Sonoma makes it easy to forget where you are, and that’s not just some side effect from all the wine drinking. The vineyards, the sunshine, and the verdant country lanes conspire to make you believe you’re in Tuscany or some bewitching corner of France. After a lovely long lunch featuring Sonoma County’s best ingredients prepared with a bistro flair, The Girl & the Fig restaurant just off Sonoma’s central plaza will definitely make you think you’re living la vie en rose.
The restaurant’s sun-drenched patio is a great place to dine for a few hours, although my husband and I often prefer the bar; you can learn a lot from the masters who mix there. The Girl & the Fig has an array of French apéritifs, from Ricard to the more exotic Figoun (an unusual, tasty fig liqueur that makes for an interesting take on a kir royale when mixed with champagne).
Having grown up under the Midwestern Tyranny of Iceberg before agribusinesses started doing crazy things to ship decent lettuce hither and yon, I was once not a fan of salad. Living in California and eating at the Girl & the Fig profoundly changed my view, however. You can do no better than the produce grown in or near Sonoma County, which the Girl & the Fig proudly features.
That’s why the restaurant’s “salad of the season” is always worth a try. My favorite was one I once had in summer: a few different varieties of mixed greens+ shards of zesty radishes + matchsticks of sweet carrots + freshly made garlicky croutons + housemade carrot vinaigrette = heaven. (My picture above doesn’t do that salad justice, but I love the colors.)
If you happen to visit the restaurant when radishes abound, be sure to give them a try. You’ve never tasted how good a radish can truly be until you’ve had one of the heirloom radishes at The Girl & the Fig. With a little bit of cool butter and a dash of grey salt for dipping, fresh radishes make a refreshing, yummy appetizer.
Though it seems remiss to zero in on veggies at a restaurant that has excellent mussels, scrumptious duck confit, a to-die-for gourmet cheeseburger, and some of the world’s best crème brûlée, it’s the care for Sonoma’s simpler bounties that always makes me curious to come back and explore how the menu has changed with the seasons. And it’s always so good, I have even been prompted to dream of Sonoma when in France.
Having grown up in Chicagoland, I’m a bit of a fiend for deep dish. On tasting this savory goodness, a visiting English friend found Chicago deep dish to be more like a “heavy, Italian-flavored fondue in a cornmeal crust.” Mmm. What’s not to love about a garlicky tomato and cheese fondue in a pie?
As a deep dish purist, I can attest to it being nearly impossible to find a good deep dish outside of Chicago. (My dad swears it’s some alchemy involving the lake water and perfect crusts.) That was, of course, until I followed the neon finger to Golden Boy, a wonderful divey pizza joint in San Francisco’s North Beach.
While not technically a true deep dish in the Chicago sense of the term, Golden Boy’s thick crust is golden on the outside and chewy on the inside, with a pleasantly tangy tomato sauce and my approved sauce to cheese ratio. (Full disclosure: I prefer a saucier slice than a cheesy one.) The crust holds up well to a variety of toppings: the pepperoni slice is a personal favorite, but I’ve never been unhappy with the sausage, veggie, or even the seafood slice at Golden Boy.
The square slices are only a few bucks. Whole rectangles aren’t that pricey either. And there’s a fine selection of craft beers on tap to accompany your multiple slices. (You will definitely have more than one. Save room!)
Follow the finger to Golden Boy, 542 Green Street (just off Jasper in North Beach)
My husband and I had watched “Lost” for all 5 seasons, and then, for the last, the one that answered all the questions, we took off on a trip around the world. (Fortunately, the quest for real doing still trumps the pleasure of good viewing.)
As we traveled in a few spots across the Pacific, more than a few locations reminded us of the gorgeous, paradise-with-secrets landscapes common to “Lost.” If you’re already missing it after the finale, and seek to enhance a real escape with memories of your more virtual pleasures, here are a few places where you may be able to convince yourself that the Smoke Monster lurks just around the next palm tree.
1) The Island: Fitzroy, Great Barrier Reef, Australia The Great Barrier Reef is one of nature’s most amazing productions. With countless atolls and islands stretching along the reef, it’s easy to play castaway for one day or several. Fitzroy Island has just the right “Lost” ambiance: abundant natural beauty with a sprinkling of spooky abandoned buildings, some reminiscent of the Others’ compound.
After a gorgeous 45-minute trip from Cairns in Far North Queensland via Fitzroy Ferries, you land at the boat dock, at the foot of a nearly finished yet vacant luxury hotel. (The hotel project was begun a few years ago, and is always rumored to open soon, but the economy seems to create constant setbacks for that launch schedule. Whenever it opens, it will be an amazing place to stay.)
Once on the island, you’re free to spend the day as you like–lazing on the beach, hiking trails that criss-cross the wooded island (a national park), and/or spending time underwater snorkeling in the island’s clear waters. We decided to embark on the guided sea kayaking and snorkeling adventure for the morning, which took us on a nicely-paced kayak trip to a clear, shallow lagoon off Little Fitzroy Island for a snorkeling break where we saw some exceptional soft corals. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and good-humored, even when temporary possession by the Smoke Monster caused me to crush his thumb with my kayak paddle.
After our kayak trip, for the afternoon, we left the group to hike alone to the lush jungle of the “Secret Garden” and down to the postcard-perfect Nudey Beach, where we ate our picnic lunch and snorkeled some more. (NB: There are no supplies or stores on the island, so bring your own water. If you don’t pre-order a picnic lunch from the Fitzroy Ferry folks, bring your own food. There are no Dharma stockpiles on the island.) We saw no one for hours, until a group of seemingly friendly people disembarked from a small motorboat on to Nudey Beach. Friend or foe? Could they be the Others?
Scuttling back up the heavy stone steps on the trail, the Fitzroy Ferry that would take us back to Cairns was a welcome sight. We had time for a bit more snorkeling, and hopped in the beach just off the dock. Some lovely sand-colored stingrays floated along the white sandy ocean bottom, delicate and sinuous like apparitions in a dream.
You can get more info about the Fitzroy excursions and/or other Cairns activities offered by the outfitters who run Fitzroy ferries at: http://www.ragingthunder.com.au/
2. The Looking Glass: Quicksilver Platform, Outer Great Barrier Reef, Australia When Charlie died in the watery lair of the undersea platform, it was one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series of “Lost.” If you’re making a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Great Barrier Reef, you don’t want the most memorable part of your trip to be seasickness.
When we were in Australia in March, a storm’s approach made for rough seas, so we took the advice of numerous travel experts in the area and tried the Quicksilver company’s trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef. With a big boat and a secure platform from which to snorkel, Quicksilver’s the best way to experience the reef when the water’s a bit rough and your travel companions want to avoid the ghastly experience of throwing up for hours with others who are throwing up for hours on a boat.
Though waves were quite high the day we went, the snorkel area had convenient ropes and floating rest stops, making it easy to stay in the water and enjoy the wildlife. Some colorful giant clams were a highlight. We also sighted more large-sized fish than at other reef locations (due to some strategic feedings and the proximity of the open ocean).
After a buffet lunch, before getting back into the water, we ventured down to a viewing area, designed for those who might not be able to enjoy the reef first-hand. Gazing at the aquatic life through the thick plexiglass, fish looking at me as if I were the object of interest, a human face suddenly pressed into the glass. Desmond? Charlie? No. Just a happy snorkeler.
More info on Quicksilver’s version of the Looking Glass (with the hope that it ends better for you than it did for Charlie) is found at http://www.quicksilver-cruises.com
3. The Ancient Civilizations: Maori Carvings, Lake Taupo, New Zealand Elements of ancient cultures frequently popped into the familiar, modern world on “Lost,” jarring your understanding of where or when the story was taking place.
When visiting Lake Taupo, on New Zealand’s North Island, you will find all the signs of our post-industrial civilization– a lakeside roadway, modern power boats, fabulous homes, even a driving range right on the lake. However, unlike lakes in many other parts of the world, there’s no over-crowding. It’s very easy to feel solitary on this massive, blue, stream-fed lake.
Cruising around Lake Taupo, after we fished for some trout, we came upon magestic, 10-meter-high Maori carvings. Though the carvings look as if they had always been there, master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell created this monumental work in the 1970s. The carvings are a tribute to Ngatoroirangi, the legendary navigator who guided the first tribes to New Zealand over a millennia ago.
These beautiful carvings remind that you are a guest of the cultural descendents of the great Polynesians, one of the world’s most fascinating and epic civilizations. Resourceful survivors, the earliest Polynesians settled the vast Pacific on the smallest of boats with the most meager of rations, an extraordinary accomplishment in an age when the rest of the world’s seafarers were merely playing it safe and sailing along the various continents’ coasts.
Ancient survival lessons you could still learn from today. Particularly if you are ever stuck on the Island.
You can practice your fishing and get awestruck by the Maori carvings when you explore Lake Taupo on the White Striker. Our guide, Dan, showed us the carvings, taught us a lot about the whole Taupo area, and hooked us up with some fine trout when others were leaving empty-handed. The Maori carvings and Lake Taupo’s majesty mean you will never leave truly empty-handed, however.
To learn more about experiencing Lake Taupo with Dan, check out: http://www.troutcatching.com (Note for non-fishermen: many other boat operators do tours of Lake Taupo leaving from Taupo’s marina so you can see the carvings without casting a line.)
4. Abandoned Dharma Initiative Station: Sweeney Ridge, San Bruno/Pacifica, California There’s something exciting and slightly hair-raising about discovering abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere. If the buildings have some whiff of military about them, all the better. Indeed, one of the most intriguing things about “Lost” was the initial discovery of the Dharma Project’s endless hatches and complexes.
About 25 minutes south of San Francisco lies Sweeney Ridge, where you can take a moderately strenuous hike to the top of a crest where the great explorer, Portola, discovered San Francisco Bay. (There’s even a plaque here to commemorate the occasion.) With sweeping wildflower-strewn views of the Bay and the Pacific, it’s a very lovely and rare vantage point of the Bay Area.
Walking along the crest, after enjoying the natural beauty of the spot, we were surprised to find a block-shaped, whitish building, whose excessively bland, non-descript style could only have been made by the military in the 1960s or 1970s.
Adding to the spook factor: it appears the occupants left in a hurry. Wires hang down from the ceiling where light fixtures were ripped off. Hinges strain from the stress of having doors yanked off.
As we peeked around, it occured to us that, perhaps, we should not be walking around this place. It could be dangerous. Since the entire Bay Area coast was fringed with Nike missiles not too long ago, we assumed this institutional ruin was somehow related to that.
Then, we remembered Dharma, the bomb, and all the “Lost” craziness. And then, truly spooked, we hightailed it back to our conveyance away from the beautiful yet potentially atomic spot where we had just hiked for hours.
5. The Banyan Tree: Kawela Bay, Oahu’s North Shore Soon, the state of Hawaii’s motto will be “Where ‘Lost’ was filmed.” Indeed, the series was rather notoriously filmed there, so seeing elements of “Lost” in Hawaii is akin to saying the Empire State Building reminds you of King Kong.
However, if you’re a “Lost” fan, seeing the actual “Lost” Banyan Tree on Kawela Bay is pretty exceptional. Lots of things happened in the show involving the spooky, gigantic tree. The capacious chamber formed by the tree’s boughs is impressive from a natural point of view well beyond the banyan tree’s brushes with TV fame.
Because all Hawaiian beaches are public, you can get to the banyan tree at Kawela Bay on your own. Or, you can take the excellent eco-tour offered by Shaka Kayaks, as we did in April.
Shaka Kayaks equipped us with a kayak that has a little window, so the bay’s aquatic life is visible from below and above on the easy, fun paddle around Kawela Bay. Most notably, the area is full of green sea turtles, a particularly adorable one of which is named, “Charlie.” We were also lucky enough to see an endangered monk seal lolling on the beach.
Along with the kayaking on the eco-tour, we took a pleasant walk to a World War II bunker and, of course, to the “Lost” Banyan Tree. With the amount we learned from the informative, friendly guides about the amazing ecosystem that is Kawela Bay, it was rather easy to forget the TV show that was an international obsession for 6 years.
Though there is no snorkeling in Utah’s Capitol Reef, it is one of the best places for an introduction to the geology lesson that the Great American West provides from the Western edge of Colorado to the chasm of the Grand Canyon. Along with impressive insights into the natural forces that made the 100-mile long monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park also provides a glimpse into the people who have left more temporary traces on the area’s landscape, including the First Nations, pioneer settlers, the likes of Butch Cassidy, and the modern ranchers whose cattle are the most dominant life-form in the area.
One of the best and most “western” hotels in the Best Western chain, The Capitol Reef Resort, can be found right at the gate of Capitol Reef National Park. A great base camp for park exploration, the hotel even has a hot tub where you can contemplate how the changing light alters canyon hues while soaking hike-weary bones.
To wash down the trail dust and fuel up for back country exploration, a bar/restaurant across the street from the hotel, The Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe offers some of Utah’s finest beers and a very satisfying pizza. The outdoor dining area has some of the nicest dart set-ups I’ve seen in any bar, and, if you’re able to extend your arms after a full day’s hike, it’s a fun way to spend the evening. The night we visited, the very kind-hearted woman proprietor showed us where we were on her groovy, vintage topographical wall map on which decades of rubbing fingers from all over the world had lovingly erased our location.
Before and/or after getting beered, hot-tubbed, and generally satiated, you will, of course, want to visit the main attraction, Capitol Reef National Park. You could spend one or several days hiking, biking, and off-roading in this geologic marvel.
One of the best ways to get oriented to the park is the self-guided drive. A map of the self-guided drive stops (along with fabulous fun facts) are available at the park’s visitor center for a nominal fee. At the end of the self-guided drive’s car-based route, a 4-mile round-trip hike takes you through Capitol Reef Gorge, where you can see some of the park’s odd sandstone formations up close, along with the signposts of people who came before.
The most visible of the earliest human traces in the park are amazing
petroglyphs, left by the Fremont people, some of the area’s earliest inhabitants. On the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can get right up close to a few of these rock carvings, and ponder whether they were made for religious and/or informational purposes. It’s hard not to ge excited when standing inches away from something carved by human hands thousands of years before. Elsewhere in the park, on a large canyon wall, giant Fremont petroglyphs are visible from hundreds of feet away. Gigantic shaman, bighorn sheep, and other animals carved into the red rocks leap off the rocks.
After the First Nations, pioneers traversed the area to head Westward, and on the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can also see their names lining the walls, some dating back from the 1840s and 1850s. Butch Cassidy didn’t sign any rock walls, but he allegedly hid out in the area. (Butch Cassidy connections are touted a lot in this particular neck of the woods.)
Later in the 1800s, Mormon settlers recognized that the valley’s ample water supply would be good for farming, particularly fruit trees. Orchards of apples and other fruit trees planted by these intrepid settlers still line Capitol Reef’s valley.
The National Park Service still maintains these fruit trees, and, when the trees are bearing fruit, you can eat an apple, pear, or other fruit for free when you’re in the orchard. If you’d like to take any fruit with you, bags and picking equipment are available, along with a box to leave payment.
If DIY fruit picking’s not up your alley, or if you visit out of fruit-bearing season, you can always enjoy the valley’s fruits at the Gifford Homestead. Located in the old Mormon settlement in the valley, the historic home sells pies made from fruit grown in the area, along with other baked items and preserved goods– great for a pre or post-hike picnic. (The pie made from apples grown in one of the orchards was particularly tasty after hiking the Capitol Reef Gorge trail.)
Though the apple trees and the settlement and the pioneer grafitti and the Fremont petroglyphs all seem to point to the permanence of man’s hand in the landscape, Capitol Reef leaves you with the feeling that we humans are newcomers and short-timers on the planet. The greater permanence of nature, as evidenced by Capitol Reef’s 100-mile long sandstone monocline, endless canyons of every color, harshly dry landscapes that suddenly swell with water– all formed over eons– dwarves our feeble human efforts to leave a mark. In short, we should enjoy the apples, and the apple pie, while we can.
When you hear words like “the largest living thing,” or “the widest,” you know you have to see them, though you’re also slightly afraid that the object(s) in question may not live up to the hype.
The sequoias at Sequoia National Park do not disappoint. The fact that they adjoin a valley, Kings Canyon, that rivals Yosemite (and may actually be superior due to lack of crowds), makes this location all the better. (Warning: if you’re driving from SF, you will most likely take Highway 198 to get to the park. On Highway 198, you will encounter a series of bad smells until you reach the town of Three Rivers. These smells include, but are not limited to: the massive stench of industrial stockyards, an overwhelming aroma of pressed garlic, an acrid sulfuric chemical odor, and more oppressive odors emanating from super-sized stockyards. However, in spite of these perils, Sequoia & Kings Canyon are well worth the trip down the Road of Bad Smells.)
The Sequoia visitor center provides a lot of interesting background about the world’s largest trees, along with a good orientation to help you plan your visit. Though there are several hikes to take through the various groves, you shouldn’t miss the two most notable walks: the Sherman and the Grant. The Sherman Tree walk takes you on a descent to the base of the world’s largest living thing by volume. The walk through the lovely grove around Grant’s Tree (the widest of the giant Sequoias) has some of the prettiest tree specimens and a lot of amazing sites, including an old, dead sequoia, “The Monarch,” you can walk through that was once a miner’s refuge and a bar.
When you’re peckish in Sequoia and in need of a food/wine stop, Wuksachi Lodge has a nice restaurant with a lovely mountainside view. (Thankfully, food has come a long way in our national parks since the days of foil-wrapped cheeseburgers.) The wine list has a good variety and is surprisingly reasonable given the relative remoteness of the location.
Don’t miss a good hike or two in Kings Canyon, even though it’s a bit off the beaten path. The majestic peaks frame a verdant valley with a babbling river running through it, culminating in lively falls rolling over large boulders. Camping spots seem a lot sweeter in Kings Canyon than in Sequoia, so if you’re up for a few nights in a tent, do the Kings thing.
For nights with a roof over your head, a good base camp outside the park can be found in the town of Three Rivers. The affordable Comfort Inn has shuttles into the Park (shuttles are mandatory at certain times of year), along with a swimming pool and hot tub.
Two great places to spend your post-hike evenings can also be found in Three Rivers. The Cider Mill Restaurant stays open later and has outdoor seating. Many of the selections are grilled by a nice guy tending the BBQ out front. The wood-grilled Carne Asada (along with several ice cold Tecates) was the dining highlight.
The River View Restaurant & Lounge has a nice perch above a perky river run, where you can sit outside and listen to the river race by. There’s often live music here, and if there’s not, the kind folks at the River View were playing some awesome live concert Grateful Dead tracks the night I visited. Even better, the beer was ice cold, and the onion rings were some of the best you’ll ever have.
Cold beers. Big trees. Bigger canyons. Fewer crowds. Sequoia/Kings Canyon are definitely worth a visit.