San Francisco’s Top of the Mark is now celebrating its reopening with new tasting experiences. The iconic 19th-floor penthouse lounge atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel has added a new “Vodka Expressions” curated tasting menu. New too is the Friday evening live DJ music session from 4:30 to 9:30 PM. What hasn’t changed are the 360-degree views of the San Francisco skyline seen from every window. Returning patrons and new guests can still unwind in the elegant ambiance of the 19th-floor penthouse lounge.
Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
First opened in 1939 and open for 80 years, this iconic San Francisco landmark was closed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a comfort zone for servicemen and women shipping out to the Pacific in World War II, also the Vietnam and Korean wars. As my wife and I recently discovered, the venerable Top of the Mark is reopened with a new generation of comforts. Positioned at the very top of downtown San Francisco’s highest hill (Nob Hill), the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel, affectionately known as the Top of the Mark, has given patrons dominant views of San Francisco since its opening. The newly reopened Top of the Mark offers post-pandemic comforts including live music with dancing on Friday nights, light appetizers and, signature cocktails. To support and nurture local businesses, the menu now includes cocktails prepared with Hanson organic wine-Vodka from Sonoma, which is paired with Kollar specialty chocolates from Napa.
I whirled around the skating rink in Yosemite National Park, under a full moon illuminating Half Dome. As fingers and toes stiffened with cold, I’d stop to thaw out by the fire pit, pinching myself to make sure it was real — that the sheer granite face of this monolith bathed in silvery light was more than just a lofty figment of my imagination.
Towering three-hundred feet above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean, one of California’s most faithfully restored ghost towns occupies prime ocean-view real estate just 25 miles south of Monterey. Inhabited by chickens, a cow, and families with children until less than 50 years ago, the deserted barn, houses, and workshops of Point Sur Lightstation cling to the edge of a great, volcanic rock with spectacular views of the Big Sur coast and marble-tipped peaks of the Ventana Wilderness. Aficionados of the paranormal claim it as one of the most haunted lighthouses in the country.
At 9,200’ with a view of Pikes Peak, the inspiration for “America the Beautiful,” I got chills on a warm summer evening. From the patio atop Cheyenne Mountain, everything looked majestic and far away, even nearby Colorado Springs. “I can almost see California” joked my husband, Mr. G., referring to our home near San Francisco. With a possible local break in the theCovid-19 pandemic, (despite calls for avoiding indoor crowds, social distancing, wearing masks and staying close to home), we chose to risk a safe Western outdoor adventure at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs.
Beach Range, Engineer Canyon, Machine Gun Flats: These are not typical landscape features you’d expect to find on maps of a California “coastal gem” and “hiker’s paradise.” Their roles in decades of service under military ownership are now largely forgotten, replaced by the delights of wildflowers, bird calls and jingling mountain-bike bells. Explosions, gunfire and the mayhem of army maneuvers no longer echo across the rugged back-country and ocean-front dunes of Fort Ord National Monument, set between Salinas and Monterey in the heart of Steinbeck Country.
San Francisco’s gorgeous gal, Golden Gate Park celebrates her 150th birthday in April. Like many in the Bay Area, I have an intimate relationship with the park, roaming her hidden trails, sniffing and whiffing her medicinal treasures, gazing across the Moon Garden flanked by seasonal fuchsia-flecked camellia blooms and powdery pink cherry trees, each rosy and ripe in the spring, naked and lonely in the winter. Indifferent to the seasons, I never miss a chance to sprint across one of the Botanical Garden’s vast apple green lawns only to be surprised that one abuts massive grandfather redwoods, the entrance to the Redwood Forest, and home to some of the oldest trees in the park. But I digress, have gotten ahead of time, and must take you back 150 years ago to the inception of Golden Gate Park.
My first visit to Chicago years ago was spent in crowded meeting rooms representing my company at an IT conference. In my current role as a food, drink and travel writer, I’ve been hungry to return. This summer, with a group of friends, I explored the city for a few days from high up and on the river and fell in love. At every destination, I was enchanted by the beauty and energy of the city. Along the way, Chicago gave me a generous taste of its heritage, its amazing attractions and most of all, its lively food and beverage scene.
Living in, or visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, we are blessed with the boundless beauties of nature. Water, landscapes and terrain create splendid views on a daily basis. Seasonal changes bring puffy white clouds in winter to foggy mists in summer. Whatever the season, Marin Headlands at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge brings breath stopping vistas, good cardio-hikes and most of all, a complete escape from everyday concerns. Early morning or late afternoon before sunset, the land is still. It’s a place of constant change, of solace and stimulation, at once an escape from reality and an immersion into wonder.
On an island in a shallow lagoon, Venice came to dominance by sea power and now the power of the sea is threatening its very existence. My wife and I arrived in Venice two weeks before the catastrophic Acqua Alta (high water) tides that submerged Saint Mark’s square under more than five feet of water. The rushing sea wrought havoc with local merchants, restaurateurs and hostlers and damaged priceless works of art in Saint Mark’s Basilica. Vladmiro Cavagnis, a fourth generation gondolier, said: “It’s a city full of history. A history that, little by little, with water, will end up like Atlantis. People are destroyed, anguished, sad. They see a city that is disappearing.” (Alex Horton, Andrew Freedman – The Washington Post – November 15, 2019). The November 2019 flood was the worst in the 700 years of recorded history at Saint Marks Basilica. Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, described the disaster as: “..a blow to the art of our country. While it’s still too early to quantify the extent of its havoc, chances are it will leave indelible marks.” (Marianna Cerini, CNN – November 16, 2019 ).
Escape to Kauai for Valentine’s Day, to an island where love reigns supreme. Caressed by warm tropical breezes, idyllic beaches, majestic canyons and cliffs and most of all, an incredibly warm Aloha spirit, Kauai embraces lovers like no other isle. One of my favorite Hawaiian myths tells us when Mother Nature swept over the Pacific Ocean in a burst of hormonal ecstasy more than 500 million years ago, she created that green pearl of love called Kauai and made it into a paradise for lovers. The island is small enough to explore over a long weekend while still leaving space for coveted cuddle time.
Athens has long been a favorite of my wife and I, especially since it was our first international trip together as a couple. Somehow every time we land in Greece, Athens is only a stopover on our way to somewhere else. But why love Athens? For us, Athens is full of lovely historic sites, wonderful ethnic foods, good local wines and great cultural diversity.
John le Carré dismissed Cold War spy heroes as “A squalid procession of vain fools” in his 1963 espionage novel The Spy Who Came from the Cold. Volunteer historian Carol O’Neil at the former U.S. Naval Facility on Point Sur State Historic Park, 25-miles south of Monterey, would beg to differ. “We had heroes in the Cold War,” O’Neil insisted in a recent interview on KAZU, public radio for the Monterey Bay area. “It’s important for the cold warriors to know that they are valued and their stories are out there.” Eager to hear their stories, I joined a line of vehicles awaiting access to this former top-secret naval operation. Jim, a state park volunteer in a bright yellow safety vest bearing an embroidered NAVFAC logo patch, unlocked the security gate. An intimidating “U.S. Property No Trespassing” sign discourages intruders, now called Point Sur Naval Facility. After warnings of the dangers of ticks, rattlesnakes, and crumbling asbestos-laden structures, he directed us to the administration center. Here we joined a dozen so other visitors curious to learn the secrets hidden in this former submarine detection facility.
Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
Summer has turned to fall, and a long New York sojourn has ended, but I’m still in a New York State of Mind. Can’t even stop the words to “I’ll Take Manhattan …” from looping through my brain. New York is more than just a soundtrack, yet the city inspires a musical memory as powerful as a visual one. Hey, it may be heady, artsy, vibrant, a financial, political and cultural powerhouse, and endlessly interesting, but at heart, the Big Apple is just one big sensuous city.
Our kayak slid effortlessly over the glassy-smooth water of the estuary. From the shore, an eruption of sanderlings burst into the sky. Swooping and diving in choreographed formation, a wheeling blur of birds enveloped us in a blizzard of beating white wings. Within seconds, they returned to the pickleweed marsh, cheeping and feeding as if nothing had happened. For us, this spectacular avian welcome to two days of watching wildlife on Morro Bay was a memory we will treasure.
Personal digital devices and online social platforms are enabling a new kind of Silicon Valley tourism. Previously only of interest to heads of state hoping to replicate the economic miracle back home, business people pursuing a deal, and a trickle of history buffs exploring where it all began, today the high-tech mecca is increasingly crowded with denizens of the always-connected world. Selfie-stick wielding pilgrims hustle to score swag and Instagram winning moments at the temples of Apple, Facebook, Google, and more. Silicon Valley high tech tourism abounds.
Sipping a sunset cocktail at Cityscape, from its sleek perch on the 46th floor of Hilton San Francisco Union Square is an unparalleled celebratory high, an affordable way to access a priceless 360 degree panorama of this legendary city by the bay. For me, it was the scenically orchestrated opening to my San Francisco Staycation, and as I looked through the evening’s rose gold hues toward the East Bay hills of my home, I felt far away and free of cares!
“Hurry up and drop your bags. We’ve been waiting for you”, urged Jersey Tom from the door of a white van. Thinking we were on time, but observing a full van, my wife and I quickly dropped our bags in the lobby of The Applewood Inn and rushed to take our seats. After our leisurely drive from San Francisco to Guerneville neither of us expected to be late for our Russian River rendezvous with friends, wine, river, trails, kayaks, art, cuisine and more wine. Positioned in the Sonoma Coast AVA, the Pinot Noir grown, crushed, fermented and aged (French Oak) in the Russian River Valley has its very own unique award winning features that are well known to judges and connoisseurs alike, (the Chardonnay is also star quality). We had a long weekend ahead of us with plans to enjoy it to the max. AND, Yes! The Russian River, survivor of fires and floods, is fully open for business, with the river inner tube rafting just starting. Lucky for us, it is not too busy yet.
Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
I pulled my jacket close against the chill stirring of an early breeze. A heavy silence enveloped the world in the final darkest minutes before dawn. To the east, a gray sliver of pending morning peeked from beneath a band of straggling clouds to silhouette the rugged crest of the Temblor Range. Planning a day exploring the Carrizo Plain, I had risen early to drive 200 miles from my home in Pacific Grove to watch the sunrise and a promised floral Carrizo Plain Gold super bloom from this elevated spot at the northern entrance to the National Monument that has been called “California’s Serengeti.”
Location. Location. Location. The real estate promoter’s mantra applies equally to the magicians of the silver screen. Many Hollywood faces long faded from public consciousness appeared in dramas that continue to resonate today because of their memorable scenic settings. Monterey County has been a favorite of movie directors for the variety and accessibility of its scenery since Edison’s cameraman shot Surf at Monterey in 1897. Pounding surf, brooding forest, rugged wilderness, and verdant valleys have featured in hundreds of movies and countless TV shows and commercials. It has also doubled for the coasts of New England, old England, France, Norway, Russia and beyond. Being a dedicated film buff, I grabbed a front row seat, sans popcorm. for a matinee showing of Monterey Peninsula, a movie star for the ages.
Like a beacon of good will that is anchored in the history of a bygone era, the Flamingo Hotel Spa and Conference Center, located in Santa Rosa, California, has been welcoming guests since 1957. Two years after it opened, word sifted south to Hollywood and “those in the know” traveled north to stay in the famed hotel. Today this historic landmark has retained old-world charm with 21st Century modernity. Located in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, travelers, families, weekend escapees and conferences attendees mingle over breakfast, swim in the enormous outdoor L-shaped pool, lounge in the garden Jacuzzi, or treat themselves to spa, tennis or dining – literally from the pool to the table. As I relaxed outside under a dreamy spacious sky, surrounded by sycamore and cedar trees, a sense of well-being and contentment sifted over me.
With more Mexican-era adobe buildings preserved and restored in downtown Monterey than anywhere else in the state, the city is proud of its heritage as the early capital of California. In late 2018, I revisited two public projects that have been recently updated and enhanced to present in novel and interesting ways the dramatic events that have shaped the history of the city.
Photos by John Williamson & Lee Daley.
We are blessed in the San Francisco Bay Area with the stunningly beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore, a mere hour drive from most locales. The atmospheric community of Point Reyes Station, described below, should be your first stop. It’s ground zero for everything you’ll need to make your getaway a true escape.
Story and photos by David Laws. “There was always something to do in Salinas. For pure culture we had The World of Art, with slides in a big tent with wooden benches” but, as Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck quipped in a 1955 memoir of his hometown, “the town preferred to hear Joe Conner sing Irish songs.” (Always 59)
Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin
We, who live in the Bay Area, have a tendency to boast about our place on the planet. You know the hype: great chefs, culinary creativity, culture galore, three recycling bins, green bike lanes, entitlement…need I continue? To escape all this glamour, I’m constantly scouting for a weekend escape to settle myself, simplify my senses, get away from it all. Alas, Upper Lake County, cloaked in natural splendor and grace with just enough elegance rubbing elbows with salt of the earth people, is that place.
The catchy logo of Mendocino County, “Find Your Happy,” was on display at the recent Taste of Mendocino held at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. With vintners, fresh press olive oils, craft whiskey, goat cheeses, gourmet appetizers, coffee and luxurious resorts all competing for my attention, I soon found myself feeling quite happy. The venue provided a good opportunity to review some fine Mendocino County wines and upcoming events. In the interest of sharing the Mendocino “Happy” vibe, what follows is a list of some Taste of Mendocino participants (with links), along with wine tasting destinations and a short calendar of upcoming events in Mendocino County. Hopefully, with the following tips, you too will “Find your Happy in Mendocino County.”
Sonoma County is known for its excellent Chardonnay wines and those produced at Sonoma Cutrer Winery are no exception. Tucked away on a lush hillside in Windsor, Sonoma Cutrer may be one of the few places in Sonoma where you can play croquet and indulge in a picnic on beautifully manicured tree-shaded grounds all in the same day
Napa Valley’s Carneros AVA adds another winery to its map with the opening of Liana Estates. The winery fulfils a long cherished dream of its founders, Lisa and Ariana Peju of the Peju Province Winery family. Liana Estates is an experience-focused winery providing visitors with immersive experiences that embrace each of the five senses. The focus will be on offering an ever-changing selection of high-quality wines and bubbly while connecting visitors to the breathtaking scenery of Napa Valley and San Pablo Bay. This fall, several immersive experiences will include wellness activities like yoga, culinary classes and chef-centric vineyard dinners paired with wine selections. While these experiences are growing in popularity in Wine Country, Liana is eager to offer guests unique all-inclusive experiences that both stimulate and soothe the senses.
“It’s in his kiss, that’s where it is.” Yes, indeed, that zingy sensation causing our hearts to turn somersaults is in a kiss. And if you’re lucky enough to be in San Francisco for Valentine’s Day, the romantic city where Tony Bennett left his heart, here’s eight of the best places to kiss.
“You’re moving where? – Willits – where’s that?,” my museum guide, Dirk, told me his personal story as he shuffled me around the County Museum and Roots of Motive Power exhibits and gave me a thumbnail history. It seems Dirk’s friends in Santa Rosa didn’t understand his decision to up and move to Willits more than 25 years ago, nor did they, or I, really appreciate what that quiet, friendly little Mendocino County town has to offer. I learned from Dirk that Willits, in the early 1900s, was a whistle stop on the Northwestern Pacific railroad line. The trains started with a railroad ferry from the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco and steamed north to Sausalito to join with rails that ended hundreds of miles away in the booming lumber town of Eureka.
A memorable few years ago my wife and I visited the Greek islands of Santorini and Paros. There we encountered some unique and equally memorable ancient varieties of Greek wines.
When I think of the perfect Maine getaway, Ogunquit immediately comes to mind. It’s all there, breathtaking Maine beauty, surf, sand, rocky coast line and a small artistic village. A destination worth flying to from anywhere in the US and an idyllic day trip from the Boston area, locals often refer to the village of Ogunquit and its beach as a beautiful place by the sea. For good reason. Living there, they appreciate how well the coastal salt air of the Atlantic gently cools the summer sunshine as it brings relief from inland heat waves.