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.
Birdwatchers look at birds. Birders look for them” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdwatching, feeding and enjoying birds in our backyards, has long been a popular national pastime. As we seek safe, socially-distanced pastimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the recreational sport of actively searching for them, called birding, is enjoying the fastest growth of any leisure activity in the world. Rock star birding in Big Sur and the inland mountain ranges of Central California offers many opportunities to see eagles, harriers, hawks and especially condors, as they continue to build nests, mate, and rear their young with a freedom that envious humans no longer enjoy.
Monterey, California, planned a big celebration today, June 3, 2020, of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1770. Sadly, all birthday events, from historical reenactments to block parties and patriotic parades, have been canceled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, other-worldly masked figures haunt the streets of Old Monterey and the venerable adobes are silent and shuttered. We cannot visit them in person, so I invite you to join me on a virtual tour of some of my favorite spots.
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.
I was standing in a circle of 16 kayakers on Schoonmaker Beach in Sausalito at 6:30pm on a Sunday night in March.
A full cantaloupe-colored moon peered out from behind the masts of sailboats. It was so large and low in the sky that it looked like it was surrealistically painted on a backdrop. Clad in life jackets and holding our paddles, we each introduced ourselves and shared with the group why we were there – more specifically, why we had each signed on to this full-moon paddle on Richardson Bay with Sea Trek.
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.
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.
In an earlier article, “Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag,” I reported a lighthearted survey of tech-related tourist magnets in deepest Nerdistan. This second article responds to requests for more information on the places where engineers and scientists finally accomplished the feat that eluded alchemists for centuries – how to turn sand (silicon) into gold (computer chips). The following itinerary covers a distance of about 30 miles from Stanford University to the former IBM disk-drive campus in south San Jose. With a stop to ponder the implications of events that took place at each site and a break at the Computer History Museum, where many related artifacts are on display, this trip can occupy a full day.
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.
(Review By Carol Canter) “Curtains up, light the lights, you got nothing to hit but the heights!” Well, everything did come up roses opening night for Bay Area Musicals’ fabulous production of Gypsy, which director and choreographer Mathew McCoy calls “the ultimate showbiz fable.” And that it is — a fable bursting with all the glitz and glitter, hilarious humor and heart-wrenching pathos of the ultimate show biz mother, Rose Hovick, as she pushes her two daughters — hard, very hard — to live out her own dreams. This 1959 fable of the last days of vaudeville is based loosely on the 1957 memoirs of Louise, the overlooked daughter who seizes the spotlight as Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist.
(Review by Lee Daley) Coming out of the Alcazar Theater after the performance, the lyrics and musical score of GYPSY resonated repeatedly in my head. It was a heady performance. Drama, humor, anguish and victory all play their part in this roller-coaster ride through the metamorphosis of meek little Louise’s transformation into the legendary striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical score with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim brings the performances alive as the characters, especially Rose, embody the lyrics. The play is based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee and focuses largely on her mother, Rose, the embodiment, of the “ultimate stage mother.” Because much of the plot rests on the central casting of Mama Rose, each actress who has taken on the challenge has brought something very different to the show.
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.”
If you feel nostalgic for those psychedelic lightshow/rock concerts of the 1960s, Selfieville a new attraction in downtown Monterey offers a chance to relive your youth. But this time in a family friendly setting without those funny smelling cigarettes! If you’re not old enough to know what I am talking about, imagine a journey through a fantasy world created with a phalanx of high-tech 3D projectors that transform a theater’s static walls into a magical experience.
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.
French painter and Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin, cultivated and inhabited two images, one a sensitive artist, the other a self-imposed outcast, and in Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey, currently on exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, (November 17, 2018-April 7, 2019) the viewer experiences Gauguin’s spiritual journey through both his paintings and sculptures. The exhibit, which includes paintings, wood carvings and ceramics are from the renowned Ny Glypotek collection in Copenhagen.
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.
By John Sundsmo.
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.”
Story by Lee Daley with Photos by John Sundsmo and Lee Daley
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.
Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin
“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.
Story and Photos by John Sundsmo
“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.
Story and Photos by John Sundsmo
Symbolic of new beginnings and new life, wild flowers are just beginning to be seen in the deserts of California. While experts don’t expect another super-bloom like 2016, the heavy winter rains will undoubtedly bring abundance of color late into April. No place is more emblematic of life resurrected than Death Valley where blooms are already showing in the southern regions of the national park. To dodge the wild flower traffic, my wife and I visited the park in December and collected some tips.
It’s early morning and I have spent the last 10 minutes admiring the light and shadows on a small brave bush somewhere alongside the road to Furnace Creek in Death Valley, a place my husband and I have come to de-stress and transition into the new year. This is a mystical place that has long inspired artists and awe. Driving through the valley’s lunar landscape, we find ourselves slowly banishing thoughts of schedules, appointments and deadlines. What seemed like an impending crisis back home now feels like a ridiculously insignificant issue in the grandness of this other-worldly moonscape. “Oh goody,” I say, as I send one more of these annoyances out into the universe.
Story and Photos by John Sundsmo
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.
Story and Photos by Lee Daley