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.
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.
Having lived out in the Avenues for a decade, I always enjoyed it when the rest of SF came out to our neck of the woods for events like Outsidelands and the Bay to Breakers. There’s something amusing about drunk people asking how far away Haight-Ashbury or the Ferry Building is, when most of them have just walked from there.
But you shouldn’t wait for a special event to bring you out where the streets have numbers and alphabetically sequenced names. The Outer Sunset (also indicated on old maps as the Outerlands when it was a somewhat barren terrain of rolling sand dunes) is one of San Francisco’s most original, authentic neighborhoods– a groovy mix of surfers, artists, folks starting cool local businesses, and just plain ordinary people (if anyone residing in San Francisco can ever be described as merely ordinary). Here’s a few things to do before or after a good walk in Golden Gate Park or on the beach, or anytime you’re lucky enough to find yourself out in OB (Ocean Beach).
Community Coffee Klatsch
If you head down in the morning to enjoy the beach, you may need some caffeine. For some of the best espresso in the city, head to Trouble Coffee, on Judah between 45th & 46th Avenues. You can also recharge with the excellent toast and the refreshing juice from freshly cracked coconuts.
At the end of Judah where the street car turns around is Java Beach, which offers coffee, some light fare, and beer when the time’s right. The outdoor patio and garden across the street are perfect places to sip a beverage and watch the neighborhood go by if it’s a sunny day. (Some nights, Java Beach also has music, and you can check out the calendar here: http://www.javabeachcafe.com/)
Picnic Items The Outer Sunset is a zone of independence against the tyranny of encroaching chain stores. So much so that the neighborhood’s residents successfully got chain stores banned from the neighborhood when the mermaid-logo people from Seattle tried to muscle in.
The epicenter of this independent, up-with-people movement in the Outer Sunset is Other Avenues (http://www.otheravenues.coop/), a worker-owned co-op offering natural and organic foods and merchandise since the 1970s. Other Avenues is located on Judah between 44th and 45th Avenues, and you should pick-up a kombucha drink, micro-brews, or organic vino along with cheeses, fresh breads, and great organic produce for a beach and park picnics here.
Surfer Gear If you left your board at home and want to catch some sets at OB, swing by Mollusk Surf Shop at 45th and Irving (one block toward Golden Gate Park from Judah). The apparel’s also great here, particularly the brilliantly designed t-shirts with sea/surf motifs. Year-round, Mollusk hosts a lot of fun events, from yoga classes to art shows to movie screenings. You can find out more here: http://www.mollusksurfshop.com/
Eat Your Veggies (It’s a Treat)
For organic, contemporary fare, Outerlands, at 4401 Judah (on the corner of 45th), offers a menu that changes with the seasons, with a real focus on vegetables that will make you forget they’re not the main dish. (I had brussel sprouts here once that would have changed any sprout-haters mind!) The soups and fresh bread are super-stars on an already tremendous menu, and the wine list offers several interesting options, along with a beer menu that changes daily. Take a look at what’s on offfer at Outerlands here: http://outerlandssf.com/
Good, solid Indian food can be found at Golden Gate Indian & Pizza, in a little strip mall on Judah, right off 46th. The veggie samosas are some excellent fried goodness, and you can get your chicken tikka as spicy as you like, if you ask. The Indian pizza is also a novel combination of two awesome foods: pizza and tandoori chicken. Mmm. When worlds collide.
The Locals Local If you’re out in the avenues for a special event or on a banner weather day, don’t try to fight the crowds and claw your way back downtown. There’s a place for you called Pittsburgh’s. One of the only places that’s open until 2 a.m. in the area, Pittsburgh’s attracts an eclectic crowd: surfers, sports fans watching a game or two, locals shooting pool, and professional drinkers who could give Bukowski a run for his money. The bartenders are always friendly, and never bat an eyelash if you walk in wearing cowboy hats or other costumes. As long as you’ve got the green to pay for your ice cold PBR, it’s all good. Cruise over to 4207 Judah, at 47th Avenue for a solid, old-school American local.
Festivals that Find You in the Outer Sunset If you’re an SF resident who’s skeptical of the Avenues, you’ll already know about these festivals. If you’re a tourist, here’s some things you should definitely take part in when you come to SF for a visit.
Bay to Breakers – Third Sunday in May traditionally. People walking, running, and drinking from the SF Bay to, you guessed it, the “Breakers” of Ocean Beach. Wear a costume. Mexican wrestling masks count as a costime. The Beach/Park Chalet is a hot spot on the finish line. I’d give you the link, but every year, they annoyingly/intelligently change the URL to include a corporate sponsor’s name. Google will show you the way if you’re game.
Outsidelands – Mid to late August, this music festival combines top name acts with the best up-and-coming artists. For the festival’s first year, I saw Radiohead play at night when the fog rolled in, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the deep-fried fancy macaroni and cheese sticks with a side of spicy tomato sauce. It’s like all the other festivals…without the crappy camping! Get details on the upcoming hoo-ha at: http://www.sfoutsidelands.com/
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Mid to late September/Early October, the park plays host to multiple FREE venues where you can hear acts like Joan Baez sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” It’s free because a very nice man made a lot of money in Silicon Valley/investment banking and decided to put on a music party for his favorite kind of folk/bluegrass tunes. I have never heard of a better expenditure of cash, which probably makes Warren Hellman (the funder of said festival) the smartest money human on the planet. Bravo, Mr. Hellman. Bravo.