls spill from the top and trace that down to a place where the sheergranite face steps out near the tree line, you might find it. At the base, look for where the water spills out of the pool and rock scramble up. I’ve not been up in years. It is for the young.
Yosemite IndianCaves – These aren’t really caves just piles of huge boulders. Great for kids to explore but unmarked and a little hard to find
Or if you are worn out or the weather is bad and you don’t want to hike:
Afternoon in the Awainee Lodge (Majestic) Grand Hall – As I said earlier, we don’t stay at the Awahnee, but it is a georgous place and we have found a way to enjoy it.
On afternoons, after several days of heavy hiking or when the weather is bad, we spend the afternoon in the beautiful lounge. We take our computers, curl up in big chairs, collect a drink and a snack and sit and read or write for hours. It’s pretty quiet, most people are outdoors though on a rainy afternoon, it’s harder to stake out a place.
Before you go to Yosemite, look at his photos on-line or get one of his many books. I grew up with a big format Ansel Adams book on our coffee table. Those photos are etched in my mind. Visit the Ansel Adams Gallery in the Village. Sometimes you will pass the site of his most famous shots. Your photos will be better and you may even develop an obsession. From time to time you will see people standing in the water behind a tripod trying to get the right shot.
The crowds in the valley, once kids are out of school, especially the weekends, are truely problematic. Every room, tent cabin and campsite may be booked and there a million people within 2 hours of Yosemite, putting it in range of a day trip. The magic of the valley can be erased, by all the visitors and, yes, even traffic jams, especially for those of us who know what it’s like when there are fewer people. On top of that, forest fires seem to me more common each year, and smoke, that obscures the sights and even makes breathing a challenge, deminishes the joy of the visit.
On our last summer visit to Yosemite Valley, we left our lodge just outside the North entry gate beyond Groveland at 6:30 a.m. We were in the Valley by 7:30 parked in the lot at Curry Village, now Half Dome Village, and headed out to hike to the top of Nevada Falls. Even at our glacial pace, we were at the top before noon. The broad granite at the top of the falls was relatively unpopulated, but by the time we had rested, lunched and sunned, and taken a few photos to prove we had done it, there was a pretty steady flow of arrivals. Heading down the trail, we encountered a steady flow coming up. We got back to the car before 4:00, foot tired but happy; then had to endured an almost 90-minute traffic jam, the kind where you’re not moving at all and turn off the motor. We managed an excellent hike that day, but by the time we broke free of the traffic, some of the special glow had worn off.
However, they just completed a major reworking of the road system and day use parking in the valley so it should ease the problem somewhat.
Of course, if this is likely your only visit to Yosemite, go to the valley. It simply can’t be missed.
Now for the good news:
You don’t have to go to the valley in the summer. Summertime is for Tuolumne Meadows, which can be crowded enough on a weekend afternoon. Instead, we stay at one of several places on Highway 120 beyond Groveland but not yet in the park. Yosemite Riverside Inn is our favorite. It’s on the Middle fork of the Tuolumne river and at the end of each day, we drag the plastic chairs from the bank into the middle of the river and sit with our feet chilling and enjoy a glass of wine. The rooms are basic but reasonably priced. We go for the river. Other places include:
We were planning to meet Susan’s son Jordan was coming up from Los Angeles to meet us for dinner at the Iron Door, the most famous bar and restaurant in town. He was running late and couldn’t reach us by phone. Under most circumstances it might not have been a real problem, but Jordan knew that not hearing from him, Susan would immediately go to dark places. With few bars on his phone, he got through to the Iron Door. He told them that if a couple in their late 50’s, who looked like a tall Kenny Rogers with a short woman came into the bar to let them know that Jordan was fine and just running late. You might think, this can’t possibly work and yet as we walked in the door, the bartender, without hesitation, called out that Jordan was fine and just running late. Would you have made that leap?
Here is a typical summer itinerary
Leave Oakland arriving at the Riverside Inn by midday, even if we can’t check in. Then head up the road about 30 minutes to the trail head for Carlon Falls.
This is a easy to moderate hour long hike to one of the most beautiful small waterfalls in the park. This fall can be roaring or mild depending on the time of year and snowmelt. The pool at the bottom of the falls is swimable and even in the summer it isn’t too crowded. We return to our room in the late afternoon and sit on chairs in the river and have a glass of wine. There is a restaurant in Buck Meadow 15 minutes away, then home to bed early.
Other hikes outside the park on Highway 120.
Preston Falls/Early Intake – Hot hike in the summer but a great stop at the narrows for jumping into deep pools or keep going to the falls.
Rainbow pools – Easy and close to the road. Good for a cold dip on a hot summer day.
The next morning we rise early and head into the Park, with Tuolumne Meadows our destination, 90-minutes away. This may seem like a long trip but it’s 60-minutes from Yosemite Valley too. Tuolumne Meadows has different faces in different seasons. When the road first opens, it can still be covered in snow. As the snow disappears, the meadow grasses are still brown from being covered all winter and the meadow is soggy. Later the green grass returns and a riot of wildflowers. Every phase is beautiful.
The best part of Tuolumne Meadow in any season is actually Lyle Canyon, which starts about a 30 minute walk from the Tuolumne Meadow Lodge and flanks the Tuolumne River sloping very gently for 10 miles. To get there you leave the backpackers parking lot, hike past the lodge parking lot, cross a creek, then over a low ridge dropping down into the canyon where the trail crosses a pair of rustic bridges over the Tuolmne River. From here you have miles of choices. You can stop here and enjoy the view or continue aother 30 minutes up the trail rejoinging the river and passing through a long series, of forest and then meadows for the next 10 miles. Pick your spot for a secluded dip, lunch and a nap.
Tuolumne Meadows Facilitues
Tuolumne Meadows Lodge – This is as posh as it gets in the high country. Tent cabins with group toilets and showers. Breakfast and dinner in the lodge, also a tent. In the trees and granite and by an arm of the Tuloumne River.
This is one of our favorite hikes in the high country. It can be as easy as 1.5 flat miles to 24 miles round trip and it connects to many other parts of the high country. Hike in for a couple of hours, find a flat slab of granite by the river in the sun away from the trail, picnic, swim and air dry in the sun and hike back.
High Country Backpacking
High Sierra Camps – Read my post “Escape from Vogelsang” for all the details and a good fugitive story.
Cathedrial Lakes/Peak – easiest, most crowded, bears – Hixson Lake, rock scramble up the cascade from Tenaya Lake
Harding Lake – a little harder, less crowded
Ten Lake – harder yet, less crowded
At the end of the trip, a quart of milk and a bag of cookies sitting outside the store overlooking the meadow
Not Summer in Yosemite
Most of us think of Yosemite in the summer and to be fair that is the only time many people can get away, especially with kids.
Spring and Fall all the hiking without the crowds
Fall colors, spring dogwoods
It’s cooler and far fewer people and you can stay in the valley, In the spring, reservations are still relatively easy to get through mid-April and the falls can be roaring. In the fall it is also less crowded and you can still hike to the high country sometimes until late November if the snow is late.
And then there’s winter
Deep winter in the snow is a quite place with hikes through the valley in high boots, showshoes or cross country skiis. Not a time for hiking up. But often, in most of the winter through the early spring, the valley is cold and largely snow free and you can hike up many of the trails quite a way until stopped by snow.
We visited in late March 2018. It had been a drought winter until March and then a series of late storms. This was a time of water. the walls of the valley spout dozens of unnamed waterfalls, some would be monuments in other places. Others sweeping down gray granite faces ending up as unexpected torrents crossing trails that pass along the cliffs. But all ending up in the swollen Merced River
Yosemite, Vernal, Nevada and Llilouette falls all in full flow. Bridalevale falls, not its summer self with a light aire mist blown by the afternoon breeze, awide and pounding to the valley floor.
We averaged about 8 miles hiking a day, mostly in the valley but went about 3/4 of the way up the Nevada Falls trail until stopped by snow. At every turn familiar and new vistas. Even after all these years we are speachless.
You don’t have to make a big deal of a trip to Yosemite – Day trip from Oakland
Memorial Day weekend I had an unquenchable need to be in the high mountains. Trying to go to Yosemite on Memorial Day weekend, even with a reservation, is an extremely bad idea. I left home at 6:00, hit the park entrance at 9:00, had only a 30-minute wait and was at Tuolumne Meadows by 10:00. I took off alone, heading for Lyle Canyon, almost the only person on the trail. It was cool with broken clouds, perfect for hiking. I was completely ehthusiastic anticipating a 4-hour hike.
At times, when you really want something to be true, you choose to ignore obvious evidence to the contrary. As I walked, my subconscious absorbed the sound or jets overhead as they pass to and from San Fransicso. Often, in the high country wilderness, that’s the only sound that reminds you of the civilization that you’ve escaped. I’m not sure if it is annoying or reassuring. Slowly, I had to finally accept that distant jet sound was thunder, getting louder and more persistent. I eventually stopped, an hour out. It wasn’t yet raining and if I turned around now, at most, I would walk for an hour in the rain. If I kept going, every step put me further from my warm dry car. Disappointed, I turned around. About half way back, it started hailing as I was crossing a swollen stream on a big log. My disappointment faded. It started raining pretty hard by the time I reached my car, wet but not soaked. If I had carried on I would have faced at least two hours in the rain. Abnormally good sense on my part.
So here I was, my hike cut short, with some time on my hands. I drove up towards Tioga Pass, and in just a few miles and a thousand feet up I left the rain behind but also regressed from spring to winter. There was snow on the ground and the lake right at the pass was still frozen over.
I pulled off at a beautiful secnic turnout to visit Virginia and Robert. My parents always told me that they wanted to be scattered in the high-country in Yosemite, which I am quite certain is illegal. This was the place where they would often park their big RV for lunch looking over the high meadow. Surviving my father by six years, she saved his ashes on her dresser along with a 15-year old photo of the view from that turn out. The last summer, Susan and I and my daughter Mandy and her husband Ben and their border collie Tui headed up to Yosemite. It was really quite easy to find the spot, though the trees in the foreground had grown quite large. Our plan was to toast them both with their favorite lunch; whiskey sours and sardines on soda crackers. We found a secluded place downstream and as we were just about the commence, a young man appeared telling us that every time he passed he took a nude dip in this place. We paused our ritual for his riutal. He moved on and we were ready.
A bit of advice for novice scatterers. The by-porduct of creamation is white dust and bone fragments and there is quite a bit of it. Mountain stream beds and dark gray. I waded into the stream, next to a big rock, and started to pour the remains into the water. My vision was that it would be swept into the current and blend invisibly into the universe. It actully sunk immediately to the bottom, a four foot long bright white patch. Hmmm, I thought. I walked back to the shore and it was clearly visible. Was this good, an enduring memorial? I thought not, so I spent the next 20 minutes picking up rocks costructing an underwater cairn to cover the remains. Finished, I waded back to our memorial group and we all raised our whiskey sour to Virginia and Robert.
We were driving back from a beautiful day of hiking above Tuolumne Meadows, heading back to our place near Buck Meadows when we hit a long line of stopped cars. We soon learned that what was supposed to be a controlled burn ahead had become more like a forest fire. We sat for more than an hour wandering around our car with the others in the queue. We took to singing Broadway show tunes and with some of our road mates joined in on. Finally, just after dark we began to move and proceeded through what felt more like an active forest fire with flames right down to the road and huge pines aflaim from top to bottom, a semi-controlled burn.
Evergreen Lodge Hot Tub
On one off-season evening, staying at the Evergreen Lodge, after a long day of hiking, we grabbed our bottle of wine and went seeking the hot tub. It was next to the pool with an view of the sunset over the forest valley. It was cold and we were the only ones there. One would think that by now I would show more adult judgment and not linger in the hot tub too long.
I clearly didn’t show such judgment and as I rose to exit the tub my head started spinning. I rememeber saying, “This isn’t good,” before sliging down into one of the deck chairs, out cold. At least I didn’t pitch head first into the pool. And I mean out cold. Susan couldn’t rouse me and frantically yelled for help thinking I had died. But we were quite alone. After ten minutes just as I was beginning to come to, the staff emergency crew finally arrived. Three of them, with very official looking backpacks emblazoned with red crosses. This sort of emergency response clearly wasn’t their strong suit, a little bit like the Three Stooges meet the Red Cross. I was OK, just groggy, and was waiting for the scolding from Larry, Moe and Curly. There were numerous signs warning of and disclaimaing responsibilty for mixing alchohol with hot tubs. Instead of a talking to, they mused, “Yeah, that really seems like a good idea at the time, we’ve all done it.” Then reminiscing about the times in deepest winter then they toboganed down the snow covered roofs of the cabins to only minor injuries. I am no longer allowed in hot tubs.
These are some of our stories of Yosemite. Go out and make your own.
How do you plan a trip when you don’t expect to visit a place again and have just one week. You want to get at least the flavor of an entire country without running around like a mad goose after a guide waving a pennant on a stick.
Morocco has been on our list for a long time and our plan, which worked perfectly, was to book several private tours. We’re generally not suited for group tours and private tours can be very expensive. But in Morocco, where prices are less than in much of Europe, it was all more or less affordable. The advantage is the we were with our guides and hosts for almost 40 hours over the week and had the chance to have a wide ranging converstaion with them. We generally avoided contraversial topics, just asked them questions ab0ut Morocco and their lives and let them talk, which they did with enthusiasm.
We had a guide for an all day tour of Marrakech. Then there was an all day cooking class at a orchard outside of the city. We rented a car and drove from Marrakech, staying in Essouria on the Atlantic coast for two nights. But best of all, was a two day tour of the Sahara Desert. I told my Moroccan friend about the trip, he said, “well you pretty much covered all the bases. Fez is certainly worth the visit, but you did good.”
Disclaimer: We were here in the third week of September. The temperature was in the high 70’s to low 80’s. Three weeks previously we saw reports of temperatures around 107. I have no idea what any of our experiences would have been under those conditons.
Les Jardins de la Medina
We loved this place. It might have moved up to being our favorite hotel, our last favorite hotel, on the Turkish coast, now closed. The main buildings of the hotel had been home of a prince in a country where they take that prince thing seriously.
We came and went during our stay and stayed in three different rooms at different rates. All, including the least expensive, were very good. We ate a lot at the hotel, partly because it was easy, in a beautiful setting but mostly because the food was so good. Nadal, one of the waiters, was there most meals and took good care of us. We had one very early departure. At 5 am, in the dark. We came down and found a table for two in the otherwise dark garden in the glow of a tableside lamp.
Abdul gave us a very good, running commentary on Marrakech, Morocco, Islam and life as we walked. He isn’t an employee of some tour company but an independent guide who has figured out how too make it work as a rare independent through the internet. He described his long journey to secure his guide license which was no small feat. Abdul is an educated observant Muslim, and it was fascinating to hear his perspective. He defended the faith, blamed media for bad impression of Islam in west and defended polygamy and Turkish president, Erdogan. We flet no need to be arguimentative but just listen, which led him to talk further. We had lunch at a charming cooking school art gallery, and restaurant. Palias de la Bahia was the highpoint and Abdul was very knwledgable It gives one at least some insight into a Sultan’s life and culture.
The most striking thing about Moroccan architecure is the blank exterior of most buildings, very little curb appeal. The monuments, the houses are all surronded by unadorned walls with unassming doors. In most houses, the front door opens on to a passage that takes a few turns so no passerby can see more than a few feet into the dwelling, we are told to protecty the security, privacy and peace of the home. Whole towns are collections of blank adobe walls. The Palias de la Bahia and the Ben Youssef Medresa, where you can gain entrance, are exceptions.
Our host, Michele arrived shortly after us, in purple shorts, T-shirt and an uncombed mop of grey hair, as if he had just rolled out of bed, which he probably had. The venue is a large bright room on a farm outside Marrakech, Michele and his wife have created a quiet refuge to relax and learn about Moroccan cooking. He is an expat Frenchman who tired of the business of Europe and moved to Morocco to start this cooking school. He was fortunate enough to have married a beautiful Moroccan woman who, unlike her husband, is actually a chef.
Michele’s role is the greeting, an informative blind spice identification test, breaking out in drumming while we prepared our Tagine and a charming discussion over our lunch. It was his wife who did all the cooking with skill and patience.
Recipe: cucumber salad with orange blossom
Is this a salad or a soup? Whatever it is, it’s a delightful light start to a meal and good counterpoint to the heavier Moroccan dishes.
4 cups cucumber cut into small chunks, or shaved, grated?
4 tbs fresh orange juice (consider sweet mandrins and less sugar)
4 tbs fresh lemon juice
4 tbs castor sugar (very fine sugar that disolves in cold liquid, try bar sugar or make your own)
3 tsp orange flower water
2 tsp fresh chopped tyme
Mix the juices together and add the sugar a bit at a time and test for sweetness. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour over the cucumber and chill.
Still in the test kitchen: best way to cut the cucumbers, does it get better if it has time to sit? Adjust proportions, more or less sweet.
We are fortunate enough to live a few blocks from Oaktown Spice Shop, one of the best spice shops I have ever seen. But where do you get orange flower water. If you plan ahead, mail order on-line, or surprisingly BevMo, but check, not all stores have it in stock. Or if you’re standng in the kitchen, out of time, try a substitute.
Recipe: Zaalouk (Eggplant Salad)
(Variation on faimdepices.com recipe)
3 cloves of garlic
½ tsp pepper
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp paprika
1 tabl tomato paste
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Peel eggplant and cut into small chunks
Add three crushed garlic cloves
With a little oil, cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until soft.
Skin tomatoes and cut into small pieces. With a little oil, simmer with pepper, cumin, paprika and salt until juice is reduced, then stir in tomato paste. (try adding a little lemon juice)
Combine eggplant and tomato mixture and add chopped parsley & cilantro
Mash with a potato masher. Salt to taste.
Makes 2 ½ to 3 cups of salad
There is no magic here, you can vary the proportions of eggplant and tomato depending on your own taste.
Serve hot or cold.
Essouria is a UNESCO World Heritige site on the Atlantic coast. It is a walled city with beautiful winding streets and nearby beaches. The market and shopping was far less intense than in Marrakech and we found that more enjoyable for wandering . We had a great time with a spice dealer who provided medicinal spices as much as cooking spices. We bought some small carpets as well.
The city has a vibrant fishing port and one of our best meals was at the port where we stepped up to a large counter or fresh from the sea fish and picked out our meal which was grilled and served in minutes.
A restaurant of special note was La Tabla by Madada housed in a beautiful arched cellar which kept it cool.
I wrote a separate post – A Brief Visit to the Sahara Desert – about this two-day adventure but it’s worth praising them just a little more. The experience couldn’t have been better. Moha in the office worked really hard to craft an unusual request and put together a great tour. Good job!!!
We’re happy that we’re able continue our annual two-week stay in New York in May each year. Each time, we visit, New York feels more like home. For those not accustomed to New York, this might be a good starting point for planning your visit. For old hands, maybe a few new ideas or reminders of places to revisit. Click on the links in blue for more about each place. Susan, as usual, was the Ring Mistress if this trip.
We chose four plays rather than just going to see Hamilton for $1,000. That was probably a mistake. We only ate at one “name” restaurant, Babbo, a regular stop for us, rather seeking out places with entrée’s in the $20’s not the $30,s or more. We encountered a wide range of museum exhibits.
We were busy the first week and less so the second. We didn’t get up and out so much in the morning, more like home. And walked – 90 miles over 14 days. Only took cabs to and from Penn Station and to the Met on one rainy day.
Over two weeks we visited 11 museums and libraries, viewing both special exhibits and works from the museum collection. I can hardly begin to describe these shows, so click on the links to see more about each museum and exhibit. The depth and breadth of what we were fortunate enough to see in just two weeks was wonderful and probably not possible in any other city in America or maybe the world.
We visited the newly renovated Main Reading room open after two years work. As a way to experience the room, rather than just walk in and out, we both picked out books from the shelves, Minoan Archaeology for me and an Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek for Susan and read for an hour. Then we walked and shared all the arcane information we had just learned.
We didn’t visit the museum this trip but managed to talk our way into the gift shop, which is inside the museum. Three stories of interesting stuff. If you visit the museum, be sure to leave time for to explore the shop.
Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman – nominated for Tony for best revival. Very well done old school Broadway play in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon switch parts each performance, which tempts you to see it twice.
The Great Comet– Based on 65 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this is an enthsiastic Tony nominated musical. The theater is redesigned. The audience steps up on to the stage, sitting at tables and bars and the actors roam around the audience.
Dear Evan Hansen – More Tony nominations. The story of a teenager who inadvertantly becomes a media sensation. An amazing performance by Ben Platt
Groundhog Day – A musical based on the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. I hesitate to disagree with Ben Brantley but, it all seems a little pointless, though Andy Karl gives a great performance. Better to watch the movie again. Nobody out groundhogs Murray
New York Philharmonic – A strange pairing of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy” with Shoenberg’s short Survivor from Warsaw with the full orchastra and the Westminister Choir. The rousing reception by the audience may be in part because this was the first of Alan Gilbert‘s farewell series. He is leaving the Symohony in early June.
Cassis – Columbus between 70th and 71st – Our first dinner or the trip we went back to Cassis, walking both ways from our apartment on 93rd, just to get our New York sea legs. Cassis is just as good as we remember and could hold its own in Paris. Our waiter, a little cool at first, warmed up and told us he had been there for 16 years. We closed the place at almost midnight.
Shake Shack – W77th & Columbus & All over – In the running for best fast food burger and includes wine and beer.
Storico – W77 & Central Park West, in the American Natural History Museum – A waiter service museum cafe, a little expensive, a little formal but an enjoyable lunch.
La Violiolo – W68th & Columbus, close to Lincoln Center – Dinner after the Symphony, quiet and moderately priced.
Playa Betty’s– W75th & Amsterdam, also near Lincoln Center. Very casual, but good food at low prices.
2nd Ave Deli – E75th & 1st Ave, also E 3rd & Lexington – This is the ultimate New York deli.
The Grange – 141st & Amsterdam – Good hipster menu at a moderate price, near to the Hamilton Grange in Harlem, or as they now call it, Hamilton Heights.
Jack’s Wife Freda – 224 Layafette between Spring & Kenmar – Fun interesting menu with a moderate price.
Babbo Ristorante & Enoteca – 110 Waverly Place near northeast corner of Washington Square – Always outstanding. An early Mario Bataglia restaurant. Newer places seem to have captured the sporlight but this place remains relatively unpretentious and reasonably priced for first tier places. Do not let them seat you downstairs, insist on the upstairs diningroom.
Barraca – 81 Greenwich Ave @ Bank Street – Affordable Spanish Tapas with street tables. Interesting variety of Sangrias.
Alta – 64 W 10th Street between 6th & 7th – Moderate – Medeterranian small plates, though not so small. The entrance with not sign is down a few stairs under a typical brick townhouse, but once through the bar it opens into a beautiful high two-level restaurant that was foremrly a foundry and a Quaker meeting hall. The food is very good. The crowd is mostly New Yorkers and popular so reserve in advance. Sister restaurant Cata at 245 Bowery, on our list for next year.
Faun– 606 Vanderbuilt Ave, Brooklyn – In the 2017 Michelin Guide. Our New York friends gave a knowing nod when we told them where we went.
Sons of Thunder – E38th between 2nd & 3rd – There are poki bars popping up all over New York in the rush to eat the last of the world’s supply of endangered tuna. This one had very good fresh ingredients and very good prices. We shared a table and when Susan asked our table mate if she could get him a glass of water, he said, “You aren’t from New York, are you?”
Hummus Kitchen – E31st & 3rd Ave & other locations – Alway good and worth a stop
Samba Kitchen & Bar – W46th & 7th Ave – Small good and busy with reasonable prices. Good location for before the theater. Get there early or make reservations.
Bluesmoke – E27th between Park & Lexington – Danny Meyer of Shake Shake fame. Good solid meat menu and a jazz club downstairs
Gloria – W53rd & 9th Ave – Pescatarian – Newly opened with very good small menu. Also location for before the theater. Make a reservation.
Kilare Taverna – W44th between 5th & 6thShopping – Our last night – Kelare is a mirror of how New Yorkers see themselves. New Yorkers who are a little older whiter, executive class. Formal, dark wood décor, white table cloth, attentive maitre’d, all male staff, hint of a deep wine cellar but no sommelier and whole fish nestled in the ice on a large table where white haired men are attended by waiters as they expound on their knowledge of fish, perhaps an expedition in the Greek Islands and make their dinner choice. There are lots of places like this throughout Mid-town. This one is just off 5th Avenue, near the theater district but decidedly not in the Times Square zone. It’s next door to the Harvard Club and down the street from the Algonquin Hotel where tourists sit at the “round table’ trying unsuccessfully to recapture the panache of those who sat there almost a century ago. The food and service was good and only about 25% overpriced. A good place to experience this tradition.
On our last subway ride home, we gave our weekly metro passes that still had some valid days to people on the platform. I interrupted a young couple in an embrace. They took the pass, smiled, thanked me and resumed.
What if you were offered eleven-days with no responsibility on the condition that you have to leave your house? That was our situation when people wanted to rent our house, through Airbnb, in late March. We decided to not spend more than the rental income so that ruled out airplanes and rental cars.
So, what’s the answer? ROAD TRIP!!!
What do you do? Where do you go? The entire west coast was within range. We ruled out north, still too cold and too much chance of rain. And we ruled out snow; this is a spring trip.
A Roadtrip is as much about what you discover along the way as where you land each night. Checking off places you’ve always thought to visit and a reconnaissance to identify new places for future trips. We had been trying to figure out a time to visit friends in La Jolla for a long time but we could never quite fit in a visit. We flip down to LA at the drop of a hat, but somehow San Diego is in another regional and cultural sphere, not to mention 10 hours away not 6.
So, that was to be our start and got us all the way, almost to the Mexican border, with ten days to wend our way back to Oakland. We chose to stop in Joshua Tree in the high desert, Ojai in the coastal mountains north of LA and Yosemite Valley in the Sierra and explore alternate routes north through California on routes that kept us mostly off of freeways.
We touched almost every environment in California, each awe inspiring, each enhancing our already considerable gratitude that this state is our home, and yet we hadn’t even reached the upper third.
Here’s our route, approximately 1,400 miles, but a third of that on the first day.
Leg One – Oakland to La Jolla
On the road by 6:15. In La Jolla at 4:00, 487 miles, almost 10 hours.
Everybody I’ve spoken to as I write this has an opinion about this drive and their own strongly held view of how best to survive. They all use the word survive, nobody is indifferent. For what it’s worth, we change drivers every 90 minutes. Two easy shifts each and we’re in LA. It’s that simple. Six hours, including stops, is an average of 62 mph. Clearly somebody’s exceeding the speed limit at some point. We chat, we listen to music, currently the soundtrack from Hamilton, sometimes This American Life, or even just stare out the window silently for miles on end. It goes by in a flash. If you leave early, you’re there for lunch.
But first a pet peeve. Highway 5 is two lanes each way with lots of trucks. The speed limit it 75 mph but the predominant speed for cars is between 80 and 85 and sometimes a little more. The speed for trucks is 55 mph.
“I’m driving at the speed limit, so why shouldn’t I just stay in the left lane. Eventually I would have to move left to go around those pesky trucks. All that lane changing would be dangerous. They really shouldn’t allow trucks on this road anyway. The others should just get in line behind me. I’m doing everybody a favor.”
I imagine that’s what people who clog the left lane on I-5 are thinking or they’re simply oblivious, following the leader. The law and reasonable thought is that everybody stays on the right except to pass. Yet on Highway 5, everybody seems to camp in the left lane causing all kinds of chaos. There, I’ve vented. Thank you, this really did help and I’ll never mention it again.
The trip has two distinct parts. Bay Area to LA and LA to San Diego. That begs the question of where is LA? But I will leave that aside.
How can I capture the 5 – 6+ hour dash from the Bay Area to Los Angeles on Highway 5?
I’m always amazed how fast you get from the middle of the city to wide-open farmland, against a brutal commute the opposite direction. Less than an hour.
Then the endless valley, though every season brings something new; late winter and spring are green with patches of wildflowers and flowering fruit trees. Summer, brown. Please disregard the feed lots, and the angry water signs.
Owning land along the highway apparently constitutes free speech. “Congress Created Dust Bowl” “Dams not Trains” “Is Growing Food Wasting Water?” The dissonance is striking as we pass by two-hundred miles of vibrant crops while the land under Bakersfield sinks from over pumping of ground water and us city folk, who only use 20% of state water aren’t flushing at home and cut back 20% during the drought. “Congress Created Yellow Bowl.”
Then the Grapevine, a short ride up the Tehachapi mountains through a 4,000 ft. pass. Each year at the top of the hill, for just a week, there can be an amazing display of wildflowers, but not on this trip. We saw it in 2008, by accident, and have tried to time it again and again, but without success.
Wildflowers are elusive and perhaps should just be discovered by happenstance. We had chanced into a superbloom and got on your hands and knees to take photos. I think this is a lesson in not trying to recreate a perfect moment.
Several years ago, during the California drought we planned a spring trip to LA passing through the Antelope Valley and stopping at the California Poppy Reserve at what was touted to be the height of the “bloom.” We arrived at the visitors’ center and were told by two sincere curators. “If we went up the trail to the left we would come across a flower.” Following their instructions, after a five-minute walk, we did come across a single poppy. We continued on to LA and back up to the Bay Area on Highway 101 passing plenty of beautiful wild flowers, but only that one flower at the reserve. There were more poppies in our Oakland front yard.
The truth is, this year the entire state will be a super bloom all spring and summer from now through even the late summer in the high sierra meadows for us to all enjoy without trying.
And finally the long descent from high desert into the suburbia and haze of the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles beyond.
Let’s discuss food. It all depends on timing. If we don’t leave too early, our first choice on any road trip is Beauty’s Baglesin the Temsecal area of Oakland.
Great bagels, very busy with a young crowd, but well worth any wait. We don’t eat there but love to eat our take-away on the road. Cream cheese and lox on everything bagel, tomato, onion & capers, closed as opposed to open and an 8oz cappuccino. For Susan substitute goat cheese and a regular coffee. They’ll sometimes, but not always, cut the bagel into four pieces rather than two for easier on-the-road eating. Is there a hands free snack food app? You’re good for most of the trip and maybe, with a bag of trail mix (or chips and jerky from the quick stop) you can wait until lunch in LA.
On the road we suspend our normal reluctance to patronize fast food outlets and plan which of four In-and-Out Burgers, the top of the fast food chain, we will visit. If you leave, as we did this trip, at 6:30, there is one at the Grapevine, a little more than four hours out. You get there at 10:30 just after they open. Let’s call it brunch. If you leave a little later there is one at Santa Nella, 90 minutes out. Or perhaps you’re better off at the location at Kettleman City, just about exactly half way.
Animal style. A patty ( or two if you order the double) marinated in mustard, and served Bic Mac style with lettuce, tomato, and a sauce. You can eat the regular burger while you drive, but animal style requires a stop
That’s it. There is nothing more to know about food on Highway 5. If you must, go ahead and google “Best Food on I-5” but I won’t be your enabler by providing a website. This is not a place to linger.
Then there’s the slog from LA to San Diego. As much as the trip to LA is a rural blur this next leg is a clogged freeway passage through grim urban sprawl. You could simply take I-5 the whole way but locals and Waze takes you from Highway the 5 to the 210 to the 2 back to the 5 then to the 710 connecting to the 60 and then back to the 5 avoiding a couple of epic LA traffic jams. In LA’s golden highway years, the 50’s and 60’s, freeways all had descriptive names: The Santa Monica Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Ventura freeway, but now they have largely lost their names and freeway numbers are prefaced with “the.” The trip continues on the 5, all the way to the San Diego area, with not a single break in the sprawl except the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Near La Jolla, the 810 finally connects to the 52 and drops into La Jolla. Three hours and 150 miles, that’s only 50 mph with no stops, a different deal. Now a deep breath, you’re there.
We went there to visit friends and family and that’s what we did. My recommendation is, like us, to make friends with folks who have a place overlooking the ocean. Sitting on the terrace enjoying a glass of wine we thought that half people passed by on the rocky beach just below us wanted to be us the other half hated us.
The beach in La Jolla is rocky and in the city, not the Southern California beach one usually expects. But, if you head out to La Jolla Shores there’s a wonderful flat beach.
It’s perfect for swimming, boogie boarding and beginning surfers and you can walk on this broad flat beach past the Scripts Institute pier for miles as far as Blacks Beach, a renown nude beach, and beyond for miles more. Pay attention, the beach route to Blacks is blocked at high tide and the alternate cliff access can be treacherous.
Leg 2 – La Jolla to Joshua Tree
233 miles, almost 5 hours
For the next leg of the trip we were heading into the teeth of what had been described as the 100-year wildflower bloom in the Anzo-Borrego Park, but it seemed to unfold in the southern deserts a week before we arrived. “You shudda been here yesterday.” We paused at the appointed places saw some hillsides of flowers at other places, saw lakes and beautiful desert valleys and on to Joshua Tree.
Heading out of the park and on to the shores of the Salton Sea a desolate, very down-on-your-luck desert community. It was past lunch time and we stopped at the Mexican restaurant in Red Earth Casino, just about depressing as you might imagine. I was rebuffed on ordering quesadilla as they were out of cheese, so settled for a hamburger, not cheeseburger and a quite welcome beer. On a roadtrip, not every stop can be wonderful. Sometimes you just have to stop and eat or get gas. After lunch we pressed on to our desert hideaway past 29 Palms.
It’s a magical event to sit in the middle of the deep high desert looking out over only sand and rock and sparse desert vegetation to the barren mountains beyond, with only the blush of the soft wind and the buzz of the universe in your ears. At night, away from city lights, sitting under the arc of the starry sky, bundled against the cold in the winter, glad for the hint of cool in the summer.
Fifteen years ago Gregg Davis bought his first house in the desert and has since created Joshua Desert Retreats, 13 great stylish homes, off the beaten path and way off the beaten track in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park just beyond 29 Palms California. We’ve stayed with them four times over the last ten years and are never disappointed.
The homes are all beautifully decorated in a whimsical desert fashion; no two the same. All are isolated giving the feeling of being almost alone in the desert. Some are so far down dirt roads that you actually are alone in the desert. My favorite sign, eastbound just outside 29 Palms is “No services next 100 miles” That’s the direction most of houses face, away from the blazing western sun, staring into the abyss.
If you have 4-wheel drive you can explore out in that 100-mile zone. There are people living out there completely off-the-grid, but I think one should give them wide berth.
The stars in the moonless sky stretching to the horizon are like a prehistoric sky, then one high jet, then another heading to and from LAX 150 miles to the west and the low yellow glow of Los Angeles on the horizon. A full moon erases the stars from most of the sky, casting a silver light on the desert, quite light enough to walk around.
In the park we came across an other worldly landscape, wildflowers in some areas, groves of Ocotillo, Cholla cactus, and blooming Yucca and Joshua Trees.
This desert has the distinction of being on the boarder of the Colorado Desert to the south and the Mohave Desert to the north and on the junction of the continental plate and the Pacific plate. The rock formations are towers of lava that seeped up in spaces in the plates and then cooled, exposed by erosion.
The landscape is like neither of the two adjacent deserts. And, of course there are the wildflowers.
We’ve hiked on many trails, some to mountain tops and one into what was a completely isolated canyon that had no access until 1958 and has many plants unique in the world. We’ve hiked to several Oases, groves of palm trees in desert canyons where springs surface.
The hike to Lost Oasis, almost 8 miles with a lot of up and down. Over each rise you think you’ll see the oasis, only to see the trail snake through the next valley and disappear arouund the bend.
But there are other oasis more easily accessible. The park roads are good but if you have 4-wheel drive and even more enthusiastic vehicles with high clearance, there are miles of dirt road to explore, some leading to long ago abandoned mines.
We have only visited in the winter and early spring when the weather is mild. Even so, in later March it can get into the 80’s. I’ve been through deserts in 120-degree weather, so I actually can imagine what it’s like in the summer. Don’t do it.
Leg 3 – Joshua Tree to Ojai
225 miles, about 4 ½ miles.
Still in search of the “bloom of the century,” we headed out of Joshua Tree, avoiding the freeway route that Siri and Wazee kept trying to reroute us, crashing through LA freeways. Our route went through the town of Yucca Valley and northwest up Old Woman’s Springs Road, Highway 247, through Flamingo Heights, Johnson Valley, and Lucerne Valley north of the San Gabriel and were rewarded with beautiful open, almost empty desert. There were still groves of Joshua Trees, and fields of wildflowers. To the south were the San Gabriel Mountains with snow-peaked Big Bear and Arrowhead, shielding us from LA. The road less taken, and it did make all the difference.
Well, for a time. From Apple Valley through Victorville until we crossed I-5 was and a slog through miles of strip malls, stop lights, and scrub desert. We did have a delightful lunch at the Littlerock Grill, in, appropriately, the almost not a town of Littlerock, just east of Palmdale, a good Yelp find when we needed lunch along the way. Once we crossed I-5, we drove through a beautiful agricultural valley, no longer desert but coastal mountains, on highway 126, though Fillmore and up a mountain canyon to the plateau at Ojai.
Ojai is more than a bit cute and more than a bit expensive, but still, I like Ojai. There are lots of places to hike, good places to stay and eat. It’s the Napa Valley of Los Angeles where Angelinos come for a weekend to unwind. We stayed at the Emerald Iguana Inn, which unlike its sister inn, the Blue Iguana Inn, is six blocks out of town and a little more economical. But there are beautiful rooms and suites in a garden setting surrounding a pool. Because of Airbnb income, we could afford the best room. We were only there for one full day, and just relaxed, took the walk to town and stopped in at the Ojai Valley Museum and found that the town was put on the map by Edward Libby, the founder of Libby-Owens Glass. We had a nice meal at Osteria Grappa one night and bought a chicken and salad at the grocery down the block the next night and ate in. We read and wrote. All getting ready for the final leg of our journey to Yosemite.
Leg 4 – Ojai to Yosemite
296 miles, 6 hours
We took Highway 33 north from Ojai driving up and down mountain roads that were so lightly traveled that CALTRANS had not bothered to clear rather large rocks from the road, giving new meaning to the oft seen signs,” Look Out for Falling Rocks.” After a couple of hours, we dropped out of the mountains on to the southern end of the Corrizo Plain. This is the area between Highway 5 and 101 where the San Andreas Fault spreads out and the landscape ripples for 75 miles north. Roads cross it at various points, but there’s almost no reason to drive its length. This were we really came face to face with the “bloom.” Not just hillsides of flowers but whole mountain ranges swathed with yellow. You can even see it from space.
This ends in the towns of Maricopa, Taft, and a big oil field, We didn’t have time to visit the Oil Museumand Buttonwillow, our favorite town name on I-5. From there is the uneventful trek on I-5 to Highway 41, through Fresno and on to Yosemite and that breathtaking first view of the valley.
What can I say about Yosemite? I have so many memories over 45 years
The snowy winter night I took my 8-year-old daughter owling in the hip deep snow in the woods, acting out one of her favorite books, Owl Moon. The first time Susan and I made it to the top of Nevada Falls together and again the first time we did it again after she survived cancer. A perfect dogwood in bloom in a shaft of sunlight against a dark forest. The granite and the water, the granite and the water, the granite and the water and the blue of the sky at 10,000 feet. The sounds of the wind in the high country in it’s different moods through the trees, in the meadow and across the expanse of bare granite above the tree line. Waking at dawn at a high country lake tinged with mist, stirring up the fire for a cup of coffee and sitting as the sunrise warmed me.
We only stay in the Valley in the late fall through early spring when it is much less crowded. All the rooms are often full but the tent cabins and campsites are largely empty and during the week there are few day users.
This was the trip of waterfalls. California has just experienced the winter with the highest rainfall on record and the falls are booming. And not just the falls we have all heard of, Yosemite Falls, Bridalvale Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls but all around the valley water is shedding off the granite walls in unnamed falls and rivulettes. We secured one of the few rooms at Yosemite Lodge where you can see the falls from the room through the trees and fall asleep to the rumble of the water.
The Merced River through the valley was full and wide and with a unique green glow. We did a 10-mile hike around the valley from the lodge up past the Awahnee Hotel (I won’t use the new name) up to Mirror Lake, which, with all the water, is actually a lake again, not a sandy meadow, and up to the Vernal Falls bridge. Our last day of the trip, we just sat and read and wrote, sitting on our terrace with the view of the falls, with only a stroll to the Village for lunch.
I’m going to pause my description about Yosemite, saving it for my upcoming love story “The Essential Yosemite.”
Leg 5 – Yosemite to Oakland
200 miles 4 to 6 hours
We’re ready to go home. There are two routes from Yosemite Valley to Oakland. One is down highway 140 along the Merced River, through Mariposa, to Merced then across the valley. This is the fastest route almost 4 hours. The other is up over Highway 120 to the junction of the Tuolumne Meadow road, through the Park to Groveland, toward Sonora and Oakdale, Escalon, Manteca, Tracy and home. The same mileage but about an hour more. We most often take that route, since it’s much prettier with less freeway and just outside the park entrance there are several great hikes, Carlon Falls trail, Hetch Hetchy, Early Intake. The choice was taken from our hands; Highway 120 was closed due to a road washout, so we drove down the Merced River which crashed and bubbled through the canyon dotted with….more wildflowers.
If you’re going Kayaking on the Elkhorn Slough, nobody goes to Marina. Maybe because it has always just been known as the military town adjacent to Fort Ord, not a vacation destination. Closed in 1994, this massive military base occupies a five-mile stretch of the California Coast just north of Monterey and extends over 280,000 acres. In its later years Fort Ord was a major base of the 7th Infantry Division used for basic training for thousands of US troops heading for Viet Nam.
In the 60’s and 70’s I drove along the coast countless times in my VW bus sporting obligatory long hair and a beard. You could see the troops at the rifle ranges in the dunes and hear the shots from the road.
It was an uncomfortable collision of competing cultures of the time. In contrast to earlier times when passers by most often had a feeling of pride at our strong military, many of us on the road had mixed feelings of distaste and anger at the military and an unjust war, mixed with pity for our comrades who were there, snared by the draft. I was recently describing this to a friend who did their basic training at Ord, and he said that they shared a reciprocal reproach and wistful jealousy at the free wheeling VW bus denizens. I am not sure just what fantastic adventures they thought we were up to but we certainly did try to meet their expectations.
The site is now occupied by 10,000 acres of the Fort Ord National Monument. Only 4,000 acres are open, with the other still in the process or ordinance clearance.
Where to stay
But on our first trip, in February, we splurged and stayed in Marina at The Sanctuary Beach Resort in a little cottage overlooking the sea and were tempted back the next December by a low season discount.
It was still during the California drought, so the winter weather was wonderful. The special attraction is that they give each guest a golf cart. Cars are parked out of sight at the main lobby. Susan was our designated driver for the Grand Prix de Sanctuary.
The following August, we took out two grand-daughters back for a long weekend to visit the Monterey Aquarium, the Elkhorn Slough and the beach at Sand City, known for sea glass, a favorite of the kids. This time we stayed at a below average Best Western Hotel across the street from the Sanctuary, no more than a place to sleep and precious little of that, sharing a room with a 5 and 7-year old.
At one edge of town is, a 17-acre wetland park and library past which runs a bike route that starts in Castroville, eight miles to the north and runs all the way to Pacific Grove 15 miles to the south. We have on good authority from a couple biking down the path that the Marina Library has the best bathrooms on the route
From the Marina State Beach, you can access a 12-mile stretch of untouched and almost deserted beach with huge dunes stretching from the mouth of the Salinas River in the north, past Marina and the length of the old Fort Ord to Sand City in the south.
We are only beginning to explore the entire stretch of beach. On our last trip we hiked up the beach north to the Marina State Park for almost two miles. As we walked on, there were fewer and fewer foot prints and signs of civilization
We rounded a bend and discovered a man-made inlet carved out of the coast by a sand dredging operation.
There was an almost derelict dredge barge, half awash in the surf, tethered to the land by huge long lines that carved strange patterns in the sand as the barge moved in and out. The sand was carved in ledges exposing red sand layers below the soft white beach sand and the entire area was littered with steel scoops, pipes and floats like the bones of some not so long dead dinosaurs. The inlet was a gathering point for hundreds of gulls who burst into the air as we passed by. Just over the dunes we could see the active stack of the sand operation, with a spout of steam, in contrast to this abandoned beach operation. (March 2017 update: This isn’t derelict at all but rather a controversial sand dredging operation.)
On the way back we walked down the beach as the sun set; a quiet winter sunset. And as we neared our beach, a pod of humpback whales was feeding just 50 yards off the beach just beyond the breaker line.
When we finally got back we stopped by a beach fire and enjoyed the last light of the sunset along the shore. Can you say more about this amazing California treat of seeing whales so close up and down the coast? It was exciting, but writing doesn’t capture that as well as the smiles on the faces and the whoops when a whale breached.
Where to eat
There really aren’t many options. Even the Kula Ranch Restaurant adjacent to the Sanctuary closed and it was none to good when opened. Dishes Bistro and Grill, in town, was very good when we visited but has since closed. Like I said, nobody goes to Marina. Here is what we found.
Coffee Mia – Horace Mercurio, the owner, holds forth at Coffee Mia saving you from yet another teenaged barista. Coffee Mia seems to be the social center of Marina, where it seems like everybody is a local and even if it is your first visit, Horace makes you feel like a local, welcoming you into his living room. He greets his friends, shares jokes and takes phone orders from regulars whose number he recognizes. “Hey Rick, your regular? Yeah It’ll be ready in ten.”
Horace wears baggy black pants with white strips and a black chef’s shirt over a white T-shirt. At first glance it looks like a clerical collar. When I made that comment, he immediately crossed himself and chanted, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. A blessing on you both.” He continued, “As for confession, I am game if you are.” When I suggested that he might be shocked at my confession, he responded, “There isn’t anything that I haven’t’ done or at at least thought of doing.” He had been down this road before and I was more than happy to play his straight man.
Tico’s – As a little change-up from Coffee Mia, Tiko’s is a small breakfast and lunch café with good solid food and interesting specials.
Mountain Mike’s Pizza – This is who the staff calls for their dinner. We arrived at our room overlooking the sea, found robes, cuddled up and ordered a Mountain Mike’s pizza which was delivered to our cottage. We watched the Golden State Warriors dismember the San Antonio Spurs. Quite exciting for AARP people who don’t even own a TV and especially for Susan, a mad Warriors fan taking a break from a lactose-free diet. Downing a mouthful of cheese and sausage pizza, she says, “This is the best fucking day of my life.”
Michael’s Grill and Taqueria – There may not be anything special about Michael’s but we had been hiking at Fort Ord for hours and were ravenous. As we passed through town, saw their sign and were delighted with our burrito and a beer, sitting at the outdoor table. The young men who served us were delightful and friendly.
While many bodies of water or damp places can be called a slough, the Elkhorn Slough is one on the most notable slough systems in the Western United States if not the nation and certainly worth a stop or a day or two.
Renting a kayak and gliding up the slough is a great experience and the best way to get an up close look at the area wildlife. I want to repeat this. It really is a wonderful outing, on the water under the soft California sky and all the wildlife, especially entrancing if you have never been up close to those wonderful sea otters.
You can go solo or with a group so it works for any experience level. It’s about a 3-hour event, or more if you linger on the water. You’ll see a fabulous variety birds, gangs of sea otters, seals and sea lions and more.
Here are some tips to make the trip more enjoyable:
If you can manage pick a morning when you start off with a flood tide (current going in) and end with an ebb tide (current going out). The trip will be easiest. The other way around involves a lot of paddling. Check the tide table.
The wind is usually calmer in the morning and usually fills from the West in the afternoon. You don’t have to go far. We saw seals and otters just off the dock.
There are no toilet options once you leave the dock. And all they have at the rental site is a porta-potty, so plan ahead.
Once you are on the water you can’t get out of the boat or even easily remove or add a jacket. In addition to whatever you are wearing, you will don a spray skirt which hangs on your shoulders like overalls and goes down an attaches to the opening of the kayak. Everything below that is covered and out of the wind and water. Then you will have a close fitting pfd (personal floatation device). Which is different than the better-known pdf (portable document format). Those two keep you pretty warm and dry. During the three hours of the trip you can go from cold fog to hot sun and then back to sunny but cold stiff breeze. As we always say in California, dress in layers. Ask advice on what clothes to wear.
You will probably stay dry inside the boat so shoes are OK, and especially good if you are using the rudder.
If you have planned ahead enough to bring sports gloves that can get wet, they aren’t a bad idea, but not essential. Kayaking can be tough if you have a bad back, so arrange back protection while you are at the dock. There isn’t much you can do once you are on the water. Tell them when you rent and they will help. Wear a hat and put on sunscreen. You should pack some water, especially on a hot day.
Cameras, or a cell phone are a great idea but in danger of getting wet, a waterproof bag is a great idea. They may even one for you to use. Or just sit back and let the impressions of the scene burn themselves into your memory. No camera necessary.
As we were neared the dock after a great ride, we heard the plaintive cry of a child whose family had just left the dock in their kayak. “I want to go back in!” This is a wonderful trip– until it isn’t.
With that crying child in mind when we took our grandchildren 5 & 7 to visit the slough, we booked a ride on Elkhhorn Slough Safari.
It was a two-hour gliding ride on a pontoon boat with a knowledgeable guide. We brought water and the kids could move around.
On the ride back the 7-year old, instead of gazing at the sea birds became obsessed with the flies, putting out pieces of cookie and watching them land. Yes, she is one strange delight.
The big orange Allied Moving Van had been at our house since early morning, moving day. I don’t remember having any responsibility for preparation or packing, just as I hardly remember being consulted, barely informed that we were moving. I was playing with the neighborhood kids. Then it was time, the doors of the van were closed the four of us piled into the car, said goodbye to the neighbors and Bobbie Sargent, one in a long string of best friends, and off we went.
We stayed in a motel just an hour outside of Cleveland that night and headed out the next morning for Davenport Iowa. Happily oblivious, I took my place in the back seat next to my sister, four years older.
At seven, this was move four of six moves our family made by the time I was nine. Phoenix Arizona, Pasadena California, Cleveland Ohio, twice, now Davenport and finally suburban New York, Darien Connecticut, where we stayed nine years until I graduated High School. The same day I left for college, heading for UCLA, that big orange van was outside again, taking my parents back to Cleveland. Witness protection you might think, but no, that was just the odyssey of the General Electric post war corporate ladder, though not the fast track. For better or worse, my father worked in the GE lamp division, which was headquartered in Cleveland, to which he was recalled three time in his career
You can drive from Cleveland to Davenport in less than 8 hours today, mostly on the Interstate, but in 1954 the route was all two lane highways, going through every town, large and small. It was probably a ten or twelve-hour journey. Whether for my parents’ ease(my father drove all the time, except for his mid-day post prandial nap) or for our version of a vacation, they decided to break up the trip into two parts. You may ask, what’s half way from Cleveland to Davenport. The route goes right through Chicago and you might think that it would be a good opportunity to introduce your kids to a wonderful city. But that apparently didn’t stack up to the charm of the largest natural lake in Indiana, Lake Wawasee. So that’s where we stopped.
What I remember most from those long highway trips was sticking my hand out the open window, no air conditioning in those days, and banking my hand off the air stream like an airplane, flying over the landscape, the whooshing sound of the cars rushing past in the opposite direction, especially as I dozed in the back seat at night, competing with my sister to call out when we saw a Volkswagen first, turning around and waving and sometimes making faces at the cars behind us, the stops at roadside restaurants, always a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milk shake and, of course the Burma Shaves
You’ve laughed – At our signs – For many a mile – Be a sport – Give us a trial – Burma Shave The blackened forest – Smolders yet – Because – He flipped – A cigarette – Burma Shave
Marketing and public service from 1927 through 1963
We arrived at the Hotel Oakwood, Lake Wawasee in mid-afternoon. I had been promised a boat ride on the lake, but I had begun to feel really bad, headachy with chills. We checked into our hotel, a big building right on the lake. Our room was on the top floor under the sloping gables of the roof, overlooking the lake. I could see the dock and the promised boat ride, now dangerously slipping out of reach. I wasn’t generally a whiner but in this case I just wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Parents sometimes do the strangest things. Against all reason, they bundled me up in a blanket and off we went for that boat ride in an open 15-foot runabout with an outboard motor.
In the front was a small wheel, with spokes like a ships wheel. I settled down at the helm and off we went for a tour of the lake, one happy boy. I don’t remember that anybody else got a turn. Nobody was going to pry me away from the wheel.
Back at the dock, I was brought back up to our room, where I proceeded to spike a 104+ degree fever. The local doctor made a house call, or rather a hotel call, ordered some medicine and there I lay, in and out of a delirious fevered sleep all night and most of the next day. I remember very little, only that all day I counted as high as I could, all my waking hours. How high is unremembered, but certainly in the thousands. I should have carved the number in the headboard.
The next night my fever broke, I slept well and my parents scooped me up and off to Davenport the next morning. By the time we arrived that afternoon, I had improved to the extent that I could go out and play with the next in the series of best friends, in this case a pair: Franky Fowell and Johnny Gruel. (Susan always accuses me of making up those names)
All my life, my memory of Lake Wawasee, through that fevered haze, was of some out-of-the-way corner of the mid-west, but a friend of mine from Indiana recently told me that he had spent memorable visits every summer at rustic summer houses on the lake and Eli Lilly had his summer house there. He made particular note of having frogs legs at Frog Tavern.
If we lived in Paris, we’d choose the 2nd Arrondissement. The 2nd, in central Paris, just north of the Les Halles district, is definitely a locals’ neighborhood with little tourist influence, yet it’s within walking distance many places tourists want to see. At the center is Rue Montrogueil, the quintessential daydream of a busy Parisian market street packed with every imaginable boulangerie, meat, fish, cheese, produce, wine or hardware shop, everything that supports a neighorhood. And it buzzes with activity day and night.
Completing the Paris fantasy come true, there are dozens of cafes and resaturants from the “pas cher” Paristanbul, Turkish take out down the block from our flat to “tres chic” Frenchie, the newest foodie prix fixe emporium, just around the corner.
Susan and I have been to Paris together six times over almost 15 years and stayed all over, but for the past two trips, we’ve landed here in the same flat on Les Petits Careaux overlooking L’Oasis Abokir. And now this is our home in Paris.
The restaurants, the street markets, speciality food shops, the whole street scene of Paris, all are as vibrant as ever, but, for us, these days more relaxing, pleasant, and familiar– less exotic. In the 70’s and 80’s American travelers visited Europe and found so much that they had never encountered. They came back saying, “We can do that!” And they did. In Oakland, we have so much of what we loved from our early trips to Europe, admittedly with an American style. When you tell Parisians, especially the young, that you’re from Oakland, the reaction is, “Oui, I know about Oakland and can’t wait to visit there.” The world is a smaller more comfortable place. And yet we keep going back to Paris.
We certainly go back for the art and attractions, the gorgeous food and the wine, for the same eneffable romance that has always drawn people (How you gonna keep em down on the farm??). The perfect stroll with the perfect cafe always waiting to be discovered. The perfect bridge with the perfect kiss against the railing, even for oldies like us. We had our first European kiss on a freezing night in the middle of the bridge to Ile Staint-Louis, and we always smile when we pass that spot. There’s Hemingway and his Paris wife, Sarte and Simone, Picasso, Monet, Gertrude Stein…they linger there charging the air with possibility.
We’ve been to the well known museums many times, and we go the the D’Orsay, every time, and are always glad we did. But when we arrived in Paris this time, as we do at home, we looked to see what special exhbits were in town and were rewarded with severaly really interesting and exceptional shows at museums that we had not previously discovered.
TheMuseum Marmottan Monet, housed in the former hunting lodge of a 19th Century Duc, adjacent to the Bois de Boulogne, has a surprising large and excellent resident Monet exhibit, which we had never heard about before. The paintings trace Monet’s evolution from an Impressionist in his early years to an almost abstract colorist in his later years.
The Musee Jacquemart-Andre, located in the 8th Arrondissement, in an even bigger grand mansion, had an exhibit of Rembrandt’s work, including twenty paintings and thirty drawings by the Dutch master, made possible by exceptional loans from museums from throught the world. We were both transported by this event that protrayed the depth and breadth of Rembrandt’s genius in a way we had never seen before all in one place.
We had not bought tickets in advance so were in a rather slow moving line in the covered coach entrance to the mansion. Along the far wall were displays telling the story of the house and it’s owners. We stepped a little out of the line to get a better view of the small print and didn’t notice the line move forward about ten feet. When we turned around, we found the couple, a middle aged man and a young woman, behind us had simple moved ahead and taken our place. Art appreciation in Paris is apparently more cutthroat than we had anticipated!
The people behind them left a space for us and we exchanged bemused smiles. Not really an issue, only slightly annoying, unless, of course, that couple got the last tickets. Then, we had to endure a non-stop 40 minute monologue from the man pontificating about art, which even in French, we could tell was tedious. More eye rolling and ackward smiles from the gracious neighbors behind us. We passed the couple from time to time in the exhibit, he still droning on.
We ventured out to the Bois de Boulogne to visit the new Foundation Louis Vuitton museum, just to see the architecture, even though we knew that all the inside galleries were closed while they were mounting a new show. Designed by Frank Geary, this museum is dedicated to modern art and architecture.
The building is conceived of as a ship with massive glass sails, sitting an a large lake, with a sloping fountain at the front, as if the building were cutting through the sea. Exterior decks spiral down from the top ending in a covered exterior gallery at the lake/fountain level, providing many viewpoints and space for scuplture exhibits
We had a leisurely, though somewhat expensive, lunch at the museum restaurant, festooned with fascinating fish mobiles. The couple next to us seemed like an exhibit of the French museum patron. They were older, at least in their late 70’s, with an aire of aristocrocy that we don’t often encounter. Both were very attractive and impeccably and somewhat formally dressed. Certainly compared to my T-shirt.
And finally we can’t neglect the art on our doorstep. Our flat overlooked L’Oasis D’Abokir, Patrick Bland’s six story veritcal garden that has been there since 2013 and is more lush each year.
Bland is one of the world’s foremost practioners of vertical gardens and since his office is right around the corner, I think this installation gets special attention. Our special foturne is that this is the view from our terrace, over breakfast, a glass of wine or into the night for dinner.
Dining in Paris
So now we’ll get down to the serious stuff, food. This trip we didn’t search out special “listed” restaurants. Mostly we ate at local cafes and restaurants in the neighborhood, cooked a little at home and enjoyed make believing we were locals.
Like many things Parisian, this becomes a little complicated. To us, as we walk down the street, we see a whole line of cafes. But the French eye sees a cafe or a bistro or a brasserie. To further confuse the outlanders, some advertise themselves as a cafe brasserie, and I’m still trying to absorb the fine distinctions.
Cafe du Centre
We had just arrived in Paris on a flight from Palermo; we made out way to our flat and checked in, tired and hungry (If you’ve read all the posts, you’ve probably noticed that our being hungry and/or wanting a glass of wine is a constant theme). Making our way down Rue Montrogueil with no plan, we passed several places that didn’t strike our fancy; then we spied a cafe with an open outside table and we felt the perfect vibe. Cafe du Centre was just what we wanted, with a completely traditional and very good Paris cafe menu.
This is a cafe. Outdoor tables with an array of people having coffee, earnestly talking, reading the paper or having a meal. They have a classic and completely predictable and delicious cafe menu, open from 6am to 2am. And there’s no question that this a Paris cafe menu even if it’s hard to read. That’s OK, you already know what’s on it.
I might add that sitting at outdoor tables is the essential ingredient, not the food. The joy of sitting, having a coffee or a drink and a meal and watching Paris wander by, or simply basking in the hazy Parisian sun, cannot be overstated. Our warning is that Paris still allows smokers at outdoor tables. We can remember cities in America and other places in Europe where they said that people simply wouldn’t go out if they couldn’t smoke. Mon dieu, c’est impossible!!! But it wasn’t true and even in Paris, one day, smoking will be banned at outdoor tables and the smokers will be relegated to their corners of shame, down the street.
Café Pere et Fils
Cafe Pere et Fils advertises itself at a Cafe – Bar – Brasserie. OMG we’ve added Bar into the equation.
You can see how one becomes confused. The same outdoor tables, you say. But the menu is far more diverse, with a more sophisticated wine list. The still manage to have a salad Nicoise, but nary an omelette nor a croquet monsieur in sight.
Brasserie le Bourbon
We had planned to walk from 0ur flat in the 2nd to the Marmottan Monet in the 16th, and, with Siri in some kind of pouting mode, we had wandered to and fro on our journey. Somewhere in 7th, just across from the Assembly National, we plopped down in an empty cafe, on a corner, overlooking a large plaza. We were done, for the time being.
This place is in a much more ritzy, Left Bank, neighborhood, and the waiter seemed to size us up immediately and was quite aloof.
While we were enjoying our glass of wine, one by one, or in groups, men and women in suits streamed into the cafe. We were soon surrounded by what seemed to be the entire French Assembly. There were politicians everywhere, each with the obligatory French flag lapel pin. I wish my French was better so I might be party to some State secret.
So, this was a Brasserie. From the street, the same outdoor tables, but with a much wider menu and a little remnant of that old fashion Parisian haughtiness.
Escargot were on Susan’s list for this trip, which, while they are definitively French, aren’t on many menus.
Without searching, we had noticed, L’Escargot Mongtrogueil in our neighborhood, on the lower reaches of Rue Montrogueil. We didn’t know that that this was, in fact, an actual tourist attraction, established in 1832, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. We stopped in for an early snail snack, around 5pm, thinking it would be quiet, only to find the place slammed by a tourist group, and we just managed to get a table in the corner near the hostess station.
The escargot were very good, among the best in Paris we are told, and we also greatly enjoyed our conversation with the hostess lamenting the tourist crush. The tables around us were filled with Chinese tourists who seemed frozen, peering at an indecipherable menu with their phones out trying to translate. We offered our assistance a few times, trying to steer them into a menu choice. They and the restaurant staff were grateful, and we felt like locals.
Bars & Restaurants in the 2nd Arrondissement
In addtion to cafes, bistros and brasseries, there are bars and restaurants. I’ve completely lost track of the distinction. Here are a few places, I’ll just call them places, in our neighborhood.
Caminito, Bar Argentine
Actually, a bar is just bar, even in France. Just down the street was Caminito, a neighborhood bar with a limited menu of good bar snacks. And by limited menu, since they are Argentines, that incluces a big hunk of beef. We went there a few times for an early drink. The outdoor tables filled from the time the bar opened. In the late afternoon, we noticed groups of friends, often with babies in carriages, lounging over a beer or glass of wine. Some nights, the outside tables were full into the wee hours.
When we’re home, and when we’re having cocktails, which, you may not believe, is not every night, we drink martinis. So, on this trip, we made it our mission to teach Parisian bartenders how to make a good martini. Our first effort at ordering a martini resulted in a glass of sweet vermouth, Martini & Rossi. No we explained, like James Bond, shaken not stirred. Generally the bartenders weren’t receptive, one saying if we had to have a martini we shouldn’t have come to Paris. The bartenderer at Caminito was very receptive and wanted to learn just how to do it, though we all agreed that in most places we should just order vodka or gin on the rocks and avoid the confusion. I know that if we lived here, this would be our local.
Joseph & Lucien
This is a new style Paris restaurant, very informal and hip, more like what you would find in Oakland. It’s just downsatirs from our flat, owned by the son of our host. There are no menus, just a big blackboard written in a french scrawl that our waiter had to lug to each table and prop up on a chair for diners to use for ordering. There is a friendly and casual vibe, as everybody there seemed to know each other or the staff, and by the time we left the place was full.
The menu, once they helped translate the blackboard, was creative, very well prepared and presented and nothing like old fashioned classic French Restaurant fare, which now seems to rich and fattening to us. We’ll be back.
Our last night of a long trip, we were tempted to get take-away Paristanbul, the Turkish place down the block, and a bottle of wine. But we started late and the Turkish place was already closed as were all the wine shops. So we had a cocktail at Caminito across the street, always a good way to absorb restaurant dissapointment and regroup.
We wandered down the sidestreets off Rue Montrogueil passing on this place or that and finally landed in Mauvais Reputation. It was almost empty, but the menu looked interesting.
Like Joseph & Lucien this is a solidly new wave Paris restaurant, though the menu was a little more limited, sophisticated and expensive, but by no means out of reach. Our waiter was helpful and friendly.
We had been willing to settle for take-out, but this turned out to be the perfect special meal for our last night.
The Parisian Cookbook
We decided to bring home several recipes from our trip. Would we try to capture one of those wonderful and innovative dishes from Joshep & Lucien or Mauvis reputation, or even try escargot, which I am told involves turning the live snails loose in cornmeal to clean themselves? Non, we decided to go old school and simple and what’s more universally Parisian than the classic french omelet and salade nicoise. You can find many recipes in cookbooks and on the internet, but I’m going try to navigate those a little and make some suggestions.
I thought this would be an easy task. I already knew my way around an omelet. All I needed to do was tune it up a little.
Here is what I learned about omelets in Paris. It’s not about the filling, though that opens up a whole other discussion. it’s about getting the eggs just right and there’s more than one opinon of what constitutes, just right.
Written recipes are fine for most things, but with omelets, a demonstration is essential. It’s all about technique. Its hard to find a better example of how to make a French Omelet than this video by Jacque Pepin, After searching further, I also found this video from Food Tube by Jamie Oliver which is a little less … French.
The goal is to get the omelet on the plate with the outiside golden yellow or slightly browned, a different technique for each, and the inside a creamy soft delight. Of course, if you find soft, slightly runny, eggs vaguely menacing, it’s easy, just cook the omelet more.
I’ve made more than a dozen omelets in the test kitchen so far and I’m only scratching the surface of different options and getting it just right … every time. As for filling, Jacque Pepin seems to favor the plain herb omelet. Jamie Oliver ventures into other fillings. The first rule is that the filling must already be cooked and warm. In my research I’ve fallen into a wormhole of dozens of varieties of wonderful tasty mushrooms. Berkeley Bowl, an Berkeley grocery institution, has a crazy variety of mushrooms, which I’m in the process of exploring, fungus by fungus.
And that doesn’t begin to address dozens of cheeses, onions, peppers, pepper jelly, bacon, prosciutto, pork belly…. This is going to be a long and arduous investigation.
I’m borrowing heavly from a recipe by Daniel Gritzer. He points out that there is a wide range of opinion, even in France, of what should go into a Salade Nicoise. A real food fight. But since we aren’t in France, I think we can do whatever we want. What I want to add to the conversation, aside from permisson to chart your own course, is some observations on how to treat several of the components.
If this is starting to sound like the omelet conversation, I guess that’s what I like about these dishes. Recipes aren’t ending points, but starting points.
There are four parts of the receipe that I think benefit from a little elaboration. I found that I learned to consistently make a good Salade Nicoise by trying each of the elements until I got them just right and added notes to the recipe.
The French green beans: A small handfull per serving. Use the slender french beans cut into bite size pieces. I tried regular green beans, but they are not as sweet. Put the beans into salted boiling but for just over 3 minutes. Try one, they should be crisp. Have a bowl of ice water ready. Drain the beans and plunge into the ice water. Wait until the ice has mostly melted and the beans are cold. Spread out on a towel and cover with another towel to dry until you are ready to put into the salad.
They are great just that way and I’ve started to cook some up as snack food.
The Eggs: One egg per serving. Boiled so the yellow is firm but still a little dark and even a little runny. Put eggs in tap water just to cover, and after the water comes to a rolling boil, cook for 6 minutes. Like the beans, plunge into ice bath to stop the cooking
They probably won’t come out just right, but whose to say what’s just right? How much water? What’s a rolling boil? Try a sample. Put three eggs in the water. Pull one out at 4 minutes one at 5 minutes and one at 6 minutes. Keep track of which is which. None may be just what you are looking for but you can interpolate, or is that extropolate. And make a note because, next time you won’t remember. From my test it was 4 1/2 minutes.
The Potatoes: You can’t have too many, see below. Use small Yukon Gold and cook in heavily salted water with an onion, garlic and anything else that takes your fancy, until they are fork soft and let them cool in the water. You can test from time to see if you want to drain them. They come out creamy and wonderful. Definitely cook too many; they’re great leftovers or fried up. Once you drain them, cut to the size you want and toss the peices in some of the vinaigrette until they’re lightly coated.
The Tuna: Half a can or equivalent fresh, or more pre serving. I’m not a purist about the tuna. Canned is just fine, but if you can get sushi grade tuna at a reasonable price, try it. Rub with oil and maybe a little vinaigrette. Sear in a hot skillet, two minutes on a side. Since it’s going to be sliced, cut a piece. You can cook it more or less to your taste.
The best ripe tomatoes you can find
Thinly sliced radishes
Roasted red peppers
I like spring salad mix but any lettuce, cut small, will work.
You can use all or some of these things or add something else.
1/2 lemon juiced
3 tabls red wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 cloves minced garlic
pinch salt, freshly ground black pepper
Options: 2 tabls fresh chopped tarragon and/or parlsey
Add exgra-virgin olive oil a little at a time until balanced, about 1/4 cup
A hand blender is best and worth the investment just for dressings. If you’ve included anchovies in the salad, blending a couple of filets into the dressing will spread the flavor throughout salad. Like the potatoes, there’s no law you can’t make two or even three times what you need, it keeps. You’re proably having salad tomorrow.
Arranging: Certainly no rules here, from all mixed up to carefully composed. Dress lightly, maybe before adding the seared tuna and reserve a little vinagrette for the table. Just have fun, and send me photos of your creations.
And now we go home
Paris was our last stop on a three week trip. We were ready to be home and had snared last minute first class seats with discount miles on the flight home. I won’t try to tell you that flying first class isn’t great, just a little embarrassing, a privilege we somehow don’t deserve. It’s not like we paid $4,500 for these seats. If we had, we might think, hell yes, we deserve all the pampering. But we just got lucky paid a couple of hundred dollars.
When I fly economy I don’t really think of first class, especially when you don’t have to parade past them, lugging your carry-on, while they sip champagne. And in the first class cabin, with only 12 others, you can almost forget the 300 passengers packed in behind you. But in the arrival process the difference between the two is exposed to all. You jump all the queues.
At Charles de Gaulle airport, we were presented with two lines at security, one long and one very short behind a gate. To activate the gate, you scanned your boarding pass. There were two groups in front of us, trying that line. Each time, when they scanned their passes, the machine issued a loud annoying buzz, maaaa … rejected! We cautiously stepped up, scanned our passes, and a melodious ringing of bells – angel like – filled the air, the gate opened and we passed through. People in the other line, which wasn’t moving, certainly noticed. We felt only a little guilty.
Last Saturday we ate at Ensarro on Grand Avenue. Both coming and going the street was alive with people and a few new places not included below. Keep your eyes open for an update or make your own visit any weekend evening
Oakland and Berkeley contain an wonderful collection and range of good restaurants and the list grows monthly. It’s hard for visitors to find the best places from among the crowd. Most “Best of” Lists focus on handful of well, the best, coolist, hippist places in town. At least the hippist this month. But if you live here and go out frequetly, you can’t go spending $100 at every meal and many of “the best” are reserved into the future.
This post began as a restaurant guide that Susan prepared for our airbnb guests. This is the first of several posts for the Grand lake District, the area near our home, within 10 or 15 minutes walking distance. We’ve updated it and will add new places as they emerge. These are the places that we go to and love and some that have some special appeal or noterierity.
See Best Oakland Restaurats – Vol. 2 for restaurants outside our neighborhood and Best Oakland Markets for Markets, Bakeries, and other shopping.
You could go down any street where we’ve listed a restaurant and find other places, maybe as good. Sometimes the places we recommend don’t always get the best Yelp reviews. Not getting picked doesn’t mean they aren’t good, they just aren’t ours.
This post is a work in progress and we will add more detail, websites and photos in the near future.
GRAND AVENUE WEST OF 580
Sidebar – Restaurant & Bar
A ten-minute walk from the house, this restaurant is a true neighborhood gem, with a lively bar run by Jared Hirsch, the one wearing the hat, known for his great innovative cocktails and inventor of Caged Heat Cocktail Syrup.
Locals come here, sit at the bar, and have conversations, just the way we imagine a neighborhood bar, only brighter and without the Coors sign. Most times I just ask Jared to make something I would like, and I’ve never been unhappy. They serve consistently excellent comfort food that’s well-priced: Deviled eggs with bacon. Pork N’ Beans – actually a delicious pork chop – an exceptional burger and fries.
Talk about a personal connection to the bartender, my daughter met Jared at Burning Man years ago; he has new twins and even performed a Bay Area style “wedding ceremony” on the roof of the San Francisco Academy of Sciences, for Susan, me and a hundred other people! CLOSED SUNDAY. – 542 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-452-9500
Grand Lake Kitchen – Restaurant & Bar
We love to sit outside and enjoy the lake view and the neighborhood passing by at this café with fantastic food. The menu is varied with unusual twists on traditional dishes.
The egg salad, one of the world’s best mayonnaise delivery systems, is so rich and delicious you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day!
With their recent expansion, they have more capacity and a full bar. You can often walk in with little wait, especially at off hours but there are big lines on the weekend for brunch. They do take reservations on Open Table. OPEN AT 9:00 IN THE MORNING, a wee bit on the late side for weekday breakfast – 576 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610 510-922-9582
Room 389 – Neighborhood Bar & Coffeehouse
Oakland is spawning a new breed of local bars; this is one of the best, some days with live music, DJ and a trivia night. While Room 389 is mostly patronized by millennials, don’t pass it up if you are older. In our sixties, we feel quite welcome. They love it when the olds come out at night.
But that’s at night. They open a coffee bar/café at 7:30 each morning, 9:00 on weekends. Great coffee, quiet and inexpensive. No cooked food, just pastries and hot burritos, wraps, breakfast sandwiches.
Los Cantaros – Mexican
Large portions, excellent Mexican food, low prices. You order at the counter and the food is delivered to the table. Nothing fancy, but fast and good. Great place for kids. – 336 Grand Avenue (Between Perkins and Lee), Oakland, CA 94610, 510-834-4300
Oasis Kitchen – Medeterranian
A fairly new to the neighborhood family run Medeterranian restaurant. Schwarma, hummus….all good. Eat in or call in advance for take-out. This is right next door to Los Cantaros, so if your family can’t make up their mind, you can easily do take-away from both.
Enssaro – Ethiopian
Our neighborhood has a large Ethiopian community. This is one of the newest and most popular restaurants. I am not drawn to Ethiopian food, so I haven’t been there, but Susan has tried several Ethiopian restaurants and thinks this is among the best.
Perch – Coffee House
Coffee and pastry/lunch menu. A favored milllennial workplace with a kids room.
Ahn’s Burgers – Burgers
Wonderful non-chain fast food. Burgers, fries, shakes—simple and very tradi otional and ample breakfast. This isn’t one of those new gourmet burger places with volunteer beef. It’s old school and yummy. You can call ahead for take-away and they have parking. Order the huge bag of fries extra crispy. Susan’s son grew up on the block with the owner’s son, so we have a special affection for the place. Veggie burgers, too. – 439 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-763-4328
Bay Grape – Wine tasting
Kinja Sushi Bar – Japanese
Bacheeson – Middle Eastern
Grand Avenue Thai
High Peaks Kitchen
GRAND AVENUE EAST OF 580
Mijori – Japanese
We think this is the best sushi restaurant in Oakland. Nothing fancy in décor, but the fish is consistently fresh and well-prepared, and the service is excellent. Often long lines at dinner, especially on Sundays. – 3260 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-465-8854
Boot and Shoe – Restaurant & Coffee Houae
You have to hunt for this foodie recommended hip place as they hardly have a sign.(Their name reflects the past venue—a cobbler) Breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch, and dinner. Outdoor terrace. Everything is delicious, including the pastries and coffee in the morning. No reservations. Crowded and noisy, but in a good way. – 3308 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-763-2668
Penrose – Restaurant & Bar
Everyone raves over this new restaurant, the third (Pizziaola, Boot and Shoe and Penrose) of celebrated restauranteur, Charlie Hallowell.
The space is beautifully designed, the cocktails are creative and delicious, and the food is amazing. The portions are artisan style, meaning very small. – 3311 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-444-1649
La Parisienne – French Pastry and Coffee House
A small new very French Patisserie.
Delightful. I forget the french name, but do not miss the donut holes.
The Star – Pizza
Should we admit we’ve not eaten here. We don’t eat much pizza, but their SF location is very good. Pizza, deep dish and thin crust, subs, and salads in a newly renovated space. – 3425 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-843-7827
Camino – Major Foodie Venue
This extremely foodie-gourmet restaurant is controversial. Restaurant critics love it and heap stars upon it as do many patrons who flock here from all over. However, to many, including us, the very limited menu, which changes every day and the community seating are big drawbacks. – 3917 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-547-5035
Cana – Cuban Cafe Wonderful Cuban café and restaurant. Best place to sit and watch the crowds on Saturday afternoons during the Farmer’s Market.
They have live music on Saturdays and a dance party on Sunday afternoons. – 530 Lake Park Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-832-1515
Spettro – Italian Mexican Fusion
Moderately priced interesting Italina/Mexican Fusion restaurant with lots of other ethnicities represented on the menu (something for everyone). The food is completely adequate if not great. No corkage fee. Great place to bring kids. – 3355 Lakeshore Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-451-7738
Flipside – Burgers
We love this family-owned and operated bright and clean burger joint. The brothers who run it are so attentive and friendly. Once my grand daughter changed her mind after her lunch arrived, and for no charge, they brought her a new selection! They have excellent hamburgers, turkey burgers, veggie burgers, hot dogs, and a kids ‘menu—all kinds of fries and great milkshakes. I get the bunless turkey burger served on top of a salad. My granddaughter loves the Neopolitan milkshake. – 3401 Lakeshore Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-879-7195
Arizmendi – Bakery Coffee House Pizza
Another fantastic people watching spot with wonderful artisan breads, rolls, muffins, and pizza of the day. This is one of six collective bakeries in the Arizmendi Association.
The collegial atmosphere of the collective staff spreads out to the wonderfully diverse cleintelle and makes a stop there a delight.- 3265 Lakeshore, Oakland, CA 94610, 510-268-8849
Top Dog – Hot Dogs with an Attitude
Top Dog started with two locations near UC Bekelery. The owner and staff always had strong political opinions that have evolved to vague Liberterian rants. But the dogs remain first class.
Peet’s Coffee & Tea – Coffee House
Peet’s was founded on the north side of Berkeley in 1963. The original Walunt Square store is still there. Peet’s gave rise to the whole modern gourmet coffee industry. Starbucks was started by a Peet’s alumni. In the early Starbucks era, when it was sweeping the nation, there were no Starbucks in the Bay Area due to a ten year non-compete clause. Now they go toe-to-toe and Peet’s does just fine.
So there it is. An amazing collections of places to eat withing walking distance of our home. And I could make a similar list for many neighborhoods throughout Oakland and Berkeley. But I won’t, see Best Oakland Restaurants – Vol 2. The Rest, for highlights of special places more far afield.
In our Sahara Desert tent, we rose early, with a full moon, before sunrise.
As the early light in the east grew, Abdul brought coffee and we sat outside, enjoying our beverage. After a while, we walked barefoot through the cool sand, up the nearby dune, shadowed by the little black and white cat that had adopted us and slept at the foot of our bed.
Our guide, Rashid, knew every detail of the desert in his heart– that the quality of the sand in the morning was different than in the afternoon. We stood for a long time in the windless quiet, with dunes rolling in all directions, as the light filled the overcast sky. We sensed Rashid’s kinship with this moment and all the other transporting moments in the desert. He was off, out of sight, for his morning prayer.
We don’t normally take tours, but since we knew nothing about Morocco and had limited time, we booked a two-day private tour to the Sahara Desert with Top Desert Tours
We were to be picked up at our riad in Marrakesh at 7:30 am, going to the Sahara Desert to stay at the Erg Chigaga Luxury Camp. We signed up to ride on camels, and we thought that the desert was three hours away. That’s what we thought knew. As planned, we stepped out of the front door of our hotel and there, in the morning sun, was a man who we came to know as Rashid. Tall, in a bright blue robe and black turban. There was no car or van in sight. He took our bags and we docilely followed this stranger through the quiet early morning streets of the Kasbah, like ducklings, off into the unknown.
He later explained that he is a Blue Man of the Sahara Desert, the Erg Chegaga. Once there, his garb seemed natural and perfectly functional, but in Marrakesh, it appeared to be a costume.
We rounded the corner and found a new Toyota Land Cruiser and another Blue Man, Brahim, our driver. Our bags were stowed and we climbed into the back seat where we found water and cookies. Rashid rode shotgun and off we went through the winding passages of the Kasbah and out on the highway.
Our three-hour tour turned out to be a 10-hour 450 km odyssey across Morocco, almost to the Algerian border, over the High Atlas Mountains, the Mid-Atlas Mountains, through countless towns and remote villages, over dry rivers, on good roads and hardly roads, and finally, off-road, into the desert.
The terrain changed and changed again from parched mountains to rocky plains and finally to endless sand dunes, barren and waterless.
During the entire trip, between quite moments of alternately looking out the window and napping, we enjoyed conversation with Rashid and Brahim. We asked about what we were seeing, about Morocco, about their life and family. It was a two-day education both touristic and personal. The position of women in Islam, drinking, polygamy—-we felt it right to be attentive listeners, not antagonistic promoters of our own story, and so, Rashid opened to us.
He was born to a Bedouin nomad family in the desert.
He is the oldest son. When he was 8, the family settled in the small town of Mhamid on the edge of the desert, ending a perhaps centuries long nomadic lineage. Brahim lives in Mhamid with his wife and several children. This team are on the road five or six days a week.
Rashid had encyclopedic knowledge of everything around us. He never said, “I don’t know,” and while we had no idea if his answers were at all true or correct, he was convincingly confident in his delivery.
We were driving in the middle of the trackless desert with men who were born nomads in the Sahara, yet, as if we were driving on the streets of Oakland, both were constantly talking on their phones, with no hands free I might add. And Rashid had an amazing musical play list on his phone, with which serenaded he us during the whole trip, including an early morning Bob Marley set.
Driving through the dunes is like piloting a small boat. The wheels spin, propelling the 4×4 forward, drifting through the turns. Brahim was an expert, weaving through the dunes on a track, hardly discernable. We ask if they ever got lost. They both immediately scoffed, “NEVER! Perhaps the mountain guides who come here do, but never us.” A brisk wind came up with blowing sand, sometimes reducing visibility to less than 30 feet. As we neared our camp, out of the sand gloom, appeared two kneeling camels and a Berber nomad seated nearby.
As promised, our camel trek. Not a trek so much as a 90-minute journey through the dunes. Rashid accompanied us, sometimes talking with the Berber, sometimes walking off at a distance on the dunes, clearly in his element.
We feared that the camel ride would be unsatisfying and tacky, like a pony ride at a carnival, but this was a magical journey in the blowing sand, the easy rocking of our mounts and the dying light of the day. The dunes were endless with the wind whipping plumes of sand off the peaks and ridges. We were filled with wonder that we had only just put our toes in the beginnning of this desert, which rolls on like this for a thousand miles.
The luxury desert camp
Finally, arriving at the camp, we were greeted by our host Abdul. There was one larger tent for dining and a group of a dozen smaller tents in a big circle, the luxury accommodation.
Our tent had a king bed, nice linens and decorations and the floor was covered with large carpets. It even had indoor plumbing, though the water was brackish, almost salty.
Everybody will tell you that you can’t get wine in the desert in a Muslim country, but our resourceful man of the desert came through and we found ourselves sitting outside our tent with a glass of wine continuing our day’s conversation with Rashid and Brahim until dinner.
Usually there are 30 or 40 people in the camp with events and big meals, but we discovered that we were, by coincidence, the only visitors in the entire camp that night, cared for like pashas. It was profoundly quiet and we wandered around the camp in the quiet full moon light, dining alone in the big tent.
After our sunrise walk, we had a big breakfast at an outdoor able for two.
Then, off across the dunes on a 12-hour drive back to Marrakesh. We had been driving and talking for about an hour after leaving camp, first in the dunes and then across rocky desert. We had seen nothing but signs of a few other desert camps. Then a building, then a few and we emerged into the village of Mhamid.
The oasis at Mhamid has been settled since 3,000 BCE, but it’s early adobe buildings are in decay and with the encroaching desert the population has declined, now mostly a jumping off point for tourists. We stopped at a café and Rashid greeted each man on the terrace with different levels of familiarity. Clearly he knew everybody. They were probably all desert guides. There were no other women except Susan and she felt the sting of hostile male looks, and the complexity of cultural relativity. Brahim left to visit his family. On his return we headed out but were called back. Brahim had forgotten to give something to his 14-year old son. So we retraced our steps and met his son in the street. After getting the package from his father, he turned away, but Brahim insisted that he return and greet Rashid and then both of us. Salam Alaikum.
We saw many more villages and towns of all shapes and sizes on the trip back.
We ate lunch at a hotel in Quarzazati, the first time we had been around any other tourists in two days. Then back to Marrakesh, over the mountains again, driving into the sunset.
The tour through Morocco and especially the desert was wonderful, but what we really took away from the trip was the chance to get to know these two men from backgrounds so different than ours.
We exchanged personal emails and invited them to stay with us if they ever landed on California. As we were parting, Brahim said, “Next time you will come and meet my family.” We knew we had made friends.